This bold, insightful book argues that America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace for truth and debate.
With verve and keen intelligence, Carlin Romano—Pulitzer Prize finalist, award-winning book critic, and professor of philosophy—takes on the widely held belief that the United States is an anti-intellectual country. Instead he provides a richly reported overview of American thought, arguing that ordinary Americans see through phony philosophical justifications faster than anyone else, and that the best of our thinkers ditch artificial academic debates for fresh intellectual enterprises. Along the way, Romano seeks to topple philosophy’s most fiercely admired hero, Socrates, asserting that it is Isocrates, the nearly forgotten Greek philosopher who rejected certainty, whom Americans should honor as their intellectual ancestor. America the Philosophical is a rebellious tour de force that both celebrates our country’s unparalleled intellectual energy and promises to bury some of our most hidebound cultural clichés.
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!
Praise for Carlin Romano's America the Philosophical:
“Ambitious. . . . Convincing. . . . An encyclopedic survey of the life of the mind in the United States. . . . Romano is enlightening when he analyzes American intellectual life and illustrates its liveliness.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Is the title a joke? . . . [Romano] argues, brilliantly and at length, that it is not.”
“A high-speed tour of America’s big thinkers . . . Romano is a cheerful and exuberant guide.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Genuinely exciting and provocative . . . If Romano wanted to discombobulate the traditional landscape of American philosophy, he achieved his goal."
“Admirable . . . Romano writes with the snap of a journalist.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A comprehensive intellectual history from Emerson to Rawls.”
—The New Yorker
—Broad Street Review
“Romano’s remarkable book stands out in terms of ambition, breadth, provocativeness, and, when needed, a delicate touch.”
—Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University, author of Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed
“Stimulating . . . graceful . . . exuberant . . . succeeds in filling one’s mind with the excitement of ideas duking it out.”
“Both scholarly and entertaining—learned and stimulating—to an equal and extraordinary degree. America the Philosophical is one of the books of the year . . . A hugely enlightening compendium of intellectual heresy.”
—The Buffalo News
“In an age when many debates are high-pitched screeds, how counterintuitive it is to argue that American philosophical thought is booming. But that’s trademark Romano . . . Romano turns his subject into a narrative of people brought together by their love of ideas.”
“Romano’s grip on his subject is fierce. . . . A tour de force—encyclopedic, entertaining and enlightening.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“With illuminating anecdotes and an addictive prose style, Romano renders complex ideas lucid without sacrificing depth of understanding or his splendid sense of humor . . . breathtaking intellectual range and passion.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Part love letter, part hand grenade, Romano’s commentary is sure to delight and infuriate in a way that will underscore its thesis.”
“Romano writes so well and unrolls his knowledge in such an unthreatening way that before you know it, you will be thinking philosophically yourself.”
—Philip Seib, Director of the Center for Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California
“Romano offers a smart, sophisticated and counter-intuitive comparison of European and American culture. His language is rich and textured, but also contemporary and wry.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Romano’s voracious intellectual curiosity is impressive—America the Philosophical is dense with amusing anecdotes.”