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Those hunky, tousle-haired, philosophical Americans.

A Fortnightly Review of

America the Philosophical
by Carlin Romano

Alfred A.Knopf | pp x+675 | $35.00

By Anthony O’Hear.

CALLING THIS LAMENTABLE TOME ‘America the Philosophical’ would be a bit like me calling a similar potpourri  ‘Wimbledon, the Home of Golf’, and explaining that this is all right because by ‘golf’ I’m going to mean tennis, and in any case golf is in the same general line of business as tennis. Both, after all, are games – just as what most people think of as philosophy, and what Romano is calling ‘philosophical’, are both to do with using words to persuade people.

If this were just a matter of words meaning what I chose them to mean – and a consequent few moments of national attention – perhaps it would not matter much. We simply could dismiss Professor Romano as the Humpty-Dumpty of higher education (he is, apparently, something called Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education) and move on to something else – reading some philosophy, perhaps. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t suppose that many who don’t have to will plough through most of Romano’s 675 pages, filled as they are with tiresomely gossipy and wise-cracking pen-portraits of what seem like hundreds of thinkers of greater or lesser eminence in the world of American ideas.

Sample taken at random (from p 501):

Relaxing in a sparely furnished  San Francisco townhouse he was sharing with friends, novelist and journalist Po Bronson, author of The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel, figured as a literary pioneer in mainstreaming cyberculture. A long time player in the Bay Area’s publishing world beyond his career as a writer… Bronson recalled a time when the literary community, while “writing left and right about all sorts of things, completely ignored this topic. They didn’t see it as a real topic, a worthy topic,” said the tousle-haired writer, whose hunky good looks – he resembled Richard Gere – were exploited on the back flap of The First $20 Million…’

And so on, and on; good to know that Po’s townhouse is sparely furnished, but one doubts that it, or indeed any of the other writers’ apartments Romano allows us to glimpse, will ever achieve the fame, let alone the significance of a more famous sparely furnished room back in 1619.

Reference to Descartes’ stove-heated room takes us neatly to the serious and seriously contestable claim which underlies Romano’s book. For the premise on which it is based is that in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the late Richard Rorty showed that the Western philosophical project – identified with Descartes, but actually dating back to Socrates and Plato – is bankrupt. There are no eternal verities on such matters as truth, goodness, the nature of the mind or God, and certainly no arguments which will take us to them. Most of what passes for philosophy in the academic world – and most of what constitutes professionally recognised philosophy – has not realised this, or has not realised it sufficiently, and so consists of what Romano charmingly calls ‘a lineup of epistemology fanatics’ (p. 157).

What has to be done in these circumstances is to follow Rorty rather than the epistemology fanatics of the academy (and, further back, the questioning rhetorician Isocrates of ancient Athens, rather than that relentless pursuer of right answers, Socrates). This philosophical turn – ‘philosophy stripped of epistemological hubris’ (p. 583) in Romano’s phrase – would actually chime rather well with the characteristic American suspicion of formalistic argument, as well as with John Dewey’s optimistic liberalism and his endless problem-solving untroubled by anything as hard-edged as authoritative truth, and also with Darwinism (which both Rorty and Dewey espoused),  according to which we, and our theories, just survive (for a time) without being mirrors of the world or bringing with them criteria for their truth.

NO DOUBT ALL THIS could be given a high-sounding veneer. Romano is straightforward at least. Philosophy, as he conceives it , and what makes America The Philosophical, is, he claims, the practice of the sensible human persuasion of others without bowing to eternal human verities – truth being  a matter of decisions arising from consensus. The little word ‘eternal’ is here all-important, for in decrying ‘eternal’ verities, Romano is implicitly embracing the view that ‘truth’ changes with the changing consensuses underlying the decisions made at one time or another. This view is what, in other circles, is known as relativism. This is why, in talking of persuasion, as we did earlier, it is critically important to distinguish persuasion by means of argument and attempted proof and demonstrated truth, or at least as close to truth as we can get, from persuasion without truth, that is persuasion by means of – well, persuasion. Only the former deserves the name of philosophy, for the rest is the stuff of journalistic ephemera, advertising, myth-making and political propaganda.

Romano’s discussion of John Rawls is instructive at this point. He does spend some time outlining Rawls’ theory of justice and giving objections to it, and showing how, over the years Rawls modified his position to a more consensualist, less foundationalist view. Indeed Romano devotes more space to Rawls than to almost anyone else, save perhaps Rorty and Susan Sontag (more on her shortly), and rather rarely for this book, the reader unacquainted with the thought of the thinker in question might actually get some reasonable grasp of what Rawls is on about from Romano’s discussion. Romano concludes, though, that in the end Rawls’ theory of justice does not work in its own terms. But, rather worse, nor, for all the academic work he has generated and for all his undoubted philosophical ability, did Rawls manage ‘to convince Americans of principles they choose not to accept’. Romano adds, ‘Sophisticated academic philosophy (failed) to “justify” Americans into philosophical unanimity, rather than catalys(ing) us into brash nitpickers who make the US the world’s top agora of arguers’ (p. 590).

Criticising Rawls in this way is rather like blaming Kant for not having convinced the European powers of the Napoleonic era that making peace might be better than making war. It says nothing whatever about the validity of the categorical imperative or indeed of Kant’s fundamental distinction between the human world and the world of science. So Rawls could still be right, despite failing to engage the general American public, for which Romano castigates him. However, the final nail in Rawls’ coffin, according to Romano, is that by now not even his most devoted students are still able to defend him (though I hadn’t noticed that). But if this is indeed so, might not the reason be that Rawls’ particular brand of left-liberal theorising is just a wrong account of justice, a case of persuasive re-definition rather than a sound philosophical analysis? In which case, having discovered that it is wrong, what we would have is actually a profoundly important philosophical result. One can hardly find a socialist or social-democratic politician in the western world who is not even now attempting to implement some version of Rawls’ vision of justice, and will, like as not, attempt to defend what he or she is doing by appeal to Rawlsian considerations about fairness. But if what Romano tells us is true, then they are all wrong, and disastrously wrong, because their welfarist policies impinge for the worse on millions.

Actually I do not believe for one minute that Romano actually disagrees with the general tenor of Rawls’ thought. If there is an ideology underlying his book (and there surely is), it is the unthinking and complacently secularist, materialistic, hedonistic and relativistic non-judgementalism which so characterises our time, or at least our time as refracted through the organs of respectable ‘educated’ opinion. It is only that, unlike Rawls and the philosophers, Romano doesn’t believe that it (or anything else) can be given a philosophical basis. The best we can do, it appears, is to engage in attempts at mutual persuasion about whatever happens to seem important at the time.

So, into Romano’s philosophical arena are welcomed figures as diverse as Hugh Hefner, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Bill Moyers, Robert Coles, Paul Fussell, Max Lerner and, at greatest length of all, the already mentioned Susan Sontag, to say nothing of assorted cyber-thinkers, gays, women, Native Americans, African Americans (men) and African American women. Nothing wrong with a big tent, of course, but the way Romano attempts to fill it is the profoundly unphilosophical one of scouring his various categories to find figures admitted largely on the basis of their possessing what in UK equality law we have come think of as ‘protected’ characteristics, rather than on the cogency or originality of what they have to say (at least that is the impression one would gain from reading Romano’s accounts of their thinking). And when a figure of orthodox or accepted philosophical provenance makes it into the big tent, she’d better be careful: Martha Nussbaum (from ‘women’), for example, is ticked off for ‘emulating the bloodless style of her former teacher and colleague Rawls, for Rawlsian abstraction had its limits in an America that demanded facts, vitamins, fireworks and color in its thinky prose’ (p. 418).

Rome’s Barack Obama.

AS MIGHT BE EXPECTED, though, Romano’s philosophical big tent is not as capacious as America itself. There appear to be few if any explicitly religious thinkers in it, and certainly no proselytizing evangelicals or traditionalist Catholics. Islam is conspicuous by its absence, as are tea-partyers, right-to-lifers  and opponents of gay marriage. There may be a gesture at even-handedness in the sense that Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia are included (like la Nussbaum, included under ‘women’, which would have infuriated Rand), and Said and Chomsky are chided for extremism. But while Hannah Arendt and Harold Bloom are in, the equally significant Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss are not – apart from a couple of mentions in passing. If Hugh Hefner and Playboy, why not Glenn Beck, who at least does write about the Constitution and invite serious thinkers on to his programme? While deriding shock-jocks in one section, in another section, in orthodox ‘cultural studies’ mode, Romano criticises attempts to distinguish between high-, middle- and low-brow tastes, without seeing that there may be a tension here. And where is Tom Wolfe, to balance Sontag’s erstwhile hero-worship of Castro and Guevara and her estimation of North Vietnam as enjoying a genuine, substantive democracy ‘much of the time’? The trouble is that Romano, having stood the philosophical establishment down pretty well en bloc has no real criterion for those he wants to admit into Philosophical America. In case anyone were still in doubt by page 596, their minds would be finally put at rest by an epilogue of truly monumental bathos (or is it sycophancy?) in which, on the basis of some crowd-pleasingly emollient but scarcely profound or challenging presidential speeches (written by whom?), President Obama is styled the nation’s ‘philosopher in chief’.

America’s Marcus Aurelius.

President Obama is not George W. Bush. No doubt Romano and people who think like him are grateful for that, but it hardly makes Obama a Marcus Aurelius (c.f. Romano, p 605). Nor does it mean that intellectually or philosophically he is on the same level as David Lewis or Saul Kripke or Thomas Nagel or Jaegwon Kim or Alvin Plantinga, American philosophers mentioned by Romano only en passant or not at all, but who have wrestled manfully and with hard-won originality with some of the deepest problems of logic and metaphysics, with the nature of language and of mind, and with God – matters which hardly seem to register on the Romano radar, but whose rational pursuit is what makes the truly philosophical game one worthy of playing.

But all this is hard, hard, hard, and hardly to be communicated to the great American (or any) public in ‘thinky’ prose or indeed without working on it. Of course there are professional deformations surrounding academic philosophy, and, given the nature of the difficulties, the timelessness of themes and the limitations of our minds, there are unlikely to be final solutions to any of the major questions. But to think that these things are worth pursuing at the highest level is not a symptom of epistemological fanaticism. It is rather a sign that just occasionally, even in liberal  and pragmatic America, even in Romano’s book, the revellers might be reminded of the existence of another, more serious way of experiencing. Thus the egregious Sontag (of all people) described the effect of the mere presence of Goethe at a certain dinner party in Naples in 1787. But, as Sontag pointed out with uncanny accuracy, to Sir William and the future Lady Hamilton and the others at that dinner, every Goethean gesture was a reproach, rather as even a page of any decent philosophy would be to America the Philosophical.

Anthony O’Hear is director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham, the editor of Philosophy: The journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and a co-editor of The Fortnightly Review. He is the author of The Great Books: A Journey Through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature among many other books.

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