Rare are the books which combine light-touched erudition and insightful confessions. John Kagg’s ‘American Philosophy’ certainly succeeds on both accounts. This title may first appear misleading for an early candid exploration into a failed marriage if the author-narrator didn’t prove to be a professional researcher of the origins of this strange outgrowth of the Western tradition: American Philosophy.

The accidental discovery of a long abandoned family library in the remote mountains of New Hampshire prompts a most unusual journey of philosophical revelations and personal self-discovery. Through the life and works of the unfairly forgotten William Ernest Hocking (1873–1966), Hagg traces the philosophical and spiritual aspirations of a group of young American intellectuals determined to apply their pragmatic way of thinking to their everyday life.

As a student of Josiah Royce, the founder of American idealism and close friend of Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, Hocking’s intellectual curiosity enabled him to develop personal theories on subjects ranging from religion and metaphysics to psychology and the philosophy of education. His most representative work, The Meaning of God in Human Experience, published two years after the untimely death of his friend William James in 1910, shares the same earnest anxiety and equal yearning for spiritual truth as the ones analysed in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). 

Above all, Hocking strove for an evolving, holistic approach of philosophy, open to new ideas but strongly anchored in his belief of the necessity of religion in the overall cosmic scheme. His ‘principle of alteration’ brings together the universal dimension of religion with the deeply personal experience of the single believer, confronted with his daily fears as well as his metaphysical questioning of his place in the universe. True to Thoreau’s teaching, Hocking finds in the first-hand experience of Nature the unlocking of a divine realm which science may gradually decipher in its quest to unveil ‘what God ‘knows’. 

Like Hocking, John Hagg finds in the majestic beauty of the White Mountains, a new source of hope and a renewed will to live his life to the full. He is helped in the exhilarating process of sorting and cataloguing Hocking’s precious volumes by Carol, his university colleague initially reluctant to join in such a mammoth venture but soon won over by the daily excitement of discovering forgotten books and overlooked thinkers. As Carol and John’s relationship blossoms in what becomes their secret and sacred temple of knowledge, they start realising the importance and influence of women in William Hocking’s life. 

His wife Agnes was the co-founder of ‘The Shady School’, a Montessori-styled school in Cambridge, dedicated to the appreciation of philosophy, poetry and literature but above all geared towards the exploration of each pupil’s individual talents, liberated from the constraints of a strict curriculum. Agnes died in 1940, twenty-six years before William who kept a passionate correspondence with the Nobel Prize winner, Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, published in 1932 and celebrated for its remarkable descriptions of Chinese peasant life. 

Both Hocking and Buck were personally involved in the ‘re-thinking’ of Christian missions in Asia, away from Western condescending preaching and much in need of a better understanding of the crude reality of the poverty-stricken millions. As a true ‘pragmatist’, Hocking was interested in tangible results and genuine change in whatever subject he tackled over his long philosophical career. As for Hagg, his intellectual curiosity led him to the rediscovery of a great American thinker and a most positive change in his personal life.