Over the years I’ve enjoyed and learned from many of Carlin Romano’s articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He can do good philosophical reporting. So I picked up America the Philosophical, and I was disappointed.
Romano’s thesis is that the United States is a nation of vigorous philosophical activity and — contrary to the critics who portray it as an intellectual wasteland of complacency and platitudes — a culture that takes philosophy seriously. It’s a great topic, and I agree with Romano’s thesis.
But here’s how to write a book about other philosophers:
1. Present their positions.
2. At least sketch their arguments for the positions they take.
3. Criticize those positions when necessary by making counter-arguments.
Here’s how not to write about other philosophers:
4. Ignore the academic literature about the philosopher and use only critical remarks gleaned from amateurs or non-philosopher-professionals.
5. Focus more on gossip about the philosopher’s person rather than the person’s philosophy.
6. In passing, identify the philosopher’s views with those of contemporary politicians you despise.
First impressions matter, and the first section of America the Philosophical I read was the eight pages on philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand.
On 1: Of the perhaps sixty major issues a philosopher can take a position on to define his or her worldview, Romano mentions perhaps four of Rand’s positions. Easily more than 95% of Romano’s Rand is about her biography and some indicators of her cultural impact. Why she has had that impact, though, is left a mystery since we don’t learn about the positions that have driven it.
On 2: Not a single argument of Rand’s is presented.
On 3: Romano makes no counter-arguments, though his disdain is clear. Once, he cites Wittgenstein in questioning Rand’s claim that words should be used with clear meanings.
On 4: Romano mentions works about Rand written by a journalist, an English professor, a political scientist, and a pair of high-school teachers — but none of the many books published on Rand by professional philosophers — e.g., Tara Smith, Allan Gotthelf, Leonard Peikoff, Tibor Machan, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas Den Uyl, David Kelley, and Harry Binswanger.
On 5: Romano has read some of the colorful biographies of Rand, and he quotes many of the insults traded by her admirers and detractors. What philosophical issues drove the disagreements that led to the insults? Who knows?
On 6: Rand was an atheist and hostile to social conservative politics, but Romano blithely identifies her views with those of a recent theistic social conservative president. Rand opposed central banking and government monopolies, but Romano sees no disconnect between that and the policies of a recent chief central banker and money monopolist.
Rand is one of my areas of scholarly expertise, so I somtimes use other authors’ presentations of her views as a bellwether of their objectivity. Mess up there, and I’m disinclined to read further. Many books, little time, etc.
But maybe the author has good stuff to say about other philosophers. Romano’s short sections on Charles Pierce and Cornel West are better, actually stating their views and arguments. He devotes much sympathetic space to Susan Sontag, and his extended discussion of Richard Rorty is the best part of the book.
So why not for Rand? Yes, Rand is unorthodox. Yes, she is radical, often hard to categorize, provocative, sometimes outrageous, and controversial. But hey, guess what — so were the other influential philosophers in history. That goes with the territory, and a competent professional philosopher should be able to handle it.