John Kaag

Author of American Philosophy:
A Love Story

2016 NPR Best Book of the Year

NYT Editor Choice 

Kirkus Star

Reviews of American Philosophy

Randall Fuller of the Wall Street Journal

Clancy Martin

"John Kaag is the closest thing we have to William James: a breathtakingly good prose stylist; philosophically and psychologically courageous, inventive and inspiring; ruthlessly honest; unsparing about the difficulties of love, intimacy and experience; and above all, human, in the most valuable and moral sense of the word."

Andre Dubus III

“Is life worth living?” This is the age-old but forever timely question at the center of this remarkable and daring memoir. Part history of American philosophy, part personal narrative, American Philosophy: A Love Story, takes us deeply into that 'epic love affair with wisdom' that is philosophy, but it does so through the wonderfully intimate lens of the author himself, a young and accomplished philosopher who has summoned the nerve to expose his flaws, his failures, his deepest doubts about it all, a rare act of creative courage and generosity that leads us to where the heart of true philosophy lies: to a deep and abiding sense of wonder. This is an absolutely stellar memoir." ―Andre Dubus III

Pulitzer Prize-winning Megan Marshall

"John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story is one of the most entertaining guides to philosophical inquiry to come along in decades. Stumbling on the library of a long-forgotten Harvard professor abandoned on the great man’s country estate, John Kaag examines the trove and finds himself communing with the likes of William James, Josiah Royce, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ideas may be Kaag’s first love, but they bring him a flesh-and-blood Beatrice in this open-hearted account of a young man’s second chance at a sentimental education.

About Me


John Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of American Philosophy: A Love Story.  It is a story of lost library, a lost American intellectual tradition and a lost person--and their simultaneous recovery.  

Kaag is a dispirited young philosopher at sea in his marriage and his career when he stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendent of William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology, with whom Kaag feels a deep kinship. It is James’s question “Is life worth living?” that guides this remarkable book.

The books Kaag discovers in the Hocking library are crawling with insects and full of mold. But he resolves to restore them, as he immediately recognizes their importance. Not only does the library at West Wind contain handwritten notes from Whitman and inscriptions from Frost, but there are startlingly rare first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. As Kaag begins to catalog and read through these priceless volumes, he embarks on a thrilling journey that leads him to the life-affirming tenets of American philosophy―self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence―and to a brilliant young Kantian who joins him in the restoration of the Hocking books.

Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is ultimately about love, freedom, and the role that wisdom can play in turning one’s life around.

John lives with his daughter, Becca, and partner, Carol, outside of Boston.  He is currently working on Hiking with Nietzsche, scheduled with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for 2018 and Think Again: An Introduction to Philosophy for Norton.    

Selected Public Philosophy (2012-2017)

Winner of the 2013 APA Prize in Public Philosophy 

New York Times

Looking Death in the Face

My Toddler, Bartleby

My Father Didn't Know Best, How Will I?  

The Perfect Essay

On Writing with Others

Drones, Ethics and the Armchair Soldier

 Thoreau the Weird (Review of Kevin Dann's Expect Great Things)

Wall Street Journal 

Review of Daphne Merkin's This Close to Happy

Review of Thoreau Books

Boston Globe

To Lean In, Find Someone Who'll Lean Out (with Carol Hay)

The Snow Effect (with Carol Hay)

Drones and the Conscientious Objector

A Study in Inequality (with Clancy Martin)

Harper's Magazine

The Philosopher and the Thief

The Sound of Maybe

Aeon Magazine

Dreadful Dads (with Clancy Martin)

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Link to over twenty articles

Times Higher Education

Link to over a dozen articles

Interviews about American Philosophy: A Love Story

The Full Stop

Heleo with Clancy Martin (On Bringing Philosophy Back)

Beatrice--Life Stories with Ron Hogan

LA Review of Books with Skye Cleary

Selected Academic Publications

American Philosophy

"Pragmatism and the Lessons of Experience" (Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Pragmatism and Aesthetic Ideals (British Journal for the History of Philosophy)

Josiah Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty (History of Philosophy Quarterly

"Paddling in the Stream of Consciousness" (Journal  of Speculative Philosophy)

Social and Political Philosophy

Drones and the Paradox of Choice (with Jamie Ashton in Harvard Review of Philosophy)

the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Asymmetric Conflict (with Sarah Kreps in Polity)

Military Frameworks: Technological Know-How and the Legitimation of War (with Whit Kaufman in Cambridge Review of International Affairs)  

Cognitive Science

The Neurological Dynamics of the Imagination (Phenomenology and Cognitive Science)

Getting Under My Skin: William James on the Emotions, Sociality, and Transcendence (Zygon)

Fallibility and Insight in Moral Judgement (Human Studies)

Reviews of American Philosophy

The Boston Globe

“[Kaag] is as an admirably approachable teacher of the figures whose works he is cataloguing. He elucidates obscure philosophical matters. His history of American philosophy is lucid and compelling. He writes with refreshing clarity, humility, and a welcome absence of jargon. We learn a lot about the human beings behind the famous tomes . . . a lovely, intelligent, edifying, and admirable book, and Kaag an immensely likeable guide.” ―Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe

The Providence Journal

"This wonderful, conversationally written and perceptive book tells the story of philosopher John Kaag’s very successful attempt to humanize philosophy, to make “sense of life” amid a divorce, the death of his alcoholic father who abandoned his family, and the discovery of William Ernest Hocking’s incredible library, stuffed with first editions from Descartes to Emerson at the Hocking estate, West Wind, in New Hampshire."

William James Studies

"Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought." ―Robert Richardson

Kirkus (starred review)

“A compelling hybrid combining memoir, a dramatic narrative about saving an endangered rare book collection, and the intellectual history of philosophy . . . Throughout the book, the author deftly intertwines the narrative threads in a story perfect for book lovers and soul searchers alike. Kaag's lively prose, acute self-examination, unfolding romance, and instructive history of philosophy as a discipline make for a surprisingly absorbing book.”

Philosopher's Magazine

"For anyone with a love of books, intellectual history, or just a good story of romance, Kaag delivers a treat . . . Kaag draws our attention to how philosophy can attempt, in Royce's words, to mend our broken world. If philosophy should be woven into the conduct of life, as the Transcendentalists argued, then Kaag's book is an example of how that might look.

Open Letters Monthly

“In his deeper portraits, Kaag’s sketches of philosophy as lived experiences are among the book’s best achievements . . . Kaag inherits the pragmatists’ superb pedagogical talent for translating complex ideas into language available to a wide audience . . . American Philosophy will prod readers to further explore these thinkers’ lives and ideas. I wanted to return to Royce and James, to find out more about Cabot, to read The Meaning of God after finishing the book. Maybe it will even do its part to slow the much feared dwindling of philosophy majors.”

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Andre Dubus III (Author of the House of Sand and Fog) on American Philosophy: A Love Story


NYU Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference. Kaag's demand that the audience and moral agents look each other in the face.  Covered by the NYT.