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American Philosophy: A Love Story

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,204 ratings  ·  208 reviews
John Kaag is a dispirited young philosopher at sea in his marriage and his career when he stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendent of William James, the father of ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published October 11th 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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Dec 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Paracetamol for the Soul

Each of us has a preferred method of self-medicating for stress: alcohol, drugs, sex, adrenaline-inducing sport. John Kaag's story is that he was stressed out about a failing marriage and the dismal prospect of an endless graduate thesis. His drug of choice is philosophy, specifically the idealist/pragmatist philosophy of the turn of the 20th century, centred at Harvard. And why not, since it has fewer side-effects than most of the alternatives?

I confess to sharing Kaag's
Oct 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Is life worth living?

That's one of the Big Questions this book tries to answer. The author, John Kaag, is a philosophy professor who was having a quarter-life crisis when he discovered an amazing collection of rare books at an old estate in New Hampshire. The home, called West Wind, belonged to the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking had created an impressive and valuable personal library, which included first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. He also had handwritten note
Nov 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a really good book, although I did not expect to be so good. The book is a memoir of sorts of the author's experiences after completing his Ph.D. In philosophy and during his time as a post-doc at Harvard and an untenured Assistant Professor at UMass-Lowell. During this time, the author is attempting to make sense of William James' question concerning whether life was worth living - a classic question for philosophers. This is not just an intellectual journey, however, but one rooted in ...more
robin friedman
Dec 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A Philosopher In Love

John Kaag's book, "American Philosophy: A Love Story" is deeply personal as well as philosophically insightful. Kaag, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, writes for a broad audience and, in words he uses to describe his aim, "successfully bridges the gap between philosophical and creative writing". The book is absorbing and a pleasure to read.

Kaag had earned his PhD and in 2008 was half-heartedly engaged in a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvar
Edward Sullivan
A beautifully crafted, thoughtfully written, remarkably engaging narrative that is part memoir, part intellectual history of philosophy, and compelling story of trying to save an endangered rare book collection. Intelligent, instructive, entertaining, and exhilarating.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a philosophy student and teacher I am biased, but overall I enjoyed the book. I liked the intellectual history side of it more than the memoir; there were a few times I found the story hard to follow, but I began to think of it more as the lecture style of a meandering yet fascinating professor. The highest compliment I can pay to a book of this sort is that I want to read more about and by some of the philosophers the author mentioned, such as Emerson, Marcel, Royce, and Hocking.
Nov 21, 2016 rated it liked it
Who wouldn’t like to discover a lost library of moldering antique books hidden away on a dilapidated New England estate? John Kaag did, which presented him with the excuse to write this book. Much as I wanted to discover something marvelous in it, however, I’m afraid I was disappointed.

American Philosophy is first of all a memoir of the author’s failed marriage and his falling in love with the woman (married at the time) who would become his second wife. It is also a survey of American philosoph
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, philosophy
An engaging account of a young philosopher's immersion in works by the Transcendentalists and Pragmatists: Emerson, Thoreau, Hocking, James, etc. His attempt to frame his marital struggles in terms of these ideals, while also engaging, is less successful. I enjoyed his excitement exploring the long-neglected library of William Ernest Hocking on a remote New Hampshire hillside.

---"Pragmatism holds that truth is to be judged on the basis of its practical consequences, on its ability to neg
James Murphy
Apr 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
John Kaag studied philosophy. But as a post-doc professor at the University of Massachusetts he has doubts whether or not it really matters. His marriage is foundering. As he wonders about what direction he should take in his life and career, he discovers in rural New Hampshire the old estate of the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Called West Wind, the house is dilapidated yet still filled with thousands of valuable books which are also gradually decaying in the fusty, untended envir ...more
John Kissell
Apr 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was thoroughly charmed by John Kaag's "American Philosophy: A Love Story" ... he stumbles upon William Hocking's neglected collection of rare books, and writes about them in the process of cataloging and preserving. I have a deeper appreciation for Emerson, William James (I can't get enough of him), Kant, Royce and Hocking ... I found more titles to explore ("A Stroll with William James," "Aids to Reflection," "The Meaning of God in Human Experience") ... I got yet another pang that a certain ...more
Kathleen Mahnke
Not what I was expecting. I misunderstood the title and was hoping that this philosopher was going to present American philosophy in such a way as to create for the reader a "love affair" with it. He does a bit of that. But mostly he engages us in a somewhat sophomoric, self-indulgent recounting of his own personal life and love woes. I imagine that he was trying frame philosophy in terms of biography, in service of the way in which many American philosophers feel it is best framed. But it just ...more
Nov 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american
A pleasant and undense read which lends a struggling human perspective to American philosophy's quest for the purposiveness of living. Although most primarily an autobiographical account of the author's relationship with American philosophy, the book is a goldmine of reading suggestions, including such names as William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Ernest Hocking, Royce, Palmer, Santayana, Charles Sanders Peirce, Paul Carus, John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Margar ...more
Oct 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
John Kaag's book is marvelous, the first philosophical page-turner I've ever read. He has thrown down a massive challenge to all philosophers to write books men and women will want to buy and read. The criticism of it leveled in the NDPR is unwarranted, but the praise heaped upon it by the NPR review is deserved. Hats off to him. ...more
Leo W.
Nov 17, 2016 rated it it was ok
I seem to be an outlier on this one. I thought it shallow as a love story and not very rich in its treatment of American philosophy (for example, where is Peirce's logic). Does inadvertantly make the case for the relative paucity of great American philosophers. ...more
This was a very enjoyable and educational read. John Kaag creatively interweaves the personal narrative of his failed first marriage and ensuing personal crisis with an overview of American pragmatic philosophy. This comes about with his discovery of the country estate and library of W. Ernest Hocking, possibly one of the last great, well-known American philosophers who was personally acquainted with the likes of William James, Emerson, Royce, Thoreau and many others. The library consists of man ...more
Dec 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"American Philosophy: A Love Story" combines autobiography, literary adventure, and philosophical exposition. John Kaag tells an unflinchingly self-aware story of his own personal development as he discovers and curates the library of early-20th century Harvard philosopher Ernest Hocking. Kaag recounts his own struggle with his father's death, his latent alcoholism, and separation and divorce, coming to terms with these events by exploring the philosophers and the books in the library at Hocking ...more
John Fredrickson
May 11, 2018 rated it liked it
I wanted and expected to like this book more than I did. This book is part memoir (a young philosophy professor in a failing marriage) while also being the portrayal of a historical exploration for the origins of American philosophy. During his exploration the author discovers the estate library of an extraordinary philosopher: William Ernest Hocking. In the course of exploring the library and learning of the lives of Hocking's compatriots, the author discovers a new love in his own life.

The sto
May 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Part intellectual musing, part personal memoir, this overview of the American philosophies of self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence takes to the woods and tells the story of a priceless library discovered and its impact on a scholar's personal journey to a fuller life. It reinforces my love of books and makes me want to read more Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman... ...more
Nov 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
My review to come in the December issue of Numero Cinq.
Jul 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
An odd but interesting mix of memoir and history of a branch of American philosophy, American pragmatism, with an emphasis on how the personal lives of various philosophers affected their work, and all tied together by connections to the philosopher William Ernest Hocking and his library at West Wind. The narrative, which shifts between the story of Kaag's own life – his failing marriage, alcohol abuse, and developing romance with a co-worker – and the lives of the philosophers whose works from ...more
Noah Goats
Nov 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
American Philosophy is a memoir interwoven with the history of transcendentalism and pragmatism. Kaag tells the story of his discovery of a priceless library that had belonged to a now mostly forgotten American philosopher and he uses the books in the library as springboards to discussions of the ideas of thinkers such as Emerson and William James.

He also weaves in his own personal drama of getting divorced and then falling in love. American Philosophy argues that philosophy should be useful, a
Kenia Sedler
What makes life worth living?

Making good on all of its possibilities. Standing in awe in the face of all its wonders. Bathing in the love from the people that surround us, and loving in return. ❤️

We each define life's meaning for ourselves but, in effect, it's worth it simply because we exist and can take it all in.
Joe Kraus
May 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
Inasmuch as this is a story, it comes up short. Ostensibly the account of how our narrator dug himself out of an experience of what we might call false consciousness – life in an unhappy marriage with a range of career choices before him – most of this is instead a record of the cataloguing of the library of William Ernest Hocking, a mostly forgotten one-time titan of American philosophy. We don’t get the details of a traditional love story – in fact, all of the romance between Kaag and the woma ...more
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Reinvigorates my love for the classics and my desire to read some more of that beautiful, thought provoking language.
Nov 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
What a very, very good book. Excellently thought through and artfully crafted.
Dec 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Odd book, partly a memoir of a young troubled philosopher going through a abandoned library of philosophy books in NH, partly a history of American philosophy in the nineteenth century. Nicely written.
Archie Hamilton
Feb 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the second book I have read by John Kaag, in succession. His prose is very well written for someone trained in the technicalities of academic philosophy. The story of his intimate and haunting encounter with American philosophy is difficult to wrap one's mind around- tantalizing like Indiana Jones delving into dusty libraries filled with noble and ancient works, and heartbreaking to discover, as the reader, to learn that the deeply meaningful and beautiful philosophy of the American thin ...more
Jan 16, 2019 rated it liked it
A sweet little primer to American Idealism, a syrupy little memoir. When Kaag manages to keep himself out of the story, his historical writing is as lucid and enchanting as Jill Lepore— well, nearly.
Jul 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
Really enjoyed this one. Reminded me a bit.
M. Sarki
Jul 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very enjoyable reading experience coupled by the writer's need to find meaning in his life and rediscover love in the process. The Cult of the Dead still lives. ...more
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John Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of American Philosophy: A Love Story. It is a story of lost library, a lost American intellectual tradition and a lost person--and their simultaneous recovery.

Kaag is a dispirited young philosopher at sea in his marriage and his career when he stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands

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57 likes · 15 comments
“Over time, I came to realize that this was the point of reading Emerson and, for that matter, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and all the rest of them. The reason to read the American Transcendentalists wasn’t to hang on to their every word, but to be inspired by them. This early American philosophy was about inspiration, about moving beyond the inert and deadening ways of the past. *” 10 likes
“Looking back, I had the realization that at one point in the not-so-distant past, philosophy wasn’t the sort of thing that was discussed only at formal conferences and in arcane journals. It was exchanged over dinner, between families. It was the stuff of everyday life. The” 4 likes
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