“American Philosopher”, part 0

There’s a new film (or series of eight rather short films, I guess) by Phillip McReynolds called American Philosopher.  You can watch the whole thing online, and it’s a pleasure that I recommend taking.  Quite frankly, it seems mostly to be a bunch of spliced-together interviews with a few major living (or recently living) academic philosophers.  There’s not too much unity of thought, other than the vague thematic American-philosophical self-reflection and a few shared terms, and the discussion does not get too deep or technical.  It is, however, an easy watch and it’s great to hear how these thinkers reflect on their work and environment after years of being immersed in it.  I’m going to do a quick series of posts walking through my reactions to the 8 ‘films’.

Part 0 of 8 is just a little teaser.  It begins with a brief little reflection by the late Richard Rorty:

I think that the Socratic ideal of self-knowledge is replaced among contemporary intellectuals by the Nietzschean idea of self-creation.  The life of the intellectual is not a matter of finding out what finding out what has been inside himself or herself all the time, it’s a matter of becoming someone new


I’m more than a bit confused about the relevance of this little thought nugget 1, but there seems to be a smattering of dangling opinions here and there in the film, so I’ll write it off as a teaser for that aspect.

The teaser is nice enough to give us a good sneak preview of the interviewees.  As someone who considers American philosophy to be one of my primary influences, especially among relatively contemporary thinkers, I was excited to see the roll call.  First up, Richard Rorty, an incisive thinker from whom I have read a lot.  While I disagree with Rorty on some key things, I believe him to be one of the best recent examples of a public intellectual that actually has an influence in America.  2

Another featured philosopher with whose work I am well acquainted is The New School’s Richard J. Bernstein.  It would be misleading for me to mention Bernstein as anything less than among my favorite thinkers, especially among those currently living3.  Douglas Anderson is also featured.  I’ve read his book on Peirce, Strands of System: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce, and found it to be quite good in most respects.  Thomas Alexander,who like Anderson resides at the very American SIU Carbondale, also makes an appearance.  He has contributed some great thoughts on Dewey.  Joseph Margolis–who has himself produced some works summarising, distilling, and contextualising American philosophical thought in general–is interviewed as well.  Crispin Sartwell, who I have found provocative yet insightful, gets a lot of airtime in the film.  The salient Hilary Putnam makes a few brief cameos.  John Lachs provides his insight (which comes off as delightfully just-outside the American philosophy cadre, I think because he’s a Santayana scholar4.  John Lysaker, Erin McKenna, James Campbell, Michael P. Hodges, Richard Schusterman, Scott Pratt, Russell Goodman, Bruce Wilshire, Judith Green, and Lucious Outlaw also contribute positively to the discussion, though I am not familiar enough with their other work to say more about them.

This short preview ends with the philosophers naming a good list of questions, a few of which I think are distinctly of interest to contemporary American philosophy, but most of which are just interesting for academic philosophers in general.  A few of those questions, seem even to be of the type that some American philosophers would not bother worrying about; for instance, Rorty would certainly poo-poo Judith Green’s question “What is Justice?” or Bruce Wilshire’s quick list of pesudo-metaphysical questions as being unhelpful.  The fact that these thinkers might have been pushing these questions as relevant for the American Philosopher probably speaks to the divisiveness of its character makeup, which makes it interesting.

  1. My own anecdotal experiences lead me to conclude that Rorty’s sentiments are generally accurate in describing the fact of the matter for a good number of intellectuals (and non-intellectuals), if one only assumes the blatantly oversimplified dichotomy that he presents.  What’s strange to me, though, is that this sentiment does not, to the best of my knowledge, track in a more significant way with American thought than the thought of other thinkers.  If anything, it may be less likely to reflect the American characterization of the goals of intellectual academic philosophy, at least insofar as the relevant existential assumptions are not in vogue in primarily analytic (as opposed to continental) American philosophy.
  2. I recommend picking up one of his books and giving it a thoughtful read if you have the time, probably best to try one of his later and shorter essays if you are not steeped in the tradition of philosophy already.  Philosophy and Social Hope starts out with three good essays of just this sort.
  3. At the very least, his work Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis belongs in the philosophical cannon, at least as long as people still find Kuhn relevant.  He’s also got a pretty new book out called The Pragmatic Turn, which illustrates as much as anything his love for combining American pragmatism with European Continental thought.  That may be of interest to you if you have read this far.
  4. I’ve made the case elsewhere that Santayana’s rather exciting modes of thought tend to resemble German–or at least Continental European–thought more than they really have anything to do with American traditions.

One thought on ““American Philosopher”, part 0

  1. It looks like a fun series. I’ll check back for later links and commentary if and when the entire series becomes available online.

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