Caputo’s (Social Policy and Research/Yeshiva Univ.; Policy Analysis for Social Workers, 2014, etc.) memoir chronicles his intellectual development, as well as his career in social work and the academy.
The author was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, as one of eight children. Although neither of his parents graduated from college—and his mother never finished high school—they encouraged him in his academic pursuits, and he eventually earned a doctorate in the history of social welfare from the University of Chicago. The author’s self-described “intellectual biography” charts several different trajectories of his personal development. For example, until his early college years, Caputo considered himself a “devout Catholic” but gradually adopted a spiritual version of “secular humanism,” influenced by such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Nevertheless, he remained true to values that he sees as being at the core of Christianity—the individual dignity of each person, the universal humanity that binds us all together, and the responsibility to help those in need. The author worked as a social worker and as an academic, always looking for ways to balance his activism and advocacy with his commitment to research. He reveals how even his intellectual life attested to the tension between praxis and theory, as he was always looking to achieve “better balance between impartial scholar and public intellectual” in order to become a better “academic citizen.”
Throughout this memoir, Caputo shows notable philosophical breadth, and he intelligently discusses a broad spectrum of topics, including welfare policy, caregiving, the implementation of a basic income guarantee, compassionate conservatism, and Allan Bloom’s landmark 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. His enthusiasm for his work is obvious and infectious, and he truly seems happy doing “what I do best, namely conceptualize issues, read books, and teach students.” Also, he openly discusses his various frustrations over the course of this remembrance—not only with specific social policies, but also with his own occupation. He admits, for instance, that writing never came easy to him, despite the fact that he was prolific, and that, at one point, he fretted that he “had exhausted my intellectual and scholarly potential.” However, this book buries the reader in needlessly granular detail about such topics as the various schools the author went to, the classes he took and taught, the positions he held, and the books and articles he wrote; as a result, his memoir often reads like a narrated curriculum vitae. (It concludes with an appendix of publications and conference presentations.) He also quotes his own journals at great length; he even comments, in his diary, that he should become a more faithful diarist. One can’t help but wish that he’d written more about the novel that he once worked on, or about his self-described “disco-driven pothead social life in the mid-1970s”—which he discreetly withholds from the reader to avoid “embarrassment.”
A thoughtful, often engaging account of a philosophically vital life, but overburdened with mundane details.