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American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition.

American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. xi + 162 pp. $34.50--"This book is about a tradition in American philosophy, running through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewey, that has its origins in Romanticism as a movement in European thought" (p. 1). Goodman's study of these thinkers develops out of his concern to identify a distinctively American philosophy, "a philosophy. . . not embarrassed by literature or by the idea of searching 'for the best human life'" (p. viii). Goodman makes a strong case for regarding Romanticism as the key element in such a philosophy.

A look at the dramatis personae of Goodman's study reveals its flavor, which is both synoptic and selective: Coleridge and Wordsworth are the principal European players; Emerson, James, and Dewey are the representative Americans. One might object to the omissions in this cast, of course--Goethe, Keats, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Peirce, and Whitehead, among others, are relegated to the wings. Goodman emphasizes the "initial" character of his study, however. His aim is not to be exhaustive, but "only to walk in, to chart some routes through the new terrain, and to open certain prospects to general view" (p. x). The view he provides is one that others in current American philosophy have glimpsed as well: framing chapters on the three focal figures are an introductory chapter focusing on the work of Stanley Cavell (whose The Senses of Walden inspired Goodman's inquiry), and an epilogue that considers Hilary Putnam's recent work in light of the American Romantic tradition.

This book might be considered a sign of the growing interest in classical American philosophy among those who, like Goodman, were "trained in postwar 'Anglo-American' departments of philosophy" (p. vii). Indeed, Goodman launches his study from a reconsideration of the problem of skepticism. In the first chapter, "The Marriage of Self and World," Goodman builds upon Cavell's writings about external world skepticism and the problem of other minds. Goodman argues that these ostensively "epistemological" problems are symptomatic of a deeper metaphysical and ethical crisis in modern philosophy. He suggests the nature of this crisis by posing several questions:

Could our relation with the world be as murderous as Othello's with Desdemona? Is something like jealousy operative in Descartes' (and modern philosophy's) attempt to identify irrefutable knowledge of the world? Does external world skepticism express an underlying but unnecessary disappointment with our knowledge of the world? (p. 10)

The implication is that skepticism arises from an unfortunate metaphysical divorce of self and world, a divorce precipitated by the modern craving for certainty and for the sense of power that certainty would provide. (Goodman signals his debt to Nietzche and Heidegger, on this point and others.)

Goodman suggests that the American Romantic philosophers provide a way out of this crisis. He finds an alternative both to Cartesian and to Kantian metaphysics as expressed in Emerson's idealism in James' philosophy of pure experience, and above all in Dewey's account (in Art as Experience) of the union of the material and the ideal in aesthetic experience. The "voluntaristic structures of knowledge and being" (p. 24) characteristic of Romantic thought are refined in James's radical empiricism and Dewey's instrumentalism. Goodman argues that the Americans he examines develop a theory of knowledge centered on "fluxional" categories rather than on rigid Kantian categories: a theory of constructive interaction that complements Romantic metaphysics and allows a remarriage of self and world. In this book Goodman elegantly portrays the singular contribution that the American tradition offers to contemporary philosophy at large.--Kelly Parker, Vanderbilt University.
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Author:Parker, Kelly
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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