American Philosophy: A Love Story

American Philosophy: A Love Story

by John Kaag


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The epic wisdom contained in a lost library helps the author turn his life around

John Kaag is a dispirited young philosopher at sea in his marriage and his career when he stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendent of William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology, with whom Kaag feels a deep kinship. It is James’s question “Is life worth living?” that guides this remarkable book.

The books Kaag discovers in the Hocking library are crawling with insects and full of mold. But he resolves to restore them, as he immediately recognizes their importance. Not only does the library at West Wind contain handwritten notes from Whitman and inscriptions from Frost, but there are startlingly rare first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. As Kaag begins to catalog and read through these priceless volumes, he embarks on a thrilling journey that leads him to the life-affirming tenets of American philosophy—self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence—and to a brilliant young Kantian who joins him in the restoration of the Hocking books.

Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is ultimately about love, freedom, and the role that wisdom can play in turning one’s life around.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537203
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/03/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 226,450
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism and Thinking Through the Imagination. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He lives outside Boston with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

American Philosophy

A Love Story

By John Kaag

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 John Kaag
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71311-9



I spent my spring at Holden with James. Then the tourists descended on Harvard Yard — gawking, photo oping, jabbering, ridiculous tourists. In hindsight I know they're no more ridiculous than an angs-tridden philosopher camped out on a blanket in the quad, contemplating the sorry state of his father's liver. But at the time, my urge to kill them all was competing with my urge to kill myself. So on a warm afternoon in June I fled Cambridge, setting out on a final, desperate mission to recover the fathers of American philosophy and to answer James's question once and for all. My day of philosophical pilgrimage started with a drive out to the white clapboard house in Concord that Ralph Waldo Emerson once called home, then spending the afternoon wandering the two-mile loop around Walden Pond. I returned to the Yard only as dusk was approaching and my tourist nemeses were dispersing. In the twilight, I read Emerson's "American Scholar" address in what I figured was likely the precise location where he'd given the lecture in 1837. Oliver Wendell Holmes had called it "America's Intellectual Declaration of Independence," a call for American thinkers to take control of their intellectual destiny. After finishing the piece, I made a quick stop at Kirkland Place, just down the street, the house where Charles Sanders Peirce had grown up. Peirce had taken Emerson's challenge seriously and had created the first genuinely American philosophy, amassing a body of work that was simultaneously scientifically rigorous and unexpectedly spiritual. Then I dropped my car off in a garage in downtown Boston before walking the rest of the way to the Durgin-Park Oyster Bar in the North End. That's where the Harvard idealist Josiah Royce met his students in the 1890s to discuss salvation and immortality before he shuffled back along the Charles River to his Cambridge home. I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn't drunk.

I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. According to Thoreau, we spend no small effort "denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are," he assures us, "as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre." Is life worth living? James had found his answer at Holden Chapel, but I had to leave Harvard and Boston entirely. The road was all but forgotten. I am so grateful that I eventually found it.

* * *

When you travel north from Boston, after you leave 495 and hit Interstate 95, everything passes rather quickly and you're in New Hampshire before you know it. But then things slow down. Route 16 into the White Mountains is an odd little stretch, the sort of road that can't decide whether it wants to accommodate cars, trains, or buggies. It's stuck, like the small towns it bisects, between two eras. It was built at a time when the Boston Brahmins, who included many Cambridge intellectuals, migrated north to escape the summer heat. The signs of their migration can still be seen: Victorian mansions atop idyllic bluffs, impressive stretches of railroad — now inoperative — hitching posts next to boarded-up 7-Elevens. The 7-Elevens are another type of sign — indicating that the migration is over.

When you reach Route 113 and turn right, you're getting close. If you go through the tiny New Hampshire town of Chocorua and pass William James's summer home, you know you've gone too far. James bought the house in 1886, when he'd finally made enough money as a Harvard philosopher to afford a retreat. But it's not what you are looking for. Backtrack and travel 113 toward the village of Madison. You'll pass a number of places selling antiques, sad little shops dedicated to helping people stay afloat in the present by selling off their pasts, entrusting their memories to strangers.

Route 113 jogs left after a time and passes the borough hall. At this point fir and spruce trees grow right up to the shoulder of the road, making it impossible to see more than a hundred yards ahead or behind. This protected forest is a welcome reminder that not all old things go to waste. Turn left onto Mooney Hill Road and start up the hill. This is the road less traveled in American philosophy. In fact, it doesn't look like it's been traveled at all, at least not by anyone without four-wheel drive. Keep going. You think you might be lost. You are, in a sense — the terrain of philosophy you're approaching has been largely unexplored for more than a century.

At every fork in the road, take a left. A few miles on a deserted dirt road seems like forever, so you'll be relieved to see the one-room schoolhouse ahead. Now turn right onto Janus Road and make the final ascent. If you look to your right, you'll have a clear view of the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains, with Mount Washington off your right-hand shoulder. If you look to your left, at first you won't see anything except white pine, but then you'll catch sight of two stone buildings of Georgian architecture. One is a very large house. The other is set back in the woods, a short walk from the mansion. Covered with windows, it looks nothing like Holden Chapel. That's the Hocking library. You've arrived at West Wind.

* * *

"Traveling is a fool's paradise," Emerson once said, "[since] my giant goes with me wherever I go." That's generally true, but when I travel to certain places, my giant leaves me alone long enough for me to think. William Ernest Hocking found — or rather made — one of these rare places at West Wind.

Like many American philosophers, Hocking didn't initially intend to become one. Born in Cleveland in 1873, he spent his teenage years in Joliet, Illinois. His mother came from the Pratt family of Southbridge, Massachusetts, previously from Plymouth Colony and, prior to that, from the Mayflower. His father, a Canadian, studied medicine in New York and Maryland before moving his family west in the early 1870s. Hocking, the first of five children, grew up in a staunch Methodist family and underwent what he would later call a "conversion experience" that cemented his teenage faith in the Almighty. After finishing high school in 1889, he worked for four years as a surveyor and mapmaker in an attempt to save enough money to enter the University of Chicago, but the financial panic of 1893 dashed these plans, and he settled for Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now Iowa State University) instead.

Hocking wanted to be an architect or an engineer — at least that was the plan, until he read Herbert Spencer's First Principles in his third year of high school, at the tender age of fourteen. Spencer spent most of his career disseminating Darwin's theory of evolution, a theory that would radically affect American philosophy in the coming century and, to this day, fundamentally challenge religious faith. When Hocking's father discovered his son immersed in First Principles, he did what any reasonable Methodist would do: He insisted that his son return it to the public library. But Hocking's father hadn't said he couldn't check it out again. So that is what he did the next week. And this time he hid Spencer in the haymow of the barn and promptly lost his religion. This crisis of faith was Hocking's first foray into metaphysical thought. His reading of William James's The Principles of Psychology in the early 1890s was his second.

By the time the teenage Hocking read the Psychology, James was well on his way to founding a school of thought known as American pragmatism. Pragmatism holds that truth is to be judged on the basis of its practical consequences, on its ability to negotiate and enrich human experience. James's pragmatism was just grounded and practical enough to convince a would-be civil engineer that philosophy wasn't a complete waste of time.

On the way to philosophy Hocking toyed with the idea of studying religion exclusively. He was one of the youngest attendees of Chicago's 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. No one is sure, but he might have met his future teachers Josiah Royce and George Herbert Palmer at this event, as they both gave talks there. What we do know is that Hocking came to Cambridge to study philosophy at Harvard in 1899, finishing his undergraduate studies two years later.

He was one of the last students to work under the "Philosophical Four": James, Royce, Palmer, and George Santayana. Hocking, twenty-six at the time, didn't waste the opportunity. Looking back on his student years, Hocking wrote, "I believed and believe it the strongest Department of Philosophy on the planet ... it was strong because the individual men were strong, and sufficiently varied so that most students could see in some one or other of the central group one who spoke directly to his problems."

* * *

Hocking's reading of Spencer had disabused him of the notion of a benevolent and all-powerful God, and he desperately wanted to find some intellectually reputable replacement. He had come to work with James, but the famous psychologist-philosopher was in Europe when Hocking initially arrived. While he waited for James to return, Hocking mastered German and French, continued his study of mathematics and the physical sciences, and took classes on metaphysics and aesthetics with Royce and Santayana. "I worked greedily and happily," he later wrote, "suffering only because I was limited to six classes at a time."

Hocking, however, was not your average bookworm. In the spring of 1900 he planned his first trip to Europe, to see the International Exposition in Paris. He was broke — "impecunious," to use his word — so he and seven other Harvard students sought the help of a Mr. Buffum. Buffum was, according to Hocking, "a not too reputable cattleman's Agent ... of the waterfront of Boston" who hired the students as cattlemen on the SS Anglican. They shipped out of Charlestown, the primary port of Boston, on June 14. "We were interlarded," Hocking wrote, "with eight experienced cattlemen to make four squads of four men each, to each squad being assigned 125 Texan steers." The journey took twelve days, and they landed in Victoria Docks, London. The students were then set free for seven weeks to experience the best of European culture. The fusion of real life and high culture embodied an important strain of American philosophy that Hocking sought to preserve for the remainder of his life.

Shortly after Hocking's return to Harvard in the fall of 1900, William James also came back. James had been working on the manuscript of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that attempted to preserve a space for religious experience in a world increasingly dominated by science. As an undergraduate, Hocking attended the seminars James held as he refined Varieties. One evening, after reading a section of the manuscript to his students, James, who was edging toward sixty, turned to Hocking: "Hocking, why did you sit there with a perpetual frown on your face?" Hocking later admitted being unaware of the frown — he had simply been focused or, better yet, "enthralled." After graduating with his doctorate from Harvard in 1904 and spending two years teaching at Andover Theological Seminary, Hocking moved to California to join the faculty at Berkeley. Instead of dedicating himself to philosophy, however, he spent most of his time in San Francisco helping to rebuild after the great earthquake of 1906, honing what would become the architectural skills necessary to design and build an estate in the White Mountains. In 1908 he was called to Yale to teach, and when his mentor Josiah Royce died, in 1916, he assumed Royce's chair in philosophy at Harvard, which was widely recognized as the most prominent position in the field. By the end of his forty-year career at Harvard, Hocking had become one of the icons of American philosophy. By 1944 he was only the sixth American to deliver the famed Gifford Lectures in Scotland (the other American Gifford lecturers being Josiah Royce, William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and Reinhold Niebuhr).

* * *

On my first trip to the Hocking estate, I knew much more about his teachers than about Hocking himself. I'd driven to Chocorua to help organize a conference on the life and work of William James. Today, most philosophy conferences are held in enormous nondescript hotels in enormous nondescript cities, so this little gathering of philosophers at the Chocorua Public Library had piqued my interest. I knew the conference would be good, but not quite good enough to assuage my abiding fears that philosophy really didn't matter. So once again I found myself elsewhere — this time considering the delectable virtues of Schnecken at a German pastry shop at the junction of Routes 16 and 113. The place didn't even have a name, just a sign outside that read COFFEE FOR SALE. This is where I found Bunn Nickerson. Bunn was one of those fellows you hope you'll become when you turn ninety-three. He was sharp and wiry and nothing like most of the philosophers I meet. He walked slowly, like most old philosophers do, although his hobble wasn't a function of long-standing inactivity, but of farming and skiing.

I'm not sure why I talked to Bunn (in my profession one learns to be circumspect). I do remember being embarrassed when he asked me what I did for a living.

"I teach philosophy," I said, bracing myself for the awkward silence that usually follows this admission.

It turned out that Bunn had grown up with philosophers, or, more accurately, grown up in a little house on a corner of one philosopher's — "Dr. Hocking's" — land. Today, philosophers have arguments and the occasional student. Most of them don't have "land." Bunn made it sound like the realm of a philosopher king, and this wasn't too far from the truth: The Hocking estate, as I would find out, comprised one stone manor house, six small summer cottages, two large barns, and one fishing pond with three beaver hutches, all situated on four hundred acres of field and forest. And a library. Bunn must have seen me light up when he said the word. In an act of generosity I've never been able to understand, he offered to take me there. Getting to see it struck me as a very good reason to skip out on the rest of the conference planning, so I piled into the old man's blue Dodge pickup and we bumped up the hill toward "Dr. Hocking's land" — or, as Bunn called it, "West Wind."



Today, most academics don't have personal libraries worth talking about, so they avoid a problem many nineteenth-century intellectuals had to face in the twilight of their lives — what to do with an intellectual home after it's permanently vacated. Of course, the books can be donated to a large institutional library. Widener is full of volumes once owned by Harvard's famous alumni. When this happens, however, the 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. To avoid this fate, writers in Hocking's day would often give their libraries to like-minded friends and students.

When Bunn and I got to West Wind, the Hocking library looked abandoned. On the trees surrounding the buildings were NO TRESPASSING signs, but Bunn didn't seem to care. He explained that the members of the Hocking family still spent time on the land, particularly in the summer months, but no one was around on that brisk fall day. Bunn climbed out of his truck, trotted down the hill away from me to explore his old haunts, and, waving at the library, invited me to "look around." The building was constructed of rough-hewn, multihued granite, as solid (and almost as large) as a house. From the outside, I couldn't tell whether it had two full stories, but I was able to make out the skylights in the roof, which probably filled the space with glorious reading light. It was definitely grand enough to suggest that its owner had never intended it to be abandoned. The front bore large arched windows and three sets of French doors. I peered in and was reminded of William James's love of Goethe's Faust. Surrounded by well-read books in the opening scene, Faust laments the fragility of human knowledge:

I've studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine, —
And even, alas! Theology, —
From end to end, with labor keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before ...


Excerpted from American Philosophy by John Kaag. Copyright © 2016 John Kaag. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Maybe


In a Dark Wood, a Library

Finding West Wind

“Pestilence-Stricken Multitudes”

Fraud and Self-Reliance

Walden and Frozen Lakes


The Task of Salvation

Divine Madness

On the Mountain

The Will to Believe

Evolutionary Love


A Philosophy of Loyalty

On the Steps

Women in the Attic

I Knew a Phoenix

East Wind

The Mystery of Being

Epilogue: The Cult of the Dead

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