Featured Guest:
Professor Douglas R. Anderson

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 University Press, Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture (2006) brought us to interview him for this edition.

We have entities called Review Americana, Magazine Americana, and 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 philosophers 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 book?

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 cultural place.

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.

Why should 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 of more 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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