Transcript for Carlin Romano on "America the Philosophical"

Anne Strainchamps: Does it seem to you that America is becoming more shallow and vacuous with every passing year? Do you think we've devolved into a culture of reality TV and brainless celebrity tweets? Well, take heart. Philosopher, Carlin Romano, believes that America is actually a deeply philosophical nation. Romano's the author of "America the Philosophical," and Jim Fleming talks with him.

Fleming: In the introduction to your book, you argue that "America in the 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." It's a pretty bold statement to make. I imagine in the world of philosophy, to use the vernacular, them's fightin' words, ain't they?

Romano: They are. They're meant to be a bit of a stick in the eye to the intelligentsia that is always claiming the opposite. When I was on a book tour for the hardcover edition last year, I had a lot of people and audiences say to me, "Are you crazy? Are you just trying to be obnoxious?" And so on. And one of my stock responses would be, "Well, what's your candidate? Ancient Greece, with that enormous diversity it had of slaves and people from 11 different places in the world? Cartesian France, where people are operating in French and Latin, and don't know anything about other cultures?" The more you zero in on the reality of America today, how many writers we have, how many books we publish, how much freedom of expression we have, it begins to make more sense to people. So, I'd say within philosophy it seems like a crazy notion, but I must say that I've learned a lot since I published my book, and it's only been in support of the thesis. I'm astonished to learn, since the book was published, how powerful standard academic American philosophy has become around the world.

Fleming: So many of us find the notion of philosophy difficult to approach due to its academic nature, but you've stretched it, not just Hugh Hefner, but at one point in the book, Robert Fulghum, the author of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." He is not a man that most people would identify immediately as a philosopher, and yet you've included him.

Romano: Right, I should note that when I did that, I did it with a chapter title called "The Casual Wisemen," so I'm trying to distinguish people like Fulghum a bit from hardcore academic scholars. But Fulghum is actually an example of how surprising people can be. People often aren't who you think. Fulghum turned out to be someone who had studied Wittgenstein very closely, Ghandi very closely. He is a serious intellectual who was trying to then break down his ideas into simple forms. So, you probably remember some years ago when George Bush said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Lots of people mocked him, and yet there are many people who think of Jesus, in the Academic world, as a philosopher. One more example, today the media endlessly trumpets tweets as an important form of discourse. Well, you know, people who write in simple one-liners, what we used to call aphorisms, a lot like Fulghum, are they that different that Tweeters? I mean, either a sentence can be serious and invite serious thought, or it can't. I think most of the culture believes it can.

Fleming: One of the other things that you do in "America the Philosophical" is to look at the whole field, and there a chapter--a section, really--called "The Rising Outsiders." And you talk about African-Americans in philosophy, but it's a very small percentage of, at least the academic world, isn't it?

Romano: Oh, it's worse in philosophy than almost any discipline. In fact, I think it is the worst of all the humanistic disciplines, in regard to diversity. Women, if I'm remembering right, are now, maybe, low 20 percent of the faculty. African-Americans are closer to one, two, three percent. I remember I quoted a friend of mine, a wonderful person, Lucius Outlaw, who now teaches at Vanderbilt, who came from a typically working-class family in Alabama, became a philosopher. When he encountered all of this epistemology and linguistic analysis stuff, he said to me, "I didn't come out of Alabama to parse sentences," you know? He cared about social action, he cared about political philosophy.

Fleming: You've also opened up the history of it a little bit. It doesn't change the percentages much, but you do look back and find that there is more there than we thought. There's the African-American philosopher, Alain Locke, for instance. Can you tell me about him?

Romano: Yeah, he's a pretty fascinating figure. Still undiscovered, you might say, by the tradition. One reason was that he had primarily aesthetic interests. He's most famous in American culture for being kind of the spark plug of the Harlem Renaissance. He was very helpful. He edited "The New Negro," which was a very important anthology for the Harlem Renaissance. He was also gay, at a time that it wasn't easy to be gay in academia.

Fleming: We're talking about the early part of the 20th century here?

Romano: That's right. He eventually became the chair of the Philosophy Department at Howard University, and so he mentored a lot of young, black writers and thinkers. And another oddity about Alain Locke was that he was a Bahá'í, a religion that still, I would guess, you know, fewer than one percent could tell you what it is. So, he had all of these eccentric interests. I'd like "America the Philosophical" to be a book in which people discover figures they never met before, and in a concrete way that makes them interested.

Fleming: Your last chapter, I guess, you call it an epilogue in the book, is "Obama, Philosopher-in-Chief." We've talked about how important it is for the discussion to be of events as they are. Is that why you say he's the "Philosopher-in-Chief"?

Romano: Of course, I was grateful to the country for re-electing him, because my book would have been remaindered immediately if Romney were president. I'm glad that chapter still is somewhat contemporary. Seriously, I think he is a serious intellectual. I ride on some other books that quite excellent, such as "Reading Obama," which go back in Obama's intellectual career. You know, he read Niebuhr. He argued with a Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Unger, at Harvard. He's a serious guy who's done serious reading and will probably write serious books after he leaves the White House. I tried to focus on his speeches, many of which I think he is deeply involved in, in his crafting of them, after he gets it from the speechwriter. And I believe we do have a line of American presidents who have been serious intellectuals, like Jefferson or Wilson, and he's in that line. So, you know, I wasn't claiming he Emmanuel Kant, but he is somebody who I think often deliberates, perhaps too much. When he's getting knocked about for Syria now, I think it's probably because he thinks too much about all of the ramifications, not too little.

Fleming: So, philosophy does play a part in the way he conducts himself as Commander-in-Chief? Romano: I absolutely think so. I mean, I think if any of us could get inside Obama's mind and understand the way he has thought through perhaps intervention in Syria, the moral aspects, the legal aspects, you know, the obligation to save lives and all of that, we would be stunned by how philosophical an internal deliberation that was. It's not for mocking.

Fleming: Do you think that changing the way we think about America, changing the way, perhaps, we think of it as "America the Philosophical" changes the way we face issues, the way we think of ourselves as a part of the world?

Romano: I would hope so. George Packer has a new book out, "The Unwinding," which kind of, you know, argues and got a lot of positive attention, that the country's falling apart. And I think that's crazy. I don't think the country's falling apart. One of the reviewers mentioned that he said, you know, "Tampa was a living hell." Tampa? Have you been in Aleppo? We need to have a broader view of where we stand in the world, and one of the things I was trying to do with the book was to indicate that we are a powerful culture, intellectually. We should not be shy about that. I didn't mean to be jingoistic, but I did think that we should be confident about what we do, intellectually.

Strainchamps: Carlin Romano is a philosopher and critic-at-large of "The Chronicle of Higher Education." He's the author of "America the Philosophical." He spoke with Jim Fleming.

Comments for this interview

Tampa, Aleppo and Camden, New Jersey (Steve MacIntyre, 06/29/2013 - 2:32pm)

So Carlin Romano find the thesis of George Packer's The Unwinding to be "that the country is falling apart" and Mr. Romano thinks this is "crazy". Well, among recent social critiques, The Unwinding is pretty mild stuff in the America-is-falling-apart department. Mr. Romano should try something more bracing, like Chris Hedges' and Joe Sacco's Days Of Destruction Days Of Revolt.

Great swaths of America are falling apart, propelled by a system more interested in exploitation than in holding America together. And if Mr. Romano takes Panglossian comfort that Tampa is not Aleppo, let him absorb Hedge's and Sacco's descriptions of American war zones like Camden, New Jersey.