John Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of American Philosophy: A Love Story. It is a story of a lost library, a lost American intellectual tradition and a lost person–and their simultaneous recovery. In the book, John Kaag stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendant of William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology, with whom John Kaag feels a deep kinship. It is James’s question “Is life worth living?” that guides this remarkable book. The books John Kaag discovers in the Hocking library are crawling with insects and full of mold. But he resolves to restore them, as he immediately recognizes their importance. As John Kaag begins to catalogue and read through these priceless volumes, he embarks on a thrilling journey that leads him to the life-affirming tenets of American philosophy―self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence―and to a brilliant young Kantian who joins him in the restoration of the Hocking books. Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is ultimately about love, freedom, and the role that wisdom can play in turning one’s life around. Please enjoy my interview with John Kaag.
How do you describe your occupation?
I am a philosophy professor—which means that I try to get students to read very difficult books about the love of wisdom. Most people think my job is a bit of a joke, but that has always been the case when it comes to the discipline of philosophy. In truth, if you take it seriously, the job (especially today) rather difficult. But for a bookish person, it is basically a dream job.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
I wake up with my daughter, which means I wake up early. Get her off to school, and then have three or four hours to write, read, and prepare classes. Like I said—a dream job. Then I get to go talk to a group of students about the good life, go for a run, retrieve the daughter from school, dinner, baths, a glass of wine with my partner (also a philosopher)—and repeat.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m currently re-reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho and the Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen. My reading usually goes hand-in-hand with my writing. I am currently working on a book called Hiking with Nietzsche that will be out next fall with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is about the tension between isolation and transcendence, on the one hand, and everyday life, on the other. So I have been reading books that might give me some perspective on that. For fun, I have been slowly making my way through The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. Also Emerson’s Journals—there are beautiful moments in the course of his days.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
Sure. I’m sure I read The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss first, but I don’t really remember that. I remember reading two books. The Little Moon Theatre by Irene Haas—a story about a wandering troupe of musicians, accompanied by a fairy godmother. And Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I was way too young for it but remember loving it—and then crying my eyes out.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
I am very bad: I am a page folder. And I fold both the top and the bottom of pages, constantly. I use the point of the fold, the corner of the page, to direct me to the last word that I read or a passage of interest. My books are a mess. But they are well-loved.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
Freshman year of high school. My teacher, Mrs. Rittle, had confiscated a box of “Nebraska Plans” and structured the year around the curriculum. The “Nebraska Plan” was the freshman liberal arts readings for students at the University of Nebraska: Einstein, Theilhard de Chardin, Descartes, Camus, you name it. I struggled with the first readings, but then my mother—also an English teacher—started reading them with me and I was hooked.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
Sixteen, that would be easy. I was in the grips of a pretty serious existentialist phase (that precipitated a pretty serious bout of depression and anxiety). I needed to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. Both of these books take existential insights seriously and don’t sugar coat human existence, but they provide ways to live through the insights, even relatively happily. I needed that—and not more Nietzsche. At twenty-five, I needed more Nietzsche. I had almost wed myself to my studies (and a person who would later become my ex-wife) and Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo could have helped a great deal. It is an account of a man trying desperately to get a hold of himself. I could have followed suit. And found a bit of release in letting go of things that were serving no one.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Rimbaud, Strindberg, Nietzsche, Hesse, and Dōgen. Yes, I know, it is a weird dinner party. Again, this is probably a function of my current interest—in trying to think through the relationship between existential anxiety and some semblance of peace. I think the five writers would find much in common—and then help each other (and me) think a little more clearly about some important issues.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. It sounds more illicit than it is. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award several years ago. A really great book. It is about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. I wanted to see how a very good dual biography was written. I am playing with the idea of writing something similar in the future.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
It provides me with the chance to think otherwise about things, to enter foreign worlds, if only for a minute or two.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Garden Time by W.S. Merwin. It is a gorgeous collection of poetry. If you want to think carefully about time, loss and memory—this is the book for you.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. This would mean becoming Thoreau which is something I would like to experience (for a little while). In terms of fiction, I guess I would like to walk next to Harry Haller in Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I don’t want to be him, but rather accompany him.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Oh! That is a great question. From Socrates to Sartre by T.S. Lavine is a lovely introduction and helped me enormously when I was first getting into the discipline. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is also outstanding to get students to think philosophically.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace. It is a commencement address, made into a very short book. My partner Carol gave it to me at the beginning of our relationship. It is a reminder not to be the exclusive king of your tiny skull-sized kingdom. A good message, I continue to think. When I can remember it. Also Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—I read it in my first year of college. It really took me—down, down, down, underground. It was the first time I had bottomed out emotionally. Strangely, this process, has, over the years, given me some insight into the nature of psychological distress—both my own and others. Dostoyevsky is right—the description he gives in the book is a symptom of our age.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
When Trump was elected, my friend Clancy Martin said that we are entering yet another age when philosophers would have to stake a great deal on their thoughts and, by extension, the books they wrote. I guess I look to thinkers who were willing to do that: Socrates, Hypatia, Spinoza, and Wollstonecraft. I’m also very interested in thinkers who were willing to live out their philosophies: Thoreau, Nietzsche, Camus, and (in the present day) Sally Haslanger. My partner, Carol Hay, also inspires me all the time.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
How long do you have? This Close to Happy by Daphne Merkin is one of the most accurate accounts of clinical depression written in the last century. I continue to go back to it, both for insight, but also to hear a companion in misery. Notes to Myself by Hugh Prather is one of my mother’s favourites and one she passed on to me. I have it basically memorized. Anything by Irving Yalom—I will read and re-read. I think Megan Marshall’s nonfiction books—The Peabody Sisters and her Fuller biography—are about as good as you get in creating the world of the past with words. In terms of essays and fiction: William and Henry James are hard, very hard, to match.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I think I am going to give Carol something for the holidays: Women and Power by Mary Beard—so I suspect that it will be the next book we both read.