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Pity America the Un-Philosophical


I attempted to leave a short amusing response at Foreign Policy.com but was thwarted by their comment system, so I am writing a pedantic post here instead.

Joshua Keating, bursting with admiration for Bernard-Henri Levy, laments the lack of enlightenment of American politicians compared to their much cooler French counterparts:

Libyan intervention: Brought to you by Bernard-Henri Levy?

….I was going to write some kind of quip along the lines of, “Can you imagine President Obama taking phone calls from [American philosopher] in the oval office while he debates whether to send U.S. troops to war,” but I can’t even think of a name for whom that joke would make sense. 

France and Germany have a tradition of publicly engaged philosophers that’s pretty much alien to the United States. The idea of an American BHL or even Jurgen Habermas seems pretty laughable. Economists like Paul Krugman are the go-to public intellectuals here while philosophy has become an increasingly specialized and technical discipline, even within academia. What effect the prominence of philosophers in public life has on a country’s political culture and policies is a pretty promising subject for further research.


Philosophers have never had much of an impact on American public life and the politics of their times except…. maybe…. for William James, Reinhold Neibhur, John Dewey, Leo Strauss, Walter Lippmann, Ayn Rand, Herbert Croly, Sydney Hook, Allan Bloom, James Burnham, John Rawls and Thomas Kuhn. That’s just off of the top of my head. If you want to include economists as philosophers who influenced contemporary American political life – and, frankly, we often should – add Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, John Galbraith and Milton Friedman to the list. It should not need to be said, but America was founded on the ideals of philosophers like John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu and Cicero by men deeply steeped in moral and political philosophy. Some of the founders would have qualified as philosophers themselves.

I don’t know much about Mr. Keating. Pretty sure he is a sharp guy, but I bet he is 35 or younger and was a journalism or polisci grad. Academic philosophy as a profession has been increasingly irrelevant to policy makers or the general public as described, Keating is spot on there, since the early mid-60’s, which is probably the entirety of his life. It was not always this way. Formerly, philosophers wrestled with problems of general interest and were active public intellectuals, the determined self-marginalization of today’s professional philosophers notwithstanding.

It is a symptom of intellectual decline but the problem Keating identifies is not in American society or even in American politicians but in the philosophers.

10 Responses to “Pity America the Un-Philosophical”

  1. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International,Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania’s Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/meet_the_staff

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The Bloodworths once pointed out that one aspect of Confucius’ genius was compiling selected Chinese poems into the "Book of Songs", requiring the true gentleman to memorize them, and then sublimating social conflict into poetry recital. Two Confucian gentlemen could have two conversations at once, one an exchange of classical poetry and one a violent disagreement involving the exchange of deadly insults. Because they could say what they wanted to say without openly saying it, social order was maintained. .The liberal tradition probably served a similar function in the West prior to the 1960s. After that point, its place was taken by pop cultural debris. Now many conversations between Americans happen on two levels, one a discussion of Thundercats and one a deep exchange of ideas. America still has its philosophers, they’ve just left the academy. .The most powerful America philosopher today is Oprah. I’ve often speculated that it was her favorable treatment of Ken Pollack and his book making the case for war against Iraq on her show in late 2002 that opened the way for the OIF the next year. If Oprah ordered Obama to invade Luxembourg, he’d obey immediately. Oprah is like 50 Levy’s, only much harder to catch.

  3. J. Scott Says:

    JF, Excellent! I would submit that The Oprah peaked with her open support of The Obama—still begs the question of "who" will replace her. If we’re using Oprah as the model of the modern day philosopher, Rush would probably qualify. (btw, I did like the "pop cultural debris" remark).

  4. Chris van Avery Says:

    Don’t forget the influence of "prairie philosophers", like Ben Franklin, Will Rogers and Mark Twain. They may not have had formal training, but they were deeply philosophical and made a big impact on the outlook of Americans.

  5. Joseph Fouche Says:

    When Dr. Franklin came to Paris, the French proclaimed him one of the three great philosophers of the age along with Voltaire and Rousseau. They even threw a public spectacle where Dr. Franklin held a summit meeting with the dying Voltaire at the theater. Dr. Franklin’s Autobiography is the most influential work of American philosophy ever written, setting out the tale of a poor boy who becomes a rich man through hard work, pithy maxims, and high voltage. Dr. Franklin invented the self-help book. 

  6. A.E. Says:

    Another question is whether America really needs a BHL. Let France keep the fellow, I’d say. 

  7. seydlitz89 Says:

    I think it’s more than just philosophy.

    At the Clausewitz conference in 2005 a French theorist attending mentioned to me how the Americans were the least "Clausewitzian" of any of the nationalities present – he thought I was British.  I understood what he meant and didn’t take it negatively, but more as an observation with validity. 

    To keep it vague since it’s hard to describe, I’ll say only it’s not really the way we’re brought up to think, rather we have to learn it, and only a few unfortunately do. 

    An attitude toward theory that is philosophical, musical even,  but can get one into trouble . . .

    Just ask the French, who obviously had a well-thought-out or "cunning" plan for Libya, which has not quite lived up to their expectations . . .

  8. J. Scott Says:

    Seydlitz89, Nice concluding sentence! Reminds me of an old parody of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Caesar is asked about Cassius and responds, "Don’t let me have nobody about me like yon Cassius; cause he have that lean and hungried look, he do not eat, he do not sleep, and he nibbles them no-dose…oh, he sits in that little house away from the house he meditates—oh, he thinks too much, he’s about half-smart." (it was a Southern parody:))

  9. zen Says:

    "At the Clausewitz conference in 2005 a French theorist attending mentioned to me how the Americans were the least "Clausewitzian" of any of the nationalities present "
    I’d agree with that. Alexis de Tocqueville might as well.

  10. YT Says:

    Too bad Obama haven’t the equivalent of a strategist the likes of a Yao Guang Xiao the Yongle Emperor had. So Obama has to contend with the Republicans and Congress? It’s not as if holdin’ the reins of leadership was any easier in the days of the early Ming with tons of Confucianist officials against your every decision, be it war or high seas diplomacy.
    Of a higher caliber than any Henri Lévy, Habermas or Krugman was Yao.

    In the world of today, Yao would be the equivalent of a John Kenneth Galbraith and George Frost Kennan combined, albeit with secular Eastern beliefs.
    Americans have nearly always been Jominian.

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