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William Ernest Hocking Rare Book Collection

John Kaag, Ph.D. Publications

Books in UML Library

Selected Articles

John Kaag Ph.d.


UMass Lowell Magazine for Alumni and Friends Winter 2014

"From Donuts to Descartes"

by John Kaag

"Philosophy prof. John Kaag was bored during a session at a conference about renowned philosopher William James in Chocorua, N.H. To pass the time, so he walked to a bakery, struck up a conversation with a guy, and then found himself at the door of a personal library filled with first editions from Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Descartes.

“I met a man named Bunn Nickerson, who’d once farmed the estate of W.E. Hocking, also a noted philosopher, and one of my scholarly interests,” says Kaag.

“After chatting, he asked if I wanted to see West Wind, Hocking’s massive estate in nearby Madison,” says Kaag.

There, in an unheated, free-standing library, were hundreds of rare books, many handed down from James to his protégé, Hocking. Kaag began to look through them, taking in the notes (or “marginalia”) James and others made in reaction to the greats of Western philosophy.

Kaag’s serendipitous 2008 trip to West Wind will soon reap benefits for the University and philosophy scholars worldwide, as Hocking’s granddaughters—Penelope Hocking, Jillian Farwell and Jennifer Wiley—agreed to donate a selection of the collection to UMass Lowell.

“I got to know the Hocking family, and my partner (Prof. Carol Hay, also of the Philosophy Department) and I spent weekends cataloguing the works and moving them to dry storage before the family kindly decided to donate them to the University,” says Kaag.

Kaag and Hay used funds they received through a Healey Grant to have the works— which also included William James’ marginalia from his copies of Nietzsche, Kant and Hegel, and 30 volumes of noted Idealist philosopher James Royce—professionally appraised. During one of these working weekends, Hay discovered an anonymous first edition of John Locke’s 1690 “Two Treatises on Government” and Descartes’ 1649 “Discourse on Method,” the book that first gave us “I think therefore I am.”

“These books—and especially the handwritten insights into how the giants of philosophy felt about each other’s work—are the tip of a very large and complex history,” says Kaag, who is in the process of writing about the library in a book called “Finding West Wind.”

Some of the collection will be displayed at a July event at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center marking the 100th anniversary of the death of C.S. Peirce, a founder of the American philosophical tradition. More than 200 scholars from around the world plan to attend.

“This collection will put UMass Lowell on the map in terms of archival research in the humanities,” says Mark Reimer, executive director of special initiatives. “Such editions are housed only at the most prestigious universities—for example, only Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Wellesley and a small handful of other institutions have first editions of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’.” —SE