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Is America Philosophical?

May 25, 2012

Carlin Romano in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

America the Philosophical? It sounds like Canada the Exhibitionist or France the Unassuming: a mental miscue, a delusional academic tic. Everyone knows that Americans don’t take philosophy seriously, don’t pay any attention to it, and couldn’t name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter dryly observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), ”In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”

But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter’s classic indeed boasts ”a long, historical background,” the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy in America is more quizzical than hostile, closer to good-humored wariness than contempt. Philosophy doesn’t threaten or bother the practical on-the-go American. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to yank out the old cliché ”What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?” and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your seatmate on a short-haul flight that you’re ”in philosophy” and the reply is likely to be, ”Oh, that’s great. My niece is in psychology, too.” (…)

Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously. Joking about philosophy in the United States or just ignoring it comes with the territory, like learning the Pledge of Allegiance.  (…)

For 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, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity 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 to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact. [More]

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