American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise. It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books. William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl. The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza. This is the stuff of dreams. Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.
Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others. One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife. It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living. It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow. I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective. And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic. (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.) Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.
Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it. The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics? The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research. I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school. I found the biography more memorable. Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”. He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.