America the Philosophical

America the Philosophical

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America the Philosophical

Although convention dictates that America is an unphilosophical sort of country, fonder of Super Bowls than supervenience, the development of philosophy away from Socratic strategies that presume eternal right answers to the classical philosophical problems suggests a second look is in order. This is particularly true if one accepts many of the notions currently in the air about "post-modern" or "post-analytic" philosophy — that its roots lie in classical rhetoric and pragmatism, or that its notion of truth holds the latter to be what issues from the most wide-open sort of informed deliberation possible. In that case, it begins to seem as if America is to philosophy as Italy is to art, or Norway to skiing: a perfectly designed environment for the practice. This, at least, is the provocation intended by this paper.

America the Philosophical? It sounds like Canada the Exhibitionist or France the Unassuming: a mental miscue, a delusional academic tic, a Dead-On-Arrival body emitting gases of pure intellectual wish-fulfillment. Everyone knows that Americans don't take philosophy seriously, don't know much about it, don't pay any attention to it, and couldn't name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter drily observed in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962), "In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play not looked upon with the most tender indulgence."

But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter's classic indeed boasts "a long, historical background," the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy softens that hostility by increasing the dosage of unfamiliarity or contempt. Philosophy often seems sufficiently unthreatening to the practical on-the-go American that Arthur Schlesinger's stinging old charge — that on these shores, "Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman" — feels overwrought. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to recycle the old cliche, "What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?", and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your middlebrow seatmate on an commuter flight that you're "in philosophy" and the reply is likely to be, "Oh, that's great. My niece is in psychology too."

The infrequent philosophy blips on America's media screens suggest that philosophy doesn't quite register on the American psyche with the gravitas professionals in the field might like. According to the Macy's window of American gossip, the New York Post’s "Page Six," model emeritus Lauren Hutton regards Camille Paglia, the media's 15-minute joy-toy of the `80s, as "the greatest living American philosopher.

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" In tiny New York Mills, Minnesota, the town's Regional Cultural Center sponsors a yearly "Great American Think-Off," a philosophy contest so egalitarian that one of the four 1994 finalists, Phillip Torsrud, couldn't make the final debate on whether society values money or morality more — something about a prior commitment at the Wisconsin Correctional System, an inconvenient sentence for murder. A release from Delacorte Press in New York hypes the house's new two-book deal with America's favorite body-pierced basketball player by offering some sweeping historical perspective:





Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously. Mocking or ignoring philosophy in the United States comes with the territory, like learning the Pledge of Allegiance. Hardboiled, concrete-minded descendants of everyone from the Pilgrims to the slaves to the boat people, we pick it up the condescension along the way, like mistrusting politicians or developing a taste for recreational vehicles. It's the way we're supposed to think about a discipline described by Ambrose Bierce (who promptly disappeared into the desert) as "a route of many roads, leading from nowhere to nothing."

Tocqueville, that touchstone for all synoptic thinking about America, thought the peculiar attitude of its residents toward philosophy so obvious that he began the second volume of Democracy in America by noting it: "I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them."

Tocqueville, however, was wrong. For all his general acuity, he like many other French intellectuals saw American thought through the prism of European customs and assumptions. The conclusion he drew from that putative intellectual state of affairs — that "in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding" — was false then, and is even falser now.

For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily Disneyfied society is that America on the eve of the year 2000 towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millenia. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the comprehensiveness of its recording of established truths, the widespread rejection of claims imposed by authority or tradition alone, the embrace of Internet communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact.

Mistaking American ribbing of philosophy for what the British call rubbishing, for evidence of a non-philosophical culture, is only one of the errors traditionally committed by intellectuals in understanding the United States. Even the best philosophical societies, after all, stick it to philosophy once in a while, as Aristophanes nailed Socrates and his Athenian logic-choppers in "The Clouds" (423 B.C.). American irreverance, far from posing a threat to philosophical activity, fuels and incarnates it. Has the talk show declined from Socrates to Howard Stern? In fact, the proliferation of American radio superstars — from Stern to Rush Limbaugh to Don Imus to Bob Grant — bears an eerie and in-need-of-explanation resemblance to the heyday of the deeply democratic rhetoricians in ancient Athens. The story of philosophy in America is not a short subject about a rivulet of Judeo-Christian culture that failed to empty into the mainstream, the Mississippi, the "Big Muddy" of the New World. It's more like Independence Day, a big-budget special-effects movie — THE BIG MUDDY THAT BECAME AMERICA! But it's important to refine the scope of the claim.

To exalt America as the world's philosophical culture par excellence is not just to argue that American philosophers have ocassionally swayed everyday society, sometimes in a trickle-down style, sometimes directly. We've always known that, though the examples bear repeating. Just as we acknowledge that the work in early 20th-century logic of non-American philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Frege aided the development of the computer and artificial intelligence, and that Einstein declared his rejection of absolute time was "decisively furthered" by "the reading of David Hume's and Ernest Mach's philosophical writings," we know that John Dewey co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, with huge consequences for our tradition of freedom of speech. We know that William James catalyzed psychology into a full-fledged discipline, and that Alain Locke helped spark the Harlem Renaissance that began the explosion of black artistic self-expression in the 20th century. Closer to the present, we're familiar with how even such important scientific accomplishments as the Dendral program that helps chemists identify the structure of molecules (developed by Stanford computer scientist Bruce Buchanan, drawing on his philosophy work at Michigan State), might be credited to the tribe. Even outside natural science, the theory of justice of John Rawls, the "quality of life" economics of Amartya Sen, the "end-of-art-history" musings of aesthetician and critic Arthur Danto, have an impact on politics, NGO economics, and curatorial practice, respectively.

Yet America the Philosophical means more than that.

It is similarly more than the boom in so-called "applied ethics," which over the past 20 years has seen American philosophers become business ethicists, medical ethicists, military ethicists and animal ethicists, sometimes taking jobs in corporations, hospitals, service academies, prisons and other institutions to bring rigorous thinking to the puzzles of those fields. It is more than the effort of individual philosophers, such as gay activist Warren Goldfarb at Harvard, or human rights activist Morton Winston at the College of New Jersey (Chairman of the American Board of Amnesty International), to extend their philosophical work to active lobbying on issues.

Finally, America the Philosophical is more than a phenomenon it encompasses but to which it cannot be reduced: the transformation by which America, once exhorted by Emerson to get on its own intellectual feet, has become a net exporter rather than importer of contemporary academic philosophy, an intellectual colossus whose balance-of-payments is in the black. The development is not new. Already in the mid 1980s, The Economist observed that "British philosophy now consists of sophisticated commentary on the bright ideas of Americans." In Germany, leading philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel direct their theorizing toward ideas developed by the American pragmatists. In France, Jacques Bouveresse, best-known for his maverick promotion of Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the land of sometimes murky "masters of thought," is elected to the prestigious philosophy chair at the College de France. In Scandinavia, in Southeast Asia, in South America, professors evoke the names of American philosophers as they once did those of the French, English and Germans.

No, more than all this, acquiescing to America the Philosophical requires seeing America at 2000 as directly, ebulliently and routinely philosophical in a way that remains utterly unappreciated by philosophers, media and the general public alike. It is to see Americans as almost uniquely able, given their rude independence of mind, to see through the chief metaphorical scam of moribund yet still breathing Socratic philosophy: what I call, in a subsequent chapter, "The Justification Language Game," the use of legal metaphors such as "justify," "legitimate" and "warrant" to suggest the existence of standards of authoritative right answers that do not in fact exist. It is to see the United States as the exemplar of a new paradigm of philosophy — one with roots in the ancient discipline of rhetoric — suited to the 21st century, suited to accelerating trends of globalization in economics, politics, culture, ethics and communication. It is to see America as the "indispensable" philosophical country, whether it wishes to be or not.

This is not an easy picture to swallow, either within our borders or without. To promote America at home as the world's preeminent philosophical culture is to clash with almost every cliche of American intellectual history, including Tocqueville's and Hofstadter's. To exalt it overseas is not only revisionary but offensive, certain to be viewed as one more example of American cultural jingoism and colonialism in the dog days of the 20th century: the cerebral equivalent of dominating the film market in France and Japan, or battling the World Trade Organization over U.S. policy in Cuba. Moreover, both here and abroad, it appears to ignore significant evidence for the traditional image of America the Unphilosophical, whose shadings and subtexts, embedded in most domestic handlings of philosophy, appear to seal philosophy's unimportance. Consider some evidence for the conventional view.

In the world of American politics and media, philosophers play almost no part unless, like former Secretary of Education and drug czar William J. Bennett, or Boston University Chancellor (and former Massachusetts gubanatorial candidate) John Silber, they've long since shed their togas for bare-knuckled polemics and political affiliation. Elsewhere in the world, philosophers influence and enter politics, sometimes dominating it. In the Czech Republic, founded by the philosopher Tomas Masaryk, people revere their "philosopher-president," Vaclav Havel. In Italy, philosopher Massimo Cacciari looms large as the activist mayor of Venice, and philosopher, novelist and journalist Umberto Eco serves as cultural touchstone of the nation. In England, the philosopher Roger Scruton played consultant and courtier to the throne of Margaret Thatcher, while in France the likes of Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkelkraut follow in the media footsteps of Sartre and Foucault. In Peru, the Shining Path, founded by a philosophy professor, almost brought the country to its knees. In the Soviet Union, philosopher Ivan Frolov advised Mikhail Gorbachev in developing the philosophy of perestroika. In Israel, the award of the Israel Prize, the nation's highest honor, to 90-year-old leftist philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz — a scathing critic of successive governments — so infuriated top political leaders that the cabinet itself debated the prize, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin threatened to boycott the ceremony until Leibowitz (who once warned that Jews in the West Bank were becoming "Judeo-Nazis") withdrew.

Is America more philosophical than these lands? Some luminaries of the trade, such as Richard Rorty, occasionally show up on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Some philosophers, such as William Galston (who served briefly as a deputy assistant to President Clinton for domestic affairs), or the handful of Phds who worked as special assistants to Representatives Lee Hamilton and Tom Lantos under a Mellon Foundation program in the 1980s, have touched the actual machinery of policy. But they are aberrations. Despite a seemingly bottomless appetite for guests, neither the nation's serious talk shows nor its tabloid trash fests have ever hosted America's great philosophers, even in a compromise format ("Philosophers Who Sleep With Their Ideological Opponents!!!").

Indeed, pity the philosopher or politician who publicly acknowledges some uncertainty about which theory is right, which position to assume. When Hillary Clinton simply engaged in hypothetical, "thought-experiment" conversations with New Age philosopher Jean Houston, the mass media prepared to consign her to the loony bin.

America the Philosophical? Mais non. And the case for America the Unphilosophical continues.

In the world of American culture, serious references to philosophy, in either high or mass art, barely register compared to their frequency elsewhere. In England, one can identify a whole genre of art devoted to the celebrated Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein alone. Monty Python immortalized him to a whole new audience by extolling his beer-drinking prowess. Derek Jarman highlighted his homosexuality in a film, and Dame Iris Murdoch has plunked Wittgenstein spin-offs into her novels since Elias Canetti convinced her to publish her overtly philosophical Under the Net in 1954. Elsewhere in English culture, Tom Stoppard weaves brilliant theater around philosophical repartee, and the pop group Scritti Pollitti performs a song, "I'm in Love with Jacques Derrida," a paean to the French deconstructionist. In France, Eric Rohmer slowly makes philosophical conversations such as the one in My Night at Maud's a kind of signature of elite "French cinema," and the more philosophical the novelist, the quicker the rise to stardom — so careers have gone from Voltaire to Michel Tournier.

Indeed, in fiction throughout Europe and much of the world, attention to philosophy signals literary seriousness without the implication that it estranges readers. Milan Kundera assumed the crown of top philosophical novelist from Camus in the 1970s and `80s, and younger aspirants pop up regularly. The 1992 Pegasus Prize for Literature went to the Turkish philosopher and novelist Bilge Karasu. The winner of the 1992 "European Novel of the Year Award," The Laws by Dutch writer Connie Palmen, begins with a 14-year-old Dutch girl reading Sartre and follows her through to philosophical maturity. Across the continent in 1995, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, a novel about philosophy by a Norwegian high school teacher, became an unshakable best seller on the order of John Grisham or Tom Clancy.

Once again, in America, the comparisons seem embarrassing rather indicative that we're behooved to do fresh thinking about philosophy's role in the United States. Here, Socrates is perhaps best-known as Sew-crates, the guide in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a successful lowbrow movie about two teenage time travelers. Here, a New York Times article about the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who quit teaching philosophy at Barnard College in 1986 to concentrate on fiction, notes that while her "five books have received literary raves, their philosophical bent has hardly assured widespread readership." Here, a "Hagar the Horrible" cartoon offers Uncle Eddie announcing, with flimsy wit, "I coulda been a philosopher, but I failed the physical."

Attention to one more area — education — threatens to put the final nail in the coffin of America the Philosophical. In the United States, philosophy remains, despite its image as a bedrock of the Western humanistic tradition, a subject required of virtually no one before college, of very few even during college (except at Catholic institutions), a major that declines in popularity by the decade. In the 1980s, prestigious Rockefeller University simply disbanded its first-rate philosophy department when a cost crunch hit. In the early 1990s, City College of New York came close to eliminating its philosophy department altogether as insufficiently "vocational." While pockets of pro-philosophy counterexamples exist — the great support given philosophical education around the country by interested philanthropists such as Laurance Rockefeller and George Soros, or the efforts to promote philosophy for children by Matthew Lipman at his New Jersey institute, philosophy largely lives hand to mouth. By contrast, in France, all high school students study philosophy and take a nationwide exam in it, forever familiarizing them with the basics. As for Germany, it even names Intercity trains for philosophers: on a clear day, or even a cloudy one, you can catch the "Hannah Arendt" out of Frankfurt.

A sorry picture, it seems, for any sense of a New Athens flourishing between the Atlantic and Pacific. Yet, I argue, the latter view makes sense if one does what philosophers are expected to do — subject preconceptions to rigorous analysis. The traditional cliches ignore too much. Examples like the ones above continue to prop them up because they imply a public-relations or librarian's view of what philosophy is and has become. They depend too much on activities christened "philosophy" according to antiquated or institutional criteria and pedigree, and pay too little mind to what philosophers increasingly recognize as philosophy today.

Here's where sociology begets philosophy, then begets sociology again: to wit, the judgment that the United States now ranks as the paramount philosophical culture. Whether one prefers the view of Jurgen Habermas, Germany's foremost philosopher, that truth issues only from deliberation conducted under maximum conditions of openness and freedom, or the view of Richard Rorty, now America's most cited contemporary thinker in foreign texts, that better vocabularies rather than firmer truths should be our aim, or Englishman John McDowell's belief that the relations of world and language can yet be articulated if painstaking, careful analysis continues to be done, it's plain that no country's philosophical landscape — pluralistic, quantitatively huge, with all potential criticisms available — provides a more conducive arena — or agora — than America's. On the eve of the 21st century, America is to philosophy as Italy is to art or Norway to skiing: a perfectly designed environment for the practice.

In short, if we take 20th-century philosophers at their word and think of philosophy as a activity, rather than a cut-and-dried discipline that comes color-pinned for media (or internal) consumption, America the Philosophical—a far larger community than the roughly 10,000 non-card-carrying members of the American Philosophical Association — looks more likely. Far greater context is needed, however, to make it convincing — to explain why the myth of America the Unphilosophical developed and lingers, and why it should now come crashing down like the Berlin Wall.

We need to grasp, first of all, how the image of the philosopher in America, in high and low culture, invites both scorn and admiration. (Chapter 1: Philosophers: The Image Problem). We need to understand how that image underlies philosophy's checkered course in America, from the can-do, "applied" styles of thinking of Jefferson and Franklin, to the impact of pragmatism on fields such as law and education, to the field's virtual disappearance from public view at mid-century as refugee European technocrats severely narrowed its scope (Chapter 2: Philosopher-King vs. Burger King: How Philosophy Has Fared Here). We need to look at professional philosophers in the United States — half of the world's total, by one count — to understand how they do and do not represent American philosophizing writ large (Chapter 3: Being Nothing: Why Professional Philosophers Mainly Bore Us).

Then we must venture into what may seem forbidding territory to the general reader entertained by caricatures, anecdotes, and sheer info about philosophers, but disinclined to bear down on the subtle linguistic sleights of hand on which much contemporary philosophy balances, like an upside-down pyramid. Pass on this material if you must. Or think of it as the difficult ride from the airport to the resort you've been waiting to visit. But it is important, if one is to understand the disconnect between American academic philosophers and the public, to zero in on how professional philosophers argue in the "justification language game," to scrutinize their abstract fine print, to grasp how their reliance on legal metaphors is a ruse that fails to impress Americans because of our inherent skepticism toward arrogated authority (Chapter 4: Toothless Truth: Why the "Justification Language Game" Leaves Us Cold). Absorbing this intellectual picture whole requires wading into two of the deepest concepts that structure how we understand the world — metaphor and justice. Yet just as a bracing swim readies one for new tasks, probing the links between "justification," "justice" and "metaphor," and how common-sensical Americans inevitably take their measure, prepares one to see why the next step in the story — the idea that America's philosophical primacy avenges a grievous intellectual wrong that dates back to ancient Athens — makes so much sense.

We must explain, then, why late 20th-century Americans are the children of Isocrates, the Athenian "rhetorician" who considered himself a philosopher, and not Socrates, the father of fixed paths to eternal verities, who successfully stigmatized Isocrates and his ilk for all posterity as "Sophists" uninterested in truth (Chapter 5: The United States of Rhetoric: The Triumph of Isocrates Over Socrates). The notion of America the Unphilosophical partly persists because too many conventional classifiers continue to identify the whole conception of philosophy with Socratic approaches despite their weakening by figures like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and the American pragmatists. Such an identification grows increasingly wrongheaded in a world of more than 200 nations in which multiple notions of truth, knowledge, beauty, and other traditional core concepts of the field are exposed to others by rapidly expanding communications technology. Here, an examination of how cyberspace reifies and promotes the American style of philosophizing — informal, democratic, evidentiary — further solidifies the archaism of the traditional cliche about America and philosophy (Chapter 6: The Cyber Symposium).

Finally, we must assess what America's new philosophical hegemony implies for philosophy elsewhere, especially the traditional empires of England, France and Germany (Chapter 7: We Are Not the World), and for the concrete areas of "globalization politics": from global ethics, to global art, to global religion (Chapter 8: The New Athens: America, the Sole Philosophical Superpower).

Contrary to Cornell West, Americans have not so much "evaded" philosophy as they've evaded antiquated conceptions of it. In the post-analytic, post-positivist, post-Cold-War era of philosophy we live in, America the Philosophical can be seen as a millennarian expression of the Enlightenment project, an international exhibition (given our global economic strength) of what truth, ethics, beauty and other core philosophical notions must be in a world no longer able to ignore its variant "certainties" and conceptual categories, but equally unwilling to give up the notion that some beliefs are better than others. Adjusting Benjamin Barber's stab at sizing up the post-Cold-War world's Manichean forces from Jihad vs. McWorld to "Jihad vs. McPluralism," the United States finds itself anointed as team captain in the battle between dogma and democratic doggedness in reaching satisfactory answers. For it is in America where one finds the most champions of the latter method, from sea to shining sea.
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