Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy

There are not many books on the history of American philosophy. The general consensus seems to be that there was a glory period during the late 19th century and not much else to merit discussion. However, to gain a thorough understanding of my place in the world today, specifically my intellectual perspective, I find it necessary to understand the development of thought in my country. It was therefore a nice surprise to find this book patiently waiting for me on Amazon.

The format of the book is perfect: a general overview of the different "chapters" in American philosophy, short introductions to several prominent American philosophers, and some essays on general themes explored by these men and women. So, great topic plus great format equals great book, right? Not exactly. The book was limited by a couple of key shortcomings that ultimately deflated my reading experience.

A narrow scope. The copyright date for this publication is 2004, yet the narrative of philosophical history ends with Naturalism in the early 20th century. Surely a contemporary summary should see fit to include the last one hundred years. The justification for this omission could be that this book focuses on American philosophy and not philosophy in America. It could be argued that original developments in theory have not arisen here since the roaring twenties. This could be true, but I doubt it.

Poor writing. The Blackwell Guide is edited by two men, Armen Marsoobian and John Ryder, and is comprised of essays by over twenty professional philosophers. With this pedigree I expected more engaging prose. Although many essays were interesting, some authors- that means YOU, Joseph Margolis- were pedantic and insulting. At one point Mr. Margolis, a professor at Temple, writes that William James had neither the patience nor competence to understand the technical distinctions of his peer. I do not think it appropriate to write condescendingly of a deceased person, perhaps more so if that person is an American Intellectual Giant who lived in an era you are not familiar with and who is out of your league in accomplishments and importance.

I do not want to communicate too negatively about this work; I was introduced to some people whom I wish to learn more about soon (Justus Buchler and Jane Addams)and became more familiar with others who continue to inspire (George Santayana and W.E.B Dubois). My overall recommendation is to read this book with a realistic understanding of what it is: a collection of writing by different people, of different caliber, writing on different subjects. Pick what interest you, and don't waste your time with what's left.

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