John 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.
"American Philosophy succeeds, not as a textbook or survey, but a spirited lover’s quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.”
- Mark Greif, New York Times
“Elegant . . . Describing these books enables Mr. Kaag to take us on a brisk tour from Hobbes and Locke to Kant and Coleridge and, most important, to rediscover the pragmatist work of American thinkers intent on mitigating the force of modern alienation.”
- Randall Fuller, Wall Street Journal
“[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.”
- Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe
“John Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy . . . this is the most enthralling book of intellectual history I've read since David Edmonds' and John Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker . . . American Philosophy provides a magnificently accessible introduction to fundamental ideas about freedom and what makes life significant. It's an exhilarating read.”
- Heller McAlpin, NPR
“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.”
- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“In his deeper portraits, Kaag’s sketches of philosophy as lived experiences are among the book’s best achievements . . . 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.”
- Kenyon Gradert, Open Letters Monthly