America The Philosophical

A sort of history of mostly twentieth century American philosophy (Carlin threatens to talk about Emerson, but doesn’t; he also writes briefly about the mostly nineteenth century Peirce and James in the context of Peirce, but those two reached into the next century; he also finds space for this millennium and even for Obama).

While interesting and enjoyable, there are nagging concerns. He sometimes seems to derive too much of his portraits of important philosophical figures from just one or two biographies or sources (the section on Max Lerner is practically a review of Sanford Lakoff’s Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land). He also mostly fails to weave a narrative thread through the work.

And is Bill Moyers a philosopher? I don’t know. I do know that merely including him is insufficient to prove any sort of point.

While attempting to give credence to the importance of otherwise luminal figures in the forging of this vision of America’s philosophical tradition, he manages to overlook the philosophy itself. For example, he argues passionately for the inclusion of Margaret Fuller as both an important philosopher and a critical thinker within American transcendentalism, but besides crediting her as a feminist, otherwise fails to say what her philosophical positions might be. Even worse, Arendt, who no one doubts to be a significant philosopher (though some might question her inclusion in a book about American philosophy), gets reduced to her affair with Heidegger, and Nussbaum to criticism of her failure to become as famous as Susan Sontag. Never has a move towards feminist inclusion felt so reductive of the actual women cited. You won’t be surprised to learn that black thinkers like Alain Locke and Cornel West get similar treatment. It’s still a white man’s world, in America the Philosophical.

There’s also an extended riff on all stuff cyber, which managed to avoid saying how it might be relevant to philosophy. A fascinating digression into Isocrates, who is, nevertheless, not American. A series of brief chapters on Rawls, one of the most important American thinkers of the last fifty years, chapters which felt like a rejected essay tacked on.

So, a pretty good treatment of the usual suspects. A less than ideal treatment of the rest.

I include this section merely for the amusing inclusion of a pre-presidential Marianne Williamson

And here she is again