You might want to be sitting down when you read Carlin Romano's news. As the late great Freddie Mercury might have said "he will rock you." His news in this book is a head-rocker and a complete contradiction of everything you're likely to believe true.
In his words, then, because he tells his story best:
"The surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millennia. The openness of its dialogue, the quality of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance of false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact."
Park your snobbery at the door. Enter this book and think it all the way through, as he defines the terms:
"Has the talk show declined from Socrates to Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart? Maybe, but mixing entertainment and argument isn't why. Are those inside-the-Beltway babble shows really talk-over shows? Sure but read some of Plato's dialogue and you'll see Socrates stepping on the lines of other speakers. In fact, the proliferation and popularity of American radio and television talk stars – from Howard Stern or Don Imus recidivus to Charlie Rose, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert and Stewart – bears a resemblance, albeit imperfect, to the rise of celebrity rhetoricians in ancient Greece, even if today's talkers seek more to persuade and entertain, and provide forums, than to teach others the arts of persuasion."
And now what the film-makers call the "money shot" in Romano's thesis:
"The story of philosophy in America is not a short subject about a narrow tribute of high Judeo-Christian culture, once commonly restricted to the university and priesthood that failed to empty into the great river of American thought. When seen properly and whole, philosophy in the USA is more like a big-budget 'Transformers'-type special effects movie--The Big Muddy That Flooded America!"
The key phrase quietly nestled inside all that collar-grabbing metaphor and analogy is "when seen properly and whole."
And that's what Romano is purporting to do in this book, which is both scholarly and entertaining – learned and stimulating – to an equal and extraordinary degree. It is, I think, one of the books of the year, much less the season: a whole other way of being absorbed by pages on a beach, if you absolutely insist on reading there.
Romano is no fool. He knows full well that conversance with philosophy is minimal here – in any case, vastly greater in Europe. He knows all about the routine contempt America harbors for Ivory Tower superciliousness. It is integral to our cultural DNA.
But he won't let you ride along on the vast river comfortable in America's assumptions since Richard Hofstader's "Anti-Intellectualism In American Life" – not even now when "dumbing down" has been the deliberate and programmatic work of so many in the media and commercial culture businesses.
He knows that "acquiescing to America the Philosophical requires seeing America in the new millennium as directly, ebulliently and ordinarily philosophical in a way that remains utterly unappreciated by philosophers, media and the general public alike. It is to see Americans as almost uniquely able, given their rude independence of mind, to pierce the chief metaphorical scam of desiccated, moribund, yet still breathing Socratic philosophy: the justification language-game."
Such a total take down requires a new, eminently American definition of terms. The old games of high vs. low aren't played in American cultural scrutiny anymore and they shouldn't be in philosophy either. We should be following American philosopher Richard Rorty, says Romano, in his search for "better vocabularies" not "firmer truths." If we do that, we'll be suitably amazed by the culture we live in. We've had "Everything You Know Is Wrong" books in America for decades. Some are better than others. Most bring news of a radical sort, along with the requirement that we recalibrate completely and remain open to what their authors have to say.
Romano's book is the best, by far, we've seen since David Shields' mind-boggling press of our intellectual reset button "The Reality Hunger."
Who is Carlin Romano, besides the possessor of a name which is a household word exactly nowhere? He's a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at small Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and has, for decades, reviewed books all over, most notably and continuously at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Status as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 didn't make him any more renowned than major essays about Umberto Eco and art critic Arthur C. Danto did. (Eco, unsurprisingly, is blurbed – alone – on the book's dust flap. Logs will ever be rolled.)
Obviously, what Romano means by "America the Philosophical" is not what many professional philosophers nestled in academic bosoms would mean which is why he is likely to be thought of as a heretic by some as well as a distiller of hooey as much as the brilliant and necessary constructor of a new intellectual framework for a fresh Millennium.
His book, in fact, ends with a ringing endorsement of Barack Obama as our current "philosopher-in-chief" and "cosmopolitan-in-chief."
To Romano, "we were entitled to one."
But even there – after his 600 pages of extremely witty commentary about philosophy and philosophers in America (from Emerson to John Rawls in chapters with titles like "Great White Men and the Ivy League Cavalcade," and "The Book Lives!") – his most radical reset button in philosophical history remains.
For that, you have to wait for page 535 for his portrait of Isocrates, the ancient Greek who is by no means a typo for Socrates (that entire part of the book is subtitled "A Man Not a Typo") but, in fact, the wrongfully discredited rhetorician who, he says, "should be as famous as Socrates" but isn't. In seeing philosophy as "civilized discourse" and "public deliberation" aimed at "persuasion about great matters," his "vision of philosophy jibes with American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than Socrates' view."
"America the Philosophical" says Carlin Romano, "operates under the sign of Isocrates. We simply haven't heard of him."
Courtesy of a hugely entertaining and enlightening compendium of intellectual heresy, we have now.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor. ?
America the Philosophical
By Carlin Romano
Knopf672 pages, $35