Within this relatively brief book (less than 250 pages) is a beautiful meditation on the evolution of American philosophy as a unique branch of thought, from Ralph Waldo Emerson through the 1920s, more or less. The conceit holding it together is the private library William Ernest Hocking, a once prominent philosopher who was deeply influenced by William James (the dominant figure in American philosophy, as this book sees it). The books in his library, discovered in a poorly climate controlled and slight dilapidated house in rural New Hampshire, cover almost the entire history of philosophy, but also religion and poetry, and illustrate how great American philosophers, like James, Hocking, and Emerson, and also others, like Josiah Royce and Charles Peirce, are both part of and outside of the main stream of western and world philosophy.
Wrapped around that excellent book is a depressing sort of autobiography about the author’s failing marriage and probable drinking problem (the former is sort of resolved – though he’s clearly a terrible husband; the latter feels like it’s sitting there, like a drunken turd in the corner of Hocking’s library). Kaag does not come across as very likable, but does come across as anxiously self- justifying. I have resolved to read more James and to read the copy of Hocking’s The Meaning of God in Human Experience that has been sitting in my library for far too long. I might also resolve to read some more academic books by Kaag, but not until the bad taste has faded.