John Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy and its ability 'to help individuals work through the trials of experience' ... With [Carol Hay's] appearance, American Philosophy, subtitled 'a love story,' becomes a charming, enormously satisfying tale of twofold love — both intellectual and emotional ... With its lucid, winning blend of autobiography, biography, and serious philosophical reflection, American Philosophy provides a magnificently accessible introduction to fundamental ideas about freedom and what makes life significant. It's an exhilarating read.
Like Knausgaard, Kaag...is a sort of philosophical everyman (to the extent a tenured philosopher can count as such), much like the eponymous narrator of Knausgaard’s novels is a sort of writerly everyman ... The real action, of course, is not in these relatively mundane occurrences, but rather in Kaag’s thoughts as he moves through them ... In American Philosophy, Kaag is at times too understated in presenting the personal love story—as distinguished from the philosophical love story that unfolds in tandem—that helps tie his book together. A central thread of Kaag’s narrative concerns the dissolution of his first marriage and the emergence, later, of his love for a fellow philosopher. Kaag labors to avoid the impression that this personal love story is at the book’s core, as opposed to Kaag’s broader love affair with philosophy. Yet perhaps because of this, neither Kaag’s first wife nor his soon-to-be second wife comes clearly into focus. And when, in the last quarter of the book, the personal love story begins to recede as we move past some of the uncertainty and yearning of early love, the philosophical love story, left more or less on its own, begins to stall somewhat as well. That American Philosophy loses some of its steam near the end is more a testament to the seamless integration of narrative and philosophy for the remainder of the book than a reflection of any considerable fault.
The pleasure of this unusual work and the bulk of its pages, belong to short biographical accounts and reflections on the philosophers, poets, novelists and even bygone political figures whose volumes Kaag finds on the Hocking library shelves ... Kaag’s accounts are accurate, engaging and scrupulous. They show profound learning. They’re also genuinely entertaining, recapturing lost details of thinkers’ personal lives without sensationalism ... American Philosophy succeeds, not as a textbook or survey, but a spirited lover’s quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.
Though he laments the loss of philosophy’s 'personal character,' he remains a modern philosopher. He’s detached and hyper-analytical, lost in the world of the res cogitans, of pure thinking. At times throughout the book, Kaag sounds a little robotic. But love inspired him to try to change, and that’s admirable. He wants to be a part of the world, and the ideas that emerge from it begin to mean more to him and, as his readers, to us.
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 ... Kaag is delightfully self-probing, radically honest about his own flaws, and insightful in linking his intellectual interests to his personal history ... strangely in a book designed to put people first, none of the other individuals — not Kaag’s late father, his mother, his first wife, the Hocking granddaughters, not even Hay — really comes alive as distinctive and memorable ... Overall, however, American Philosophy, still manages to be a lovely, intelligent, edifying, and admirable book.
Neither as nuanced nor as detailed as Louis Menand’s epic The Metaphysical Club (2001), Mr. Kaag’s book is ultimately less concerned with the historical context of pragmatism than it is with how that tradition might help us moderns survive and even thrive ... the bigger problem is that his passion for books shows how little connected he is to actual, living people...All this changes, however, with the arrival of Carol Hay, a feminist Kantian colleague who gradually pulls the narrator out of his depressive self-absorption and helps him to experience the world. Ms. Hay is a vivid presence in the book, a current of warmth in a sometimes chilly account of existential despair.