Hiking with Emerson

Skye C. Cleary interviews professor John Kaag about his recent book, "American Philosophy: A Love Story."

Hiking with Emerson

LIBRARIES ARE OFTEN seen as places of wonder, mystery, and excitement. John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story credits a library with all these things, as well as for being the backdrop for an existential crisis, the end of a marriage, the spark of new love, and contracting Lyme disease. The book traces Kaag’s discovery of a largely forgotten library owned by a largely forgotten Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking, on a remote estate in a dark wood in New Hampshire. Kaag found the library full of mouse droppings and rotting books, including extremely rare first editions of Descartes and Kant with handwritten notes from Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and William James. He wasn’t the first to trespass upon the library, however, nor to recognize its importance. A heroin addict stole 400 of the books worth more than $250,000, and succeeded in selling some of them before the FBI tracked him down.

While Kaag’s previous two books were also about American philosophy — one on Charles Sanders Peirce and imagination, the other an introduction to Ella Lyman Cabot’s philosophy — this is his first memoir-style book. NPR nominated it as one of the Best Books of 2016, it was listed as a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and in April 2017 it was one of the top 10 nonfiction audiobooks on Audible.com.

I emailed with Kaag about how his discovery helped him to figure out that life was worth living.


SKYE C. CLEARY: Why did you write this book?

JOHN KAAG: Philosophy often gets pooh-poohed as the most useless of subjects — impractical, impersonal, intentionally arcane. But it’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I wanted to explain how philosophy could inform a human life or, in my case, save one.

Tell me more about the person who gets saved in American Philosophy: A Love Story.

Sure. In 2009, I was a complete mess. My father died, my first marriage was a shambles, and I tried to commit suicide — that didn’t go in the book. Then I came across a private, largely abandoned, library in the heart of the White Mountains, which was chock-full of American philosophy — from Emerson to Whitman to William James — and my life started, very slowly, turning around.

This library, at a place called West Wind, became my temporary home — a sanctuary, really — for more than two years. It was once owned by William Ernest Hocking, a titan of American philosophy at Harvard in the first half of the 20th century and one of the last students of William James. Hocking had cached many of William James’s own book collections at West Wind, especially the ones that James used in writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, but also hundreds of first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries, including Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes.

So, Hobbes helped you find happiness?

No, that would be strange, but the American thinkers who inspired and taught Hocking did. They showed me that life didn’t have to be, in Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The two threads of the book are what I take to be the abiding themes of American Transcendentalism and pragmatism: freedom (think Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”) and love (such as another of Emerson’s essays “Compensation”). Philosophy wasn’t merely an academic exercise for these thinkers; it was a way of thinking through the difficult, often tragic, business of living.

The library at West Wind was also the place where I really met Carol Hay, a fellow philosopher, who became a dear friend, and is now the mother of our daughter Becca. We spent the better part of a year at the library trying to save the books from mold and each other from marriages that deserved to die. And then there were the granddaughters of William Ernest Hocking who graciously invited me into their home and taught me so much about philosophy and myself. These women: They are the love — or loves — in American Philosophy: A Love Story.

The book was about your personal journey through American philosophy and love. How did writing it, then, change you?

On a very basic level, working though the book gave me a pointed sense of my limits as writer. The draft I handed to Ileene Smith, my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in 2014 was unsalvageable. I remember her words so clearly: “Try to write it again.” It was probably the first time that anyone, outside of my English teacher mother, had encouraged me to start from scratch. A bit of humility and a great deal of admiration for the hundreds of truly talented writers working, and savagely editing, today. Those are two main things that came out of writing the book.

I think writing is working yourself out over the page. This is the case no matter what you write, but memoir is a special kind of self-exposure. Even when you don’t reveal everything — or even that much — it makes a writer confront what doesn’t go on the page. Writing the book forced me to acknowledge what I was leaving out, both of my personal history and certain strains of philosophy, and to ask, perhaps for the first time, why I was keeping mum about so many things. I can see why Nietzsche wrote 18 autobiographical essays by the time he reached middle age. He was trying to get a grip on himself. Sometimes, when you finish a memoir, you realize that you’ve omitted parts of yourself. Or maybe you just grow out of the book only to realize that another one is about the begin. That’s what I am dealing with in my next book about Nietzsche.

This reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote: “What an odd thing a diary is: the things you omit are more important than those you put in.” You’ve already mentioned a major event that was left out. Can you say more about the parts that you omitted?

Beauvoir is so very right about this. The book has been criticized as being a “philosopher’s memoir,” that is, as being too esoteric and not grounded enough in real life. I think “robotic” was the word. I get that criticism. I was afraid, and am still afraid, of writing about the real nastiness of depression and anxiety. I reviewed Daphne Merkin’s This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression after publishing American Philosophy: A Love Story. In that book she manages to be honest about enduring sadness without being cloying or narcissistic. I wish I could have done that, but I didn’t have the guts to try. I hope to give it another shot in my next book.

American Philosophy: A Love Story is also about two divorces and a remarriage. I, for the most part, avoided talking about my ex-wife and Carol’s ex-husband. I despise “takedown memoirs” that leave only the author standing. I didn’t want to write one of those. I try to follow my grandmother’s instructions: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

There are moments in the book when I let the reader fill in gaps about my relationship with Carol. What actually happened between us? I leave that question partially unanswered. That is part of the fun of writing and reading. There are certain times of life, and of love, that happen in ellipsis. Wittgenstein was right when he said, “Whereof one cannot speak of, thereof one must be silent.” 

What surprised you most along the way — either in the discovery of the library or in writing the book?

I was surprised that, after a decade of studying the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, I still didn’t fully understand them. I’d always thought that American philosophy was about that most American, and most misunderstood, of ideals: freedom. If you read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” you will understand how that misconception arose. He wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string […] Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” It was, I thought, about radical self-assertion. But when I started reading the books in the Hocking library, especially the idealism and religious writings of a host of thinkers, I came to a slightly different impression. Emerson insisted that “Self-Reliance” should be read along with the sister essay “Compensation,” which says that no matter how free an action is, it always has consequences; it is always set in a wider social, political, and cosmic order. In Emerson’s words, life is set in a grand system of “give and take” — and you are never “free” of that. Freedom is always tempered or constrained by togetherness. That was a surprise for me.

I was impressed by the level of detail in the story. How did you remember it? Did you keep a diary?

Yes, I wrote about West Wind in an informal way over the years; but honestly, the detail — the sense of being “right there” at the library with Carol, and with the books — is probably a function of the significance of the experience. You remember your first kiss, right? It was like that. My time at West Wind is vivid because it is still with me; it is one of my fondest and most jarring memories. I know that sounds hokey, but sometimes honest things are.

Your book was published in October 2016 and is in its fourth printing — who is reading all those books? Who do you hope will read it and what impact do you hope it will have?

My mother and brother are not professional philosophers. They are intelligent, caring people with busy lives, who want to live meaningfully. These are the people I would like to read this book and my next, Hiking With Nietzsche. I’d like to think that these books might convince readers to give philosophy a second chance, to believe that this love of wisdom could help shape their lives and make death a little less frightening. I believe this. Socrates said that philosophy is preparation for death. He’s right, but I also like to think about it as spring training for the rest of your life. These books hopefully take readers through certain philosophical paces — that is the teacher in me — and also give them a sense of having a companion in misery when they need one. Philosophy and life are very hard, and I don’t want to sugarcoat things.

I loved how you wove together your philosophical discoveries, the ideas and lives of the American philosophers, with your personal story — including your relationship with Carol, who ought to have been your academic arch-nemesis, since you were both striving for the same tenured professorship. Nietzsche once wrote that: “In the philosopher […] there is nothing whatever impersonal,” and you talk about how Gabriel Marcel was interested in the intersection of philosophy and life. Nevertheless, such an approach is controversial since others say that a philosopher’s personal life is irrelevant to their ideas. Why do you think personal narratives are important in philosophy?

Yes, philosophers still avoid what is known as the “biographical fallacy,” which is the supposed mistake of interpreting a thinker’s philosophy by an analysis of their life. But I am not so worried about it. The idea that you could fully divorce thought from lived experience runs counter to just about every single philosopher of the 19th century, including Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, James, Bergson, Peirce, and Royce. Some of these thinkers — especially Nietzsche, Thoreau, and James — demonstrated the connection between life and philosophy using narrative and autobiography. This way of doing philosophy, however, has been largely lost in the 20th century as analytic philosophy — which trades on being able to give and critique objective arguments — gained momentum. I have no quarrel with analysis, but only with the idea that this is the only way, or the best way, of being a philosopher. Philosophy should have a certain capaciousness that I fear risks being lost.

What is important about narrative? In Augustine’s Confessions, a thinker wrestles with trauma and doubt and arrives at a philosophically informed conclusion: a belief in God. It might not be the best conclusion, but what is beautiful and edifying about the narrative is that it provides what C. S. Peirce once called a “moving picture of thought.” Every page is the unfolding of thought over time and the reader gets to follow along. Augustine undoubtedly intended readers to reach a similar conclusion, but I think the upshot of philosophical narrative is more important than simply arriving at a discrete belief. It is about getting the sense that change, development, and growth can occur in the life of a thinker. It is the dynamism of narrative that I find most appealing.

How can the American philosophers help us deal with, or at least better understand, today’s political situation?

Thoreau and James would be going absolutely wild right now. As Louis Menand describes in The Metaphysical Club, American thinkers responded to the Civil War by rejecting ideology and fanaticism in all its forms. Pragmatism, especially, was formed as a reaction to being carried away by ideas without considering their dire consequences. “Judge an idea by its fruits, not its roots” — that is a pragmatic idea and one that should guide policy, I think. What sort of immediate, and long-term, consequences do our actions point to? Oh, and every single classical American philosophy was, in one way or another, committed to the scientific method — a careful, fallible methodology that does not take particular truths at face value, but unflinchingly pursues the facts and not the “alternative facts.”

What does the future hold for American philosophy in general?

I think that American philosophy is enjoying a renaissance for many reasons. Classical American Philosophy (the writings of James and Emerson) was written for philosophers as well as the general public. Most of Emerson’s writings were lectures for audiences around New England. If disciplinary philosophy is going to survive another century in the academy, I believe that there has to be some sort of outreach to the growing number of individuals with no formal philosophical training. American philosophers, like James, give us a good model of how we can do this without watering down our thinking too much. James was also a polymath and was more than willing to dive into other academic disciplines. In fact, he envisions pragmatism as a corridor that connects the various fields of the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. I think that this sort of interdisciplinary approach could keep philosophy alive and revitalize the philosophical roots of many other disciplines. Philip Kitcher’s recent work on climate change in The Seasons Alter is a perfect example of taking a pragmatic-philosophical approach to environmental science.

In turning back to American philosophy, we need to remember that there are writers and scholars who never abandoned the canon. In reviving the tradition, we should be careful not to remake the philosophical wheel. Writers like Bob Richardson, Annie Dillard, John McDermott, Henry Bugbee, and Doug Anderson have written beautiful, insightful books about, or inspired by, American philosophy for decades. We should be mindful of them. To ignore them would be a strange act of ingratitude.

Can you say more about your next book about Nietzsche?

I’ll try: it’s called Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are. It will come out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August 2018. I came into philosophy, as most teenagers do, through European existentialism. When I was 19 I went, by myself, to Sils Maria in Switzerland, where Friedrich Nietzsche spent many summers. I stayed at the Nietzsche-Haus for weeks, hiking the same trails that Nietzsche hiked while he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I was writing a thesis on genius, insanity, and the ascetic ideal. I had a very distinct picture of what being an Übermensch involved: rugged climbing, fasting, and exerting myself. The trip did not go particularly well. Seventeen years later, I went back to Sils Maria with Carol and Becca to revisit Nietzsche and to see what he might have to say about adulthood. The book is about my two interpretations of Nietzsche and about hiking with Europe’s philosopher-poet into parenthood. My mother, and first reader, calls it the “dark side of American Philosophy: A Love Story,” and she’s probably right. It is the next chapter in the story.

What’s the key message of American Philosophy: A Love Story in 140 characters?

Mark Greif in The New York Times gave me the slogan for American Philosophy: A Love Story: “[A] spirited lovers quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.” That’s the most generous review I’ve ever received. I think it is less than 140 characters.


Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.

LARB Contributor

Skye C. Cleary, PhD, MBA, is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.


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