The Best of All Possible Worlds

From The New York Times:

Gottlieb-articleLargeRomano was a literary critic with The Philadelphia Inquirer for a quarter of a century and has also been a professor of philosophy. He presumably enjoyed this latter job, because he writes that today’s America is the best place to do philosophy that there has ever been, surpassing even the Athens of those ingenious and polite men Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In one fit of enthusiastic chauvinism he goes yet further, and announces that it is the “perfectly designed environment” to ply his trade, as if no greater intellectual paradise could be imagined. This news will not provide much comfort to declinists who feel the political and economic hegemony of the United States to be fading fast. But perhaps it will help a little. Let deficits grow, good jobs disappear and China loom — hang it all, America will always have world-beating epistemology and metaphysics up its sleeve. Well, maybe that isn’t quite fair to Romano, because his claim depends on redefining the term “philosophy,” giving it a nebulous meaning that embraces far more than is taught under that name in universities. (More later about this revisionist wordplay.) Also, one part of his case is convincing, and oddly still worth making: America is not nearly so ­dumbed down as its detractors at home like to say.

“Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free,” “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” and “The Age of American Unreason” are just three of the books from American writers in the past five years that belabor religious fundamentalism, conservative talk shows, scientific illiteracy or the many available flavors of junk food for thought. The fallacy of such books, as Romano argues, is that they take some rotten parts for the largely nutritious whole. It’s not so much that they compare American apples with foreign oranges, but that they fail to acknowledge that the United States is an enormous fruit bowl. Everything is to be found in it, usually in abundance, including a vibrant intellectual life. Rather like that of India — which has over a third of the planet’s illiterate adults but also one of the largest university systems in the world — the intellectual stature of America eludes simple generalizations.

More here.