America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano
“Genuinely exciting and provocative” —Umberto Eco
A bold, insightful book that rejects the myth of America the Unphilosophical, arguing that America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name.
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 ours is an anti–intellectual society. Instead, while providing a richly reported overview of American thought, Romano argues that ordinary Americans see through phony philosophical justifications faster than anyone else, and that the best of our thinkers abandon artificial academic debates for fresh intellectual enterprises, such as cyberphilosophy. 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 introduces readers to a nation whose existence most still doubt: a dynamic, deeply stimulating network of people and places drawn together by shared excitement about ideas. From the annual conference of the American Philosophical Association, where scholars tack wiseguy notes addressed to Spinoza on a public bulletin board, to the eruption of philosophy blogs where participants discuss everything from pedagogy to the philosophy of science to the nature of agency and free will, Romano reveals a world where public debate and intellectual engagement never stop. And readers meet the men and women whose ideas have helped shape American life over the previous few centuries, from well-known historical figures like William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to modern cultural critics who deserve to be seen as thinkers (Kenneth Burke, Edward Said), to the iconoclastic African American, women, Native American, and gay mavericks (Cornel West, Susan Sontag, Anne Waters, Richard Mohr) who have broadened the boundaries of American philosophy.
Smart and provocative, 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.
Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty-five years, is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College. His criticism has appeared in The Nation, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Harper’s, The American Scholar, Salon, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, he was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, cited for “bringing new vitality to the classic essay across a formidable array of topics.” He lives in Philadelphia.
Meet Carlin Romano on his book tour
From our Q&A with the author
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.
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