Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reviewing American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag

*Note-References are to the nearest section heading. As I was reading a Kindle Edition of the book, pagination was not available for consultation. It is well worth reading in this fashion, as you can highlight and search terms very easily as well as cycling between references and text.*

Other than documentary editors, librarians, archivists, and public historians, few ponder the relationship between historical materials, their physical construction, and their contemporary residences. I use the term residence, as opposed to holding institution or institutional repository deliberately. Books are, except in cases of gravity, transient receivers of action rather than active components interceding in human life. John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) is an important reminder of the transitory and often imperiling journeys the stuff of historiography takes on the way to the hands of researchers.
Part of my interest in the realm of intellectual history is in the concept of intellectual ancestry. While comprehending a chain of influence between generations of thinkers is incredibly difficult, historians can gather indications of this ancestry through materials such as correspondence, allusion, and referencing. As someone who has been privy to discussions of the quirks related to individual libraries being deposited, I felt a keen sense of connection to Kaag’s lamentation that “books are lost among the millions of others in the stacks, reorganized in a homogenized Library of Congress categorization. The books are put in rigid order, and the unique integrity of the original collection is lost.” (Part 1: Hell: Finding West Wind) One area, which unfortunately has been sanitized and cataloged away, that provides the cleanest assessment of this influence is the personal library. Personal libraries are just that, personal. They are highly individualized collections of resources, pleasures, values, and aspirations (As I write, an unopened copy of Being and Nothingness taunts my optimistic bibliophilic purchasing).
Kaag’s work was described by an NPR reviewer as hitting the “spot between intellectual history and personal memoir…” While it is true that there aren’t many of the formal historical elements such as citation, this doesn’t detract from his narrative. One does get the sense that Kaag is aptly educated and experienced to write the narrative to which his name is affixed (think Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War). Kaag twists together elements of intellectual biography, intellectual history, and philosophy and does a good job of keeping these components separate from his personal narrative. For those interested in American philosophy, Kaag provides an impressively concise introduction to the world of late 19th and early 20th Century Harvard. Kaag presents Dewey, Kant, and Pierce as engaging human beings trying to grapple with reconciling personal and philosophical worlds. Each interacts with the others in academic and friendly settings, suggesting that at times they encountered conflicts in their home lives based on their work.
There is a nostalgic sense of intimacy which pervades American Philosophy: A Love Story, but it is perfectly appropriate given his genre. If one is seeking a detailed account of the scholastic interrelationships between modernist philosophers, go elsewhere. If what you seek instead is a personal account of one scholar’s struggles with their field and their lives, Kaag’s is a perfect example. Kaag’s work is indeed memoir and explores his personal and professional elements, but these elements add to his narrative rather than pull from it. Kaag presents an opportunity to look at the way a scholar confronts the problems of his time and the very nature of his discipline. Seldom do scholars tackle the stuff which makes scholarship possible along with the intimacies of scholastic life in the same work. American Philosophy: A Love Story is, as the title suggests, a romantic humanistic statement of one scholar’s intellectual pursuits while dealing with the problems that life sometimes brings.

Kaag’s work is not a source for intellectual historical research, though it certainly could serve as inspiration for much inquiry. It is well worth a read, particularly as breaks provide the opportunity for some more leisurely reading. For the interested, Kaag and others have started a Kickstarter project to digitize the Hocking Library which is now a part of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell Library system.  A link to that project can be found here

No comments:

Post a Comment