OK, I confess: my favourite philosophy book of 2018 was actually published in 2016 and it is American Philosophy: A Love Story, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In his remarkably riveting enquiry into the ‘zeitgeist’ of early twentieth-century American academe, John Kaag recreates the confident and life-affirming philosophy of William Ernest Hocking, a neglected thinker overshadowed by his mentor Josiah Royce and by William James whose Principles of Psychology prompted Hocking to study philosophy at Harvard. Kaag mixes erudition and emotion with utmost lightness and elegance while inviting us to follow him and his initially reticent colleague, through an inexplicably abandoned library which turns out to be a treasure-trove of invaluable letters, notes and volumes of philosophy. This book is a worthy companion to Louis Menand’ study of The Metaphysical Club (Harper Collins), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002.
Moving away from Kaag’s intellectually stimulating memoir, more recent books have revived the alleged public interest in Aristotle’s and Nietzsche’s moral philosophy. In her ‘Aristotle’s Way. How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life’ (Bodley Head), Edith Hall reminds us that the Stagirite can lead us gently to ‘eudaimonia’ or happiness, through easy daily steps. In I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Faber and Faber), Sue Prideaux focuses as much on the man and his quirky personality as on his most radical stances.
Two volumes commissioned by Cambridge University Press have concentrated on the legacy of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault within the contexts of ‘Literature, Theory and Criticism in the twenty-first century’. Both After Derrida (edited by J-M Rabaté) and After Foucault (edited by Lisa Downing) offer twelve different perspectives on each thinker, each essay aiming at highlighting his ongoing relevance in academic, political and literary circles.
Neither Derrida nor Foucault was remotely concerned with ecological issues or the implications of artificial intelligence for the future of mankind. Although Philip K. Dick is broadly classified as a science fiction writer, many of his numerous short stories and novels reveal a prescient vision of a dystopian near-future police state, shared by humans and quasi-human androids. Dick’s relentless questioning of the ambiguous nature of personhood in a confusing, multifaceted reality makes him an awkward but genuine contender for the title of ‘philosopher of our time’, despite his untimely death in 1982, at the age of 53.
Whatever our interrogations and fears about the future, Philip K. Dick has already been there and reported back to three generations of readers. The best way to grasp the importance and depth of his works is to read Philosophy and Philip K. Dick, published in 2011 in the excellent Popular Culture and Philosophy collection with its rich catalogue of 122 titles, since its inception in 2000.