America on film: philosophy’s American inflection

Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to relax and watch a few classic hollywood movies. Let The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood help you (re)discover some of the great achievements of American cinematic art, like Adam’s Rib and The Philadelphia Story.

Usually, both films fall into the “screwball” category of comedy, though Stanley Cavell has argued convincingly for their classification as definitive of a genre, which he calls, “remarriage comedy”.

In this passage from The Soul of a Nation, I riff on Cavell, offering what I hope sounds something like what philosophy sounds like in what I follow Cavell in calling its American inflection:

Cavell notes a peculiarity in the film, namely that, unlike the other definitive members of the remarriage genre, the heroic couple in The Philadelphia Story rediscover their happiness in the larger world in which they grew up together and in which they divorced. Cavell goes on to observe that this odd feature would reach what he calls “a satisfactory equivalence” if we could understand Tracy and Dexter as having come to regard their own larger society as itself world enough, itself the scene of adventure. earlier in our investigation, we saw that philosophy and gnosis are basically opposite attitudes toward the world. if Cavell is correct in attributing the couple’s rediscovery of happiness in their world to be a sign of their discovery of that world as one of adventure, that is, worth experiencing and endlessly knowable, then the couple’s discovery that happiness is worth pursuing together in their world, the world of Philadelphia and its story, is a discovery that places what we have been calling America further in the way of what we have been calling philosophy. Cavell puts the matter as one of the couple’s discovery of their marriage as exemplifying or symbolizing their society at large, “quite as if,” writes Cavell, “they are its royalty; and their society itself is embarked on some adventure.” The knowledge to which the film attests, i.e., that 164 years after the signing of the Declaration of independence, America still exists (cf. Cavell, Cities of Words, 75 ), does not foreclose, but urgently presses the question as to what legitimizes American society. At the same time, and precisely insofar as the integrity of society and the integrity of marriage are functions of one another, the legitimacy of marriage is exposed to doubt, and so, as it were, from within. – The Soul of a Nation, 182

It being Thanksgiving weekend, it would be sinful of me to omit mention of one autobiographical particular.

My senior year in high school, my English lit teacher (and a classic film buff), Mr. Barry Wallace, showed us Billy Budd, and encouraged us to take film seriously as an art form and a storytelling medium. I suppose he was impressed with something I said, for he broached the subject of perhaps screening some films together. I did not understand the honor being done me, and so shot off some pretentious drivel about the written word being so far superior to film as to make the latter no more than a guilty pleasure at best, and one for which I hadn’t the time.

Mr. Wallace had piqued my interest, though, and I began some time not too long after the aforementioned exchange to watch film carefully and to take movies seriously, and I hope that the lines on film in The Soul of a Nation (the lines above are only a taste) might go some way toward payment of the debt I incurred that day.

The Soul of a Nation: educating in America

In light of the widespread agitation on college and university campuses, I thought it worthwhile to share these few lines from The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, (Pickwick, 2015).

Our campuses were once – and not too long ago – the crown of our American civilization: we believed that they were not places merely for the privileged few, even as we recognized that living a part of one’s young adulthood in living the intellectual life – in pursuit of the beautiful, the true, and the good – was a great privilege, indeed.

We understood that, even if university is not “for” everyone, the kind of society we wanted to be could not long survive without a major national commitment to keeping spaces open for and dedicated to the unfettered and undistracted exploration of the arts and sciences, in which cogency of argument was the only coin, all thought was free, and every idea fair game – and we acted on our understanding.

Thus conceived and dedicated, our campuses were not only the crown of our civilization: they were the envy of the free world.

We live in fraught and fearful times, but they are neither more fraught, nor more fearful than others that have faced us, over which we have conquered. I know that if we heed Edward R. Murrow’s advice, and dig deep in our doctrine, we shall find we are not descended from fearful men:

If undistracted thinking about problems that commonly occur to human beings may be taken as the end (or one of the ends, at least) of higher education, then the founding of such an institution or institutions may be understood to have been taken with a view to precisely this end. The decision of a given political community to found a college or university, will therefore at least arguably tell us something about the kind of people they understand themselves, or aspire, to be. in his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, John adams discusses the early Massachusetts settlers’ decision to found a college:

“They were convinced, by their knowledge of human nature, derived from history and their own experience, that nothing could preserve their posterity from the encroachments of. . .tyranny. . . but knowledge diffused generally through the whole body of the people. Their civil and religious principles, therefore, conspired to prompt them to use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge. for this purpose they laid very early the foundations of colleges, and invested them with ample privileges and emoluments.”

It is true that Adams conceives the tyrannical threat to be concretely located in the systems of canon and feudal law. While this cannot be irrelevant to any argument, such as the present one, which would place adams in precisely the tradition of inquiry that produced those two systems, neither does it defeat the thesis. for reasons that will become clear as the work progresses, discussion of how and why the fact itself does not foreclose the argument, must nevertheless wait until the fourth chapter.

Presently at stake is the political import—the theoretical significance—of colonists’ decision to found colleges. The importance of this is further attested in the following lines from his Dissertation:

“We have a right to [liberty], derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, had given them understanding, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.”

With regard to Cavell’s search for a tradition of thinking in America, we can say, in light of this passage, that it was quite literally present at the creation, say, at the foundation, of those political societies, which came to call themselves American. We can further see how the conceptual space called America characteristically has this dedication to undistracted thinking about questions of order.

Said shortly, education, and especially higher education, was in America education in citizenship. American citizenship was citizenship in a free society, so that education in America was education in and for freedom. This commitment has remained a characteristic of higher education in America until very recently, and remains an idea with considerable purchase, even in the present day, when much of what passes for higher education seems to be little more than rote job training and skill-acquisition exercise. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that this is the case, and that higher education as workforce preparation is the genuine present of the educational project in America, then the question arises as to whether—and if so, then how and to what extent—that project is still related to its american original, or whether there has been a break. – Soul of a Nation, 62-63

Perhaps I ought to have added there that, in addition to education as training – indeed, before education as training – education has in many places become essentially indoctrination. I do not mean this in to be a complaint – not in the usual sense of the term, anyway – but as a statement of fact: there is and always has been and likely always will be a “campus orthodoxy”; only until recently, it was there to be challenged (along with the risks inherent in and attendant upon every challenge of every established orthodoxy).

The difference, it seems to me, is in the mode and manner in which such challenge is brought: when the orthodoxy is not established by consensus with argument behind it, but by mere assertion predicated on prohibition of inquiry, the only challenge possible is an active and a positive one; when the purpose of the orthodoxy is not to establish a framework within which investigation of truth can take place, but to proscribe opinion and prohibit inquiry (as happens on “secular” the campus with regard to certain areas of contention and on the Catholic campus with regard to certain others), the activist posture and comportment of students will be a measure of the success of the program of indoctrination.

What we want is a student with a an infant’s unguardedness before the world, a toddler’s tenacity in questioning, a child’s spirit of wonder, an adolescent’s willingness to take risks, and a man’s willingness to stand and be pummelled for a worthy cause.

Such creatures are rare, indeed, and are almost always more the product of art than mere nature: they are costly to make, but the want of them is more dear, still.

The Soul of a(n immigrant) Nation

In this time of great national crisis, in which we are wrestling as we have wrestled only a few times before in our national life, with questions touching our basic commitments as a people, and testing whether we really are now (or perhaps ever have been) committed to the things we claim to love, we are not only faced with a choice of profound significance for us, but for humanity generally: is the idea of America still alive, and if so, is it worth pursuing?

As I say in the introduction to The Soul of a Nation:

There have always been those who have found, and there are today many who find America—what it was at the beginning, what it is now, what it might become—indefensible, and there are reasons. If, however, the persons who held the equal creation of all men and the rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be self-evident, the persons who ordained and established the Constitution, were able at all to make such a declaration and establish an ordinance for the protection of their declared understanding of human being, then our judgment of them must be based, not on disagreements with the policy of one or another administration’s exercise of America’s constituted governing machinery, but on our understanding of what the founding generation of America understood itself to be doing. Only then will the other questions that may or may not arise under America be amenable to criticism—whether from America or philosophy. – Soul of a Nation, 25.

A premise:

America is the name given to the physical place, extended in space and enduring over time, in which human beings come to live together in such a way as to make the truth of the claims advanced by the Declaration plain for all to see who come to live there. It is, therefore, the name the Founders give to the conceptual space in which they come to recognize each other as participating in the truths claimed for their lives by their representatives through the Declaration. Of course, the claim that the truth of America is plain for all to see who come there to live will depend entirely on the way of life adopted by those who are there and imparted to those who arrive, whether by birth or by boat. – Soul of a Nation, 124

What kind of a people are we, or do we aspire to be – and how ought we to live, how ought we to order our lives together, that the truths proclaimed as self-evident in our foundation, might really and truly be so in the present?

Regarding the specific question of immigration, I do not have any special insight into policy.

I do, however, know that, on a small island in the great port of our eastern littoral, there stands a great bronze statue, refiguring liberty as a great lady: crowned, vigilant, and bearing a great torch – a lighted torch that has been a beacon and a sign of welcome to the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, for more than a hundred years.

As liberty is a gift of God and the birthright of every member of our race, so was the statue a gift from one free and great-hearted people to another, given in esteem and recognition that our true greatness is found in the secret regions of our nation’s soul:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. –  “The New Colossus” by E. Lazarus

We did not, through the late 19th and into the 20th century, live up spotlessly and without blemish to the esteem of our friends and allies, the French, as far as our immigration policy was concerned. Sometimes, that policy was frankly and unapologetically racist.

Nevertheless, there is a meanness of spirit that seems today to permeate much of our national discourse with regard to the right policy in the face of a new wave of migration, and with regard to a burgeoning refugee crisis – one that candid minds will not fail to recognize as owing itself in part, at least, to our own adventures overseas.

Meanness of spirit does not become us, and if we allow it to dominate our discourse, shall soon disfigure and destroy us.

Shall we put the lamp out now, or scratch the words of Lazzarus’ poem from the plaque, or break her arm and cast her torch into a shield, her crown into a sword? Shall we strip her skirts and make her thus to stand and keep her vigil: in foreboding?

THE SOUL OF A NATION now available for order

Dear friends, I am very happy to announce that The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood is now available for order online. At present, the book is available through (here) and on the website of the publisher, Wipf & Stock – at a significantly discounted price!

Click the book title above for more, or go to:


Excerpt from “Standing to Declare” in The Soul of a Nation

The Soul of a Nation: available for order by the end of November!

Here is a brief excerpt from The Soul of a Nation: America as a tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, taken from a section dealing with Stanley Cavell on Ralph Waldo Emerson on the notion of “wording the world” and the public nature of language. There are echoes and resonances of J.L. Austin in here (unsurprising for anyone who reads Cavell), and the whole thing is pointing toward something even more radical than a (mere) indictment of John Locke and his “theory” of property.


Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776”

 – Ferris is appreciated these days for his attention to particular detail, though he is unconerned with conveying “accurate” portrayals of the events of history, which form part of his Pageant of a Nation series. I suspect he may have understood better than his critics (aesthetic or historical) what Eric Voegelin calls “paradigmatic history”, a notion he develops especially in Order and History, vol. I: Israel and revelation –

Could it be that Locke wasn’t nearly as important to the Founders’ project as subsequent generations – including a set of people with a particular set of political and intellectual commitments in the present day – have been wont to make him?

“[T]o word the world is another way of turning an experience into thought; to word the world is precisely to make its meaning public (add to this that there is an open question in philosophy whether the world is a fact, that is, whether the world is made). Wording the world is precisely what God does when He creates it. God gives humanity the power of logos so that mankind might have, under Him, lordship over creation. The logos becomes flesh and  dwells among us, and gives us words to say that do things: hoc est enim corpus meum. In that story, words open doors between the worlds. The structure of the world in which we live may change when the right person says the right things in the right circumstances; for example, political bonds among distinct peoples may be dissolved by declaring their dissolution. The last chapter considered the circumstances of the American case. The question has now become: who is to say the words?”

On wording the world


“Words establish our relations to people, and place us, and do many other things, as well, though how well they do the things we want them to do is not always, perhaps never, in our power to tell.7 if it helps, the harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has described the issue as one of, “Word[ing] the world.”8 The expression is awkward, perhaps, though by no means is it arcane. it recalls our sense of the world’s being given by language, and so at the same time our giving words to the world, or a world to words. if we allow “Word” to translate the Greek logos, then to word the world is to make it, to make the world (intelligible). in an old story, God gives sound to his breath, and speaks the being of the world: he gives us the power of speech, through which we can participate in (the intelligibility of) creation. either we keep faith with the power that is bequeathed us, or we do not. To lose faith in the power is to despair of (knowing) the world.” – Soul of a Nation, 7.