American Philosophy: A Love Story

John Kaag


The library was pitch-dark when we arrived. We turned on the lights just long enough to arrange our things and hit the sack—separate sacks. The following morning marked the first of many spent exploring West Wind together. The boxes in dry storage represented but a small fraction of the library; there were still thousands that needed to be sorted. This day would be spent gathering the last of the rarest books and shuttling them up to North Conway for safekeeping.

Aermican Philosophy
Barnes and Noble

Saving the rarest books often meant agreeing on how old a book had to be in order to be considered for storage. After extended deliberation we reached what, in hindsight, appears to be a random decision: 1845. These books would be stacked on the long oval table in the center of the first floor and would be trucked off to join the rest. We would eventually hire an appraiser to handpick the most valuable ones for donation. Further additions could be made on a case-by-case basis, but we would generally leave most of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century books behind. I knew that this meant missing dozens, if not hundreds, of valuable works, but for the time being, I couldn’t see a way around it.

Carol paged through a slim, modest-looking volume of Emerson from 1878. According to our rule, we should have left this one for the mice. It was not Emerson’s most famous work by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one of the more important ones if you were interested in his political views. A first edition of Emerson’s Fortune of the Republic would bring enough at a Sotheby’s auction to pay one of my students’ tuition for a full year. And this one was inscribed by Emerson himself. It would be an exception to our rule.

Emerson gave this lecture for the first time in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, and repeated it a dozen times over the next fifteen years, making revisions along the way. Unlike Hobbes, Emerson thought there were worse things than revolution, more dangerous things than the exercising of one’s personal freedoms. To him, the American Revolution was the best thing that could have happened to this country because it signaled a final departure from external control. The Civil War provided equal, although different, opportunities. Carol opened to a random page, scanned it quickly, and read aloud: “‘The end of all political struggle is to establish morality as the basis of all legislation . . . morality is the object of government. We want a state of things in which crime will not pay; a state of things which allows every man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other man.’” This is even more radical than the thinking of John Locke, who said, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” For Emerson, political and legal order was not merely about protecting personal liberty but also—and always—about fostering the good life. The point isn’t necessarily to live longer. It’s to live freely and well. Carol smiled. “This is just like Kant,” she said.

To Carol, the entire history of Western philosophy was about Kant. What came before him merely anticipated the philosophical moves that he would later master. And what came after him was either Kant warmed over or just plain wrong. She remains the only Kantian feminist I’ve ever met—every other feminist thinks he is completely irredeemable. In fact, American philosophers owed Kant a rather large debt. The diminutive professor from Königsberg, Germany, had initiated a massive philosophical project that the Transcendentalists and pragmatists extended through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kant, unlike Hobbes and Locke, insisted that individual freedom—and therefore morality—was the foundation of social and political life.

Theorists prior to Kant were worried about political stability and the relative significance that personal liberty had in its pursuit, but for the most part they argued that moral theory had a relatively small role to play in political life. Hobbes and Locke diverged in many ways, but they agreed that people were generally moved by sensations, fears, and desires rather than by profound moral principles. For them, human reason was predominantly instrumental, an extension of an animalistic drive for self-preservation, and the wisest thing to do was to set up political institutions that could keep base instincts in check. Idealists such as Kant and Emerson, however, couldn’t have disagreed more.

To Kant, human beings possessed unique capacities that separated them from the rest of the animal kingdom—the nasty realm of self-interest and beastly impulse. Kant argued that humans were not simply moved by the forces of their world but, at their best, were motivated by an internal, almost divine force he called rational will. Unlike porcupines and termites, humans had minds that were not buffeted by random sensations or experiences; they actively structured experience. Humans were creatures that could think and thereby self-legislate. By virtue of their active rational capacities, humans were the only beasts that could set duties for themselves, and therefore the only ones that could be morally responsible. The point of philosophy, for Kant, was neither to sublimate self-interest nor to construct systems that keep people in check, but rather to awaken individuals to their own active minds and thereby make them pointedly aware of their moral duty. This was a philosophical position many American thinkers could happily endorse. In 1842 Emerson tied American Transcendentalism directly to Kant, writing:

What is popularly called Transcendentalism . . . acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by  Immanuel Kant, of Königsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms.

Ideas and imperative forms: Kant and Carol were all about them. These forms allowed us to escape the vicissitudes of human experience, to hinge our destiny to something a bit more stable than our own fragile lives. All we have to do is make good on our rational capacities and recognize the convincing force of moral duty.

There was, however, a substantial difference between Emerson and Kant, but at that moment, with a daunting amount of work ahead of us, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead of arguing with Carol—an activity I relished almost as much as she did—I wandered into an unexplored nook of the library to begin the book hunt. To my genuine surprise, she followed me.

American Philosophy
Barnes and Noble



John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot and Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He lives outside Boston with his wife and daughter.

You Might Also Like
Adina Hoffman & Lisa Cohen on What it Means to write Biography
Jamie James on The Many Faces of Isabelle Eberhardt
Thomas More’s Utopia at 500

Work In Progress Newsletter

Birth Month
Birth Year

Yes, please send me the Work in Progress newsletter and other information from Macmillan and its related companies.