Review of Carlin Romano’s “America the Philosophical”

America the Philosophical
By Carlin Romano
Alfred A. Knopf. 672 pp. $35

By general consent, the great classic of 20th-century American philosophy is John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which appeared in 1971. Bill Clinton once said that when he and Hillary read it in law school, they immediately realized that liberty, equality, and human rights had been established on a “brilliant new foundation of reason.” Around the same time, a pushy Princeton undergraduate with journalistic ambitions asked the mighty philosopher for an interview, only to be turned away with a gentle Harvard smile. “I wouldn’t want to be seen as promoting my book,” Rawls said, and he carried on avoiding the limelight and tinkering with his “foundation of reason” till his death 30 years later.

The undergraduate snubbed by Rawls does not seem to have been damaged by the experience. His name is Carlin Romano, and he has gone on to a bright and controversial career as a leading commentator — half philosopher, half gonzo journalist — on the dramas of American intellectual life. Romano, formerly the book critic of The Inquirer and now a professor at Ursinus College, is a voracious reviewer, a tenacious reporter, and, despite his early rebuff from Rawls, an enthusiastic interviewer: His new survey of philosophy in 21st-century America lists nearly 200 celebrated thinkers who have submitted to interviews in the making of the book.

America the Philosophical takes us on a high-speed tour of America’s big thinkers. After Rawls, Romano gives a vivid account of two other Harvard big shots: Robert Nozick, the libertarian who started off glacially abstract though he warmed up a bit in the end, and Stanley Cavell, who managed to discover high-end intellectual nourishment in the sorts of things that ordinary Americans are interested in, notably Hollywood movies. But Romano does not dwell on the “Ivy League Cavalcade.” His heroes are more Harlem than Harvard, “social critics” rather than university mandarins. For example, he admires Alain Locke, the African American Rhodes scholar who pioneered the idea of the “New Negro” in the 1920s, and he is a follower of Will Durant, author of the best-selling Story of Philosophy, which critics have always dismissed as “middlebrow.”

Romano is immune to anxiety about high and low culture, painting sympathetic portraits of journalist-philosophers such as Max Lerner and I.F. Stone and embracing the Playboy philosophy of Hugh Hefner without missing a beat. Once that is over, he has no difficulty bestowing his blessing on the “psychologist philosophers,” notably Robert Coles and Howard Gardner, and on literary philosophers such as Kenneth Burke, Irving Howe, Harold Bloom, and Edward Said. He also pays his respects to political thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Dennis Thompson, and to the peculiarly American tradition of lawyer-philosophizing, embodied in Ronald Dworkin and Richard Posner.

Above all, he offers tributes to a range of outsider thinkers from Cornel West to Betty Friedan, Camille Paglia and Anita Allen, who have challenged the “great white men” who used to treat the philosophical world as their own exclusive fiefdom. He has a special affection for those who have managed to connect their philosophizing with contemporary issues: not only the august Hannah Arendt, but also the brisk but charismatic Susan Sontag. Sontag regaled Romano with a terrific tirade against the kind of American intellectuals who try to hide their bookishness in the closet, pretending to be a “good ol’ boy, or good ol’ girl,” doped up on pop music, sport, and the language of the street, and more interested in the Three Stooges or Sgt. Bilko than Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino. She was obviously a difficult interviewee, but Romano takes it on the chin.

Romano is a cheerful and exuberant (sometimes overexuberant) guide, hyping contemporary America as the most vital philosophical nation the world has ever seen, and concluding, rather boldly, by saluting Barack Obama as “philosopher-in-chief.” But his exuberance can be a bit wearing, and if he covers a lot of ground, he does not cover everything: Anyone interested in the big old questions about space, time, and deity, or the nature of logic or of moral or mathematical truth, will have to look elsewhere. And these omissions are not just a matter of taste: Romano is angry and he is spoiling for a fight.

The great prophet of modern American philosophy, for Romano, is not Rawls but Richard Rorty. Like Rawls, Rorty began his philosophical career as a conventional Ivy League laureate, but during the 1970s he underwent some kind of conversion. He came to see the idea of working toward ultimate philosophical truth not as a noble intellectual ideal, but as a professional deformation — a folly promoted by a self-perpetuating clique of academics who spend their lives setting each other pointless puzzles and competing to come up with the most arcane solutions. Philosophers, according to Rorty, ought to stop giving themselves supercilious airs and start participating as equals in the vast and diverse conversations that make up American democracy.

By the time of his death in 2007, Rorty had to admit that his colleagues were showing little sign of giving up their professional privileges, but Romano has picked up Rorty’s banner with glee. In his closing chapters, he returns to the hallowed figure of Rawls, arguing that the “greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century” was really a crashing bore, and that his attempt to discover a rational basis for politics was a massive waste of time, a practical demonstration of “the formal emptiness of the logic of justification.” As far as Romano is concerned, the professional philosophical establishment is a “black hole,” or a benighted tribe of intellectual flat-earthers, and the 11,000-strong American Philosophical Association no more than a conspiracy to strangle intellectual joy and creativity.

America the Philosophical is a likable book, but some people are going to hate it.

Jonathan Rée is a freelance philosopher and historian who lives in Oxford, England. His books include “I See a Voice” and “Philosophical Tales.”