Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture. By Douglas R. Anderson

Book Review


Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture. By Douglas R. Anderson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006. Pp. xi, 294. $24 (paper)
    Philosophy Americana is written and organized in the American tradition of essays, talks and lectures collected into a single volume. As such, the collection has not a main argument so much as a generic, organizing theme that loosely unifies the various essays. That theme is the ongoing, forever intriguing relationship between American philosophy and other aspects or features of American culture, including music, literature, religion, politics and pop culture. For Anderson such cultural expressions both instruct and inform American philosophy and vice versa. In effect, this book asks, in a variety of ways and settings, what it means to be thinking and doing philosophy in the United States given its unique history and cultural influences.
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    Anderson establishes a baseline for Philosophy Americana, to be found in the maintenance (for each of us) of our own experiential home while opening ourselves to “others”—other perspectives, languages, ethnicities and gender. In other words, how can each of us build out from our experiential base to become truly inclusive, not exclusive? As John J. McDermott would have it, how can American philosophy and philosophers approach the fundamental task of “humanizing” our experience, our world? Anderson makes clear that in addressing these fundamental challenges, the objective is to somehow, imaginatively keep philosophy (in America) alive beyond the limitations of its increasingly invisible academic setting.
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     The alignment of the essays in this volume reveal bookends—the first and last essays dealing with features of pragmatism in its origins as well as future import and possibilities. In between are pieces that elaborate on philosophical experience in relation to wilderness; practical wisdom and political action; religiosity; philosophy and teaching; and American philosophy’s engagement with American music and literature. Each of these encounters highlights in its own way our “experience of risk, loss, possibility, failure and hope” (x). Anderson concedes that he has not made up his mind fully of any of these issues and that in this book he simply tells the reader what he thinks for now. Of one fundamental assumption, however, he is certain—”Philosophy cannot be effective if it merely tries to oversee culture. At some point it must come to close quarters with the other dimensions of culture if it hopes to become visible and to make any difference at all. “(18).
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    The essays here collected have numerous antecedents both historical and contemporary. Anderson identifies his debt to early exemplars of Philosophy Americana such as Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau. William James, Thomas Davidson and John Dewey play important roles. More recent influential philosophers include Henry Bugbee and John Anderson. A host of contemporary writers and musicians have their impact—from Annie Dillard to Robert Pirsig, Jack Kerouac to Bruce Springsteen. Leading contemporary practitioners of American philosophy include John E. Smith, Bruce Wilshire, Crispin Sartwell, and perhaps, more than anyone, John J. McDermott who, according to Anderson, epitomizes the passion for philosophical enquiry with no loss of intellectual integrity and with the “finest attention to the thickness of experience” (xi). 4
    Students and scholars of William James will find some engaging chapters, references and connections to James in this volume. Examples include the evocation of James in a chapter (“‘Born to Run’: Male Mysticism on the Road”) that includes an interpretation of Springsteen’s legendary anthem. Readers of Stanley Cavell will be stimulated by a chapter (“American Loss in Cavell’s Emerson”) in which Anderson makes the strong claim that Cavell regrettably overlooks or dismisses James and Dewey as important resources for better understanding Emerson. Yet another impressive and beautifully written chapter (“Philosophy as Teaching: James’s ‘Knight Errant,’ Thomas Davidson”) offers a meditation on James’s views concerning the intimate relation between philosophy and teaching. Here Anderson elaborates on James’s attempt to redeem “a knight errant of the intellectual life” (156)—the itinerant Scot, Thomas Davidson who, as a wandering scholar, was always essentially a teacher in the Socratic mode. For some readers the most significant James chapter in this collection will be “William James and the Wild Beasts of the Philosophical Desert” which provides a spirited explanation and defense of James’s treatment of religion as essential to human experience, as when he wrote, “� a man’s religion is the deepest and wisest thing in his life.” In examining James’s “wild beasts”—descriptive psychology, religion, even psychical experience—Anderson works with pride to keep James the “unrespectable” philosopher. 5
    Philosophy Americana is the fruit of years of expansive interdisciplinary and cultural enquiry on the variety of ways American philosophy is a reflection and extension of American history, art, culture and pedagogy. It’s an eminently readable book, conceived and written with style and intellectual passion. It provides a much-needed, wider context for better understanding the substance and contributions of American philosophy.
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Richard E. Hart
Department of Philosophy
Bloomfield College

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