American Philosophy: A Love Story, by John Kaag

This is a book I generally liked, though I think it’s a bit much. John Kaag writes a book about his exploration and inventory of the Hocking library while working on his thesis. He is depressed and in a marriage with which he’s unhappy. The book becomes an odd melange of a history of American philosophy from Emerson forward and a personal memoir. It might have been more readable as more of one or another. Or, in my perfect world, much less memoir and much more perspective on philosophy. I like memoirs, but this one doesn’t completely satisfy either way.

The Hocking library is a book collection gathered by William Ernest Hocking, an American philosopher who studied under Josiah Royce. By the time Kaag made his way to the abandoned house where the books were still stored in Hocking’s home on family property the collection had been pilfered and left to mold and become mouse-eaten since Hocking’s death in 1966. The book tells the story of Kaag’s progression through the volumes finding, among other things, first editions by Kant, letters from Walt Whitman, books with Emerson marginalia, and hundreds of other wonderful finds. The Hocking family allows him to begin to catalog and attempt to preserve (and sell for the family’s profit) the massive collection. (Reminder to any bibliophile: put your collection in your will or give it away before you die.)

Along the way Kaag discusses his unsatisfactory marriage, his feeling that he’s, in essence, cheating on his wife with these books by intentionally excluding his wife in his trips to New Hampshire, and then cheating on his wife in reality with a philosopher friend who he eventually marries. As thin as his descriptions are it’s pretty clear that he’s his own worst enemy in most of this and it’s an irritating distraction from the central theme of the book.

The bulk of this revelatory information could have been spent on a more coherent story on what involves some of the lesser known philosophers working in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. Philosophy gets dismissed, by no lesser lights than Stephen Hawking, as irrelevance in a world in which science has resolved the answers to most big questions. But Kaag picks up a line from William James’ life: “Is life worth living?” and wrestles with it through the book. (Apparently it is with the right divorce/remarriage combo.) That’s not a question science can answer, nor are many with  which we deal daily. Philosophy is less about answers than how to think about things; it’s about how to define terms and experiment with ideas. We lack these things in today’s educational environment and undervalue them in our daily dialogues. Books that would focus on them with relevance have value. Perhaps it was a publishing decision to make this book more “personal” but it weakens the book nonetheless.