American Philosophy

The term “American Philosophy,” perhaps surprisingly, has been somewhat vague. While it has tended to primarily include philosophical work done by Americans within the geographical confines of the United States, this has not been exclusively the case. For example, Alfred North Whitehead came to the United States relatively late in life. On the other hand, George Santayana spent much of his life outside of the United States. Until only recently, the term was used to refer to philosophers of European descent. Another focus for defining, or at least characterizing, American Philosophy has been on the types of philosophical concerns and problems addressed. While American philosophers have worked on traditional areas of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, this is not unique to American Philosophy. Many scholars have highlighted American philosophers’ focus on the interconnections of theory and practice, on experience and community, though these, too, are not unique to American Philosophy. The people, movements, schools of thought and philosophical traditions that have constituted American Philosophy have been varied and often at odds with each other. Different concerns and themes have waxed or waned at different times. For instance, the analysis of language was important throughout much of the twentieth century, but of very little concern before then, while the relation between philosophy and religion, of great significance early in American Philosophy, paled in importance during much of the twentieth century. Despite having no core of defining features, American Philosophy can nevertheless be seen as both reflecting and shaping collective American identity over the history of the nation.

Table of Contents

  1. 17th Century
  2. 18th Century
  3. 19th Century
  4. 20th Century and Recent

1. 17th Century

Though many people, communities and nations populated the area that is now the United States long before the U.S.A. became a nation-state, and they all wrestled with universal philosophical questions such as the nature of the self, the relationships between persons, their origins and destiny, most histories of American Philosophy begin with European colonization, especially from the time of the Puritans in New England. From the “Mayflower Compact,” penned in 1620 as the early English settlers arrived in the New World, basic socio-political positions were made explicit and fundamental to newly established communities. Speaking of forming a covenant to “combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic,” those arriving on the Mayflower immediately identified a close and ineliminable connection between individuals and their community. This sentiment was echoed in founding documents of other colonies, such as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641). Likewise, the writings of prominent early colonial leaders, such as John Winthrop (1588-1649) emphasized “the care of the public must oversway all private respects…for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” Although highly influential, such views were not universal, as the Maryland Toleration Act (1649) and the writings of other influential leaders, e.g., Roger Williams (1603-1683) stressed religious tolerance over commitment to the religious covenant of a community. From the earliest concerns, then, even prior to the establishment of the United States, the social and political issues of the relation of individuals to their communities as well as the nature of the communities themselves (that is, as secular or religious) were paramount.

2. 18th Century

Broadly speaking, American Philosophy in the eighteenth century can be divided into two halves, the first still heavily influenced by the Calvinism of the Puritans and the second more directly along the lines of the European Enlightenment and associated with the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin).

Far and away the most significant thinker of the first half of the 18th century for American Philosophy was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Often associated primarily with the fiery oratory of sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and the religious revivalist “Great Awakening” of the 1740s, Edwards both distilled and assimilated Calvinist theological thought and the emergent Newtonian scientific worldview. Frequently characterized as trying to synthesize a Christian Platonism, with an emphasis on the reality of a spiritual world, with an empiricist epistemology, an emphasis on Lockean sensation and Newtonian corpuscular physics, Edwards drew directly from the thought of Bishop George Berkeley, who stressed the necessity of mind (or non-material reality) to make sense of human experience. This non-material mind, for Edwards, consists of understanding and will, both of which are passive at root. It is understanding that, along lines of the successes of Newtonian physics, leads to the fundamental metaphysical category of Resistance, which Edwards characterizes as “the primary quality of objects.” That is, whatever features objects might have, what is fundamental to something qua object is that is resists. This power of resistance is “the actual exertion of God’s power” and is demonstrated by Newton’s basic laws of motion, in which objects at rest or in motion will remain undeterred until and unless acted on by some other force (that is, resisted). Understanding, though, is different than will. Edwards is perhaps best known for his rejection of free will. As he remarked, “we can do as we please, but we cannot please as we please.” Just as there is natural necessity and natural inability, for Edwards, there is moral necessity and moral inability. Every act of will is connected to understanding, and thus determined. Echoing the views of John Calvin, Edwards saw not (good) works, but the grace of God as the determiner of human fortune.

While couched primarily in a religious context for Edwards but less so for others, the acceptance and adaptation of a Newtonian worldview was something shared by most American philosophers in the latter half of the 18th century. These later thinkers, however, abandoned to a great extent the religious context and focused rather on social-political issues. Sharing many commitments of European philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment (such as a reliance on reason and science, a broad faith in scientific and social progress along with a belief in the perfectibility of humans, a strong advocacy of political democracy and laissez-faire economics), many of the famous names of American history identified themselves with this enlightenment thought. While they attended very little to basic issues of metaphysics or epistemology, the Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), and James Madison (1751-1836), wrote voluminously on social and political philosophy. The American Declaration of Independence as well as the United States Constitution, with its initial amendments, better known as the Bill of Rights, was drafted at this time, with their emphasis on religious toleration. Though including explicit references to God, these thinkers tended to commit themselves in their writings less to Christianity per se and more to deism, the view of God as creator of a world governed by natural laws (which they believed were explicated for the most part by Newton) but not directly involved with human action. For example, as early as 1730 and as late as 1790 Franklin spoke of God as world-creator and Jesus as providing a system of morality but with no direct commitment to the divinity of Jesus or to any organized church. Instead, a major focus of concern was the appropriate nature of the State and its relation to individuals. While the thought of Thomas Jefferson, exemplified in the language of the Declaration of Independence, emphasized natural, inalienable rights of individuals against the tyranny of the State – with the legitimacy of the State only in securing the rights of individuals – federalists such as James Madison highlighted dangers of factional democracy, with his view of protecting both individual rights and the public good.

3. 19th Century

In a letter to John Adams written in 1814, Thomas Jefferson complained that, while the post-revolutionary American youth lived in happier times than their parents, this younger generation held “all knowledge which is not innate, [to be] in contempt, or neglect at least.” Their “folly” included endorsing “self-learning and self-sufficiency; of rejecting the knowledge acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition.” These complaints reflected Jefferson’s concerns about the rise of romanticism in early nineteenth century America. Transcendentalism, or American Romanticism, was the first of several major traditions to characterize philosophical thought in America’s first full century as a nation, with Transcendentalism succeeded by the impact of Darwinian evolutionary thought and finally developing into America’s most renowned school of thought, Pragmatism. A Hegelian movement, centered in St. Louis and identified largely with its chief proponent, George Holmes Howison (1834-1916), occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, but was overshadowed by the rise of Pragmatism. Even the journal founded in 1867 by the St. Louis Hegelians, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, became best known later on because of its publication of essays by the pragmatist Charles Peirce (1839-1914).

Where the thinkers of the American enlightenment stressed social and political concerns, based on a Newtonian mechanistic view of the world, the thinkers of American Transcendentalism took the emphasis on individuals and their relation to the community in a different direction. This direction was based not on a mechanistic view of the world, but on an organic metaphor that stressed the subjective nature of human experience and existence. Highlighting personal experience and often even a fairly mystical holism, writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1872), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) argued for the priority of personal non-cognitive, emotional connections to nature and to the world as a whole. Human are agents in the world more fundamentally than they are knowers of the world. “Real” knowledge is intuitive and personal; it transcends scientific understanding that is based on empirical sense experience. Because of this, those things that constrain or restrict free personal thought, such as conventional morality and political institutions, need to be transcended as well. This spirit is captured in the poetry of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in which he claims, “I celebrate myself…Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! I speak the past-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy….” This sentiment is echoed in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom argue for the importance of self-reliance, intuition, and a return to nature, i.e., an embracing of what is non-civilized and non-industrial. In his 1836 paper, “Nature,” Emerson states, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith…I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God…In the wilderness I find something more dear and connate than in streets and villages.” Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” (1842) stands as a manifesto of this philosophical movement, in which he explicitly identifies Transcendentalism as a form of philosophical Idealism. Emerson wrote:

As thinkers, mankind have ever been divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, The senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell…Society is good when it does not violate me, but best when it is likest to solitude. Everything real is self-existent. Everything divine shares the self-existence of Deity…[Kant showed] there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by way of experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms.

At the same time, during the 1830s and 1840s, there were other thinkers who stressed greater social and political equality, particularly several important women writers and activists, such as Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). The call for social and political emancipation, in many ways a call to fulfill the promise of the American enlightenment, came not just from women such as Grimké and Stanton, but also from those demanding the abolition of slavery, notably William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) and Frederick Douglass (1817-1895).

Just as much of American philosophical thought was influenced by the success of Newton’s scientific worldview throughout the eighteenth century, the publication of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in 1859 had a great impact on subsequent American philosophy. Though not known widely outside of academic circles, two thinkers in particular wrote passionately for re-conceiving philosophical concerns and positions along Darwinian lines, John Fiske (1842-1901) and Chauncey Wright (1830-1875). Both stressed the need to understand consciousness and morality in terms of their evolutionary development. Such a naturalistic, evolutionary approach became even more pronounced at the end of the twentieth century. It was outside of academia, however, often under the label of “Social Darwinism” that this view had even greater impact and influence, especially via the writings of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). Both Spencer and Sumner likened societies to organisms, in a struggle for survival. Indeed, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” to capture what he (and many others) took to be the significance of evolutionary theory. If groups within a society, and even societies themselves, are – like biological organisms – in a constant competition for survival, then a sign of their fitness is the fact that the do in fact survive, for Spencer. Such competition, indeed, is useful and good, for in the long run those that survive will have competed and won, a clear statement of their superiority. Spencer, Sumner and others, such as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), argued that the social implication of the fact of such struggle for survival is that free-market capitalism is the natural economic system and the one that will ensure the greatest success for a society’s economic well-being. In Sumner’s essay, “The Man of Virtue,” he remarks that, “Every man and woman in society has one big duty. That is, to take care of his or her own self…Society, therefore, does not need any care or supervision.” Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth” echoes this view: “[The law of competition] is here, we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department…the law of competition [is] not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.” The emphasis on competition as the key to evolutionary thought was not shared by everyone, however. One prominent advocate of Darwin, who nevertheless argued that cooperation rather than competition was the message of evolutionary thought, was Lester Ward (1841-1913). Not only are those groups that cooperate and function together as a group more likely to survive than those that don’t, he claimed, but human history has shown that government is a natural, emergent feature of human societies, rather than, contra Sumner, a hindrance and impediment to progress.

After Transcendentalism and evolutionary philosophy, the third and by far most renowned philosophical movement in nineteenth century America was Pragmatism. Informally christened as “pragmatism” in the 1870s by one of its most famous proponents, Charles Sanders Peirce, Pragmatism is seen by most philosophers today as the classic American philosophical tradition. Not easily definable, Pragmatism is a constellation of principles, stances, and philosophical commitments, some of which are more or less salient for particular pragmatism philosophers (as will be noted below). Nevertheless, there are threads that run across and through most pragmatists. There is a strong naturalistic bent, meaning that they look for an understanding of phenomena and concepts in terms of how they arose and how they play a part in our engagement with the world. Peirce’s “pragmatic maxim” captures this stance as follows: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” There is a rejection of a foundationalist view of knowledge. All knowledge claims are fallible and revisable. The flip side of such fallibility and revisibility is that no inquiry is disinterested. Beliefs are fundamentally instruments for us to cope with the contingencies of the world. In addition, there is an enunciated commitment to intersubjectivity and community. So, while rejecting the notion of any pure “givens,” of experience, pragmatists also reject any pure subjectivism or abandonment of standards or criteria of adjudication beyond the individual. Unlike the American philosophical movements that preceded Pragmatism, pragmatists wrestled with issues and concerns across the philosophical spectrum, from basic metaphysics to epistemology to all forms of axiology (ethical, political, and even aesthetic).

4. 20th Century and Recent

Much of the philosophical work of the classic pragmatists, as well as that of Royce and others, though begun in the latter half of the nineteenth century, carried over into the early decades of the twentieth century. While pragmatism continued to be a dominant movement in American philosophy in these early decades, other movements and schools of thought emerged. In the first several decades, there was a revival of common sense realism and naturalism (or, put another way, an explicit rejection of what was seen as the idealism of Royce and some aspects of pragmatism) as well as the emergence of Process Philosophy, which was directly influenced by contemporary science, especially Einsteinian relativity theory. Mid-twentieth century philosophy was heavily dominated in America by empiricism and analytic philosophy, with a strong focus on language. Finally, in the latter couple of decades there was a re-discovery and revival of pragmatism as well as the emergence of feminist and “minority” issues and concerns, of people and groups who had been marginalized and under-represented throughout the nation’s history. Some movements and schools of thought that had been prominent in Europe, such as existentialism and phenomenology, though having advocates in America, never gained significant widespread attention in American philosophy.

One of the earliest movements in twentieth century American thought was a rejection of idealism, spearheaded in large part by Royce’s own student, George Santayana (1863-1952), who saw philosophy as having unfortunately abandoned, and in the case of idealism contradicted, common sense. If we push the concept of knowledge to the point of requiring indubitability, then skepticism is the result, since nothing will satisfy this requirement. On the other hand, if knowledge is a kind of faith, much as common sense rests on untested assumptions, then we are led to a view of “animal faith,” which Santayana endorses. This return to common sense, or at least to a naturalist, realist stance was echoed by many philosophers at this time. In 1910 an essay in the Journal of Philosophy (then called the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods), entitled, “The Program and First Platform of Six Realists,” announced a strong reaction against idealism and what were seen idealist elements in pragmatism. Among the platform planks of this program were statements that objects exist independently of mind, that ontology is logically independent of epistemology, that epistemology is not logically fundamental (that is, that things are known directly to us), that the degree of unity, consistency, or connection subsisting among entities is a matter to be empirically ascertained, etc. Given this realist stance, these philosophers then proceeded to try to produce naturalistic accounts of philosophical matters, for example, Ralph Barton Perry’s (1876-1957) General Theory of Value.

A second school of thought early in the century was known as “Process Philosophy.” Identified largely with the work of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), though having other notable proponents such as Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), process philosophy proceeded from an ontology that took events or processes as primary. Change and becoming were emphasized over permanence and being. Drawing on contemporary scientific advances, in particular the new Einsteinian worldview, Whitehead highlighted this “event ontology.” In his well-known work, The Concept of Nature, he insisted that “nature is a structure of events,” and taking the new Einsteinian four-dimensional understanding of the world, things (what he called “concresences”) are merely those streams of events “which maintain permanence of character.” This embracing of contemporary science did not entail a materialist stance for Whitehead any more than Jonathan Edwards’s embracing of the Newtonian worldview entailed materialism on his part. Rather, Whitehead distinguished between the notion of “Nature lifeless” and “Nature alive,” with the latter an acknowledgement of value and purpose being just as basic to experience as an external world of events.

Despite the presence of these two movements and the still-present influence of pragmatism, the middle half of the twentieth century was dominated in America by empiricism and analytic philosophy, with a pronounced turn toward linguistic analysis. Beginning with the powerful influence of the Logical Positivists (or Logical Empiricists), most notably Rudolf Carnap (1891-1969), academic philosophy turned in a decided way away from social and political concerns to conceptual analysis and self-reflection (that is, to the question of just what the proper role of philosophy is). Without a doubt, the most influential American philosopher during this time was Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000). Though Quine was critical of many aspects of Logical Positivism, indeed, one of his most renowned essays was “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” he nevertheless shared their view that the role of philosophy was not to enlighten persons or serve social and political concerns. Saying that philosophers in the professional sense have no particular fitness for inspiration or “helping to get society on an even keel,” he argued instead that philosophy’s job is to clear away conceptual muddles and mistakes. Seeing philosophy as in large part continuous with science in the sense of trying to understand what there is and how we can then flourish in the world, he claimed that philosophy is on the abstract, theoretical end of scientific pursuits. Advocating a physicalist ontology, Quine was openly behaviorist about understanding human agency and knowledge. Criticizing the analytic/synthetic distinction and the view that there are truths independent of facts about the world, Quine strongly advocated a naturalized epistemology and naturalized ethics. Openly acknowledging an affinity with some aspects of pragmatism, Quine claimed a holistic approach to knowledge, insisting that no particular experiences occur in isolation; rather we experience a “web of belief,” with every belief or statement or experience affecting “the field as a whole,” and hence “our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.” Reminiscent of Dewey, Quine asserted that while there is no fact/value dichotomy, the sciences, with their system of checks and balances, do provide the best theories and models of what there is. Besides his commitment to materialism, behaviorism, and holism, Quine urged what he called “semantic ascent,” that is, that philosophy should proceed by focusing on an analysis of language. By looking at the language we use and by framing philosophical concerns in terms of language, we can avoid fruitless philosophical disputes and faulty ontological commitments. Within academic philosophy, Quine is perhaps best known for his work in formal, mathematical logic and with his doctrine of “the indeterminacy of translation.” In his highly influential book, Word and Object, he introduced the term “gavagai.” “Gavagai” is a term uttered by a native while pointing at something in the immediate environment, something that appears to us as a rabbit. However, from that utterance, we don’t know if “gavagai” should be translated into English as “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit parts” or “rabbit time-slice” or something else. The point is that there is no givenness to the situation, no determinateness of translation. Nor is this a simple matter, as this lack of givenness and determinacy holds in all situations. There are other, pragmatic, factors that allow communication and understanding to be possible.

With this formal, often extremely technical, conceptual analysis dominating mid-century American philosophy, a return to social and political concerns did not become mainstream again until the 1970s. Such a return is often credited to the publication of John Rawls’s (1921-2002) A Theory of Justice. While other philosophers had, of course, written on these issues, it was Rawls’s book that brought these topics back into mainstream consideration among professional philosophers. Rawls argued for a position of political liberalism based on a system of procedural justice. Though his work was widely influential, it was critiqued by philosophers identified as libertarian, such as Robert Nozick (1938-2002), who saw it as too restrictive of individual liberties, as well as by communitarians, such as Alasdair MacIntyre (1929- ) who saw it as focusing too much on procedural justice and not enough on what is good for persons, who are also citizens situated in communities. Still, the revival of substantive social and political philosophy was effected. Outside of academic philosophy, these concerns had not been absent, however, but were present in the writings of social and political leaders, and in popular political philosophy, such as the writings of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).

As the century ended, there was a renewal of interest in pragmatism as a philosophical movement, with two important philosophers in particular adopting the label of pragmatist, Hilary Putnam (1926- ) and Richard Rorty (1931- ). Known throughout the philosophical world, they brought the writings and stance of classical pragmatists back into the forefront of professional philosophy, often with their critiques of each other’s works. This renewal of pragmatism, along with the revival of social and political philosophy, came at the same time, the final quarter of the century, as feminist philosophy emerged, though there had been prominent feminist thinkers in American philosophy prior to this time, e.g., Grimké and Stanton, noted earlier, as well as others, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) or even Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643). Outside of academic philosophy, the publication, in the 1960s, of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, struck a popular nerve about the marginalization of women. Inside academic philosophy, feminist philosophers, such as Adrienne Rich (1929- ) and many others, began critiques of traditional philosophical concerns and stances. These critiques were leveled at the very roots of philosophical issues and across the board. For example, there were critiques of epistemic values such as objectivity (that is, detached, disembodied inquiry), as well as what were taken as masculine approaches to ethics and political philosophy, such as procedural over substantive justice or rights-based ethical theories. Insisting that there was not a public/private dichotomy and no value-neutral inquiry, feminists reformulated philosophical issues and concerns and redirected philosophical attention to issues of power and the social dimensions (and construction) of those very issues and concerns. This demand for pluralism in content was expanded to philosophical methods and goals, generally, and was expanded to other traditionally marginalized perspectives. By century’s end, traditional philosophical work continued in full force, for example, with a strong surge of interest in philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, etc., but was accompanied at the same time by a sharp increase in these newly-demanded foci, such as philosophy of race, philosophy of law, philosophy of power, etc.

One final note. This survey of American Philosophy clearly is all-too-brief. One difficulty with summarizing American Philosophy is what has counted as philosophy over time. Unlike European cultures, there has tended to be less of an academic class in America, hence less of a sense of professional philosophy, until, that is, the twentieth century. Even then, much of what has been taken as philosophy by most Americans has been distant from what most professional philosophers have taken as philosophy. The kind of public awareness in France and indeed Europe as a whole of, say, the death of Jean-Paul Sartre, was nowhere near matched in America by the death of Quine, though for professional philosophers the latter was at least of equal stature. Few American philosophers have had the social impact outside of academia as John Dewey. A second difficulty here is that many thinkers in American intellectual history lie outside what is today considered philosophy. Because of his intellectual lineage, Jonathan Edwards is still studied within American Philosophy, but other important American thinkers, such as Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) are not. Much as other academic disciplines, philosophy in America has become professionalized. Nevertheless, professional philosophers, for example in their analysis of rights and the question of the meaningfulness of animal rights, or in their application of philosophical ethics to health care contexts, have both reflected and shaped the face of American culture.

Published by J Jay Samuel Davis

A West Texas Cowboy, seeking "fishers of (wo)men!"

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