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Questions and Answers

Philosophy Asst. Prof. Kaag Assembles Fantasy Coffee Clatch

Jane Addams founded Hull House Association in 1889. Her legacy continues, as the mission is one of Chicago’s oldest and largest social and human service agencies.

By Sheila Eppolito

Asst. Prof. John Kaag has been with the Philosophy Dept. since 2008. His classes include Environmental Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind and American Philosophy. We asked him a couple of hypothetical questions.

What philosophers would you meet for coffee? 

Well, that depends on where we would meet. The German philosopher, Immanual Kant, rarely ventured beyond his home in Konigsburg - so meeting in Lowell would not be an option.  Seneca, the ancient Greek Stoic, probably wouldn't want to go out at all. That being said, most philosophers are not stodgy recluses - that’s an odd stereotype. In fact Rene Descartes, who held that the only thing that could be known with any certainty was the stuff of our own minds, was quite the socialite. So, too, with the English empiricist, David Hume. But this doesn't answer your question.  Who would I want to meet for coffee?  Let me assemble the party. I would stick to American philosophers.   

Why so much interest in the Americans?

When philosophy made its debut in the United States, there were a group of women and men known as the Transcendentalists who spent the early decades of the 1800s gathering in various towns across New England to discuss everything from the character of God to the most mundane aspects of Boston life.  Philosophy had not yet become a dry, lifeless professional discipline. It was alive and well in the meeting houses, pubs, churches and sidewalks of the Northeast. 

Okay, Ralph Waldo Emerson is next to you, nursing a macchiato. What’s your first question?

I’d like to ask Emerson and the rest of the early Transcendentalists about the relationship between ethics 
— how us folk are to live 
— and the workings of the natural world.  Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau all held that human virtue was just the process of getting in step with the natural order of things. Perhaps chatting with them would allow me to make a step in that direction.

Who’d hang out longest?

After Emerson's crew headed home, there would still be a raft of American thinkers around, including William James, Josiah Royce, Jane Addams and C.S Peirce. These characters were part of the American Pragmatic school of philosophy that came into its own in the 1880s.  They believed that philosophy had to be world ready, meaning that it was the thinker's responsibility to translate thought into real-world action. To understand American pragmatism, one must understand that at that historical moment, there was a deep continuity between thinking and doing, between theory and practice. 

What information would you want from the Pragmatists?

To this crew of thinkers, I would pose two questions. First, how can philosophy revive the conception of a genuine public intellectual? I am not talking about intellectuals who give an occasional talk at white-collar events, but rather thinkers who consistently and enthusiastically get their hands dirty with people on the whole. Second, I would ask them to shed some philosophical light on a variety of current affairs: the global war on terror, the healthcare crisis and current race relations in the United States.

Anyone you find really intriguing?

I would be especially interested in talking to Addams.  She was the founder of Hull House, a reform project in Chicago at the turn of the century. Today, her work is beginning to be recognized as genuinely philosophical, but in her day she was largely regarded as a mere social reformer.  I would ask her what it was like to be a woman in a transitional time, when women thinkers were only just beginning to get recognition. What was it like to think philosophically, but be barred from the discipline of philosophy on the basis of gender? 

Then there’s C.S. Peirce. He was a madman who died in poverty and near obscurity in some Eastern Pennsylvania town.  He probably would be well ahead of us in terms of caffeine, but also in terms of brain power.  He was, according to most standards, the brightest philosophical mind of the 19th and 20th century ߝ a true contemporary genius.  I would ask him what it was like to work by oneself for so long, to love wisdom all by oneself.

Anyone still breathing you’d like to chat with?

Yes. The last group I’d hope to see are the philosophers who frequent the halls at UMass Lowell.  Yes, they are a fun lot.  I can just imagine Prof. Carol Hay arguing with Prof. Waldemar Hanasz about the virtue of vegetarianism.  Prof. Robert Innis, having quizzed Peirce about his understanding of God, would turn to Prof. Whitley Kaufman and ask him what he taught in his course on religious mysticism. Prof. Eugen Mellican would shift around to ask me what I thought about his specialty, the ethics of engineering. There are Prof. Eric Nelson and Prof. Christopher Smith chatting about Hegel and Greek philosophy. I would kick back in my chair, smile and drink in the philosophy.

Charles Sanders (C.S.) Peirce was born in Cambridge and died in obscurity in 1914 in Milford, Penn. Peirce was expert in a variety of fields, including mathematics, physical sciences, economics, psychology and other social sciences.