Book Notes: Philosophical Siblings by Jane F. Thrailkill

Philosophical Siblings cover

By Dee Richards

The 2023 shortlisted selections for the Christian Gauss Award showcase topics that advance our knowledge, challenge our perceptions, and change the narrative in literary scholarship and criticism. Among those selected was Jane F. Thrailkill’s Philosophical Siblings: Varieties of Playful Experience in Alice, William, and Henry James (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), an intriguing examination of iconic nineteenth-century minds, who also happened to be siblings. Thrailkill is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism (Harvard University Press, 2007). Thrailkill’s most recent book, Philosophical Siblings is an exciting and curious new focus for comparison of the James siblings, which has, historically, excluded William and Henry’s only sister, Alice.

Philosophical Siblings evokes the familial dynamic of siblings at play; Thrailkill points out that to attain greater avenues for understanding, one must eschew the pragmatic approach of these philosophical minds and recognize them as humans and siblings. By adding Alice to her interpretation, Thrailkill completes an image of the family’s dynamics of learning through joking, as evidenced in Alice’s epistolary publications; teaching, as demonstrated through William’s groundbreaking work in psychology and philosophy; and toying, as shown in Henry’s literary contributions. Thrailkill accepts their invitation to “play” with them, by giving new ways to examine and compare the output of these remarkable siblings. This potential for advancing understanding is precisely what drew the attention of the Christian Gauss Award.

As reported on the publisher’s site, Thrailkill’s approach in Philosophical Siblings of bringing the siblings together within the lens of play is said by American Literary History Journal of Oxford University Press to be “inspired” and will “prompt new approaches to all three Jameses,” and praises the fun Thrailkill enjoys in the text. Choice Magazine praises Thrailkill’s “elegance and clarity” and describes the aspects of play presented in it as a “mode of theorizing experience,” which leads to fruitful comparisons in the reader’s mind. All reviews of the book highlight Thrailkill’s capacity for challenging old thinking and comparison and hope that further studies using Thrailkill’s model of play as theory will forever improve perspectives in philosophy and literary criticism.

The Christian Gauss Award celebrates exceptional works in the field of literary scholarship and criticism. Jane F. Thrailkill joins fellow 2023 Christian Gauss Award finalists Dennis Tyler, Azar Nafisi, Lisa Zunshine, and Ilan Stavans in having an impact on scholars of the liberal arts and sciences. For more information on the book, please visit the University of Pennsylvania Press’s website, The site provides a generous 42-page sample of Philosophical Siblings and is available on e-book through their site. The University of Pennsylvania Press is one of the oldest scholarly presses in North America with a commitment to advancing knowledge for a more just and equitable future.

Looking for your next great read? Visit the ΦBK Book Awards online for more about the Christian Gauss Award and Phi Beta Kappa’s other book prizes. The next ΦBK Book Awards Shortlist will be announced fall 2024.

Dee Richards is a cum laude graduate of University of California, Irvine holding a B.A. in English, with a creative writing focus. Richards received the honor of induction by UC Irvine’s Mu of California chapter in June 2023, a distinction only offered to the top five percent of graduating seniors there. Richards has won three awards in creative non-fiction and has received eight anthology publications to date.