AMERICA THE PHILOSOPHICAL.
By Carlin Romano.
Knopf: 672 pages, $35, hardcover.
Author Carlin Romano thinks the United States of America is a very philosophical place. This contention conjures up images of groups of Americans sitting around discussing Plato and Aristotle. But studying classic philosophers is not what Romano believes is real philosophy.
To prove his contention, he has written a book of over 600 pages. Basically, it is a series of biographical sketches of various individuals that Romano classifies as “doing” philosophy.
According to Romano, academic philosophy has been a conservative discipline that continues to be dominated by white males. So his first section of biographical sketches is an overview of mainstream American philosophers. Starting with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, he concludes his survey with contemporary Ivy League philosophers including legal philosopher Richard Dworkin and art philosopher Arthur Danto. His next chapter is titled “Rorty’s Revolution” and discusses the revolution against traditional analytical philosophy. Richard Rorty rejected abstract studies of epistemology — the theorizing about the nature of knowledge — and suggested that philosophy was really simply sophisticated conversation among intellectuals.
For Romano, Rorty’s contribution to America the Philosophical was that it opened the way for more Americans to join this intellectual conversation.
The next series of chapters discuss prominent white males who are not philosophers, but who engage in philosophy. It begins with a chapter on the phenomenon of high, middle and lowbrow culture in America. This includes a segment about the philosophical arguments over political correctness and postmodernism within American popular culture. The following chapters are more biographical sketches of psychologists, literary critics, political theorists, linguists, print journalists and broadcast journalists who exhibited philosophical tendencies in their work. Figures like B. F. Skinner, Irving Howe, Max Lerner, and Bill Moyers appear in these chapters. A chapter titled “Casual Wisemen” even includes Hugh Hefner.
At this halfway point in the book, Romano begins looking at the contributions of African-Americans, women, Native Americans, and gays to the flowering of America the Philosophical. Prominent among the African-Americans whom Romano discusses are Cornel West and Kwame Anthony Appiah. The chapter “Women” is the lengthiest of the book at nearly 100 pages. Among the female thinkers discussed are Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt and Betty Friedan. The critic and novelists Susan Sontag, however, gets more attention that anyone else.
The chapters on Native Americans and gays receive much more cursory treatments. Apparently Romano has not identified any Hispanic philosophizing, since they don’t even get a mention!
Romano next turns his attention to the cyber revolution with chapters on the future of cyber technology, cyberpolitics, cyberreligion and cyberliterature. It ends with an interesting survey of writers who are cynical or skeptical about the value of the new technology.
One of Romano’s unique endeavors is his attempt to revive the reputation of the ancient Athenian rhetorician Isocrates (436-338 BC). He was a rival of Socrates and Plato for the soul of philosophy is classical Greece. While Socrates and Plato sought eternal truths, Isocrates promoted a vision of philosophy as people gathering together to debate and persuade each other. The end result would be an agreement on the best course of action for that particular context. Truth and morals would be contingent and situational, i.e., relative not absolute. Romano sees Isocrates as the role model for America the Philosophical. He then concludes the book with a portrayal of President Obama as philosopher-in-chief of America the Philosophical.
“America the Philosophical” is an interesting book even if the reader is not convinced by Romano’s contentions. Romano sees American society as deeply pragmatic in both the common and the philosophical sense of the word. Americans seek practical solutions to problems. They judge the results on the consequences both good and bad and the ratio of cost and benefit. That is pragmatism applied. It is common sense. Romano’s right about that.
For Romano, Isocrates’ version of philosophy is the American style and the future of philosophy. But the problem there is that this new definition of philosophy reduces it to rhetoric, the art of presenting ideas and arguments. Philosophers will not agree. But if you accept that argument, well, Romano is right. Americans are philosophical in that we argue a lot and we engage in much persuasion whether it is how we should vote, what soap to buy, or belief in Ancient Aliens. Individual readers can decide whether they agree.
“America the Philosophical” is encyclopedic in its coverage of American philosophizing as defined by Romano and Isocrates. As a result, it meanders at times and occasionally loses focus. He’s also lax about including dates for events he discusses. Featured thinkers Christopher Hitchens and Kwame Anthony Appiah are British, not American, and that applies to others appearing in the book. Hitchens was an Englishman living in the United States, making a living being a professional Englishman. Romano also tends to ignore thinkers of a more conservative or religious bent, hence there are only mere passing references to George Will or Gary Wills. He also fails to mention Cornel West’s dispute with Larry Summers, the president of Harvard. Basically, Romano is the Rodney King of “America the Philosophical,” asking and answering yes to “Can’t we all just get along and persuade each other?”
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