Philosophy in America

In CoPhi today we’ll start getting acquainted with America the Philosophical. Carlin Romano (who came to MTSU last November to inaugurate our new Fall Lyceum) says everybody who thinks America is un– or a– or even anti-philosophical has just not dug deep and wide enough. Especially wide. As the poet said, we are vast and contain contradictory multitudes. We’re philosophical at the roots, where we’re not weedy.  But of course, he concedes, we’re also vain and superficial and unconscious all across the landscape too. We’re in the weeds with Jersey Shore and American Idol and Honey Boo-Boo et al. So it’s easy, too easy, to overlook all the philosophizing that’s all around us.




Carlin’s thesis will strike many, especially your entrenched working class of paid professional philosophers, as itself radical. He’s breaking their rules. defying what Richard Rorty called their “scholastic little definitions of philosophy.”  But as James says in the opening epigraph, “between us and the universe, there are no ‘rules of the game.'” America, Romano insists and tries to document in his book, “America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world.” Wow. Can he back that up? We’ll see.

One point of immediate concern is the claim that in America there exists a “widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone.” Hmmm. That’s not exactly been my experience, confronting prejudice in the classroom. Wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “that’s just the way I was raised” or some variant thereof, in declining the invitation to think or even listen. And I don’t just get this from Braves and Sox fans.

As I said the other day,

If you believe X because dad or preacher or bible or teacher or tradition or a little voice told you so, that’s unphilosophical. If you believe it because you experienced something that you think supports it, and are prepared to discuss that experience and that belief, then we can reason amicably together. 

Carlin’s AtP introduction goes on to mention the source of one big embarrassment in the profession of philosophy in America, Professor Colin McGinn (formerly of the U. of Miami, also mentioned in the recent NYTimes philosophy blog The Stone as signifying a positive watershed moment for women in the field), and several of my own influences: John Rawls (“widely touted as the greatest American political philosopher”), Alain de Botton (a popularizer and twitter star), several popular philosophy mags, Harry Frankfurt (On Bullshit), philosophical novelists Iris Murdoch and Rebecca (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) Goldstein, Sophie’s World (a great read for Intro students, my colleague Bombardi says), Monty Python (“Socrates himself was permanently pissed…”), Matthew Lipman, Hannah Arendt, Mooney & Kirshenbaum (Unscientific America), Susan Jacoby (Age of American Unreason), NPR and BookTV (the new middlebrow standard-bearers), Chris Phillips (Socrates Cafe, Socrates in Love), Open Court and Blackwell publishers (The Simpsons, The Matrix, Facebook…& Philosophy… and don’t forget Jimmy Buffett), X-phi, cyber-phi, Richard Rorty, Oliver Sacks, Robert Fulghum, Cornel West, Obama-the-pragmatist, Isocrates… (Wait: Isocrates? Where’d the “I” come from?)

Notice how many of those names and works have emerged not from academia but from the wider world. That’s Romano’s point: philosophy in America’s way bigger than we (and the APA) thought. I’m not sure I’d include The Playboy Philosophy in that list, as Carlin does, but we’ll see.

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