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.
- 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
- My first interview with John all about Nietzsche
- The Quest for a Moral Life
- The Mystical Life of Henry David Thoreau
- What It Really Means to Be Self-Reliant
- American Pragmatism
- William James
- William Ernest Hocking
- The Varieties of Religious Experience
- “Compensation” by Emerson
- The Divinity School Address
- An Accessible Primer on Nietzsche’s Big Ideas
- “If” by Rudyard Kipling
- Margaret Fuller
Connect With John
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast.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 the ideas of 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.
After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/americanphilosophy.
John Kaag, welcome back to the show.
John Kaag: Thanks so much for having me again.
Brett McKay: We had you on last year to talk about your book Hiking with Nietzsche, and it was part memoir, part an exploration of Nietzsche’s philosophy and how it’s influenced your life today. Today, we brought you back to talk about your book you wrote before that called American Philosophy. Again, it’s this part memoir, but also part exploration of the history of American philosophy. It’s a really unique hook on how you explored American philosophy.
Before we get to that personal connection, let’s talk about what American philosophy is, because I think a lot of people, they are listening to this, particularly American listeners, and they’re like, “America has a philosophy?” Typically, they think of philosophy as European or Asian. Big picture, how would you describe American philosophy, and who are the big names involved with it?
John Kaag: Great. Your listeners are not alone in thinking, “American philosophy? America doesn’t have philosophy.” In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came to the United States in the 1830s, the French critic said pretty much the same thing. He said, “There is no place on earth that is more antithetical to philosophy than America.” But what he didn’t realize is that there was a different strain of philosophy developing in New England right around that time, and the first strain of American philosophy is what’s known as American transcendentalism. It was founded by three central figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.
The central tenets of American transcendentalism is that individuals can find themselves and express their freedom apart from societal constraints, the constraints of tradition or the constraints of conventional culture. Emerson is famous for saying, “Trust thyself. Every heart strings to that iron core.” That’s the notion of self-reliance. Thoreau takes this, and the famous naturalist goes off to Walden and tries to be self-reliant on the shores of Walden Pond. Margaret Fuller tries to take that expression of self-reliance and apply it to the position of women in the 1850s.
Transcendentalism is about freedom and finding yourself in nature, much like the European romantics. This gives rise, in the 1860s and 1870s, to a movement called American pragmatism that was founded by William James and his friend C.S. Peirce in the 1870s. Pragmatism, like American transcendentalism, is very much concerned with securing human freedom and human dignity in a culture that they thought threatened both. The industrial revolution was going during the 1900s in New England, and both the transcendentalists and the pragmatists were worried that this compromised the freedom of individuals and their communities. James and Peirce thought that philosophy, and this is different than European philosophy, should be world-ready, or to be judged truth, philosophical truths were to be judged on the basis of their practical consequences, how they affected people in the world.
Brett McKay: Well, we’ll talk in a little more detail about transcendentalism and pragmatism and how they connected with you during this time of your life, but let’s talk about the personal connection you had with American philosophy. That is when you were a graduate student at Harvard, you stumbled upon this private library in the middle of the woods of New Hampshire that was pretty much abandoned, and it contained thousands of rare and antique books. How did that library end up there, who owned it, and what did all the books have in common?
John Kaag: Sure. That’s a great question. In 2009, I was a postdoc at Harvard, and I was writing a book about the founder of American pragmatism, William James. My father had just gone through a struggle with cancer and had died, and my first marriage was in shambles, and I was looking for answers, both philosophical and personal answers at this time.
In 2009, I was asked to organize a conference in Chocorua, New Hampshire, which was up in the… It’s up in the white mountains where James summered, very close to his old summer house. I went up to organize this conference, or help organize the conference, and I came across a fellow by the name of Bun Nickerson. He was 91 years old. He said, “Hi, young guy. What do you do for a living?” I told him I was a philosopher, and he said, “Oh, I knew a philosopher once. His name was William Earnest Hocking.”
Now, William Ernest Hocking was the last great idealist at Harvard in the first half of the 1900s, first half of the 20th century. Hocking was also one of William James’s last students at Harvard. Hocking had a summer house, actually an estate, that he called West Wind, which is in Madison, New Hampshire, about six miles from Chocorua. Bun Nickerson said, “If you want, I can take you up there. You should see the library.”
Now, I always thought the libraries were something like Widener Library or Houghton at Harvard, or something very big and impersonal. But back in the 1900s, individuals had very impressive libraries, and when individuals died they had to figure out where their literary estates were going to go to. In the case of William James, he gave a large number of his books to William Ernest Hocking, who then took them to the hinterlands of New Hampshire and put them in a non-winterized 2,000-square-foot house, which he called the library, next to a very large mansion, on 400 pristine acres of New Hampshire wilderness.
When I came across it in 2009, it had been largely abandoned for 12 years. At the time, the doors were open, and Bun Nickerson said, “Well, why don’t you go look around? I’m sure the family won’t mind.” That’s what I did.
Inside, it turns out that William Ernest Hocking was one of America’s greatest collectors of first editions from modern philosophy, so first-edition Descartes, first-edition Kant, first-edition Hume, first-edition Thomas Hobbes. He also possessed the libraries, or partial parts of the libraries, of William James and another idealist working in the 1900s, Josiah Royce. In total, the books were about 10,000 in number and were, for the most part, untouched for about 60 or 70 years. I’ll stop there, and maybe we can talk about what unified the books.
Brett McKay: Just to give people an idea, first-edition Hobbes, that’s from like the 1600s.
John Kaag: Correct. First-edition Leviathan, 1651, 1649, 1651. These are 300, in some cases 400-year-old books, and they were just hanging out in a non-winterized library in New Hampshire.
Brett McKay: Well, so what was this guy? What was Hocking? He was one of the last… Maybe, you say, he was one of the last American philosophers. Why was he collecting first-edition books of European philosophy?
John Kaag: There’s this conception that American philosophy, transcendentalism, and pragmatism are or were divorced from the European traditions that they rebelled against. This isn’t quite true. What Hocking was doing was actually trying to amass the books that supported these American traditions and, in some cases, the books that pragmatists and American idealists responded to, but he believed that there was something worthwhile about investigating the past in order to understand our present day. That’s what he was doing with those very old books.
He also was collecting, creating a sort of time capsule of American intellectual history from its inception to what was his present day in 1960, which would explain why when he’s… One of the books that we discovered there was John Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government, which founded basically the political formation of the United States. Locke was an Englishman, but his understanding of political philosophy got applied almost directly to the American experience.
Brett McKay: As you said, a lot of these books, they were owned by William James and some of these other American philosophers, and not only were they owned by them; they had notes written by these guys themselves inside the books.
John Kaag: That’s right. The marginalia was a fascinating experience to go through. In the margins, James would write in his books. When he’s developing his famous lectures that turned into the Varieties of the Religious Experience that were published in 1910, he’s reading a number of books which end up at the Hocking estate, and a lot of books from Buddhism from the early 1900s. You can read his copies of, for example, Paul Carus’s Buddhism and Its Christian Critics, and you can see the way that James is responding to Buddhist theology or to the Buddhist spiritualism in real time. You can see that he’s responding to certain lines from the Dhammapada or from the Lotus Sutra in particular ways, which is a fascinating way to think about research, I believe.
Brett McKay: How did no one know about this library?
John Kaag: Well, people had visited in the past, but those people, for the most part… John McDermott, for example, visited the Hocking estate in the 1960s. John McDermott was a professor at Texas A&M. He visited the library and was friends with Hocking, and he passed down the knowledge of the library to a few scholars within the American philosophical tradition, but not very many. See, idealism, the sort that Hocking supported, along with American pragmatism, went out of favor in the 1900s, around the 1950s and 1960s, when philosophy took what might be considered a logical or analytic bent. Philosophy during that time modeled itself off of mathematics and science rather than these more humanistic disciplines such as transcendentalism.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into more details about American philosophy. You mentioned the first strain of American philosophy where the American transcendentalists and their whole idea, their big tenent was self-reliance and freedom, breaking from tradition and marching to the beat of your own drummer. As I was reading your description of transcendentalism, the impression that I got was that Thoreau and Emerson and Fuller, they were very self-conscious of the fact they were trying to make something new in philosophy.
John Kaag: Yes. That’s true. Actually, what you can think about is that many of these thinkers, Emerson’s grandfather, for example, or rather, many of these thinkers had relatives and had their ancestors who were part of the American Revolution. Emerson, for example, grew up in the Old Manse, which overlooked Old North Bridge, which is where one of the first battles of the revolution occurred, and his grandfather was part of that fight. If you think about that legacy, the challenge was to make something new, not only in a political sense, which their grandfathers did, but in this case, in a personal and intellectual sense. The transcendentalists shared that political freedom secured through military or political means was one thing, but it meant pitifully little actually if we didn’t exercise our personal freedoms and intellectual freedoms and also our artistic freedoms. What you hear in that desire to make something new is also the attempt to stand up to your inheritance, this free inheritance.
Brett McKay: As you said, despite them rebelling against traditional philosophy, both Emerson and Thoreau, read widely and deeply from philosophy, not only European but Asian. Were there ideas that ended up in their idea of transcendentalism that they took from Greek philosophy or Asian? What were those ideas?
John Kaag: One thing that your readers and your listeners might be interested in is that Emerson proposed self-reliance, which is this notion of individual freedom, but he always wanted it to be tempered with a concept that he called compensation. Compensation is an essay that he publishes in a collection with Self-reliance. He intends them as sister essays. Self-Reliance says, “To thine own self be true.” Compensation says no matter how free you are or no matter how true you are to yourself, you always operate within a wider cosmic and social, what he calls give and take. This give and take is a sort of karmic model of action where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This a position that he takes directly from what he calls Indian superstition, but what is really Hindu metaphysics, which he’s studying in the 1820s and 1830s.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s interesting because, yeah, I think a lot of young Americans, they read Emerson and they’re like this… especially when they’re teenagers. You always read it when you’re 14, 15, and it’s like Nietzsche. You’re like, “Yes, this tastes good,” and it’s all about the individual, but that’s not the end of the story.
John Kaag: That’s right. In fact, these two things need to be weighed. They stand in what philosophers call a dialectical relation. They seem to be opposites, but they’re really supposed to be balanced, or there’s supposed to be a give and take between these concepts. The radical freedom that we find in Emerson needs to be tempered or toned down with the realization that really we’re actually not that free, which we see in Emerson and also in Nietzsche.
Brett McKay: That radical individualism can lead to anime and… James called it neurasthenia, that sense of anxiety and existential angst. Emerson said, “Well, yes, you need to be an individual, but also see yourself within a bigger picture.”
John Kaag: That’s correct.
Brett McKay: Also, talking about Indian philosophy, I know Emerson and Thoreau, they read the Bhagavad Gita, which talks about this concept of you being part of a cosmic whole, like you’re unique, but you’re also not at the same time.
John Kaag: That’s right. I think they also took very seriously that individuals in isolation live very difficult lives. In other words, Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita basically is conveying that to live a solitary existence is necessarily a futile and counterproductive one. I think that this is an idea that the transcendentalists and the pragmatists also have. We don’t live in a bubble. We’re not all by ourselves. We are necessarily with others all the time, and negotiating our freedom in the midst of otherness or in the midst of companionship is probably the task of life.
Brett McKay: Connecting the transcendentalists with your book we talked about last time, Hiking with Nietzsche, from what I understand, Nietzsche read Emerson. He was aware of Emerson and his writing, right?
John Kaag: That’s right. What Nietzsche sees in Emerson is he says that Emerson is a good friend for his what he calls skepsis, skepsis being the word that gives us skeptical. Emerson and Nietzsche share a deep skepticism about the worth of conventional wisdom and the worth of conventional institutions, like, for example, modern Christianity. Both of them are critical of Christianity for particular reasons. In fact, many of the transcendentalists are critical of political, educational, and religious institutions because they believe that these institutions lead a person astray and make it very difficult for them to follow their conscience or their call to conscience.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s interesting, Emerson often would give these critiques at churches. They’d be like sermons almost.
John Kaag: That’s right. He basically got kicked out of Harvard, or rather banned from Harvard for 30 years for giving what’s called The Divinity School Address. In The Divinity School Address is basically his critique of Christianity. He had done something similar in a series of lectures called The American Scholar. The American Scholar said that we needed to break from European intellectual traditions. Everybody at Harvard loved that lecture. But when he gave The Divinity School Address, he was making the claim that we needed to break from the stultifying or deadening influence of Christianity, which was still very much alive and well at Harvard, and it got him banned for many decades from speaking there.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about Emerson. Thoreau was another big player in the transcendentalist movement. How did his approach to transcendentalism differ from Emerson, or did it even differ?
John Kaag: Yeah, I think it differed probably in degree, maybe not in kind. Thoreau’s philosophy I see as a modern version of cynicism. Cynicism is a very old philosophy that says that institutions corrupt individuals, and that in order to avoid that corruption, individuals should separate themselves off or get a little distance on society. That’s what Thoreau is attempting to do at Walden.
Thoreau also, like the cynics and like Nietzsche, is not afraid to be extremely polemical or extremely critical of his neighbors, of the people who are very well-respected in society. This doesn’t gain him a huge number of friends. Emerson, I think on the whole, was a bit more congenial, was a bit more well-mannered compared to his friend Thoreau.
Thoreau was less disciplined than Emerson, as well, and believed that philosophy should be wed with other forms of writing, such as narrative and poetry. Emerson believed the same, but not to the extent that Thoreau did. Walden is really the account of Thoreau’s life in the woods, not very remote woods, only two miles from Concord, but still woods nonetheless. He believes that first-person narrative needs to be reintroduced to philosophical inquiry in order for philosophical inquiry to actually matter to individuals in their communities.
Brett McKay: It’s kind of like Nietzsche. Didn’t Nietzsche say all philosophy is biography?
John Kaag: That’s right. All philosophy is either conscious or unconscious autobiography. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Right. The transcendentalists, I think everyone can probably see the lasting influence they’ve had, particularly on American culture, that’s still with this, this idea of self reliance, of being an individual, freedom. Let’s talk about the pragmatists. Where did the pragmatists pick up where the transcendentalists left off?
John Kaag: The pragmatists arising and pragmatism arising in the 1870s came on the heels of Darwin publishing The Origin of Species in 1858. Darwin’s insights about the nature of biological development and evolution radically shifted the intellectual landscape of America and Europe. One of the thoughts that came out of Darwin, and picked up by his friend Thomas Huxley, the Englishman, often known as Darwin’s Bulldog, was that human beings are related genealogically or evolutionarily to basic, let’s just say apes. Huxley and Darwin began to struggle with a thought that then the American pragmatists had to take up, which was if we are just animals, just organisms, are we then not dictated or are our lives not dictated by natural laws, by physical laws? If that’s the case, then where does free will reside or exist?
This is a question that American transcendentalists had taken up, but they hadn’t been forced to go against modern science or to integrate their ideas into modern science that then was becoming general knowledge. That’s what the pragmatists had to do. The pragmatists were good scientists. C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, they were all scientists of a certain sort, James founding empirical psychology, Peirce being a chemist and a physicist. What these scientist-philosophers had to do was to reconcile the findings of modern science, particularly evolutionary science, with a hope and desire to maintain free will, and to maintain moral order by virtue of free will because, after all, morals would mean very little if we were controlled simply by physical laws, or at least they thought that. That’s one difference, and I can expand on that a little bit.
The other difference is that American pragmatism is coming out of the Civil War. Louis Menand suggests, and I think he’s right, in his book The Metaphysical Club, that American pragmatism looked at the ideological struggle of the Civil War and came to the conclusion that ideologies and dogma led into violent conflict, and so what they tried to do is to propose a model of truth that was flexible, that was empirically verifiable or falsifiable, and to judge truth on the basis of its practical consequences, which is very different than just holding onto an ideology and going and having bloodshed in accord with that all ideology.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this problem of free will the pragmatists try to tackle, because this is a question that plagued William James his whole life. In fact, it put him in these funks. He got really depressed, on the verge of suicide, because for him, and I think people, when they think about this, if there’s no free will, life has no meaning. I can’t make my own… He was grappling with this question, is life even worth living? How did James… What was his answer to those questions? Are we free? Does life have meaning?
John Kaag: That’s great. James is usually thought of as this very vivacious, very active man, but what we forget when we read James’s biography is that he was a depressive at many places in his life, and a depressive because of philosophical issues like the one that you just described. In his 20s, James considered suicide, and when he reaches the age of 30, he reaches a real crisis in his life. He has so many options in terms of what to do professionally. He has so many opportunities, but they just don’t seem to matter, because in a cosmic sense he oftentimes says, “Why bother? I’m not in control anyway.”
What happens in 1874 is that he reads a Frenchman by the name of Charles Renouvier, and Renouvier makes an argument. He says that there are not proofs for the existence of free will, but that individuals, in the absence of proof, can believe that they are free, and the very act of believing that they are free can be their first free act, and that once they start acting as if they have free will, then it changes the way that the world both looks and is, which is a strange thought.
This is the basis of James’s famous essay, what’s entitled The Will to Believe. James says that in the absence of empirical proof about certain matters, it is still all right for us to believe wholeheartedly in something, and in fact, our belief then changes the circumstance and changes the universe.
You can think about this in terms of depression, for example. James, the depressive, suggests a couple things. He says “Act as if you are in a good mood, and it will change your perspective. It will change how you feel.” In other words, my mother used to say, fake it until you make it. Basically, James says, “Don’t lie down if you’re depressed. Stand up, take a big breath of fresh air, and see how it changes, changes your stature, changes how you live, how you think.”
The same goes for moral issues and also relationship issues. James says there is no empirical proof to say that you’re going to fall in love, but you have to be open and believe in it, or it simply probably will not happen. Even in the absence of empirical evidence, we can still believe, James thought.
Brett McKay: This is a perfect example of pragmatism. For James, this is true because the consequences of this idea of just believing, even if you don’t have evidence that is true, it works. It changes your outlook on life.
John Kaag: That’s right. James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, makes this distinction between two types of people, the healthy-minded and the sick-souled, and these aren’t derogatory. He’s not criticizing the sick-souled. In fact, he was probably one of them. He simply says that the sick-souled, the universe just doesn’t seem square with them; something is out of joint. Most of his philosophy is geared to overcome that sense of disjointedness, the sense that things just aren’t right. In many cases, you can will yourself into another state of affairs and will the universe into another state of affairs, not always, but frequently enough that it’s worth trying.
Brett McKay: This idea that you can believe something, even if you don’t have empirical evidence that it’s true, this is one thing I thought was interesting about the pragmatists as I was reading your description of them and as I read more about them. They’re an interesting group of people because they were both scientific, William James was a psychologist who did scientific experiments, data driven, but at the same time they were spiritual as well. They’re scientific and spiritual in a way that I think would bother a lot of people today.
John Kaag: Yeah. One caveat needs to be expressed. William James believed in evidence. In other words, if there was evidence for, for example, climate change, James would be very interested in hearing all of the evidence. It’s not simply that you can believe what you want in every single case. He, however, says that there are certain types of questions that cannot be closed automatically and, in some cases, can be believed in, where answers can be believed in, if they’re the type of issues that don’t allow empirical justification, so issues of believing in God, for example, issues of believing in a love affair, issues in believing in being moral, and issues about free will. These are the sorts of categories that James thinks that you can entertain even if don’t have standard empirical justification.
Now, when it comes to spirituality and science, James believed that… I want to be very careful here. James believed in science, but he also thought that the standard methods of science, the way we typically conduct science today even, miss small nuances, small existences, the reality of what he oftentimes describes as the unseen. James believed in an unseen order, whether we call that ghosts or whether we call that the spiritual world or whether we just call it something that is happening below the level of consciousness. James believed that this was a deeply interesting question, and certainly did not preempt or certainly did not preclude the possibility that this order existed.
James was interested in psychics for his entire life, mediums his entire life. He was the founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, which conducted empirical experiments about psychic phenomenon or supernormal phenomenon. James said at the end of his life that these tests had been inconclusive, but that it seemed like the world was set up in such a way that the questions should continue.
James was open to closing empirical issues if proof could be found, in other words, coming to conclusions, but these conclusions were always provisional and could be reopened on a different empirical basis. He also, however, was open to a type of spirituality which many scientists today might not agree with, but I, for one, think that it’s quite interesting to think about what we don’t see and how to attune ourselves to the unseen order, because it’s certainly the case that everyone has had the experience of not seeing something and then it coming into sight. That coming to, I think, is what James is very interested in, and also in part what he thinks that life should be about, coming to, becoming aware of something that was unseen.
Brett McKay: Pragmatism in James’s philosophy and Peirce’s philosophy, it was trying to answer that big question of does free will exist, does life have meaning? How has his philosophy influenced your life on a day-to-day basis?
John Kaag: Yeah. In 1895, William James was invited to Holden chapel, which is the second-oldest building at Harvard, and he was invited by the Cambridge YMCA. The YMCA asked him to respond to an issue that had plagued Harvard for the last two years, which was the number of suicides on campus. James began a lecture at Holden called Is Life Worth Living? which becomes a famous essay.
Now, this question, “Is life worth living?”, has been answered typically in two mutually exclusive ways, yes or no. If you’re a no, if you believe the no long enough and strongly enough, you kill yourself. You’re no longer with us. The history of Western philosophy is usually construed as promoting a yes.
There have been lots of philosophers that have defended yes, life is worth living, for any number of reasons. Kant thinks that we are rational animals, and therefore we can’t violate our rational capacities by killing ourselves. Leibniz believes we live in the best of all possible worlds, and far be it for us to mess up the best of all possible worlds. Augustine and a bunch of Christian theologians think that this is God’s gift, and we don’t have the right to violate God’s gift. James, however, in 1895, expresses something that I think is the best answer to the question “Is life worth living?” He says, “Is life worth living?” He says, “Maybe. it depends on the liver.”
At first, I thought that this… As a teenager and in my 20s, I thought this was a complete cop-out. I thought, “Give me a yes.” But over the years I’ve thought, “This is brilliant,” for the following reason. To say, “Maybe. It depends on the liver,” is to say that it is up to us to make life worth living. It’s up to the liver, which a lot of other explanations about why life is worth living don’t give us that power. In other words, it’s up to God or it’s up to the way the universe works that life is worth living. James says, “Maybe. It’s up to the liver.” That’s one reason why I think it’s a smart response, and has saved me from my own untimely demise more than once.
He also says that the maybe is significant, because if you think about seeing somebody at the top of Brooklyn Bridge threatening to go off of it, you go up to that person and you don’t want to say to them, “You’re silly. You don’t see the point of life. It’s definitely the case that life is worth living.” You want to be compassionate. You want to be able to say, “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, but why don’t we get down off the ledge long enough to just explore that possibility a little longer, because the possibility is always there that life is worth living?” But we have to explore the possibility for ourselves.
Thirdly, the maybe, I think, is a smart answer because if we think about the most meaningful times in our life, don’t they always turn on a maybe, James argues. Think about what is meaningful in life, love. Well, would love be fun if you knew it was going to happen in advance? It turns on a maybe. How about the winning of a game? Do we play a game if we already know the outcome? What about a scientific experiment? Do we know the outcome of that? These all turn on maybes, and James is saying, “Let’s explore the maybe of life. Let’s not be afraid of it.” He says in this essay, “Be not afraid of life,” because there’s a risk to it, but so too there is also a potential reward if we just risk ourselves.
Brett McKay: It sounds like Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. If, if, if…
John Kaag: That’s exactly it. That’s nice. I’ve never thought about that correspondence, but I think it’s really there. Yeah, that’s nice.
Brett McKay: This idea that life is worth living maybe, this sounds like existentialism as well. Did the pragmatists influence 20th-century-
John Kaag: It is.
Brett McKay: … existentialists?
John Kaag: Yeah. Guess who Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the founders of existentialism, read religiously? Well, William James. Yeah, so 20th-century existentialism resonates closely with James’s philosophy.
Brett McKay: How do they differ? What was their fork?
John Kaag: Yeah. The fork there is that James believed that the universe was fitted to human purposes, or could be fitted to human purposes, in a way that many existentialists don’t. Albert Camus, the Frenchman, who’s oftentimes put into the existentialist camp controversially, said that we live in an absurd universe, or rather our human condition is absurd because the universe is out of joint with our human purposes. James was not that dismal or that metaphysically pessimistic. What he believed is that if we attune ourselves to our surroundings, our environment, we will notice that there are chances, affordances, opportunities that the universe gives us, and that we can in very, very meaningful times find ourselves very well-fitted to the universe. I think that’s a picture that many of the existentialist don’t emphasize.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s go back to this library, because what happened is you start cataloging these books and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to save these books.” You start putting them in order and cataloging, so you can work with the family to potentially donate it to a library. But during this time, you start working with a colleague of yours named Carol, who is also a philosopher, but she was a Kantian philosopher and you were more of an existentialist, Nietzsche, American philosopher kind of guy, “to thine own self be true” kind of guy. Those philosophies, Kant and existentialism, on the face, they seem incompatible.
John Kaag: Don’t go together.
Brett McKay: They don’t go together. But you found that maybe there was actually a connection to Kant and these American philosophers.
John Kaag: Yeah. The book is called American Philosophy: A Love Story, and it’s a love story. The fact is that Carol and I fell in love in this library. We both went through divorces in order to be together. It’s a story about two people trying to organize a relationship or a love around central philosophical tenets in the American tradition, one of them being freedom, the other one being a sort of togetherness based on respect and self-respect.
Kant, the German philosopher writing in the 1790s, was very good on self-respect and on the duty of self-respect. He says that we are rational animals. What makes us special is that we can exercise our rationality, that we can set and pursue ends for ourselves, and that we should respect that ability or that capacity in others, and that we should respect ourselves for that capacity and not compromise that capacity. That idea about self-respect is one that was carried through in the American transcendentalists.
What was not carried through by the American transcendentalists was the lockstep order Kant thought that moral life should be executed on or by, and that’s a difference between Kant and the American tradition. Additionally, the Americans thought that the passions and that feeling could also be what guided a life, not just rationality. That’s a difference, as well.
Carol and I overcame those differences by reaching a compromise. I became a little more analytic or a little more rational, and I think she began to explore freedom in very real ways, radical freedom, like the type that Thoreau or Emerson or the existentialists wanted to come to.
I said this to Brett before we started. This is a 10-year-old memoir, and Hiking with Nietzsche is the story of Carol and I raising our daughter, Becca. This is the first time that I’ve mentioned this publicly, but Carol and I are now divorced, and there’s one more book that needs to be written. It’s called Love’s Conditions. This is a story about how freedom can bring two people together, but also at times freedom can drive people apart. That will come out a year from now.
Brett McKay: Who are the philosophers you go to for that one?
John Kaag: I go back to my American standbys. I go to Thoreau on freedom. I now live with Becca. Becca splits her time between Carol and I. Our daughter, Becca, is seven. Becca and I live in a parsonage right next to Walden Pond, and so Thoreau is a central character, but also Margaret Fuller. Margaret Fuller was deeply ambivalent around marriage and deeply interested in women’s rights and also in untraditional forms of love and marriage. It gives us some perspective on what happened between Carol and I. Maybe the listeners will be interested, but they’ll have to wait for the book.
Brett McKay: Sure. The idea that the pragmatists also, too, grappled with that idea of how freedom is connected with laws.
John Kaag: That’s right.
Brett McKay: There’s risk in both. That goes back to this idea of maybe.
John Kaag: That’s exactly it. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. The maybe can be joyous. It can also be completely filled with despair at times. The risk is real. So too is the reward.
Brett McKay: How can grappling with these ideas of American philosophers help our listeners find more meaning and significance? What would be the question that you would hope people would walk away, “I’m going to start thinking about”? You’re not going to find an answer, possibly.
John Kaag: No. Starting with the question “Is life worth living?” is a nice one to start with, but another question that James poses in another essay is “What gives life significance?” That’s a very hard question because the traditional answers to that question in the 20th century no longer fit the 21st century. The fact of the matter is that Nietzsche wasn’t so stupid when he said God is dead. What he meant by this is that the traditional forms of guidance that we used to look for in life are no longer available to us. God, the authority, is dead, and so it’s up to us to make our living and make our lives significant.
The pragmatists also believed this. James thought two things. One is he was Emersonian enough to believe that exercising our freedom while being together with others is part of what makes life significant. But James also said something that maybe our listeners might tune into, which is he says that the significance of life depends on what he calls the zest, that feeling that you get at the pit of your stomach when you do something significant. Listeners should ask themselves, “What gives me zest?” and to go back to a Nietzschean phrase, “Does it elevate my soul, or does it crush me?” In other words, is this zest long-lasting? Where do I find it? What sort of experiences do I have?
Another watchword for both the pragmatists and the transcendentalists was experience, and they took this as both a description of life, but also as a mandate. Have an experience. Go, experience the world. Maybe this will get us out of our phones just a little bit. I know that the podcast and a lot online is great, but also have experiences. Go out and enjoy the world, which I think sometimes we forget in the 21st century.
Brett McKay: Well, John Kaag, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
John Kaag: My website is John Kaag. It’s johnkaag.com. A number of pictures from the two different books are there. I have a book coming out in March with Princeton University Press. It’s called Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life, which will be out March 17th, but it’s on preorder now.
Brett McKay: All right. We might have to have you come back to talk about that in detail. Well, John Kaag, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Kaag: Thanks a lot, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Kaag. He is the author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, johnkaag.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/americanphilosophy, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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