Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American
Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview,
or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American
popular culture studies.
Douglas R. Anderson began his teaching career at Wittenberg University
then moved to Penn State where he was honored with the Milton Eisenhower
Award for Distinguished Teaching. Currently, he is Professor of
Philosophy at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Author
of myriad articles and editor of myriad collections and journals,
he has also written several books including Creativity and
the Philosophy of C. S. Peirce and Strands of System: The
Philosophy of Charles Peirce. His latest book from Fordham
Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American
Culture (2006) brought us to interview him for
We have entities called Review Americana, Magazine
Press Americana, so, of course, when we saw the title of your
new book, we felt a certain affinity for it. How did you arrive
at the title Philosophy Americana?
I came to the title Philosophy Americana after trying out a variety
of others, none of which captured what I wanted to do. I have played
music – folk, country, blues, et al. – for many years
and have a great love for what has come to be called Americana
music. I realized that my project in philosophy shared some traits
with the music – I was seeking a kind of down to earth way
of talking about American thought that still maintained some of
the depth of traditional philosophy. I also wanted to work a bit
eclectically, drawing on a variety of thinkers and cultural practices.
Finally, I wanted to focus on "American" philosophy not
philosophy in America – I was hoping to capture some of the
flavor of what makes American thinking distinct. So, I tried on
Philosophy Americana, and it seemed to work.
Most traditional philosophy
professors would scoff at the study of American popular culture,
yet you decided to bring philosophy into American culture and vice
versa. What made you decide to undertake this project for your
book? In other words, why did you decide to bring philosophy and
everyday American culture together?
I should preface my response by pointing out that recently a number
of philosophers have turned to popular culture – there is
a full series of books now that deal with everything from The
Matrix and philosophy to Bob Dylan and philosophy (for which
I wrote one of the essays). Still, it is fair to say that most
take this sort of work to be secondary at best. Unfortunately,
one usually has to try to buy the freedom for this kind of work
by demonstrating an ability to do "real" philosophy in
some other area. Writing Philosophy Americana, however,
was not a secondary project for me. My own philosophical "take" is
that philosophical thought occurs ongoingly throughout a culture.
From sports talk radio to art criticism to pedagogical theory
and pop music, philosophy is always, at some level, operative in
American culture. Moreover, it's striking that professional philosophers
teach, say ethical theory or metaphysics, and then go home and
listen to everything from folk music to hip-hop but fail to draw
any clear lines of connection between the two. So, I became interested
in drawing some connections in both directions, and fortunately
the tradition of American thought from Margaret Fuller and Thoreau
to the pragmatic tradition and bell hooks is helpful in drawing
those connections. The book is a first attempt – in my eyes
not yet a fully successful attempt – to see the philosophy
in our cultural habits and to show the efficacy of so called "professional" philosophy
for some everyday practices.
What is your favorite chapter in the
My favorite chapter, though probably not the best chapter, in the
book is Chapter 15, "Emerson and Kerouac: Grievous Angels
of Hope and Loss." Here I was able to talk about three folks
whose work has had a lasting influence on my own: Emerson, Jack
Kerouac, and Gram Parsons. I use Parsons' song "Return of
the Grievous Angel" to lead into a discussion about the roles
hope and loss play in the writings of Emerson and Kerouac, and
also in American culture.
Parsons is an interesting figure because
as one of the orginators of "country rock" and Americana
music, he tried to use music as a catalyst for bringing folks of
different generations together in the early seventies when the
existence of a "generation gap" seemed a serious issue.
He worked with the International Submarine Band and then the Byrds
in helping create a new sound in American music. Before his early
death, he helped establish The Flying Burrito Brothers, and their,
and his, influence on subsequent music in the U.S. is extensive.
Indeed, Emmy Lou Harris, who worked with Parsons in his last traveling
band, became a significant force in returning country music to
some of its own roots. So, in the chapter, I try to bridge the "generation
gap" between Emerson and Kerouac and to show how their respective
work can still be relevant to how we live.
What are the most important
revelations, connections, epiphanies in your book?
I don't know if there are any important revelations or epiphanic
ideas in the book. I guess I tend to see philosophy simply as the
attempt to disclose some experiential truths whose obviousness
sometimes makes us overlook them or forget them. Perhaps, then,
my project is a bit Socratic, trying to remind us of things we
already know in some fashion. For example, we call ourselves philosophers,
but our primary work (for most of us) is teaching – so I
remind us that we should see where teaching fits, both experientially
and philosophically, in our culture. I also try to suggest things
like the fact that many of us nearly worship some of the music
we listen to – and therefore I see our "listening" in
some ways and in some contexts as a kind of religious practice.
As for epiphanies, my whole aim is to show the transformative power
of philosophical thinking wherever it might occur.
Is that what you hope
audiences take away with them after reading Philosophy Americana?
Well, first I hope that some non-philosophers will take a look
at the book and see that philosophy isn't always a kind of mathematical
argumentation. And I hope that some philosophers who might share
my way of seeing the relation between philosophy and culture will
find the book useful. But I'm also making claims in the book that
I'd like to have discussed and challenged by any reader – after
all, I'm still a philosopher who thinks that "talk" and
argumentation are important.
For example, I'm an advocate of treating
teaching as an art, and I think we need to seriously rethink what
we're doing in training teachers. And for students of American
philosophy, I make some claims that might seem out of line, claiming
that Emerson "platonizes" American thought and that that
is a good thing. Or claiming that John Dewey has an element of
mysticism lingering in the background of his instrumentalist pragmatism.
What I hope, then, is that the book might appeal to philosophers
and non-philosophers in different but related ways. To the extent
the book succeeds, I can hope to bring philosophy to a wider audience
and to bring philosophers to confess something about their own
What do you wish you could have done in the book
but didn't have time for?
A tough question! Despite my time and effort, the book feels inadequate
in many ways. I'd like more down to earth examples from the culture;
I'd like to have had the time to introduce more of the history
of American thought that might provide a fuller context for what
I'm doing; I'd like to have added an interview or two with some "famous" folks
in pop music or art.
What's really lacking, however, is more breadth. I work from my
background in this book and that narrows the ground. So, I'm committed
to writing more – I'm working now on developing an initial
Americana engagement with philosophy from all the Americas. Thus,
the next book will look at religion and Bob Marley, the work of
Gloria Anzaldua and tejana culture, and a variety of other things.
The difficulty I face there is lack of experience, so I'm looking
for ways into a discussion with these other dimensions of American
culture (both inside and outside the U.S.) that are not too presumptuous
on my part.
Finally, there are some fun things I'd have like to
have done that wouldn't fit in the book. I used Springsteen's "Born
to Run" and Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" to
open up two of my discussions. Given my fascination with pop music,
I would have liked to do a good bit more of this. I would especially
have liked to pursue the work of the Band, since Robbie Robertson
seemed to intentionally pursue Americana themes. But for now, I
may have to leave such work to Greil Marcus and others.
philosophy be important to scholars of American popular culture?
There are a variety of ways to try to answer this question, but
I'll use just one. A central theme of the American philosophical
tradition is that ideas are real and efficacious. Talk is seldom "just
talk." Thus, just as the sounds of Chuck Berry changed the
direction of some rock and roll, the ideas of William James on
risk and faith affected American intellectual discourse and in
many ways trickled out into mainstream culture. Again with Emerson,
even though he was not a rugged individualist, his notion of self-reliance
played well into the American frontier and the cultures that developed
there. So, coming to grips with American philosophy adds to one's
overall sensibility to our culture – it's illuminating of
who we are and how we conduct our lives. Put another way, one should
study philosophy, if not for other reasons, then for the same reasons
one might study pop music, literature, demographics, etc. – we
learn more about ourselves and our possibilities.
I suspect the other reasons I would adduce hinge on things like
philosophy's focus on method, etc. – these seem to me less
interesting, though perhaps not less important.
You close your book
with a quote that refers to philosophy as a quest. What is your
quest as a philosopher?
Yes, the quotation is from a description of William James by Ralph
Barton Perry. I think my own quest may be somewhat similar. Truth
and wisdom have been the traditional aims of western philosophy,
and I have no reason to abandon them. However, I have a number
modest aims. One is to try to keep myself at home in American
culture – to celebrate what I find interesting and to take
on what I find obstructive or outmoded. John William Miller, who
taught philosophy at Williams College for many years, used to say
that in philosophy you "play for keeps" – as in
a childhood marbles game where the winner acquires the loser’s
marbles. I think there is some truth in this. Ironically, many
folks think philosophy is too remote from life to be anything like "playing
for keeps." But when you engage genuine questions – things
that cause you real doubts – philosophy takes you on a journey
through yourself, your culture, your history, and, when done well,
through the human
condition. This is what Perry suggested about James. The difficult
and the rewarding dimension of these journeys is that you never
know fully where you will end up. It's not a complete wilderness,
but you nevertheless have to make your way as you go, and there
is always a risk of getting lost. Philosophy is that sort of a
quest and it comes with real consequences. Championing education
as John Dewey did committed him to a way of life that included
the experimental intertwining of theory and practice. I would never
say that Dewey didn't "play for keeps."
What are you working
on now or next? Will you continue to examine American everyday
culture or will you return to more traditional philosophical pursuits?
Well, I already mentioned that I am working on a second Americana
project that will try to address all of the Americas. I expect
that will take a long while. But I am always busy on other projects
as well. I've just completed a technical project on the realism
of American pragmatist Charles Peirce and hope to get that into
print before too long. I'm also working on a number of shorter
projects many of which involve more interaction between philosophy
and popular culture. I'm exploring the variety of ways philosophers
can be "public intellectuals," looking beyond the standard
version of an academic who can write for the Times. I will continue
to write about music as well because I can't seem to get it out
of my system. In any case, the answer is "both" – traditional
philosophy and Americana.
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