Philosophy in America
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Romano maintains that Americans’ proverbial lack of interest in things of the mind conceals deep inclinations toward philosophy. According to Romano:
For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact.
Romano opposes his optimistic evaluation of philosophy’s role in America to the more critical tradition whose roots he identifies in Alexis de Tocqueville. On that view, Americans aren’t interested in philosophy primarily because they’re ignorant, but also because they consider it useless to business and citizenship, in which they’re really interested. Following neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty, Romano argues that this judgment mistakenly identifies philosophical questioning with the transmission of learned doctrines. Americans are more philosophical than they seem, he suggests, not despite but because they ignore academic disputes in favor of practical concerns.
There are several problems with this argument. The first is that Romano almost entirely misses Tocqueville’s point. Tocqueville does begin volume 2 of Democracy in America by observing that “in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” But he goes on to argue that Americans do employ distinctive philosophical method, Descartes’, more effectively than any other nation in the world. This is not because 19th Century Americans spent their schooldays, like many of Tocqueville’s French readers, puzzling over the Meditations on First Philosophy. It’s because they strove, like Descartes, “to escape from the spirit of system; from the yoke of habits, from family maxims, from class opinions, and up to a certain point, from national prejudices; to take tradition only as information, and current facts only as a useful study for doing otherwise and better; to seek the reason for things by themselves and in themselves alone, to strive for a result without letting themselves by chained to the means, and to see through the form to the foundation…”
So Romano agrees with Tocqueville much more than he admits. Both see Americans’ intellectual anti-authoritarianism and interest in practical achievement as essentially if unwittingly philosophical. The difference here is that Romano recognizes the Americans’ philosophical inclination is continuous with the spirit of modern thought rather than an alternative to it. Even though Americans don’t read Descartes and may not even know the great man’s name, Tocqueville claims that “America is one of the countries in the world…where the precepts of Descartes are best followed.”
A more serious issue is that Romano’s argument suggests without argument that the characteristically modern elevation of practice over theory and individual judgment over tradition are improvements over what he calls “desiccated, moribund, yet still breathing Socratic philosophy”. For reasons that are unclear, at least from the excerpt, Romano associates the Socratic position with the “‘justification language game’ of academic epistemologists that purports to tell the rest of us the precise meaning of concepts by reasoning through a pocketful of examples.”
Again, this misses the point. The characteristic feature of Socratic philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom (sophia) over any other goal. The pragmatic (although not necessarily pragmatist) form of philosophy founded by Bacon and Descartes places knowledge in the service of power–namely, the mastery of physical nature. By reducing the “Socratic” tendency to logic-chopping, Romano avoids the question of the purpose of philosophizing. And that is the very question he thinks philosophers should ask.
Finally, Romano, like many Americans, mistakes the Constitutional protection of thought and expression for real diversity of viewpoints. At least in my experience, the range of public debate is narrower here than it in many European countries today–never mind ancient Greece. Although he may not intend to, Romano’s argument encourages the tendency toward self-congratulation that is perhaps the greatest obstacle to philosophy in America. Philosopher: Know Thyself!