When you think of philosophy, you probably think of ancient Greece or 18th century France. You probably don’t think of America. But this country also birthed its own set of philosophical luminaries, and my guest today had a unique encounter with them.

When modern day professor of philosophy John Kaag was a graduate student at Harvard, he was dispirited and struggling personally and professionally. But thanks to a chance encounter with an elderly New Englander, he discovered an abandoned library in New Hampshire full of rare first edition books of the great works of Western philosophy, many of which were owned by quintessentially American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. 

Kaag began cataloging the books, and in the process, uncovered the intellectual history of American philosophy and its responses to big existential questions like, “Is life worth living?”

Today on the show I talk to John about his experience with this abandoned library in the woods of New Hampshire, and with the authors of the books which were contained therein. We start off talking about how American philosophy is often overlooked, and its big ideas, which include transcendentalism and pragmatism. We then dig into how the works of European and Asian thinkers influenced American philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau, while they yet tried to make something completely new. John and I then discuss how American pragmatism was developed in response to the philosophical issues Darwinism created around free will and what it means to live a moral life. 

We end our conversation discussing how the pragmatist William James answered the question of whether life is worth living and how his answer might be said to hinge on one essential word: if.

Show Highlights

  •  What is American philosophy? 
  • A primer on transcendentalism and pragmatism 
  • How Kaag literally stumbled upon the archives of American philosophy 
  • The importance of intellectual and artistic freedom to this philosophy 
  • Why Emerson’s philosophy is more tempered than people often think 
  • The connection of American philosophers to European and Asian philosophers 
  • How did Thoreau contribute to American philosophy? 
  • What do these Americans say about the value of life? 
  • Exploring the “maybe” of life
  • How Kaag met his wife in the midst of this exploration of American philosophy 
  • How has Kaag’s life changed in the 10 years since this book was published?
  • Finding more meaning in your own life by grappling with these philosophies 
  • What gives you zest?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With John 

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John on Twitter

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The post Podcast #576: A Treasure Trove of American Philosophy appeared first on The Art of Manliness.

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