American Philosophy (and a plug for The Metaphysical Club)

For the next sixteen weeks every post I make in this blog will be related to my American Philosophy course (PHI 216). I am a neophyte in this field, but it combines two of my intellectual avocations: philosophy and American history.

A few years ago a friend of mine encouraged me to read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America and this book really astounded me. Menand’s fluid style, which owes more to the classic Transcendentalist essay than to analytic prose (he is a professor of English), brings to life the way ideas relate historically to institutions, events, personalities, ideologies and cultures. Real intellectual history. It is small wonder that in 2002, it won the Pulitzer Prize for History writing.

Besides presenting an outstanding overview of 19th century American philosophy, Menand lays bare the roots of America’s most important school of thought, Pragmatism. The book deals not only with powerful and complex ideas — and in a surprisingly straightforward and easy to understand way — it vividly portrays the personalities (William James, Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey), places (Cambridge in particular) and traumatic events (the Civil War) that shaped them. Menand manages to expose the organic stuff from which philosophy is composed; he makes one feel as if the concerns of the philosophers are one’s own; and he does so in a way that offers profound possibilities for thinking about what makes a thought American.

Highly recommended.

Speaking of “American thought,” one cannot raise the question, “what makes a thought American?” without offering at least a thought about the answer.

Since, for the next 16 weeks, I have to teach (that is, constantly think and read about, assign a syllabus of readings and topics for seminar meetings, lead discussions, and occasionally lecture on) the “subject” of “American Philosophy,” I would like nothing more than a clear answer to this question.

I would like that. It would simplify things.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a consistently American way of thought? Occasionally the phrase “American philosophy of” gets debased and used to make generalizations about typically American ways of doing things, things that are mostly practical, economic, and political (“American philosophy of war, business, government,” etc.). But the reality is that there is no consensus “American” view to teach on any particular subject in philosophy, be it natural, moral, metaphysical, epistemological or political.

It would also simplify things if I could tell a consistent narrative of development from a single point of origin. Wouldn’t it be Amazing if the study of American philosophy was a review of the progress of thought, a narrative that could be traced from early colonial inquiry to our well established and final, authoritative account of the world? Alas.

Yet, it would over-simplify the problem to claim that the only “American” thing about “American ideas” is the nationality of the philosophers. That would be a truly nominalist view of the subject! You might think (though for a few minutes only) that you could make a course on “American Philosophy” into a more or less comprehensive review of American philosophers. As if the series of thinkers being considered were related to one another by historical accident alone: they all happened to practice philosophy (or think and write deeply) within the borders of a place called America.

I take seriously a more organic view of history; by accident or no, proximity in time and place brings different individuals into relationship with forces that are larger than themselves. You could call these forces weather, or structures, or gods, or demons, or spirits, or ideologies, or cultures, or regimes, or even mechanisms… you might just be speaking about the impact of large-scale phenomena like climate, economic practices, wars, and even natural disasters.

Take Iraq and Katrina, for example. Ask yourself: how do things that happen in America, or that Americans do, impact “the American mind,” considered as a vast collection of wildly divergent and heterogeneous individual minds.

Time and place matter, so, with the help of like-minded historians (especially Bruce Kuklick, author of our textbook, A History of Philosophy in America, 1720–2000) and plenty of reading of primary sources found in the public domain, we are going in search of philosophy that is American in all senses of the phrase. We should have a relatively easy time finding freely available primary source material down to the early 1930’s. Thereafter we have to be much more selective in our coverage, because even Absolute Idealists seem to believe in copyright.

(On that topic, it might be interesting to talk about the recent re-emergence of the concept of the “public commons” and even of the idea of so-called copyleft in American intellectual life, a phenomenon which has been paralleled by the rise of huge free public databases like google and collective epistemological enterprises like Wikipedia. But I digress.)

We will consider the impact of the Puritan Colonial experience and origins of American political and religious life in the 17th century, pause to ask ourselves about the way of thought found among those native Americans that we displaced, and about the impact of our displacement of them upon our national character. We will explore the emergence of erudite philosophical speculation among America’s clergy in the 18th century, and examine the emergence of both liberal and conservative Christian thought in America from this milieu. We will look at and consider the intellectual preoccupations of various schools of Philosophy from the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Trancendentalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Naturalism, and Instrumentalism, and consider how the struggles against slavery and for national unity, for womens’ suffrage and rights, temperance, economic justice, and racial equality have impacted and been impacted by the way Americans have thought about philosophical matters. We will note the way our national debates on war, sexual orientation, the role of government, and the content of education are informed by and inform the changing landscape of the American mind.

American thought is shot through with fundamental contrasts that define its contours like the shadows on a mountainside. I hope we can highlight and explore a number of these areas of shared interest and debate that are peculiarly related to the American experience. Especially relevant is the pattern of thinking that emerges around the tensions that arise when a society is rooted in a notion of individual freedom but organized around the authority of an ideal community. We see this tension at place from the earliest Puritan fights over conscience to the much later struggles for equality in a pluralistic society.

The American experience has also brought a constant struggle with authority that is reflected not only in our political history (Puritan separatism, the Revolution, the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights, the culture wars) but in the preoccupation of our philosophers with epistemology and the philosophy of science. What emerges from the study of American philosophy is an awareness that Americans are in an ongoing process of debate on the extent of and meaning of what we might know and should believe. Americans have been particularly committed to searching for certainty in our beliefs, which has led to a recurring effort to reconcile or resolve the apparent tensions that exist between science and religion, or rather, between scientific and religious ways of knowing.

Ultimately, ours is a debate about authority. Who or what will lead the way: tradition, faith, and the God of our fathers? or reason and experience? God and country? or science and book learning? It is not safe to presume in advance that you know already who stands on what side of this debate. The debate runs far deeper and twists more complexly than you might presume.

Ultimately, I would like to suggest that the study of American philosophers in the context of the unfolding American experience can offer to those of us who are Americans a deep well of ideas about who we are and what we might be. What kind of America do we want to be, and why? What do we know, and how do we know it? What ought we to do?

Let’s begin (again).

what do you think?

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