The best books on American Philosophy

recommended by John Kaag

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Should we be moral? Should we love? John Kaag, philosopher and author of American Philosophy: A Love Story and Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, puzzles how five American Pragmatist and Transcendentalist philosophers quarrel with these searching questions and other timeless subjects, from faith and belief to human rights.

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John Kaag

John Kaag is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is author most recently of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are and American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was named a 2016 NPR Book of the Year and New York Times Editor's Choice. He lives outside of Boston with his family.

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Obviously, you’re American, but your passion for American philosophy seems to be stronger than just a nationalistic one.

Yes, that’s true. When I was in undergrad, I was attracted to two philosophies: Existentialism, on the one hand, and American philosophy on the other. They ask similar questions. They ask the question ‘is life worth living, given the very difficult state of being human?’ I was drawn to American philosophers, particularly the Transcendentalists and the Pragmatists. I was most attracted to William James’ answer ­­to ‘Is Life Worth Living?’ which was a lecture that he published in The Will to Believe and Other Popular Essays, one of the books that I’ve suggested. In this lecture, James says the question ‘Is life worth living?’ has been answered in two mutually exclusive ways: yes and no. If you believe yes, you come up with all sorts of creative ways why life might be worth living. If you believe no, and believe it strongly enough, you shake off this mortal coil pretty quickly.

“With James, I felt I had found a kindred philosophical spirit.”

James, however, who had struggled with depression and anxiety for most of his life, believed that the proper answer to this question is ‘maybe.’ It depends on the liver. As somebody who, through my teenage years, was struggling with a mixture of OCD and anxiety and depression, this answer resonated in a very real way. I take James’ answer that it is up to liver as not altogether different from the existential freedom that Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir encouraged us to explore in the twentieth century. With James, I felt I had found a kindred philosophical spirit. What James is saying is that the possibilities of life being worth living are for us to explore at our own risk but also at our own reward. What’s interesting is that I didn’t really understand James’ ‘maybe’ when I was an undergrad. I really only understood it when I turned twenty-nine and had an experience that underpinned my book American Philosophy: A Love Story. I was at Harvard on a postdoc, and my brother was a surgeon down in New York. He called one day and said “you should really come down and see Jan,” who was my estranged father who I hadn’t seen in twelve years. “He’s in the late stages of oesophageal cancer.” At that point, I did, and two months later I saw my father die in a hospital in Buffalo, New York.

James’ ‘maybe’ made a lot of sense to me then. Life could be easily squandered, but it could also be realised in real ways. It took fortitude or some real choice to make good on life’s possibilities. And then in the following Fall after my father passed away, I was in the midst of a divorce and I found this library up in New Hampshire which was owned by one of William James’ last students, William Ernest Hocking. It’s up on 400 pristine acres of White Mountain estate. It’s a private library.

Hocking was a collector of seventeenth and eighteenth-century first editions, but he also inherited the libraries of William James and Josiah Royce. That library became my home away from home, and the setting of American Philosophy: A Love Story. It was there that I came across the five books that I’m recommending today. It was there that I came across a first edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first series of essays from 1841, inscribed by Emerson; it was there that I re-read Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is the sort of companion to the first series of essays, written in 1845; and it was there that I understood the relationship between Transcendentalism—which is often considered a poetic or metaphysical position—and hardcore American Pragmatism, which is usually thought of as instrumental. What comes out in the course of American Philosophy: A Love Story is this idealism within Pragmatism. You might want to call it ‘the soul of Pragmatism.’ My five book choices reflect that soul, or that metaphysical position.

You’ve mentioned your interest in both Existentialism and American philosophy—you’ve written books about both of those influential movements. We’ve talked a little about your book American Philosophy, which focuses on Pragmatism. Could you just say something about your latest book, which is more existential?

The book Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are came out in September and it is the sequel to American Philosophy: A Love Story. American Philosophy explains how philosophers like Emerson, Fuller, and William James can help you through divorce and remarriage—how they can help you re-conceive of love. Hiking with Nietzsche is less ebullient, but I think more real.

Hiking with Nietzsche is a book about a return to my first philosophical love: Nietzsche. Today I am not a ‘Nietzsche guy’—but I am a person whose life was altered rather dramatically (and twice) on the basis of Nietzsche’s writings. I wrote my Masters thesis on Emerson and Nietzsche with Doug Anderson and Dan Conway, on the ascetic ideal but also on genius and insanity. When I was still a teenager, they urged me to take a summer and spend it in Switzerland, where Nietzsche had hiked. When I was nineteen I had a very radical and destructive take on Nietzsche. After nine weeks hiking with my philosophical hero I had lost twenty-two pounds and attempted suicide.

This book, Hiking with Nietzsche, is a story about going back to Sils Maria, where Nietzsche had summered, the place which I had visited by myself when I was nineteen. At thirty-seven—with a young child and a partner—I try to ask what the childless Nietzsche can teach us about raising children, about love, and about resisting complacency in middle age. It is, again, a combination of memoir and intellectual history. It is not a formal biography or close reading of the texts. Hopefully it demonstrates something—how reading philosophy can change a life. But it’s a much darker book than American Philosophy: A Love Story. In the American tradition, usually, and this is certainly the case in American Philosophy: A Love Story, you end up feeling triumphant at the end of your readings. That is the case with these five books I’ve recommended. But, with Nietzsche, you really don’t have that same sense of triumph. At best, you have a little hope or light in the face of impending darkness. You begin and end with a question. I think that’s what middle age and mid-life are about: figuring out how to live with the question.

Let’s get on to the books on American philosophy. You’ve chosen a collection of Emerson’s essays. Was this how it was actually published, as Emerson’s ‘First Series’?

Yes, it was. It was published in 1841 and, typically, most of the great writings from American philosophy began as lectures. You get this sense in almost all of Emerson’s writings, that he’s talking to a group of people and he really wants them to stay awake. It is not uncommon to hear about people falling asleep in these long lectures. The poetry, the explanation, the dramatic tension, all of this was meant to serve a pedagogical function, and to keep the listeners interested. And we forget that. We forget that that is basically what philosophy is: it is teaching. That’s what you really get out of Emerson’s essays.

“We forget that that is basically what philosophy is: it is teaching.”

Emerson’s essays are responding to Tocqueville’s claim that America is a place inimical to philosophical interests. He said this in 1830. And then Emerson immediately—or almost immediately—in 1837 and 1838, gave two lectures: ‘The American Scholar’ and the ‘Divinity School Address’. They basically say, You are right. This is not the place for your type of philosophy. Philosophy had either been relegated to a rationalist position or an empiricist position or a hyper-formal position that Kant expresses. Emerson says, Let’s get down to the real life of philosophy. This is what you find in the first series of essays. I picked the First Series primarily because it lays out the high points of Transcendentalism that then get carried on into Pragmatism.

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The first series of essays consists of many essays, but I’m going to just touch on a few. Here in the First Series, you find ‘Self-Reliance,’ where he writes that “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” This is about the drive to individualism or the drive to nonconformity that we heard in ‘The American Scholar’ but then, even more jarringly in the ‘Divinity School Address.’ Emerson is trying to separate himself off, to some extent, from the stultifying ways of the past. You hear that a lot in ‘Self-Reliance.’ When he says “trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” he’s trying to centre us on our own conscience, our own goals, and the account that we give of our own lives. This is the sort of ancient imperative that was in Plato’s Apology.

On one reading, that’s incredibly empowering, but, on another, it is isolating and self-aggrandising—in the way that some people think Nietzsche can be as well. It could be antisocial to be this strong, strident individual who’s not concerned with how the rest of society sees you.

That’s right. When Nietzsche read Emerson in the 1860s, he said that one of Emerson’s strongest points was what called Nietzsche calls his “skepsis.” What he meant by that is Emerson’s deep scepticism about the conventions of life. He and Emerson shared that scepticism. What I will say is that there is another aspect to Emerson, even in the First Series, that balances out this individualism. I think that’s what’s really interesting in the First Series and in Emerson’s essays generally.

We have ‘Self-Reliance,’ but then we have a sister essay in the same series called ‘Compensation’ which looks nothing like ‘Self-Reliance.’ Similarly, in the Second Series, you have two sister essays that reflect the same issue of power and fate. The difficulty and the challenge of reading Emerson is to read these diametrically opposed positions together or side-by-side and see them as creating a productive tension. ‘Compensation’ says that your freedom is always limited by your history. Freedom is always limited by the genealogy that you find yourself in. This too, I think, would resonate with Nietzsche. But, more specifically, Emerson says that we always operate within a wider cosmic, social and political give-and-take. There is no action without an equal and opposite reaction. And that reaction is just as real and just as connected to us as the action itself. For example, you can think about ‘Self-Reliance’ as this promethean call to activity, whereas ‘Compensation’ is this sense that we must hold back, or rather that we must hold things in reserve, or that our actions are always set within a wider context or network of relations. So, I think these two essays, with this push towards freedom and the pull towards togetherness that you see in ‘Self-Reliance’ and ‘Compensation,’ are interesting poles that create the tension that drives American Transcendentalism but also American Pragmatism.

Was Emerson, himself, the victim of an oppressive upbringing or of very conventional surroundings that led him to be so emphatic about being himself rather than what other people might want him to be?

This is a fascinating question. Concord is a unique place: it is both the birthplace of the American Revolution, but also it is deeply conservative. It was conservative even in Emerson’s day. He came from a long line of ‘painful preachers’—conservative, Puritan, congregationalist ministers. Emerson’s first wife—his first real love—died of tuberculosis and, after that tumult, he returned to Concord. He came back home to the place where he was raised, but he had changed after his wife’s death. When he returned to Concord, he was not comfortable going back to old ways of life. And, in fact, the first thing he did, when invited to give the 200th memorial talk at Concord, is that he went to interview the last surviving soldier of the Battle of Concord, the last minuteman, whose name was Thaddeus Blood. Emerson thought that Blood held the key, I think, to the challenge of being American—the need to renew yourself and to engage in this continual revolution of conscience. Emerson was interested in knowing what freedom could be, other than just political freedom or freedom in name only. So, he was fascinated by the various ways individuals might exercise their freedom and how communities could facilitate that.

According to Emerson, what were the other factors that might enable or constrain one’s freedom?

Well let’s think about the ‘The Over-Soul’ for a minute. This is another famous essay from the first series. You see that Emerson held a metaphysical position that is oftentimes downplayed in the discussions of contemporary American philosophy. Emerson believed that there was a self and the Self. During this time, he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and had been inspired by it to write “The Over-Soul.”He believed that our own selves are usually engaged in fairly petty, mundane, superficial activities. The point of life is to get down to the elemental. In other words, it’s to strip bare the other aspects of life and to get to this Self or Soul, where we are all connected. Emerson didn’t explain exactly how to achieve that, but he believed that we are all connected. You can think of this as a type of pantheism or panpsychism which, oddly enough, has come back into fashion with David Chalmers and others recently. But Emerson was on to it in 1841.

Your next book is Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century. This is not a book I know at all. Could you tell me about it?

You’re not alone in not knowing this book. One of the great oversights that we make when we talk about classical American philosophy is not noticing how brilliant Margaret Fuller was. She was certainly considered brilliant by her contemporaries. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edgar Allen Poe all considered her probably the most intelligent woman of their day. Woman in the Nineteenth Century was first published in The Dial as a series of articles known as ‘The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.’ It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the American counterpart to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. It was the first book of its kind in the United States. The argument that Fuller made involved extending Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ by applying it to women.

Fuller made the point that the individualism that Emerson discussed in ‘Self-Reliance,’ in ‘The American Scholar’ and in ‘The Divinity School Address’ has historically not been extended or available to women. She claimed that if good Transcendentalists were going to back individualism or the individualism of ‘Self-Reliance,’ then they should also support institutions that gave women the chance to exercise this freedom. And she did this in a couple of interesting ways. One was a type of Kantian move, which is to say that dignity applies to all human being with rational capacities. It has been described as a sentimental argument, because she was appealing to the sentiments of her readers to notice that the oppressive circumstances for women had gone on since history began. But her argument for equal consideration of interests is very tightly crafted.

“Fighting oppression operates by way of getting out of a basement by steps. You can be further up or down in this basement, depending on how many vectors of oppression you face”

She also made the point—and I think this is philosophically original—that with the abolitionism that was visible in the 1840s, especially around Boston, that if one defended the rights of African American slaves, and was willing make the claim about the freedoms that African Americans deserve, then this argument should also hold when it comes to women, both white women and black women. This is one of the first articulations of what today we call intersectionality. She pointed out, like many feminist theorists today, that fighting oppression operates by way of getting out of a basement by steps. You can be further up or down in this basement, depending on how many vectors of oppression you face, and fighting one form of oppression or fighting other forms of oppression. So, this is something that I think is very valuable in ‘The Great Lawsuit.’

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One very interesting part of ‘The Great Lawsuit’ is the tale that Fuller tells about a character by the name of Miranda, a tale that is largely autobiographical. Miranda is a woman who has a very supportive father in terms of educational practices—she’s given the best education—and she’s able, by virtue of this education, to become an intellectual success. This runs against the biological essentialism that would have governed much of nineteenth-century life. For Fuller, the differences in gender expression aren’t about about nature, but rather the opportunities one is afforded with, and the nurture that one is given.

Why do you think this book is so neglected? You would have thought that feminist writers would bring it to the fore now.

There are a couple of different reasons why it’s neglected, but I think primarily it is an issue of style: this type of writing is not particularly approachable for much contemporary analytic or continental feminism. Fuller wrote poetic philosophy, one that is shot through with various classical allusions, which would have resonated with her audience but, today, do not make much sense unless you start digging into the allusions. I think she relied on classical allusions even more than, say, Emerson, because she felt she needed to show that she had a respectable educational background; whereas Emerson (as a guy) didn’t have quite as much to prove.

Ironically, that would presumably have made it much harder for women readers at the time to appreciate her writing.

That’s true, and it certainly makes it hard for us to appreciate it now. There is also the small matter that she died before her time. She went to Italy, fell in love, and supported the Italian Revolution. On her way back to the States, at the tender age of forty, in 1850, the ship she was sailing in sank off the coast of New York City. Had she lived longer, she probably would have had more influence.

You mentioned the Transcendentalist movement in relation to Emerson and Fuller. Could you give a very brief gloss on what this movement was and why it was called ‘Transcendentalist’? 

Emerson traced Transcendentalism back to a particular aspect of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy: Kant’s turn inward to investigate the categories of experience. This turn inward—to think about the way that our experience gives us the world and the relation between the world and our subjective experience—is a move that’s distinctive for all Transcendentalists.

More generally, there are a number of themes in Transcendentalism. One is finding oneself in nature. This is the Romantic idea that who I am most essentially can be discovered not in the conventions of society, but in some sort of communion with nature, by getting back to nature and realising that you are a part of nature. We see that in Walden, when Thoreau says ‘I love the wild not less than the good,’ and how woodchoppers, fishers, and hunters regard themselves as part of nature, not apart from nature. That’s something that I think most Transcendentalists hold onto.

There’s also deep democratic sentiment in Transcendentalism. You can think of it as the democratisation of genius, almost, or the democratisation of the aesthetic. Most Transcendentalists were interested in seeing the genius that individuals have across the board, not in seeing genius as something particularly special. Or, rather it is special but so are we all. Those are a couple of different elements in Transcendentalism. That democratic ethos then translates into certain social and political ideals. Abolitionism is oftentimes associated with Transcendentalism—accurately, in my view—because it entails realising that we have obligations to people who are oppressed, because they are not able to exercise their self-reliance.

Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau all lived close together in Concord.

Yes. Thoreau and Emerson were basically neighbours throughout life. Fuller travelled and lived in a variety of places, but she was always close by, at least in spirit.

Let’s move on to Thoreau. You’ve chosen Walden, a very famous book ostensibly about Henry David Thoreau’s two years spent living by Walden Pond. Could you say a bit more about the book?

Goethe’s last words were a request for more light—he famously called out ‘more light! more light!’ I think this is what Thoreau was really getting us to think about. What does it mean to ask for more light? What does it mean to truly see? What does it mean to be fully enlightened? Not only in the grand story sense, but what does it mean to be awake to others, awake to nature, awake to ourselves, and awake to the little voice—what the Greeks called a daimon—that tells us what not to do? Thoreau’s Walden is asking us to think that through.

“Walden opens with a discussion of economy, but this word comes from the Greek word οίκος which means ‘to dwell’ or ‘to make a home’”

I picked Walden because it resonates so clearly with our present day concerns and circumstances. Walden opens with a discussion of economy, but this word comes from the Greek word οίκος which means ‘to dwell’ or ‘to make a home’. That’s what ‘economy’ initially meant. Think how far that is from how we think about our economic lives today. Thoreau asked the question ‘What do you really need?’ You need shelter, food, some sort of clothing, and the right type of companionship. That is the economy of life. And you can be largely self-sufficient, which is something that we today, in our capitalist system, have lost. Walden is definitely that reminder that we can get back to the basics. As he says: “simplify, simplify.”

He grew his own food, didn’t he?

He did. The book inspired Gandhi’s Satyagraha (‘self-sufficiency’). During the time that he was at Walden, Thoreau was writing not just Walden but also Civil Disobedience, where he argues that we should not implicitly support a government that does not hold moral ideals firmly. That’s implicit in Walden as well. Thoreau was trying to distance himself from conventional society and politics, just enough so that he could get a critical perspective on them.

And why are we not civilly disobedient? Why do we not risk ourselves in political activism? Thoreau suspects that one of the reasons why we don’t risk ourselves in political activism is that we have our lives so bound up with material goods, that we sacrifice so much if we don’t pay our taxes, for example. We have so much to lose. But Thoreau says, if you simplify your life down to the bare essentials then maybe you’ll notice that you have, first of all, more time to dedicate to social and political activity, but also the willingness, insofar as you’re not so afraid of losing things, losing material goods, losing your very luxurious way of life. Those are a few of the reasons why I picked Walden as one of my five books.

He was living more or less in a shed. It was a very primitive place to live for two years, which shows a kind of seriousness of purpose. It’s one thing to say this is what a human being needs, but it’s another thing to run the experiment on yourself.

That’s right. If you go to Concord today, you see some really beautiful houses. If you think about the house where Emerson’s family lived above the Concord battlefield, this is a gorgeous huge house. So too is the Bush, which is the house that Emerson bought upon his return to Concord. Thoreau did something a bit different: he bought a hut (he didn’t build it from scratch) from an Irish working family. He disassembled it and then reassembled it on his site next to the pond. He lived in a hut that would not be standard for his education or socio-economic status. This is one of the points he was trying to make: we do not necessarily need luxuries.

He goes even further, though, because he sees these wooden trunks by the railroad that are basically like coffins. And he thought, if you drilled a few holes in them then they’d serve as a satisfactory place to sleep. So, he can envisage an even more economic way of living.

This was like Diogenes living in the barrel. What’s also interesting is that Thoreau’s house, after he left Walden, was sold off, disassembled, and made into a pigpen. It seems sort of appropriate that getting back to nature also involved Thoreau’s cabin being resassembled as a home for half-domesticated beasts.

We don’t tend to think of the nineteenth century as an age of recycling. It was an age of virgin territory and plentiful resources.

That’s right. But Thoreau was definitely aware of recycling. If we think about Emerson’s ‘Circles’ from that first series of essays, we see the idea that what goes around comes around, and the idea that there should not be waste. What most people think of as waste, he recognised can be used and be used to good effect. Thoreau was not above eating acorns. He wasn’t above eating wild apples. He said that these too could be delicious.

But he was also a great writer. Walden is a very readable book.

It is. It’s probably the quickest read out of the five books that I’ve recommended. He said in Walden ‘in most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained.’ There’s this idea that philosophy can blend into memoir and that, ideally, philosophy, at its best, is to help us through the business of living with people, within communities. This is a point that Thoreau’s Walden gave to me, as a writer, and why I consider it so valuable for today.

If we think about the accounts of our lives that we are giving, and that will be with us as we meet the grave, I think Thoreau’s Walden, but also in his Journal, gave us models for what good last words might sound like.

There is that autobiographical element in Descartes’ Meditations and his Discourse on the Method. It’s there, obviously, in Rousseau’s Confessions, too, and you can even go back to St Augustine. There is a tradition in philosophy of the first person being there.

That’s true. To some extent, philosophy’s attempt to be objective or to maintain a god’s eye view of things—such as you see in rationalism and, unfortunately, also in some forms of contemporary analytic philosophy—implies a dismissal of the personal. While I do not think that all philosophy should be personal, I don’t think that it should be a strike against you if you decide to do philosophy personally.

You’ve chosen two books by William James, who is another truly great writer. One is a collection of essays and the other is The Varieties of Religious Experience. Let’s start with the Essays?

One of the reasons I suggested this one was because it includes ‘The Will to Believe.’ ‘The Will to Believe’ is a concluding argument after the better part of a lifetime of struggle. William James was plagued through his thirties with the ‘dilemma of determinism,’ as he termed it. He’d been brought up in a scientific community, was encouraged to study anatomy and physiology, he taught physiology at Harvard, and then, at the same time, in the 1870s, he went through some of his worst depressive episodes. And these two things were not unrelated for James.

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The idea that we are just sacks of meat governed by natural laws, and that we don’t necessarily have choice over the lives that we live, is a thought that petrified James. He combated this thought, first, by reading Charles Renouvier. Renouvier published a series of essays, in one of which argued for voluntarily adopted faith. In other words, he said that when an argument cannot be settled empirically, it is still an intellectually sound move to believe. James read this in the 1870s and it bounced him out of his depression. He wrote ‘my first act of free will will be to believe that I have free will,’ which seems like complete circular reasoning and an illegitimate move.

That’s what they call lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Yes, this bootstrapping seems very suspect to many philosophers. But he explained in ‘The Will to Believe,’ written many years later after reading Renouvier, why the thought is a viable move. His argument goes something like this. His opponent Clifford believed that you are not entitled to believe anything that you cannot definitely prove, that you should withhold judgement until the empirical chips are in. James responded by saying that would be fine if all matters could be settled empirically. But, oddly enough, many things that really matter in life cannot be settled empirically. And then he gave a number of examples, some of which resonated with me when I first read the essay, and still resonate. One of them is: Should I be moral? Can that question be answered empirically? No. Should I run into a burning building to save someone? That question cannot be solved empirically.

It could be if you know how fast you can run. There is an empirical solution to the question ‘Can I get in and out before the fire takes over?’

Yes, but should I try? Should I even try? These questions cannot be solved empirically. It’s the same for the question of the existence of God. Can we solve this empirically? No. In fact, empirically, there are probably good reasons to doubt God’s existence. But James says that the question is an open one. If you are inclined in the direction of faith, then it is a sound philosophical move to give yourself over to faith or to have faith. What James says is that your faith, actually, will transform the world in such a way that that faith becomes true.

For example, if we look out into the universe and think that it is an impersonal horrible place, then it will probably turn out to feel like an impersonal horrible place. But James says that if we are inclined to have faith, go ahead—just do it. And if you look out into the world with the perspective that it is personal and personable, the world might prove itself to be. Maybe. And maybe you will even experience some kind of Thou in the Cosmos. Maybe. James does not say that this will work for everyone. He’s not a universalist about this. He says, if you are concerned about faith and if you, at times, feel like you want to have faith, then believe. And that will to believe will change the world, and will change the way that you see it.

“In matters like friendship, courtship, love, and affection, James’ ‘Will to Believe’ can make a big difference to in someone’s life”

Basically, as a student, I rolled my eyes and thought, You’ve got to be kidding. This is total bullshit. But as I’ve got older, I think it makes more and more sense, not necessarily with God but with love. For example, do you love someone? This is not an empirical question that can be solved exhaustively. But should I still love? Should I choose to love? Should I try to make a life with someone? If I don’t try, it’s never going to happen. If I don’t give myself over to it, it’s never going to happen. If I always harbour doubt, it’s never going to happen. And so, in matters like friendship, courtship, love, and affection, James’ ‘Will to Believe’ can make a big difference to in someone’s life, in addition to the theological question.

Was he a religious believer himself?

Yes. That’s a controversial statement, but the answer is yes. Did he support institutional religion? The answer is no. Was he fascinated from beginning to end with spiritual and religious experiences? Yes.

And that explains your next choice, his Varieties of Religious Experience.

Exactly. James, like Thoreau and Emerson, was interested in the unseen or in the almost unseen. The contemporary American philosopher John McDermott said that he was interested in ‘every sensorial nuance.’ In other words, he was interested in the very slightest perturbation in our perceptions. He thought that the spiritual realm was a real possibility. He believed that people think that this is a real thing. In fact, James himself was interested in séances and the spiritual realm, from the time that he was thirty right through to his death.

Despite his being an early scientific psychologist?

That’s right. He was one of the founding members of the American Society for Psychical Research, which consisted of the most elaborate ghost-hunters you’ve ever imagined. It was a bunch of scientists trying to figure out what was going on with paranormal phenomena. James dedicated a large part of his time and life to this. In The Principles of Psychology, he wrote about the self in a number of different ways. He said there was the individual self, the social self, but there was also the spiritual self. James was very serious about looking at the spiritual self in as careful a scientific way as possible. That’s what he did in his psychical research.

And that lead into The Varieties of Religious Experience?

The Varieties of Religious Experience can be viewed in a couple of different ways. One is that James was taking a first step towards a move that became quite clear in John Dewey’s A Common Faith. This was that religion and the religious are two separate entities. Or, rather, they’re not two completely separate entities, but you can be religious or interested in religious experience—even have religious experience—outside of institutionalised religion. This is why the issue of varieties of religious experience comes up. James is a pluralist when it comes to spiritual experiences. He’s interested in those people who have absolutely no contact with the spiritual realm. And then, he’s interested in mystics, the deep hard core mystics. That’s one way of reading the Varieties of Religious Experience: as James’ defence of belief, and study of a whole range of spiritual experiences. That’s one aspect.

Would you describe this as a kind of anthropology?

It is an anthropology of religious experience. What I will say, though, is that it’s not just an anthropology. James set out at the beginning of the Varieties that there are those who are healthy-minded and there are those of us who are sick-souled. James was the perennially sick-souled one. Despite his occasional ebullience, my position is that James was a sick soul. James was a depressive throughout his life. He struggled with suicide throughout his life. In the last months of his life, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Blood—related to Thaddeus Blood, whom Emerson interviewed—saying that no person is truly educated until he confronts the prospect of suicide. He found a kindred spirit in Blood, who was accompanied by suicidal thoughts through his life.

In terms of the Varieties of Religious Experience, James was trying to counterbalance the will to believe. In other words, just as Emerson was counterbalancing ‘Self-Reliance’ with ‘Compensation’, James was counterbalancing this promethean will—I’m going to will myself to believe something—with what Richard Gale calls the ‘Poo-bah’ which is simply the mystic—the openness to the divine that you see in the Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s a receptivity, a passivity, that James is trying to think through. In the Varieties, he says what is it to “be as nothing in the waterspouts of God”? It’s a good question for our culture. To be as nothing? Don’t be this instrumental, pragmatist ‘go-work-it out’ type of strong person, but what is to experience and be receptive to the natural world and to others? That’s what I think he’s trying to push us to think through when it comes to these mystical experiences. James, himself, had these mystical experiences and thought that their power was very much real.

You’ve given a personal selection of five books of American philosophy from that era. Are there any other books that others might see as essential here that you’ve missed out? Is there something that stands out but that you’ve chosen not to choose, as it were?

Yes. My choices reflect a still marginalised view of American Pragmatism. Just being interested in Transcendentalism reflects a marginal view, I think. This is because the mainstream view is non-metaphysical. Each one of these authors has a very real metaphysical picture. And each of these authors, especially James, is treated by contemporary philosophers as having a minimal metaphysics or that their metaphysics is secondary to the epistemology. But I didn’t pick James’ Pragmatism as a book and I didn’t pick Charles Peirce’s essays such as ‘The Fixation of Belief’ or ‘Architecture of Theories.’ I didn’t pick those. The reason is because each of the books I’ve chosen reflects a strain of Idealism that is typically overlooked in mainstream philosophy when it goes back and plumbs American Pragmatism. I mean the philosophical sense of Idealism, coming out of German Idealism. I think that idealism is important. I think the idealism is oftentimes what captures students and captures readers. It’s the beauty of these writings and it’s the interest in beauty in these writing that draws readers in.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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John Kaag

John Kaag is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is author most recently of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are and American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was named a 2016 NPR Book of the Year and New York Times Editor's Choice. He lives outside of Boston with his family.