Sunday, July 1, 2012

An intellectual is just the kind of person many Americans don’t seem to want in charge

June 28, 2012
The Best of All Possible Worlds
Reviewed By ANTHONY GOTTLIEB, New York Times

By Carlin Romano

The French are wittier than the Spanish, and the English know more than the Danes. The ancient Athenians were ingenious and polite, but modern Greeks are stupid and indolent. Jews are noted for fraud, of course, and Armenians for probity. Or so it seemed in 1742 to David Hume when he wrote an essay, not his best, on national characters.

What about Americans? Hume, a Scottish philosopher and historian, never said what he made of the colonists, though he later supported their cause. He would surely have been startled by Carlin Romano’s claim in this ambitious new book that Americans are outstandingly philosophical. Romano was a literary critic with The Philadelphia Inquirer for a quarter of a century and has also been a professor of philosophy. He presumably enjoyed this latter job, because he writes that today’s America is the best place to do philosophy that there has ever been, surpassing even the Athens of those ingenious and polite men Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In one fit of enthusiastic chauvinism he goes yet further, and announces that it is the “perfectly designed environment” to ply his trade, as if no greater intellectual paradise could be imagined.

This news will not provide much comfort to declinists who feel the political and economic hegemony of the United States to be fading fast. But perhaps it will help a little. Let deficits grow, good jobs disappear and China loom — hang it all, America will always have world-beating epistemology and metaphysics up its sleeve. Well, maybe that isn’t quite fair to Romano, because his claim depends on redefining the term “philosophy,” giving it a nebulous meaning that embraces far more than is taught under that name in universities. (More later about this revisionist wordplay.) Also, one part of his case is convincing, and oddly still worth making: America is not nearly so ­dumbed down as its detractors at home like to say.

“Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free,” “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” and “The Age of American Unreason” are just three of the books from American writers in the past five years that belabor religious fundamentalism, conservative talk shows, scientific illiteracy or the many available flavors of junk food for thought. The fallacy of such books, as Romano argues, is that they take some rotten parts for the largely nutritious whole. It’s not so much that they compare American apples with foreign oranges, but that they fail to acknowledge that the United States is an enormous fruit bowl. Everything is to be found in it, usually in abundance, including a vibrant intellectual life. Rather like that of India — which has over a third of the planet’s illiterate adults but also one of the largest university systems in the world — the intellectual stature of America eludes simple generalizations.

More than half of “America the Philosophical” is an encyclopedic survey of the life of the mind in the United States, in which Romano usefully draws on decades of cultural journalism and some 190 interviews conducted over the years. There are sections on, among many other things, literary critics, political theorists, mathematicians, broadcasters, science writers and purveyors of unhelpfully vapid self-help. (Romano does not emphasize the fact that these last two categories are starting to overlap.) As an illustration of the futuristic thrust of America’s cultural milieu, Romano also reports on a battery of what he calls “cyberphilosophers.” Many of these are the excitable folk who inhabit the world of Wired magazine, that sunny upland where it is always tomorrow. But more sober observers of technology are here, too. We learn that William Gibson, the sci-fi novelist who coined the term “cyberspace,” does not much like computers.

The formerly marginalized groups of African-Americans, women, Native Americans and gays have a chapter each; two-thirds of this space is devoted to the chapter on women, one of the richest in the book, which features Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Camille Paglia, Martha Nussbaum and a host of lesser-known thinkers. The chapter titled “Gays” is padded out with Ludwig Wittgenstein, even though he made just two brief visits to America, and Romano has virtually nothing to say about the bearing of his sexuality on his work. Everyone is included, and so, sometimes, is a little too much journalistic color. The exceptional modesty of John Rawls, America’s greatest political philosopher, was worth recording: he once declined an interview with Romano because “I wouldn’t want to be seen as promoting my book.” But do we need to know the model number of Sontag’s stereo amplifier? Such a detail might have been more at home in the pages about Hugh Hefner.

Romano is enlightening when he analyzes American intellectual life and illustrates its liveliness. He does little, though, to compare it with that of other countries. Is there much more to America’s pre-eminence than the volume of cultural and scholarly products that one might expect from the free world’s largest economy? Romano seems to think that there is, and that America’s distinctive winning formula is mainly a down-to-earth approach to life, though the place’s diversity also plays a role. This brings us to his refashioning of the concept of philosophy, a stratagem that yields the curious result (among others) that Americans are by nature splendid ­“philosophers.”

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are not the founders and titans of philosophy, according to Romano; rather, they hijacked it. The notion of philosophia was fluid in Plato’s time, and Romano wishes that the usage and practice of the less famous Isocrates, a rhetorician and educationalist, had caught on instead of that of his slightly younger contemporary. Isocrates (“A Man, Not a Typo,” as Romano headlines him) wrote that “it is far superior to have decent judgments about useful matters than to have precise knowledge about useless things.” For him, philosophy was the imprecise art of public deliberation about important matters, not a logic-­chopping attempt to excavate objective truths. Isocrates, Romano says, “incarnates the contradictions, pragmatism, ambition, bent for problem solving and getting things done that mark Americans,” and his conception of philosophy “jibes with American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than Socrates’ view.” Romano writes sorely of “the triumph of Plato and Aristotle in excluding Isocrates from the philosophical tradition” and announces that “Isocrates should be as famous as Socrates.”

My first thought about this claim was that it is simply nuts, which is also my considered view. Romano offers no explanation of how Plato and Aristotle managed to achieve the nefarious feat of obliterating the wonderful Isocrates. The only demonstrable sense in which they excluded him from the philosophical tradition is that their work eclipsed his, just as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach eclipsed that of his older brother Johann Jacob. Puzzled by Romano’s high estimation of the relevance of Isocrates, even to the broadest conception of philosophy, I reread some of his discourses and emerged none the wiser, though I did remember why I had so quickly forgotten him the first time around. Where are Isocrates’ penetrating treatments of the soul, virtue, justice, knowledge, truth, art, perception, psychology, logic, mathematics, action, space or time? And if philosophy would be better off not trying to talk about such things, what exactly should it be talking about? Romano endorses the aims of Richard Rorty, a maverick American thinker who died in 2007. Rorty had urged philosophers to abandon their intellectual hubris and instead content themselves with interminably swapping enlightening tales from diverse perspectives. It was never quite clear why anyone would want to listen to such stories without endings.

What of the idea that Americans are inherently practical? Many of the country’s best-known intellectuals have certainly liked to think of themselves that way. America’s principal homegrown school of philosophy is, after all, the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, which was born at Harvard in the 1870s. According to pragmatism, our theories should be judged by their practical value rather than by their accuracy in representing the world. The ultimate fate of this idea was neatly put by a great American philosophical wit, Sidney Morgenbes­ser, who said it was all very well in theory, but didn’t work in practice. He meant that pragmatism sounds like a good ruse, but it emerges as either trivial or incoherent when you try to flesh it out. There are weaker strains of philosophical pragmatism, which investigate the meaning of our concepts by looking at how we use them. But this idea is mainly the property of Wittgenstein, who may have been gay but was certainly not ­American.

Romano’s epilogue hails President Obama as America’s “philosopher in chief,” on account of his mental suppleness, eloquence, intellectuality and, of course, his “pragmatism.” Unfortunately, an intellectual is just the kind of person many Americans don’t seem to want in charge, which presents a problem for Romano’s thesis, even if this particular ­philosopher-king’s reign should happen to be extended in November. Also, politics is one arena in which Americans do not appear, to this foreign observer, to be especially practical-­minded at the moment. They seem disfigured by tribal dogmatism, and thus not well constituted to devise utilitarian solutions to everyday problems. But perhaps the game of national stereotyping has gone on long enough. Romano notes that Americans embrace contradictions, so let’s just say that the place is smart and dumb, pragmatic and windy, healthy and sick, and still a popular country to move to.

Anthony Gottlieb is writing a sequel to his book “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”

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