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book review

Philosopher John Kaag’s memoir traces a crisis of meaning, birth of new love

In the spring of 2008, newly minted philosophy PhD John Kaag is overcome with despair about the meaninglessness of existence. He’s recently watched his estranged father die a hideous death from cancer, a demise that came with “no sense of closure, no teachable moment.” He’s trapped in a “silently dismal marriage.” Despite having received a prestigious post-doc at Harvard, he’s professionally precarious, plagued by “feelings of insecurity and isolation,” not to mention “abiding fears that philosophy really didn’t matter.” Flirting with suicidal thoughts, yearning desperately to escape his life, he gives up his research project and flees Cambridge, “setting out on a final, desperate mission to recover the fathers of American philosophy and to answer [William] James’ question once and for all.” The question in question? “Is life worth living?”

On an unplanned visit to West Wind, the New Hampshire estate of William Ernest Hocking, a once-eminent Harvard philosophy professor, Kaag happens upon a vast collection of rare and valuable books: first editions of Emerson, Descartes, Hobbes, and Kant, signed copies of Frost’s poems, notes from Walt Whitman. Hocking had studied under some of the giants of American philosophy, including William James and George Santayana, and many of the books, complete with extensive marginalia, were acquired from his esteemed teachers. Now these precious books are housed in a dilapidated building, in danger of mouldering away. Kaag becomes obsessed with saving them and along with some of the Hocking family members, hatches a plan to rescue West Wind. That operation ends up saving not only books but also Kaag himself. Structured in three parts like Dante’s “Divine Comedy,’’ from “Hell” to “Purgatory” to “Redemption,” “American Philosophy: A Love Story’’ chronicles a spiritual ascent from the depths.

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One of Kaag’s goals is to recover the person within the philosopher. As he reads these documents of the philosophical life, he wonders “how philosophy had managed to lose its personal character.” “In graduate school [he] . . . was taught to carefully ignore the personalities that gave rise to philosophical arguments.’’ Where were the heartbeats beneath the covers of the books?

Kaag provides two kinds of answers. The first is as an admirably approachable teacher of the figures whose works he is cataloguing. He elucidates obscure philosophical matters. His history of American philosophy is lucid and compelling. He writes with refreshing clarity, humility, and a welcome absence of jargon. We learn a lot about the human beings behind the famous tomes.

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The second involves him reconnecting personally with the works. To this end, Kaag is delightfully self-probing, radically honest about his own flaws, and insightful in linking his intellectual interests to his personal history. He traces his attraction to philosophy back to his abandonment by his father, first at the age of four and then again when he was 29: “I now understand that [my father’s absence] eventually drove me to philosophy, to study the writings of men who worked at figuring everything out, who could tell me the meaning of life, who could help me make sense of my place in a difficult world.”

In this Dantesque sojourn of philosopher-as-man, Kaag’s Beatrice is Carol Hay, an attractive colleague at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who becomes his compatriot in saving West Wind (soon after beginning the salvage work, he files for divorce from his wife). The structure and trajectory of the book would make her the pinnacle. But, following the deft footing of the historical and academic treatments, this memoir aspect of the story feels on less solid ground. The timeline is confusing and herky-jerky: Suddenly he’s a professor (there isn’t nearly enough of his teaching life or his professional life outside West Wind); he’s with his wife; then he isn’t with his wife. And, strangely in a book designed to put people first, none of the other individuals — not Kaag’s late father, his mother, his first wife, the Hocking granddaughters, not even Hay — really comes alive as distinctive and memorable.

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That the book’s original title was “Finding West Wind: A Story of American Philosophy’’ indicates an uncertainty about where to throw the emphasis — particularly about the balance between, as it were, Clio and Eros. It is a balance Kaag fails to achieve. His relationship with Hay is thinly drawn against the mesmeric presences of the dead philosophers. Key moments in the romance are skipped over. We’re told he and Hay decide to marry, do marry, and conceive a child, but none of this is told in scenes, and she fades out at the end. All of which makes it difficult to become invested in the couple.

Overall, however, “American Philosophy,’’ still manages to be a lovely, intelligent, edifying, and admirable book, and Kaag an immensely likeable guide.

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY:

A Love Story

By John Kaag

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pp., $26

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Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’