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John Kaag and Clancy Martin on Bringing Philosophy Back to the People

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John Kaag and Clancy Martin on Bringing Philosophy Back to the People

John Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the author of four books covering topics as varied as drone warfare, feminism, and aesthetics. His most recent book, the memoir/intellectual history hybrid American Philosophy: A Love Story, chronicles his discovery of a lost library and the life-affirming wisdom contained therein. Recently, John got on the phone with friend and fellow philosopher Clancy Martin for a Heleo Conversation on the role of philosophy in the 21st century. Clancy, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, novelist, essayist, and contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, is best known for his work on moral psychology.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, play the audio file below.

Clancy: One of the things I like about American philosophers is the accessibility of the prose. With the possible exception of Charles Sanders Peirce, you don’t ever feel like the American philosophers are writing purely for an academic audience, but for the public at large, trying to help not just students or fellow academics, but thinking people.

John: Yes, from William James and Peirce back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, they’re writing for a general audience. But, more specifically, they were speaking for a general audience. These were written first to be heard, not read. There’s a type of rhetorical flavor to virtually all of 19th century American philosophy by virtue of the fact that many of these famous writings of self-reliance, compensation, and civil disobedience were initially supposed to be lectures. Emerson and Thoreau made their living speaking.

More than that, they’re keying in on existential questions that philosophers need to answer by virtue of being human. And so questions like James’ “What Makes a Life Significant?” or “Is Life Worth Living?,” both of which were titles of lectures—just the questions they ask are conducive to an accessible type of philosophy.

The Americans ask existential questions, but then they tend to answer them sometimes a bit too quickly. In Royce’s or in James’ case, you have answers about free will or about the value of the community, while the existentialists allow the question to remain longer. Why were you drawn to existential or European treatments of the question rather than American?

Clancy: I think you’re right to make the distinction between American somewhat optimistic tendency. Optimism and pessimism might not be the right way to think about it. I think there is a tendency in the American spirit that comes through and is, perhaps, on some level created by the American philosophers of the 19th and early 20th century to solve problems and move forward so that we an approach the next problem with the hope of solving that one, as well. Whereas the experience of the European existentialists was quite different, like the experience of the Japanese existentialists, because they felt much more acutely the horrors of World War I and World War II. That’s part of it.

Part of it also maybe relates to a deeper engagement with fiction and literature in the European existentialist tradition than in the American pragmatist tradition. So, for example, when I’m teaching existentialism, I like to juxtapose the somewhat more answer-oriented philosophy of Nietzsche, who for most of us is a paradigm of a skeptic in certain ways, but from an existentialist perspective is more forthcoming with possible solutions to the problems of life. Think of things like the experiment of the eternal recurrence or Übermensch or even this idea of becoming who you are.

“Maybe humor is about as good as we can get as a response to the very frustrating neurotic condition of human beings finding themselves desperate for meaning in a world which is very elusive at best when it comes to providing us with the particular kinds of meaning that we want.”

But juxtapose Nietzsche with a thinker like Franz Kafka—in Kafka’s case, even if we see Gregor Samsa at the end of his life is a cockroach, he feels a certain gratitude in the knowledge that his family will go on without him. Kafka is happy to sit with human neuroses. He’s happy just to accept the fact that, “We are profoundly confused and that’s as far as we’re going to get.” Also, like Emerson and Thoreau, Kafka did his writing with the intent that these things would be read aloud.

There’s a charming story about Kafka trying to read his short stories to family and friends and they were getting annoyed with him because he just burst out laughing over and over again. He thought what he’d written was really funny. When you know that, of course, Kafka’s writing is a lot funnier than maybe you’d recognize the first go around. Maybe humor is about as good as we can get as a response to the very frustrating neurotic condition of human beings finding themselves desperate for meaning in a world which is very elusive at best when it comes to providing us with the particular kinds of meaning that we want.


We get lots of answers in all kinds of different endeavors, but they don’t seem to be the sort of answers that we are really looking for. Kafka’s resistance to transcendence, his insistence on keeping things immanent, staying with the problem, is something that you see in other European existentialists, and I think you’re right to say that you see it much less in American pragmatism and existentialism. Although, at times, particularly with James, he seems to cry out with frustration at his inability to solve the problem of human existence, human neuroses, human meaning.

John: Yes, what I’m always curious about is James and Peirce struggled with suicide for their entire lives. It’s a continual tension in both of their lives, and they respond to it in these very American ways. The first way is James making his argument in the 1870’s for the causal efficacy of free will, free will really matters, and he just boot-straps himself into that belief.

Peirce isn’t worried about the power of individual free will as much as he is about the dangers of total isolation, which he experienced throughout his life because he was a complete mess-up. Peirce argues for what he calls evolutionary love throughout much of his later life, and both of them are responses to this deep, profound sense of existential confusion.

What’s curious, though, is that you don’t get them saying more explicitly like Camus does in Myth of Sisyphus, “The one serious philosophical question is that of suicide. Everything else is window dressing.” You don’t have them come right out and say it, which is something that I think American philosophy would have done well just to address straight-on. James comes closest, in “Is Life Worth Living?” in the 1890’s. But by that point, James has already solved his own personal crisis, and so he doesn’t phrase it as harshly as other European thinkers.

I came into philosophy because of these hard, intractable questions, and then, unsurprisingly, I went to the fathers of American philosophy, who tried to give me answers. Was your way into philosophy similarly through those existential questions?

Clancy: Weirdly, I was a chemistry major, and I took a philosophy class really not knowing what philosophy was. I read the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and fell in love with it. Now I’m not particularly sympathetic to Kant’s project or to his writing, although I always find them illuminating when I read them. But at the time I had never encountered someone who thought with what seemed to me at the time such clarity, such rigor.

It seems to me that for the thinkers that are most important to you and me, they seem to have two solutions to the problem of human existence that they shy away from talking about. One is love, the other is writing. They have a consuming passion for reading and writing, and for most of them very complicated relationships with love. One of the things I love about your work is that you bring these two things together.

In all my life I’ve never met another living, working philosopher who had such a deep passion for writing as you have. I’ve been described as prolific, but I am nowhere near the writing machine that you are, and also we both have written very candidly about love. I wonder if writing is therapeutic for you, and also if you see some kind of relationship between your writing and love of wisdom, philosophy.

John: Peirce has this comment about the intimate relationship that he has with his inkwell, that his thinking and being are tied up with it, and he wouldn’t know what to do with himself without his inkwell. When you go through his papers, which are basically 800,000 pages of scribbling at Houghton, you see him just working himself out over these pages.

“Writing stuff down is a very nice way of seeing what you’ve become—or seeing what you’re hiding. Nietzsche says, ‘Every piece of writing is a mask,’ and you get to see what you’re putting up.”

And I think that I’m basically working myself out over pages. Yes, it’s therapeutic. Also, when I’m writing, basically my everything is I wake up and I’m thinking about my writing. I’m writing in my head, and then it’s just a matter of going and typing. You could say that it’s a type of distancing mechanism, too, because it has in the past kept me from some of the more immediate nasty points in my life. If you’re writing or working on something at all times, it takes some of your focus off of what’s right in front of you.

In terms of working out what love is, writing stuff down is a very nice way of seeing what you’ve become—or seeing what you’re hiding. Nietzsche says, “Every piece of writing is a mask,” and you get to see what you’re putting up. Even if you’re intending to put certain things up, your readers will inform you quite clearly that you’re putting up other things.

Clancy: I agree with that entirely. We get to see the mask we are putting up, which also puts us in a position where we have to reflect on what it is that we’re hiding. Also, when we have the courage to write about our own personal experience, then, you are subjecting your experience to this artistic scrutiny.

Otherwise, you might never have the opportunity to examine the way you think, the way you live and the why you feel that way. Kierkegaard famously says, “A man can leave the house and forget his keys and he’ll search furiously for his keys. He’ll leave the house and forget his umbrella and he’ll watch the sky with worry all day long. He’ll leave the house and forget his wallet and he’ll go all over town trying to recover it, but he’ll leave the house and forget himself and not even notice.”

I can only speak for myself. In my own experience, I know what that is like to forget yourself, to live in distraction, to keep yourself busy so as not to examine what’s really going on in your life, to fix your eyes before your feet rather than look in the mirror, or even sometimes just take a good look around. For me, writing does both of those jobs. It allows me to take a good look at myself sometimes and other times it allows me to take a good look around. Particularly, when I’m thinking about what matters most to me, the people I love, then it can be very uncomfortable and very, very helpful if I’m willing to go there.

Your work is traditional, public, intellectual sort of work, which is not especially common among American philosophers today. In this new Trump/millennial politically correct and politically incorrect era, what do you see is the role of the professor and the role of the public intellectual?

John: I think philosophy both has a responsibility to focus our attention on very disturbing possibilities—awful thoughts like life is meaningless—but it also can be the impetus to act in the face of that, in the face of those really nasty thoughts.

Especially in these times, I think that’s what we should be doing. We should be both be pointing out how messed up things are, and how in the face of this cultural apocalypse we can actually act as individuals.

“I think we are entering a great golden age of philosophy. It is just beginning. I don’t know who these next philosophers will be, but I think the 21st century is going to be one of our best centuries for philosophy yet.”

Clancy: It sounds funny to our ears now, but in the 19th century, it was commonplace to suppose that novelists and philosophers would be writing the kind of things that would spur the people to social and political change. That was one of their jobs. They saw themselves as having the important role of calling for social change, calling for political change, calling for revolution, for that matter. We suppose, naively, that revolution is dead, at the very instance when we’re watching particularly unattractive forms of it take place in front of our eyes.

John: I’m interested in 19th century philosophy because there was this move. I’m thinking of Schiller trying to translate Kant into something that could lead to real political action.

Clancy: And real artistic expression as well, and provide some ideals, which he did successfully for the artists of his generation.

John: That’s right, to understand the aesthetic as political, in part.

Clancy: He had enormous influence that fed its way into German Romanticism, which then became British Romanticism, which then became, after a period of another 100 years or so, the 60s in this country…. and thus Bob Dylan gets the Nobel Prize, all thanks to Schiller.

John: When it comes to philosophy today, do you think philosophy will survive into the next 100 years? And if you do, what do you think it’s going to look like?

Clancy: I may just be a completely naïve optimist, but I think we are entering a great golden age of philosophy. It is just beginning. I don’t know who these next philosophers will be, but I think the 21st century is going to be one of our best centuries for philosophy yet.

There are several reasons for that. One is that science is finally getting past purely mechanistic thinking, back to where it started, with a much broader view of what science is capable of. I’m not particularly partial to the philosophy of science as a discipline, although I do know some extraordinarily smart philosophers of science who think in the bigger picture. It’s not quite philosophy of science, but rather scientists are finally coming around to thinking in a philosophical way.

You see this in a variety of disciplines. The disciplines themselves are starting to get mature enough—in psychology, in the hard sciences, in different types of social science—that they are encountering these philosophical questions. And it’s not necessarily that they’re going to classical philosophers to help them, although they may be at times, but rather that they’re recognizing some of the tools of philosophical thinking are the only way we’re going to make progress.

Then, these are coming together with an opening of the philosophical mind from the very narrow-minded British-Anglo analytic tradition. That had its merits, particularly in eliminating vagueness, say refining a particular style of language which, at times, was helpful and necessary but had also the unfortunate effect of greatly constricting the range of questions and the manner of asking those questions that philosophers considered to be appropriate.

Another influence that I think is opening up philosophy right now is the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies, and also the recognition that philosophy has more than a technical role to play. That it is reassuming, just as we’ve been talking about, its old mantle of being a social guide—but for my purposes in particular, a kind of therapeutic guide, a guide to living.

I think many people within the discipline of philosophy and outside the discipline who have philosophical concerns are pressing forward for this much more robust notion of philosophy that was, of course, familiar to the ancient Greeks and that flourished in the 19th century, in particular, and also in the 20th century in the post-World War II existentialists.

I feel very, very optimistic.
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