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America the Philosophical?
July 7, 2012 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Is America the Most Philosophical Society on the Planet? "For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, 19th-century Germany or any other place. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Web communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact."

Pretty funny and excellent food for thought, whether you find yourself agreeing or not.
posted by bookman117 (86 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Right, so if the analogy is to stick, we must be on the precipice or already experiencing the short-lived rule of the four thousand. Who, then, is our modern-day Plato? Matt Taibbi? Somehow the comparison fails...
posted by anewnadir at 10:28 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a counterpoint, I only offer the phenomenal cesspool of galactic stupidity that is the YouTube comments section.
posted by zachlipton at 10:29 PM on July 7, 2012 [18 favorites]


Well, we talk about the ipad as a towering symbol of consumerism, but it has a design philosophy behind it which is stronger than most. Many enlargements of consumerism are philosophical, or at least ontological in scope. Why can't computers be something everybody has, anyways?
posted by curuinor at 10:30 PM on July 7, 2012


The quantity of argument in modern society is indeed expansive. It would be a mistake to conflate the transmission of information with argument, and to equate either with reasoned or informed discussion.
posted by clockzero at 10:38 PM on July 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Web communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact."

I think perhaps there's a reason he chose that word instead of "quality."

But I'll remember this article next time I see see people on TV or on the street arguing about how Communist Obama's Nazism is, or whether he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. Or arguing about evolution, or climate change. Or mocking teachers as overpaid, useless union drones. Or sneering at higher education as something that just makes you liberal. Or mocking philosophy as useless because it won't make any money.

Not some mentally ill person yelling on the corner, but everyday people and politicians and business leaders and media figures saying these things. And then not being immediately laughed at or called buffoons, but sparking debates that consume our media and daily conversations.

Yes, it's good to live in this philosophical, intellectually inquisitive paradise.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:50 PM on July 7, 2012 [46 favorites]


And look at all the different choices we have for eating! McDonald's, Burger King, Del Taco, Chipotle, Sbarro, KFC and Popeye's, and on and on. Look for my upcoming book, "America the Gourmet" where I stick it to those stuffy Europeans and their snobby so-called cuisines.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:52 PM on July 7, 2012 [16 favorites]


The openness of its dialogue,

unless you're watching cable news

the quantity of its arguments,

so long as you don't expect to find them in newsprint

the diversity of its viewpoints,

as typified by YouTube comments

the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions,

illustrating how no one is ever convinced by a damn thing you say

the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms,

and the earnestness with which people will call you an idiot if you say something they don't agree with

the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information,

so long as it agrees with its preconceived notions

the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone,

unless TERRORISTS OMG

the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy,

because Fox News is never wrong amirite

the embrace of Web communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world:

even though the internet is a lot more than the United States

All corroborate that fact.

except that they don't.
posted by JHarris at 10:54 PM on July 7, 2012 [42 favorites]


zachlipton, not that I disagree about YouTube comments but I feel that they represent a broad swath of stupidity across the English-speaking world, not strictly the American variety.

As a counterpoint to Romano's argument, I thought the review of his book in the NY Times last week was fairly convincing (though I haven't read the book myself).
posted by whir at 10:56 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


And the truest, highest exemplar of our propensity for outspoken, thoughful opinion is always signaled by beginning with these words: "Imma let you finish, but..."

Or as John Cleese put it, as the Grim Reaper in Meaning of Life (a part he clearly wrote himself):
Shut up! Shut up you American. You always talk, you Americans, you talk and you talk and say 'Let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this', Well you're dead now, so shut up.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:58 PM on July 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


I could be going out on a limb here, but didn't "philosophy" have something to do with wisdom?
posted by hank_14 at 11:08 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's the takedown: Actually, America is "a mob of dipshits"

One of the best literary skewerings I've ever encountered.
posted by bardic at 11:12 PM on July 7, 2012 [20 favorites]


Wow, so this is what, 14 comments, and every single one is a kneejerk "USIANS SUXXOR" dismissal without reading the article? That's pretty embarrassing.

I didn't read it either, but I think there's something to the idea. Certainly our 1st Amendment freedoms are a wonderful and unprecedented thing. Sure, there are stupid people with stupid ideas in the US today, as with every other place in every other time throughout history. The author isn't saying there aren't. He's saying there are many ideas and vigorous and free discussions thereof.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:18 PM on July 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions

Well I'll give you that one. And if you disagree with me you're a fucking idiot.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:44 PM on July 7, 2012


You guys don't get it. The thesis shouldn't be that America is exceptional. The point should be that all of those philosophical societies of the past are overrated, and shouldn't be falsely romanticized nor idealized.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:44 PM on July 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


With it's "only in America" tinfoilhattedness, that paragraph is actually the worst part of the editorial. It gets much better as it goes on, until it reaches the central point Romano is trying to make:
...If we take the best contemporary thinkers at their word and think of philosophy as an ever-expanding practice of persuasion, rather than a cut-and-dried discipline that hunts down eternal verities, America the Philosophical — a far larger entity than the roughly 11,000 members of the American Philosophical Association — not only looks more likely, but clearly outstrips any rival as the paramount philosophical culture.
I'd say he's talking about rhetoric more than philosophy, but it's an interesting idea. America does seem more geared to persuasion than other countries, what with all the lawyers and marketers and politicians spinning things to suit their agendas. You guys invented Madison Avenue and talking points, and the Self Help genre of nonfiction books. Maybe philosophy is just used more there for practical things, instead of being caged up in universities.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:46 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, so this is what, 14 comments, and every single one is a kneejerk "USIANS SUXXOR" dismissal without reading the article? That's pretty embarrassing.

Who said we didn't read the article that you apparently didn't? I think what's causing the reaction is that the author seems to be conflating two ideas, one (I think) true and one mind-bogglingly false. The last paragraph perfectly encapsulates this:

"America’s formidable strength as a philosophical culture, in short, deserves long overdue recognition. In the early years of the 21st century, America is to philosophy what Italy is to art or Norway to skiing: a perfectly designed environment for the practice."

The true part, and the one that I agree with you on, is that the amazing platform for discussion and thought that the legal and cultural framework created by the 1st Amendment do make the US a great place, perhaps even unique, for the exchange of ideas. There is a very strong abhorrence (generally) to censorship in theory, though in practice it's often been embraced, if not legally than socially. But the forum is there.

The false part is that America is certainly not a philosophical society. We have this odd situation where we're completely free to say what we want, but there's a prevailing cultural attitude of anti-intellectualism, even a suspicion of intellectual activity as somehow unwholesome or even dangerous.

The author seems to jump from one claim to the other, and that's what bothering people, I think. If he'd just stuck to the idea that America provides an excellent forum for the possibility of exchange, the reactions would be less harsh.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:48 PM on July 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


Legalize marijuana, then you'll see a philosophical society.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:57 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I see precious little persuasion going on in our discourse. There's mostly preaching to the choir, shouting, and then outrage upon hearing anything that does not reinforce already held convictions. Anything that challenges those existing beliefs, no matter how well supported by data, facts, empirical evidence, generally tends to be deemed suspect.
posted by fikri at 12:05 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


i bought this book but i haven't read it yet. i've got a sinking feeling, but i'm going to keep an open mind.
posted by facetious at 12:09 AM on July 8, 2012


Sangermaine: "But I'll remember this article next time I see see people on TV or on the street arguing about how Communist Obama's Nazism is, or whether he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. Or arguing about evolution, or climate change. Or mocking teachers as overpaid, useless union drones. Or sneering at higher education as something that just makes you liberal. Or mocking philosophy as useless because it won't make any money."

As long as you don't think similar work was any less the journalism of the muckraking newspapers in the US' early days. Our discourse has always been riddled with complete lunacy, despite the impression that the textbooks give.

I seriously doubt the Athenians were much more Athenian. The winners of the history books seem to always get the rose colored glasses treatment.
posted by wierdo at 12:13 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eh. The state of cable news could justifiably be called a toxic Australian import.

In talking with actual Americans, though, I find this thesis to be pretty accurate. We are an odd culture that both likes to discuss politics at length and likes to be polite with mixed company, and I think it leads us to desire positions of compromise and honest discussion, on the micro level.

My anecdata with, say, Europeans, displays much more of a "fuck you if you don't agree with me" shut-down in political discussions than I find in the U.S., where curiosity is valued if nothing else. But that, again, is anecdotal.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:15 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


While it is easy to point at examples such as YouTube comments and such as counterfactuals, Romano does have an interesting view.

To look at the present and to automatically say Romano is wrong is to make a tremendously bad assumption: that the past was any better. Yes, common culture often seems to be as stupid as ever, but that's how it has always been. Anti-intellectualism is not an American invention. The story of Thales being mocked for not seeing the ground in front of him. Socrates, sentenced to death for questioning society too much. Galileo was excommunicated from the preeminent intellectual body of his time.

The difference is one of documentation: we have the works of the great philosophers but not much else because there wasn't much else being written down and preserved. Not everyone in Athens was a Plato or Socrates. Not everyone in the Enlightment was a Kant or John Stewart Mill. Very few were. Most did not know how to read or write, much less engage in philosophical thought.

Yes, there are a lot of stupid people today. And they seem to be getting louder. But that does not mean that we are becoming more stupid. Yes, we often seem like a mob of dipshits. We might even be one. But that doesn't mean we are *also* producing a more philosophically-thoughtful society than ever before.

We now have a society where anyone who is honestly thinking hard about constitutional law is as likely to still be thinking about Mill, Burke, Jefferson, and Adams as they are about Scalia and Ginsburg. We have major corporations such as Google who have philosophers-in-residence thinking and advising on policy, corporate ethics, as well as product ethics and artificial intelligence. Hospitals with on-staff ethicists working on their ethics board. As major companies around the country are taking vocal stances for gay rights, issues such as ethics, moral obligations, and social welfare are now being considered a fundamental part of corporate culture. Companies that have to do any amount of user research or those that do business internationally are finding themselves dealing with fundamental issues in anthropology such as proper ethnographic practices, cultural sensitivity, and educational pedagogies…many of which has deep roots in philosophy.

Further, as the article says, pop philosophy has become big business with books such as the Philosophy of Harry Potter or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Peter Singer's books have been on the New York Times bestsellers list (yes, I realize Singer is Australian). Even outside of philosophy, pop academic books such as Guns, Germs, and Steel or Blink or an uncountable number of others deal with important philosophical issues. Yes, these books do deeply oversimplify philosophy. I am among those who call them crap philosophy, so was my advisor (who wrote a chapter in one of the Philosophy of x books). But that isn't the point. The point is that people are reading these books. They are hiring philosophers into corporate management positions.

To play devil's advocate, much of this has to do with the fact that we are more populace than any historical society, so of course we are producing more. But even our per-capita production and consumption of philosophy (for lack of a better term) seems to be higher than ever before. Of course, because of globalization and the Internet, many of these things are more reasonably said to be the effects of western civilization. But we are currently the cultural center of the world, and American English is its intellectual language of choice. Yes, much of this is due to circumstance: that we happened to be at the top when the world shifted. But we were the vanguard, stretching our might and exporting our ideas and culture as well as backing the world with our wealth and resources. But that is how it is: during the latter half of the last century talk about culture governance, intellectual development is shaped around American thought. Anyone who talks about rights and freedom references Jefferson. Not everyone may be able to say much more than "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" but they can quote, and they can–when put to it–offer a few cogent thoughts about the issue.
posted by thebestsophist at 12:20 AM on July 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


In academic philosophy there is a semi-distinct Anglo-Saxon tradition, which arguably has a leading position, and within that the US plays a leading role.

General culture and popular discourse are another matter. The outlook of the US since its foundation has been uncompromisingly empirical and pragmatic, and remains so, so far as I can see. Many of the strengths of character of the US (and a few oddities) stem from this ingrained no-nonsenseism, but it excludes philosophy. The US is the leading example of a nation that argues politics, not from first principles, but from a given constitution in which all the philosophy is supposed to have been done for you in advance and is not now open to question. American politics is to a unique extent more about managerial issues than ideology and compared to Europe operates within a narrow spectrum and a restrictive sense of propriety of ideas.

Vigorous argument is not the same as philosophy, but also I'm afraid it simply isn't true that American public debate is more vigorous than in other nations. Compare the lengthy, rather worthy pieces in American newspapers with the shorter, sharper, more varied and infinitely more demotic stuff in the British press.
posted by Segundus at 12:54 AM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think he is mistaking philosophy for opinions and the amount of media pumped out and the demand for user generated content and comment as people having a desire to philosophise. Also I didn't notice any comment on how often 'philosophies' are changed by other more compelling philosophies.
posted by therubettes at 12:54 AM on July 8, 2012


The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Web communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world

... and then we have the people who think we should teach creationism in schools and thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:14 AM on July 8, 2012


Philosophy, according to Romano, is now best understood as "an ever-expanding practice of persuasion, rather than a cut-and-dried discipline that hunts down eternal verities." With this rhetorical sleight-of-hand, he overturns the distinction made thousands of years ago between philosophy and sophism.

First Amendment rights, communications infrastructure, sheer size, and diversity do indeed seem to provide ideal conditions in which philosophy might flourish. But as any gardener knows, good soil doesn't guarantee a harvest. Taken as a whole, discourse in America is a garden choked with weeds. Though there are of course positive examples of philosophical activity in the US, American society is one of the least philosophical, and indeed most aggressively anti-philosophical, in the world (though the US seems to have triggered others to compete with it in a race to the bottom in this regard).

I am readily prepared to believe that America is the most sophistical society on the planet, however.
posted by muhonnin at 1:39 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


practice of persuasion

As mentioned above, this is the very definition of rhetoric. House, meet sandy foundations.
posted by Wolof at 1:55 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


the embrace of Web communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world

Just don't get this, sorry. Wikipedia suggests Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Korea, Canada, New Zealand, the Scandanavian countries and more all have higher penetration rates for internet usage, and China has a greater raw number of users.And I'm not sure why having Americans online is supposed to intimidate the rest of us? I like having you guys around. Weird point for the author to make (especially as "using the web" can equally mean studying sociology at Yale via Coursera, or trolling YouTube).
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:08 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's no argument in this "argument". He doesn't seem to know what he means by "philosophy" in this context, and hops about from vague example to vague example without ever settling on very much of a thesis. It feels like an undergraduate trying to reach a word limit. 55%
posted by howfar at 3:03 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Eh. The state of cable news could justifiably be called a toxic Australian import.


Except that Roger Ailes is a home-grown ("grown"? "extruded"? "tumesced"?) bit of nastiness, with a pedigree ("pedigree"? "pathology"?) going back to Nixon.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:16 AM on July 8, 2012


I think the fundamentally premise is so fatally flawed, it's an intimidating crevice to leap over in order to examine the more interesting parts of the argument.

For a start, it's unknown and unknowable. For a second thing, the population of America is currently larger than the human population of world during the renaissance and before. Thirdly, American Exceptionalism yet again. You guys aren't the only ones who practice it, we Aussies are always prattling on about "mateship" as if friendship is unknown in the broader world. But still, America always has to be "the most", the most best, the most worst, whatever.

Personally, I feel like the commonalities between most countries, especially most western countries, are far larger than the differences. Philosophical culture is global now, and has been for some time.
posted by smoke at 3:27 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The existence of Metafilter, and this thread, supports Romano's point.
posted by tommyD at 3:38 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The existence of Metafilter, and this thread, supports Romano's point.

Not everyone here is American.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:42 AM on July 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece

"We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said, Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons. They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two. And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them."

- President Bush, May 2003.
posted by mhoye at 3:56 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any society that regards Ayn Rand as a philosopher does not even nearly begin to qualify for such an accolade.
posted by Decani at 4:54 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


What about whales? All they do is talk to each other. They must be pretty philosophical.
posted by Splunge at 5:50 AM on July 8, 2012


As long as you don't think similar work was any less the journalism of the muckraking newspapers in the US' early days.

I would in a heartbeat take 19th century yellow journalism over today's media with its false-balance, narrow range of acceptable views, truth-o-meters, and corporate consolidation on a scale that makes William Randolph Hearst look like the owner of a regional Big Boy franchise.

The existence of Metafilter, and this thread, supports Romano's point.

Supports his point that there's potential for quality thought, but Sangermain's right that Romano incorrectly conflates potential with actualized potential.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:01 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought that was pretty awful. As others have noted, one of the worst 'graphs is:

For whether one prefers the view of Habermas, Germany’s foremost philosopher, that truth issues only from deliberation conducted under maximum conditions of openness and freedom, or the view of Rorty, America’s most important recent philosopher, that better conceptual vocabularies rather than firmer truths should be our aim, it’s plain that America’s philosophical landscape — pluralistic, quantitatively huge, all potential criticisms available — provides a more conducive arena, or agora, than any other. If we take the best contemporary thinkers at their word and think of philosophy as an ever-expanding practice of persuasion, rather than a cut-and-dried discipline that hunts down eternal verities, America the Philosophical — a far larger entity than the roughly 11,000 members of the American Philosophical Association — not only looks more likely, but clearly outstrips any rival as the paramount philosophical culture.

So, see, no matter which of two-count-'em-two philosophers you choose from one smallish, non-standard sector of philosophical space, you end up with the conclusion that persuasion is what really matters in philosophy. And, hey, Americans often try to persuade each other so...QED.

As Sangermaine et. al. note, more or less: if that's the argument, then the book would better be titled America the Sophistical or America the Rhetorical.

"America is philosophical" means something more like "America is scientific" or "America is logical" than it means something like "America is all about the persuasion." (Note: these are rough comparisons.)

But note his earlier 'graph, too, which says, roughly...Oh, of course I don't mean that America is philosophical in the way that Socrates and other historical philosophers are philosophical...nor in the way that contemporary academic philosophers are philosophical...but in some...other...way...

He seems to mean: we argue a lot, and that's not the most unphilosophical thing in the world. He could have made a good point by saying something like that...something like "Hey, Americans are rather more like Athenians arguing the agora than Europeans might think..." But he wants to sell books, so he takes a smallish, hand-wavy point and elevates it into something he can shout about. He wants to make it into more than it is so that he can make money. Very unphilosophical, just incidentally...but very American.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:06 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Socrates bristled at the accusation that he'd been paid to teach. I can't RTFA because it wants me to pay money.
posted by kengraham at 6:08 AM on July 8, 2012


American is huge and wealthy, and it contains multitudes so it does multitudes. We have the most St. Patricks Day parades, but it doesn't make us the most Irish place on earth.
posted by bendybendy at 6:42 AM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.
[Arthur Schopenhauer, Aphorisms]
posted by Monkeymoo at 6:45 AM on July 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


This sort of reminds me of Camille Paglia's charge that the post-modern European criticism that American professors and students were mindless adherents of, since the 1970's, were actually just snotty little tortured theories from self-important frauds and posers, and rendered obsolete by the American-influenced contemporary art, especially rock and roll. I must have agreed with her, if the books surviving on my shelves are any indication.
posted by Brian B. at 7:17 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like thebestsophist's points. the rest of you are haters.
posted by the theory of revolution at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about whales? All they do is talk to each other. They must be pretty philosophical.

Whales are a bunch of drooling Americans compared to dolphins.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:26 AM on July 8, 2012


...All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest...

-Paul Simon (philosopher)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:31 AM on July 8, 2012


Wow, so this is what, 14 comments, and every single one is a kneejerk "USIANS SUXXOR" dismissal without reading the article?

Being the first to quote the article is a neat trick if you haven't read it. I want to know how Sangermane pulled it off.
posted by lodurr at 7:42 AM on July 8, 2012


...All lies and jest

wait, you mean it's not "all eyes and chest"?

posted by lodurr at 7:43 AM on July 8, 2012


To look at the present and to automatically say Romano is wrong is to make a tremendously bad assumption: that the past was any better.

Only if one actually makes that assumption. For example, I think Romano is fantastically wrong about this, and I don't think the past was any better.
posted by lodurr at 7:48 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's a world map of the Cafe-philos (i.e. the Socrates cafes mentioned in the article). Kidding and bias apart, the article is a little weird. As a non-American, it's not difficult to recognize the richness and openness of debate in modern America (and Mefi threads are indeed a good example). This is indeed an interesting phenomenon from an outsider's perspective. But the article uses the bizarre "X sold Y millions copies!!!" metric to make his point and ends with a big RAH RAH U.S.A. NUMBER ONE that completely undermines the premise.
posted by elgilito at 7:54 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The existence of Metafilter, and this thread, supports Romano's point.

Sadly, Mefi doesn't really do philosophy, and when it tries it doesn't usually go well, IMHO.
posted by Segundus at 7:59 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't read it either, but I think there's something to the idea. Certainly our 1st Amendment freedoms are a wonderful and unprecedented thing.

I don't think this is necessarily certain at all. Free speech has primarily been construed in the US as an absolute right of billionaires to lie to everyone, poisoning the well for any serious discussion of important issues. Without some legal or customary prohibition on malicious bullshitting, free speech gets us four decades of climate denialism, and thereby destroys the future. "A mixed blessing" at best.
posted by gerryblog at 8:01 AM on July 8, 2012


Basically Romano is selling another flavor of American Exceptionalist-brand koolaid: we are totes the most philosophical country evar, and ultimately his main argument to back this claim is diversity: we have the widest range of ideas in our marketplace.

Two things I notice right away about this:
  1. Diversity trumps depth;
  2. the continued focus on a "marketplace."
The first is a fallacy that he could correct with a little study of ecology, where this error has caused a lot of damage over the years -- e.g., in forestry it's been used, successfully, to justify a fig-leafed clearcutting strategy on the argument that by leaving what amount to hedgerows of woodland between clear-cuts, you actually increase the biodiversity of the region. (This is actually somewhat more than tautologically [two types of land equal twice the diversity] true [edge habitat is 'more diverse' than just woodland or just meadow], which is one of the reasons the idea was so destructive for so long.)

The second betrays his own philosophical bias toward market-driven value judgements. It's a kind of might-makes-right thinking, if you will: Whatever market selection produces, must by definition be the best. Nevermind that what it actually produces is merely the thing that reproduces itself most optimally under the relevant circumstances. This is just marketism passing itself off for philosophical discourse.
posted by lodurr at 8:02 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Y'know, USAns, you are true to your Pilgrim origins, which is to say, serious, industrious, pragmatic, optmistic, moralistic, a trifle self-righteous and little bit vain. You talk about yourselves enthusiastically and uninformedly and too much.
posted by Segundus at 8:09 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Arrrgh. This is the country that considers itself a Christian nation! where the vast majority of "Christians" would have no idea who Augustine, Aquinas, Iranaeus, the Desert Fathers, Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard or even G.K. Chesterton or Thomas Merton are. Depthless.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:11 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


How can America the Philosophical make sense? It does, if one emulates what philosophers ideally do — subject preconceptions to ongoing analysis and use one’s imagination. The traditional clichés get it wrong. Examples that run counter to the vision of America the Philosophical prop up the clichés because they imply a musty view of philosophy. They depend too much on activities christened “philosophy” according to antiquated academic criteria and pay too little mind to what honest intellectuals recognize as philosophy today.

If the sole criterion for what constitutes "philosophy" is that I subject preconceptions to ongoing analysis and use my imagination, then he may well be right. The comments section of an article I read yesterday on Romney's vacation in New Hampshire was full of what were certainly products of extremely fertile imaginations, mostly crammed with the overripe crops that too many late nights spent reading Ayn Rand planted there.

More seriously, someone at Knopf nodded when Carlin Romano suggested that this elevator pitch might be a good idea for a book. So he tortures and stretches the germ of an idea to death until, voila, it's the length of a book. Not a very good idea at that. All the book needs now is a stupid 30-word subtitle (ideally beginning with the word "how," as in "How America Defies the Accepted Wisdom and Turns Out to Be the Most Intellectually Stimulating and Stimulated Nation in Recorded History, and What That Means for All of Us") and it'll be ready to go.
posted by blucevalo at 8:49 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Y'know, USAns, you are true to your Pilgrim origins, which is to say, serious, industrious, pragmatic, optmistic, moralistic, a trifle self-righteous and little bit vain. You talk about yourselves enthusiastically and uninformedly and too much.

Perhaps, but America has made its way, for better or worse, by appealing to a few personal desires and even less character qualities, and little else in written form. Those that took their philosophers too seriously ended up being the bad examples.

Philosophy is a product of reason, to be considered or ignored, and this can be done by almost anyone who is honest and thoughtful. Beyond that it is mostly entertainment by windbags extraordinaire, and should never be a necessary survival guide, especially from a philosophical authority (if you can somehow avoid it).
posted by Brian B. at 9:07 AM on July 8, 2012


Some competition on philosophizing nation-states: see article about Brits' public discourse:

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/5ed048f6-c0fc-11e1-8179-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1zSlUcD8V
posted by JimDe at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2012


Y'know, USAns, you are true to your Pilgrim origins, which is to say, serious, industrious, pragmatic, optmistic, moralistic, a trifle self-righteous and little bit vain. You talk about yourselves enthusiastically and uninformedly and too much.
posted by clavdivs at 9:15 AM on July 8, 2012


@Brian B.: One problem with this attitude is that it's really easy for people to set themselves up as fake authorities when people have lost sight of genuinely significant developments from the past. For example, continuing the Christian theme I mentioned earlier, consider the "prosperity gospel" that is currently one of the most popular "non-denominational" Christian sects. This is a vast movement of people, ostensibly Christian, who are being told that God wants them to be wealthy, that being wealthy is a sign that you are in the grace of God. This flies in the face of two thousand years of thought and philosophy which has defined the faith that these people profess, and yet they still fall victim to what is essentially a scam. (The scammers being the televangelists, whose ostentatious wealth is a sign of God's blessing.)

I am not myself a Christian, but I have tremendous respect for the genuine thought and ethics which Christianity has produced, and it makes me sad to see this idiocy taking off and being wildly successful; and I think it's probably a combination of Biblical fundamentalism and disregard for authority (Augustine was just a windbag!) that has allowed it to come to fruition.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:32 AM on July 8, 2012


I find it hard to believe no one has mentioned yet that this is a frikkin editorial from the frikkin Dallas Morning News for crying out loud. Dallas, TEXAS! For those who dont know, Dallas, like many cities in the US has been a one paper town for quite some time since the slightly more liberal Times Herald went out of business about 20 years ago. Now, as far as the whole diversity of opinion goes, they do put out a free Spanish-language daily as well as a few spinoffs and are well represented on tv and radio thanks to recent laws which allow them to own multiple news sources in one market (look up Belo Corp.). This is the diversity of opinion that Romano is speaking of. And anyone living in Texas outside of Austin will tell you, philosophers of any stripe are not what we produce here. More like real estate speculators, rapacious developers and tons of engineers to work on shiny new missiles. Lets not forget GW, Rick Perry and our new biggest reason to be ashamed to come from Texas, the fact the our local republicans want to ban the teaching of critical thinking - and they DO run this place. I suggest that before anyone even begins to take this article seriously, they need to question its source. And yeah, I RTFA.
posted by jake1 at 9:34 AM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


And while I may have RTFA, I did fail to distinguish Carlin Romano, the author of the book, from Steve Brodner, syndicated windbag.
posted by jake1 at 9:41 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


sonic meat machine, i don't think the prosperity gospel is that unprecedented. Weber made the case for it being as old as Calvinism. Certainly it's not what Calvin or his successors wanted to communicate, but there's a strong case to be made (convincing to me) that it's a logical conclusion to draw, given the reformation-protestant ethos.

Which is not to say it's not a scam, I agree with you totally there. And the willingness to accept pre-digested philosophy without bothering to learn the antecedents is certainly a major factor in people falling for it.
posted by lodurr at 9:49 AM on July 8, 2012


lodurr: Fair enough. I never read Weber; perhaps I should. That said, even the almost-ascetic devotion to work that the classic "Protestant work ethic" seemed to involve doesn't seem to have "earthly reward" as a fundamental aspect of its ethos.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:59 AM on July 8, 2012


You're right, it didn't -- from the pulpit. I don't have it handy, but weber quotes John Wesley on that to the effect that as the "methodist" [i seem to recall Wesley was quoted using that term] became progressively more devout, he would inevitably prosper as a result -- and it would be a challenge of faith at that point to not let the prosperity distract him. The context made it clear i twas something Wesley dealt with in his flock on a regular basis. So: No, the preachers didn't want the flock to think that way, but the flock was thinking that way already. And I'm sure you've run across literary examples of proto-prosperity-gospel preachers that predate modern televangelism. I think Twain & Shaw call out a few, if I'm not mistaken.
posted by lodurr at 10:03 AM on July 8, 2012


You're correct. The religious grifter is a classic character in American lit.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:06 AM on July 8, 2012


Is America the Most Philosophical Society on the Planet?

It's a known thing in American media that if the article headline is presented in the form of a questions, the answer is always "no" and you can safely move on.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:19 PM on July 8, 2012


Yeah I know, not the actual headline, just the presentation.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:21 PM on July 8, 2012


There's mostly preaching to the choir, shouting, and then outrage upon hearing anything that does not reinforce already held convictions.

You are ignoring that preaching to the choir is an improvement on what has historically been done to the choir.
posted by srboisvert at 3:34 PM on July 8, 2012


40% of Americans believe that books that contain dangerous ideas should be banned from public libraries (from the recent American Values survey post).

So, 'the most philosophical society on the planet'? Hardly.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:34 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


40% of Americans believe that books that contain dangerous ideas should be banned from public libraries (from the recent American Values survey post).

I would agree with them on a reasoned technicality. It follows that danger should be restricted if we assume it at all, and if we presume that no ideas should be dangerous, it framed it that way regardless so we must allow it. If it's just old code for leftist ideas, then it doesn't make it clear at all. As a counter example, a dangerous idea also includes methods on how to poison your family using household chemicals, or bomb a school using underground gas lines. So maybe some of the respondents were actually thinking it through to its logical extreme, and conclude that such books shouldn't be easily accessible in public places, with limited public funding.
posted by Brian B. at 5:02 PM on July 8, 2012


So maybe some of the respondents were actually thinking it through to its logical extreme,.....

Taking bets on this?
posted by benito.strauss at 5:20 PM on July 8, 2012


Taking bets on this?

On an anonymous poll? That's worse than demanding a cite for someone's opinion.
posted by Brian B. at 5:24 PM on July 8, 2012


Y'know, USAns, you are true to your Pilgrim origins, which is to say, serious, industrious, pragmatic, optmistic, moralistic, a trifle self-righteous and little bit vain. You talk about yourselves enthusiastically and uninformedly and too much.

An example of how uninformedly is the fact that we traditionally identify with the pilgrims while remaining carefully ignorant of the sort of people they actually were. A "trifle" self-righteous is an immensity of an understatement. If they didn't actually invent self-righteousness they certainly made a boutique specialty of it. More to the point, the bit we tell ourselves about the Pilgrims escaping persecution is balderdash. They came here to because in Enlightenment Europe, they were increasingly not free to persecute. They were all about intolerance and here they could be intolerant to their hearts' content. Which, perhaps, makes our self-identification with them truer than we really know.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:29 PM on July 8, 2012


So maybe some of the respondents were actually thinking it through to its logical extreme,.....

Here's the American Library Association's list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books in public libraries (2011). Absolutely nothing on bomb making in there. It does, however, include To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games.

The number of books that are widely regarded as classics that are subject to banning attempts each year is honestly staggering. We're talking again about ideas - the very life blood of philosophy - not how-to manuals for mass destruction. I think you'll find that public libraries don't stock those in any case.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:42 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Though I'll have to backtrack on associating it with the Enlightenment era, which the Pilgrim colony predated by perhaps as much as a century. The problem wasn't so much that they weren't at liberty to persecute in general as that they were powerless to persecute those whom they would persecute.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:43 PM on July 8, 2012


We're talking again about ideas - the very life blood of philosophy - not how-to manuals for mass destruction. I think you'll find that public libraries don't stock those in any case.

So they do ban books for reasons of public safety and their dangerous ideas? Either way, there is no need for anyone to force themselves to think like an old John Bircher in order to "correctly" answer a tricky poll question.
posted by Brian B. at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2012


I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that it's mostly the Plymouth colony that deserves scorn. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was much more interesting. Not exactly egalitarian, but much more pragmatic and even-handed than their brothers & sisters in Plymouth.
posted by lodurr at 6:18 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


So they do ban books for reasons of public safety and their dangerous ideas?

So the collection management librarian's decision not to stock bomb-making manuals constitutes a "ban"?
posted by lodurr at 6:19 PM on July 8, 2012


There is a distinction to be drawn between an 'idea' and 'instructional knowledge'. For example, a novel about a suicide bomber =/= an instructional bomb-making manual. The exploration of suicide bombing as a concept may be a controversial idea, but it doesn't help anyone build a bomb or represent a physical threat to anyone.

In Australia, you can't legally publish a bomb-making manual, so I'm coming from a different perspective. It initially didn't even occur to me that the question could relate to dangerous knowledge. I'm still unconvinced that it does.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:28 PM on July 8, 2012


It initially didn't even occur to me that the question could relate to dangerous knowledge. I'm still unconvinced that it does.

"Dangerous idea" is traditionally a dysphemism for things like evolution and socialism. As a dysphemistic circumlocution, it doesn't literally relate to what it culturally meant.
posted by Brian B. at 6:48 PM on July 8, 2012


Segundus: Y'know, USAns [sic], you are true to your Pilgrim origins, which is to say, serious, industrious, pragmatic, optmistic, moralistic, a trifle self-righteous and little bit vain. You talk about yourselves enthusiastically and uninformedly and too much.

The vast majority of Americans have no "Pilgrim" origins; but do you mind telling me where you are from, so that I can make an "uninformedly" sweeping statement about everyone there?
posted by spaltavian at 7:11 PM on July 8, 2012


i thought France had that locked down followed by Germany. with people aspiring to be the next Kardashian, Snookie and Big Ang, having US culture and philosophy in the same sentence seems rather oxymoronic.
posted by liza at 8:17 PM on July 8, 2012


Metafilter: Its existence, and this thread, supports Romano's point.
posted by palbo at 9:14 PM on July 8, 2012


no "Pilgrim" origins

Didn't beget, but interestingly epitomise. Said in the friendliest way (but I can feel you giving me the gimlets down a long Puritanical nose) ;)
posted by Segundus at 12:50 AM on July 9, 2012


Many Americans are of Irish Catholic stock; the Protestant work ethic you're evoking didn't get transmitted down for those families.
posted by spaltavian at 7:32 PM on July 18, 2012


Sure it did.
posted by lodurr at 5:59 AM on July 19, 2012


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