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American Philosophy Audiobook

American Philosophy: A Love Story

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Publisher's Summary

The epic wisdom contained in a lost library helps the author turn his life around.

In American Philosophy, John Kaag - a disillusioned philosopher at sea in his marriage and career - stumbles upon a treasure trove of rare books on an old estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that once belonged to the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The library includes notes from Whitman, inscriptions from Frost, and first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. As he begins to catalog and preserve these priceless books, Kaag rediscovers the very tenets of American philosophy - self-reliance, pragmatism, the transcendent - and sees them in a 21st-century context.

Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy. After studying under Harvard's philosophical four - William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and George Herbert Palmer - he held the most prestigious chair at the university for the first three decades of the 20th century. And when his teachers eventually died, he collected the great books from their libraries (filled with marginalia) and combined them with his own rare volumes at his family's estate. And there they remained for nearly 80 years, a time capsule of American thought.

Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is an invigorating investigation of American pragmatism and the wisdom that underlies a meaningful life.

©2016 John Kaag (P)2016 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

What Members Say

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3.9 (330 )
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  •  
    karen Chicago, Il United States 12-04-16
    karen Chicago, Il United States 12-04-16 Member Since 2016
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    "Compelling!"

    Interesting philosophical lesson interwoven with a compelling story. Narration was superb with changes in intonation for different poems and characters.

    26 of 28 people found this review helpful
  •  
    August 10-19-16
    August 10-19-16
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    "American Philosophy In Action"
    Would you listen to American Philosophy again? Why?

    For sure. It's packed with great historical information and then put into in a present day narrative. In this case, it's the author's own life showing us why knowing American philosophy is applicable and necessary. Loved the info on the editions of the books as well.
    A must for any book collector!


    Have you listened to any of Josh Bloomberg’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    This is the first one I have heard. He does a great job.


    If you could give American Philosophy a new subtitle, what would it be?

    How to live an American life according to the pioneers who came before...


    30 of 34 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joe Kraus Kingston, PA, United States 05-18-17
    Joe Kraus Kingston, PA, United States 05-18-17 Member Since 2011
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    "A Messy Book about a Messy Philosophy of Love"
    Which character – as performed by Josh Bloomberg – was your favorite?

    Bloomberg reads well, but he needed a coach for some of the pronunciation. For most of the book he mispronounces C.S. Pierce as "Peer-ce" (which, to be fair, is how it looks). For the introduction and last chapter and a half, though, he gets it right -- to sound like "Purse."

    There are other technical terms -- such as "misanthropy" -- that he just misses too.

    I know I'm being picky, but this is philosophy, and it's distracting to get the sense that our narrator may not know it as well as our author does.


    Any additional comments?

    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 woman he eventually marries would fit in a handful of pages.

    Of course, I realize the intent of that subtitle. It’s a reference to any number of potential love stories: not just Kaag and Carol, but also Kaag and the library, Hocking and his own wife, Hocking and life itself, and Kaag and a discipline he’d embraced only through his intellect rather than his full emotional register. We don’t get details of the meaningful but mundane romance that brings Kaag his new wife. Instead, we get a range of biographical sketches and interpretations of philosophical trends.

    I am, in many ways, the target audience here. I’m a scholar of American literature, and I know the literary siblings of the philosophers who stand on center stage here. (That’s literally true in the case of William and Henry James, but it’s metaphorically true of the many writers who come in as friends of the philosophers in question.) I know the joy of finding some puzzle piece of information or insight in a forgotten text, and I have tried to share it with others myself. (And I have generally failed.)

    So, my verdict is that this one is too much of a mess to be a full success. It’s part memoir, though I took it for fiction, and it’s part philosophical treatise. It fails to come entirely together… but I want to put an asterisk to that observation.

    It takes a while, but Kaag eventually gives us a wide and working definition of what distinguishes American philosophy from the more familiar continental strain. There are vast schools of thought that find their roots in Descartes, that take as axiomatic that we begin thinking as individual selves. As Kaag develops a series of interconnected arguments, he presents us with a compelling alternative. That is, some thinkers (such as C.S. Pierce) proposed that our experience originates not in the self but in our interaction with others. It is not so much the thunderbolt of “I think, therefore I am,” as it is – and I paraphrase from my own understanding – “We love one another, therefore we are.”

    That, of course, is the central notion of “love” at the heart of the subtitle, and it’s a powerful one. (It’s just one that I’m convinced could have come more efficiently and with more power in some other form – memoir would be fine, but it would need to be memoir that didn’t so fully parrot the structure of the novel and instead found some fresh approach.)

    In fact, while I find the form of this book disappointing, I’m genuinely inspired by what Kaag has to share in these seemingly dry old characters. As he tells us, American philosophy stood in contrast to the continentals in that it attacked the problems of what it means to live an everyday life. It found a middle ground between pure logic and the abstract contemplation of morality. Because the founders of American philosophy, from Emerson through William James, Pierce, Josiah Royce, and eventually Hocking himself, wanted always to explore “experience” (something I knew to be at the heart of Emersonian thought but that it has taken Kaag to help me understand in this new light) they wrote about overlapping ideas.

    In other words, one reason we have seen the tradition of American philosophy wither is that it is, from its axiomatic beginnings, messy. It doesn’t start with self, but with community, with a people between or among whom lies the potential for love. (For Emerson and his literary sibling Whitman, that love is both between individuals and in the nature of citizenship.)

    So, to the asterisk in my judgement of the book over all: Kaag’s very moving take on the nature of this tradition is messy enough that it seems to have inspired a messy structure in its work. (And, if you want to see “messy” done masterfully, check out almost any of Emerson’s essays.) I think this book falls short of the masterpiece it suggests, but I think it does so in part because Kaag, for all that he embraces this tradition, sees it as a tradition that failed to keep its foothold in our culture. To put it sadly, he’s fallen in love with a ghost, and he can’t quite bring himself to pronounce his new love dead.

    There’s real potential in the metaphor of the library, a decaying place that stood for a generation as the ultimate coming together of a century of the finest thinkers our nation could produce. And note that the library, put into an order that perhaps only Hocking himself fully understood, is beautifully and inspirationally messy.

    I am certainly glad I read this one, but I can’t recommend it entirely to others. I’ll keep thinking about it, I’m sure, but I’ll be as aware of the faults in its structure as I am in the deep wisdom – and love – that it circles around so messily.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kye Sonne 04-02-17
    Kye Sonne 04-02-17
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    "Awesome Book! But.."
    Would you consider the audio edition of American Philosophy to be better than the print version?

    Yes, except the reader keep pronouncing Peirce's name wrong. Charles Sanders Peirce's last name should be pronounced like "purse" not "pierce."


    What did you like best about this story?

    The blend of American philosophy and the author's own search for meaning.


    What about Josh Bloomberg’s performance did you like?

    Remember, Peirce-->purse not "pierce."


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    Pretty much!


    37 of 53 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rosemarie Falanga 05-14-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Fascinating book marred by uneven narration"

    The book presents a fine overview of the history of philosophy in America. I am usually flexible when it comes to narrators, but Bloomberg made so many pronunciation errors my eyes got tired of wincing. Still recommended but with a warning.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Allan 11-09-17
    Allan 11-09-17 Member Since 2007
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    "Surprisingly Engaging"

    A surprisingly engaging reflection by the author on his life through the lens of American philosophy as prompted by his attempts to archiving of William Ernest Hocking's library (Hocking was a Harvard philosopher of the first half of the 20th century, who had a direct relationship with many of the greats of American philosophy of the late 19th century). Figures like William James, Thoreau and Emerson loom large in the author's consideration of life's meaning and purpose.

    What could be a very self-indulgent account by a man about the failure of his marriage and his grave doubts about academic philosophy as he works as a tenure track professor. Yet for the most part his angst comes across as genuine and interesting even if occasionally a bit much. The history of American philosophy is engaging and I felt I learned a little about some of the major figures and some more obscure figures.. I can't help but feel it is a bit narrow in its consideration of issues and shallow in terms of its explanation of things, but understandably so given the authors stated concerns and the fact that it seems directed at a general audience rather than an academic one.

    Part of my enjoyment of this book may arise from the fact that the author's life is not unlike my own. Both of us having done PhDs in the humanities. So I am not sure it really succeeds in what seems to be its aim to engage non-academics in some of this philosophical discussion.

    In terms of the audio book, the narrator is in general engaged and delivers the text well, but I do wish he had received more coaching on pronunciation of words and names. The one egregious error I noted is that he pronounces Charles Sanders Peirce's last name like the first name Pierce, whereas every philosopher I have ever heard pronounces it as "purse" as is in "who steals my Peirce steals trash."

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Andrew Mechanicsburg, PA 09-27-17
    Andrew Mechanicsburg, PA 09-27-17 Member Since 2011
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    "A moving book diminished by a poor reading"

    This is an excellent book that describes how prominent American philosophers have approached some of the basic questions of philosophy: can life have meaning, and if so, how? The author, a scholar of philosophy himself, chronicles their answers through the lens of a major crisis in his life, one that caused him to question the value of his own existence. Kaag gets lost in some of his digressions, and not all of the philosophers he presents are compelling, but the book hangs together quite well. In the end, I felt that I had learned a good deal about American philosophy, and I had connected with the writer's experiences.

    Unfortunately, the narrator is not up to the task of this book. His diction and inflection are fine, but he frequently mispronounces words. "Banal", "ebullient", "Coleridge", and numerous others come out wrong. A book on philosophy, one might imagine, will have a vocabulary that's more extensive than, say, a mystery novel. This book's vocabulary occasionally overwhelms the reader.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Amazon Customer 09-26-17
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    "well suited for philosophy and literature buffs"

    this book is an amazing survey of American philosophy told through the personal story of an academic. I would recommend this for anybody wanting to know more about both philosophy and who desires an interesting read. I might be inclined to say that this is possibly the best book I've ever listened to on Audible

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gary L Rau 09-18-17
    Gary L Rau 09-18-17 Member Since 2015
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    "Biographical Metaphor"

    The author tells his life story as a metaphor in the development of American Philosophy, as he catalogs the serendipitously found lost library of Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The book ingeniously intertwines the love story of Hocking with that of the author.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    L. L. Witham 07-27-17
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    "Very dry start, I didn't give it a chance"

    Tried several times, even a road trip but could not follow the happenings. I don't know where it was going. You know, sometimes my brain just needs romance and intrigue to be entertained.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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