Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gramp's library

If I have one happy thought about my paternal grandfather, a Congregation minister in Wisconsin, it is that I gave him a little joy in his latest years. He and his wife were shocked - yes, shocked! - when it turned out that too soon after our marriage my wife and I had a son. This grandfather, I assume, was a product of New England Calvinism - Congregational style - and he must have sputtered greatly.

But soon after the birth, I started writing to him. (I knew the guy was smart: he graduated from a seminary, wrote sermons every week, and had a huge library at the back of his house.) I talked about my dad's smile when holding the kid, my interests in philosophy courses, my hopes for life.

When my grandfather, growing really old, needed to move to New Mexico to live near his eldest son, a banker, he shocked me with an offer. Would I come to his house (300 miles away) and take what I wanted from his library?

Would I! Holy shit! I remember sitting on the floor of his library, stacks of books everywhere, a big grin on my face, trying to figure out in my young, callow way what books to take with me. (My grandfather walked in, grinned his elderly grin, and left. I soon learned he had given me his car. A Rambler, but hey.)

Among those books were a couple of volumes by Josiah Royce, which is the point of this blog.

Royce, like the sons of so many failed 49ers in California, grew up poor. He also, in my opinion, was the last important United States philosopher. (Since his time - the late 1800s, early 1900s - philosophers have messed with pragmatism, or wondered what it is like to be a bat. Nothing really matters, or only language matters. Huh?)

Royce is way out of current academic thought, but his "pragmatic idealism" - I'm not going to give a philosophy lecture here but think Kant - provided the last time a "real" philosopher caught the popular imagination. Since his time, American thought turned largely to politics. Hi there, Sarah Palin.

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