The Chronicle Review

Philosophy's Loss

Pui Yan Fong for The Chronicle Review

August 19, 2013

For the record: If I find the time and energy to write out my dying words, I do not want them to end up in a musty broom closet.

Unfortunately, they probably will.

If you walk through Harvard Yard toward the library, you will notice a boxy building to your left, which houses the philosophy department. This is Emerson Hall, named after that bard of Concord whom no one in philosophy really cares about any more. If you tramp up to the second floor, you will find the department office and Robbins Library. Reginald Robbins was a student of the American philosophers William James and Josiah Royce. For the most part, today's mainstream philosophy (the type that is done at institutions like Harvard) has left those characters behind as well.

At the back of Robbins Library is a broom closet, which doubles as a little-used storage space.

Five years ago, on an evening spent avoiding the serious archival research that I was supposed to find fascinating, I decided to explore that closet. There I discovered a piece of research I actually cared about. At one point, someone had decided to frame it, but in subsequent years someone else had wedged the frame between the waste bin and the file cabinet. I pried it out far enough to see the words written on the bottom of the now-yellowing piece of paper inside the frame:

"Last written words of Josiah Royce ... "

If you don't know who Josiah Royce is, don't feel too bad. Many serious philosophers don't either. Cornel West is one of the few who care about him. Twenty years ago, West wrote a very good book called Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times, and in the chapter, "Pragmatism and the Tragic," he argues for the enduring importance of Royce's thought. Too often, American philosophy, and particularly pragmatism, glosses the strife and pain of everyday life, concentrating instead on the productive optimism that is supposed to define the American ethos. West suggests that Royce went against that grain, standing out in his adamant refusal to sugarcoat human existence.

Born in Grass Valley, Calif., Royce came to Harvard in the 1880s as a temporary replacement for William James when he was on leave. When James returned, he and Royce became friends (and neighbors—on Irving Street, in Cambridge). Unlike James, however, Royce never felt at home at Harvard; he felt out of place in the pedigreed Cambridge culture. Many of his books took on religious themes at a time when religion was going out of vogue. And his books were surprisingly practical—geared toward remedying societal ills—at a time when philosophy was beginning to ascend into the far reaches of theoretical irrelevance.

Today, Royce might have followed West in leaving Harvard altogether, choosing an intellectual climate more welcoming to his blend of idealism and pragmatism. Royce, like West, believed that a kind of practical idealism was the only appropriate response to the abiding tragedy of being human. And yes, for these thinkers, being human—to live very briefly only to ultimately die—is tragic. Of course, Ecclesiastes anticipates Royce and West by a few millennia when its author describes the dark truth of the human condition: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

In short, at the end of the day, all is for naught. The projects and pursuits of our fragile lives don't end well. As soon as we enter life, we are on the way out, and that exit often seems meaningless. No one consulted us beforehand about this nasty truth, and we certainly didn't ask for it.

West tells us that Royce was painfully aware of this existential reality, and was the first American philosopher to give it any sustained thought. He is not quite right about that (Jonathan Edwards, Margaret Fuller, and Emerson all took a shot at it before Royce), but Royce is certainly one of the first American thinker who allowed human tragedy, and the corresponding problem of evil, to structure his philosophy as a whole.

That is what I was thinking as I pulled the frame out of its hiding place. I was also thinking that Royce's relative obscurity, and the fact that his dying words ended up in a janitor's closet, was a sign that philosophy had taken an unfortunate turn away from the existential problem that Royce had found so compelling: how to live a creative, meaningful life in the face of our inevitable demise.

As I read the scribbled writing inside the picture frame, I was not surprised to see that Royce was attempting to cope with the tragic one last time in his final hours. Royce's penmanship declined in his later life and by his final year, 1916, it was almost illegible. But this note, was surprisingly clear and deliberate:

Among the motives that have made the religious life of humanity intense, endlessly disposed to renew its youth despite all its disillusionments and unfailingly precious despite all of its changes and disappointments  is the motive expressed in one of the oldest and newest of cults—the cult of the dead. ...

This was one of the creepier moments I've ever had as a philosopher. Also, one of the most profound. I knew what Royce was talking about, at least intellectually. The "cult of the dead" was a reference to a very old institution that sought to memorialize and counteract the tragedy of human finitude. It's sometimes referred to as the "ancestor cult," in which members spend their lives working to keep the dead alive, at least in memory. The ancient Celts had one, the Egyptians too. Royce hoped in vain that such a cult could survive the forward-looking tendencies of modernity.

If the ultimate tragedy of life can be summed up in the suggestion that "all is vanity," it was the job of the cult of the dead to respectfully, enduringly, disagree. The cult commemorated the dead and spoke for them long after they were gone. It basically affirmed what most of us wish someone would say about us when we die: We matter. I always wondered why Royce had been obsessed with a certain section of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel discusses Sophocles' Antigone. Now it made sense. Antigone was the unsung hero of the cult of the dead. She had given her own life to memorialize her brother's, to say that he had mattered. This is why Hegel, Royce, and the rest of us hold her in such esteem.

I wiped off the dust obscuring the rest of Royce's words:

This cult has survived countless changes of opinion. It will survive countless transformations of belief such as the future may have in store for us. Its spirit will grow. ... So long as love and memory and record and monument keep the thought of our dead near to our lives and hearts, so long as ... the spirit of brotherhood enables us to prize what we owe to those who have lived and died for us, the cult of the dead will be an unfailing source to us of new and genuinely religious life.

As I sat on the floor of the broom closet and cleaned the dirt off of the rest of the frame, it was hard not to think how pathetically wrong Royce had been. We die, and despite whatever heroism of our final words, they invariably end up—figuratively—wedged between a waste bin and file cabinet. Our culture has no shortage of records and monuments to memorialize our dead, but they rarely serve to draw the dead near to our lives and hearts. Instead, I am reminded of the statue from Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" (another of Royce's favorites) that deteriorated as quickly as the king that it was meant to commemorate.

To a culture that valorizes youth and generally doesn't believe in the imminence of death, the cult of the dead seems both morbid and pointless. For us, the past is not a warning, or a reminder, or something to which we feel indebted. So it fades into nostalgia or, more often, fades away altogether. Rarely does the past truly mean something in our present.

All of this amounts to admitting that Royce wasn't wrong. I was. The discipline of philosophy had taught me many things, but valuing the cult of the dead was not one of them. This should come as no surprise. Hegel suggests that every age gives rise to its own philosophical framework, that philosophy is culture raised to the level of ideas. With some relatively obscure exceptions, philosophy has lost the sense of its history and its claims to existential import. According to Royce, those are not unrelated.

Philosophy, and the humanities more generally, once served as an effective cult of the dead—documenting, explaining, and revitalizing the meaning and value of human pursuits. It tried to figure out how to preserve what is best and most noble about us. At its best, philosophy tried to explain why our lives, so fragile and insignificant, might not be a complete waste of time.

Today, up-and-coming philosophers tend to steer away from these hard issues and therefore relinquish a large part of their discipline's raison d'être. I suspect that Emerson foresaw this trend, and perhaps that is why he didn't want to be called a philosopher. The number of philosophy journals has proliferated since I finished graduate school, but I can't help worrying that they are filled with philosophy's dying words. And that very few people would care to read them a century later on the floor of some closet.

Royce's son Stephen had written an inscription at the bottom of Royce's note: "Last written words of Josiah Royce found on his desk after his death never completed." 

Never completed. At least that is the hope when it comes to the cult of the dead, philosophy, and dying words.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He is author of Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition (forthcoming from Fordham University Press).