Q: Some people think that philosophy is solely a subject for academics. Why is this book so important to our public discourse now?
A: People who think philosophy takes place only in those academic fiefdoms that hang a “Philosophy” sign over the door have been as hoodwinked as those who think we should leave politics to politicians, and passion to kids under 30. Many thoughtful Americans are like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman who didn’t know he’d been speaking prose all his life. Literary critics, scientists, psychologists, journalists, talk-show hosts, broadcasters—a fair number are doing what counts as philosophy on any historically informed account of the subject. How important is this book? Not for me to say. But I know one thing—we’re the greatest free-speech culture in the history of the world as well as the most philosophical culture, and the two go together. We should be proud of that.
Q: Where did the myth that America is an “anti-intellectual” society come from?
A: It’s not a myth in the sense that there’s no evidence for the claim. I actually spend a fair part of my introduction considering it. A slew of fine books, such as Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, contributed to making it a cliché of world culture. My book, however, makes a stronger case for the opposite view: that in the qualities that really count for excellent philosophy—among them resistance to authority, skepticism toward phony justifications, openness to dialogue, and engagement with a diversity of viewpoints—no other society rivals us.
Q: How does the U.S. today compare to philosophical cultures of the past, such as ancient Greece?
A: In my book I write that when it comes to philosophy, America is “an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany,” or any other place you can name. In that respect, comparing ancient Athens to 21st-century America is like comparing a medieval food shop to Fresh Grocer or Wegman’s. But, to my mind, one ancient Greek philosopher—Isocrates (436-338 B.C.), a figure so forgotten that I subtitle my chapter about him, “A Man, Not a Typo”—anticipated styles of thought that resonate with Americans far more than the approaches of Socrates or Plato.
Q: How has the rise of the internet, of blogging, of Facebook, of Twitter, changed the way that Americans engage with philosophical issues?
A: They intensify the already vibrant reality of American philosophy. In Part Four of my book, “Gutenberg’s Revenge: The Explosion of Cyberphilosophy,” I argue that these phenomena have triggered a whole new genre of philosophy—one that Americans dominate—intent on pondering the digital revolution’s effect on traditional areas of culture such as religion, literature and romance.
Q: How does philosophy interact with politics in the U.S.? Which presidents have been the most philosophical?
A: Philosophy and politics are in a constant, profound, and energizing wrestling match. It’s because we’re a country in which a congressman can yell, “You Lie!” at the President during a State of the Union address that deeper thinkers can slice and dice political positions in more sophisticated ways. The traditional answer to your second question is Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and Wilson. In my Epilogue, I argue—and the great Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg has asserted much the same view in a book of his own—that Obama should be seen as following in their footsteps.
Q: What about current American views of religion and the growing schism between believers and skeptics?
A: We’ve always had believers and skeptics. Some secular intellectuals, such as the New Atheists, think the survival of believers is itself the mark of an unphilosophical society. I think we should see the ongoing debate between American secularists and believers as proof of our intellectual vitality. Concepts such as God, faith and design possess logical peculiarities that make disproof of religious belief more difficult than upending Einstein’s position on the speed of light. Secularists need to accept that as an enduring metaphysical state of affairs while maintaining vigilance against believers who want to run everyone else’s life. Q: Can you explain why you feel that Isocrates rather than Socrates is the father of American philosophical thought?
A: Isocrates exemplifies the skeptical, deliberative, pragmatic thinking that characterizes the best American philosophy. He ridiculed as “gymnastics” the empty, abstract epistemology that still enjoys prestige within many American philosophy departments, but nowhere else. Socrates, by contrast, is often a know-it-all who claims to know nothing. Beyond that, Isocrates’s reflections on what it meant to be a “Greek” in the ancient world remarkably mirrors our own thinking about what it means to be an American. The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote that Isocrates offers “an alternative to philosophy as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle defined it.” I think Isocrates’s vision of the subject explains and supports the large claims I make for American thought.
Q: You’ve been a book critic for over 25 years. What is it like to be on the other side of the coin now, as an author?
A: So far, so good. The Kirkus reviewer who called American the Philosophical a “tour de force” clearly knows how to make nice in French. And the Publishers Weekly critic who spoke of “my breathtaking intellectual range” revealed, I thought, a rare sort of perspicacity. You want a serious answer? I’m waiting for the first javelin in my neck. Book criticism is full of javelin throwers, and I’ve made very loyal enemies over the years. I’ll cross my fingers that they don’t get assignments to review my book.
Q: You haven’t been a stranger to controversy over the years. Do you make any arguments in America the Philosophical that you think will spark intense debate?
A: I hope so. The “theory of knowledge” mafia that still dominates academic philosophy will hate the idea that America is the preeminent philosophical culture not because of them, but in spite of them. Fans of Socrates and traditional classicists will ridicule the idea that Isocrates might hold a candle to their man. Admirers of John Rawls, the Harvard theorist of justice usually described as the greatest political philosopher since John Stuart Mill, probably won’t like my chapter subtitled, “The Magnificent Failure of John Rawls.” And I’m guessing, in an election year, that some folks might take issue with my Epilogue, “Obama, Philosopher-in-Chief.” But a quick shout-out to conservatives everywhere: just look at how tough I am on Noam Chomsky!