Manual The Human Tradition in Colonial America (The Human Tradition in America)

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Political Skepticism and Anarchist Themes in the American Tradition

Constitution: edits to a draft version [23] are in his hand in the Library of Congress. About the time of the Stamp Act , interest rose in civil and political philosophy. In continuing with the chief concerns of the Puritans in the 17th century, the Founding Fathers debated the interrelationship between God, the state, and the individual. Resulting from this were the United States Declaration of Independence , passed in , and the United States Constitution , ratified in The Constitution sets forth a federated republican form of government that is marked by a balance of powers accompanied by a checks and balances system between the three branches of government: a judicial branch , an executive branch led by the President , and a legislative branch composed of a bicameral legislature where the House of Representatives is the lower house and the Senate is the upper house.

Even Franklin professed the need for a "public religion" [27] and would attend various churches from time to time. Jefferson was vestryman at the evangelical Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville, Virginia , a church he himself founded and named in , [28] suggesting that at this time of life he was rather strongly affiliated with a denomination and that the influence of Whitefield and Edwards reached even into Virginia.

But the founders who studied or embraced Johnson, Franklin, and Smith's non-denominational moral philosophy were at least influenced by the deistic tendencies of Wollaston's Natural Religion, as evidenced by "the Laws of Nature, and Nature's God" and "the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration. He was a Presbyterian minister and a delegate who joined the Continental Congress just days before the Declaration was debated.

His moral philosophy was based on the work of the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson , who also influenced John Adams. Ronald Hamowy published a critique of Garry Wills's Inventing America , [38] concluding that "the moment [Wills's] statements are subjected to scrutiny, they appear a mass of confusions, uneducated guesses, and blatant errors of fact.

Thomas Paine , the English intellectual , pamphleteer , and revolutionary who wrote Common Sense and Rights of Man was an influential promoter of Enlightenment political ideas in America, though he was not a philosopher. Common Sense , which has been described as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era", [44] provides justification for the American revolution and independence from the British Crown. Though popular in , historian Pauline Maier cautions that, "Paine's influence was more modest than he claimed and than his more enthusiastic admirers assume.

In summary, "in the middle eighteenth century," it was "the collegians who studied" the ideas of the new learning and moral philosophy taught in the Colonial colleges who "created new documents of American nationhood. The 19th century saw the rise of Romanticism in America.

The American incarnation of Romanticism was transcendentalism and it stands as a major American innovation. The 19th century also saw the rise of the school of pragmatism, along with a smaller, Hegelian philosophical movement led by George Holmes Howison that was focused in St. Louis , though the influence of American pragmatism far outstripped that of the small Hegelian movement.

Other reactions to materialism included the " Objective idealism " of Josiah Royce , and the " Personalism ," sometimes called "Boston personalism," of Borden Parker Bowne. Transcendentalism in the United States was marked by an emphasis on subjective experience, and can be viewed as a reaction against modernism and intellectualism in general and the mechanistic, reductionistic worldview in particular.

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Transcendentalism is marked by the holistic belief in an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical, and this perfect state can only be attained by one's own intuition and personal reflection, as opposed to either industrial progress and scientific advancement or the principles and prescriptions of traditional, organized religion. The transcendentalist writers all desired a deep return to nature , and believed that real, true knowledge is intuitive and personal and arises out of personal immersion and reflection in nature, as opposed to scientific knowledge that is the result of empirical sense experience.

Things such as scientific tools, political institutions, and the conventional rules of morality as dictated by traditional religion need to be transcended. This is found in Henry David Thoreau 's Walden; or, Life in the Woods where transcendence is achieved through immersion in nature and the distancing of oneself from society. The release of Charles Darwin 's evolutionary theory in his publication of On the Origin of Species had a strong impact on American philosophy. John Fiske and Chauncey Wright both wrote about and argued for the re-conceiving of philosophy through an evolutionary lens.

They both wanted to understand morality and the mind in Darwinian terms, setting a precedent for evolutionary psychology and evolutionary ethics. Darwin's biological theory was also integrated into the social and political philosophies of English thinker Herbert Spencer and American philosopher William Graham Sumner. Herbert Spencer, who coined the oft-misattributed term " survival of the fittest ," believed that societies were in a struggle for survival, and that groups within society are where they are because of some level of fitness.

This struggle is beneficial to human kind, as in the long run the weak will be weeded out and only the strong will survive.

American exceptionalism

This position is often referred to as Social Darwinism , though it is distinct from the eugenics movements with which social darwinism is often associated. The laissez-faire beliefs of Sumner and Spencer do not advocate coercive breeding to achieve a planned outcome. Sumner, much influenced by Spencer, believed along with the industrialist Andrew Carnegie that the social implication of the fact of the struggle for survival is that laissez-faire capitalism is the natural political-economic system and is the one that will lead to the greatest amount of well-being.

William Sumner, in addition to his advocacy of free markets, also espoused anti-imperialism having been credited with coining the term " ethnocentrism " , and advocated for the gold standard. Perhaps the most influential school of thought that is uniquely American is pragmatism. Pragmatism begins with the idea that belief is that upon which one is willing to act. It holds that a proposition's meaning is the consequent form of conduct or practice that would be implied by accepting the proposition as true.

Polymath , logician , mathematician , philosopher, and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce — coined the term "pragmatism" in the s. In "The Fixation of Belief" Peirce argues for the superiority of the scientific method in settling belief on theoretical questions.

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" Peirce argued for pragmatism as summed up in that which he later called the pragmatic maxim : "Consider what effects, that 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". Peirce emphasized that a conception is general, such that its meaning is not a set of actual, definite effects themselves. Instead the conception of an object is equated to a conception of that object's effects to a general extent of their conceivable implications for informed practice.

Those conceivable practical implications are the conception's meaning. The maxim is intended to help fruitfully clarify confusions caused, for example, by distinctions that make formal but not practical differences. Traditionally one analyzes an idea into parts his example: a definition of truth as a sign's correspondence to its object. To that needful but confined step, the maxim adds a further and practice-oriented step his example: a definition of truth as sufficient investigation's destined end. It is the heart of his pragmatism as a method of experimentational mental reflection [53] arriving at conceptions in terms of conceivable confirmatory and disconfirmatory circumstances—a method hospitable to the formation of explanatory hypotheses, and conducive to the use and improvement of verification.

Peirce's philosophy includes a pervasive three-category system , both fallibilism and anti-skeptical belief that truth is discoverable and immutable, logic as formal semiotic including semiotic elements and classes of signs , modes of inference , and methods of inquiry along with pragmatism and critical common-sensism , Scholastic realism , theism , objective idealism , and belief in the reality of continuity of space, time, and law, and in the reality of absolute chance , mechanical necessity, and creative love as principles operative in the cosmos and as modes of its evolution.

William James — was "an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology, psychology and philosophy. James, along with Peirce, [56] saw pragmatism as embodying familiar attitudes elaborated into a radical new philosophical method of clarifying ideas and thereby resolving dilemmas. He then went on to characterize pragmatism as promoting not only a method of clarifying ideas but also as endorsing a particular theory of truth.

Peirce rejected this latter move by James, preferring to describe the pragmatic maxim only as a maxim of logic and pragmatism as a methodological stance, explicitly denying that it was a substantive doctrine or theory about anything, truth or otherwise. James is also known for his radical empiricism which holds that relations between objects are as real as the objects themselves. James was also a pluralist in that he believed that there may actually be multiple correct accounts of truth. He rejected the correspondence theory of truth and instead held that truth involves a belief, facts about the world, other background beliefs, and future consequences of those beliefs.

Later in his life James would also come to adopt neutral monism , the view that the ultimate reality is of one kind, and is neither mental nor physical. John Dewey — , while still engaging in the lofty academic philosophical work of James and Peirce before him, also wrote extensively on political and social matters, and his presence in the public sphere was much greater than his pragmatist predecessors. In addition to being one of the founding members of pragmatism, John Dewey was one of the founders of functional psychology and was a leading figure of the progressive movement in U.

Dewey argued against the individualism of classical liberalism, asserting that social institutions are not "means for obtaining something for individuals. They are means for creating individuals. These social arrangements are a means of creating individuals and promoting individual freedom. Dewey is well known for his work in the applied philosophy of the philosophy of education. Dewey's philosophy of education is one where children learn by doing.

Dewey believed that schooling was unnecessarily long and formal, and that children would be better suited to learn by engaging in real-life activities. For example, in math, students could learn by figuring out proportions in cooking or seeing how long it would take to travel distances with certain modes of transportation.

Pragmatism, which began in the 19th century in America, by the beginning of the 20th century began to be accompanied by other philosophical schools of thought, and was eventually eclipsed by them, though only temporarily. The 20th century saw the emergence of process philosophy, itself influenced by the scientific world-view and Einstein 's theory of relativity.

The middle of the 20th century was witness to the increase in popularity of the philosophy of language and analytic philosophy in America. Existentialism and phenomenology , while very popular in Europe in the 20th century, never achieved the level of popularity in America as they did in continental Europe.

Pragmatism continued its influence into the 20th century, and Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana was one of the leading proponents of pragmatism in this period. He held that idealism was an outright contradiction and rejection of common sense. He held that, if something must be certain in order to be knowledge, then it seems no knowledge may be possible, and the result will be skepticism. According to Santayana, knowledge involved a sort of faith, which he termed "animal faith. In his book Scepticism and Animal Faith he asserts that knowledge is not the result of reasoning.

Instead, knowledge is what is required in order to act and successfully engage with the world. The explanation of events in the natural world is within the realm of science, while the meaning and value of this action should be studied by philosophers. Santayana was accompanied in the intellectual climate of 'common sense' philosophy by the thinkers of the New Realism movement, such as Ralph Barton Perry. Process philosophy embraces the Einsteinian world-view, and its main proponents include Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

The core belief of process philosophy is the claim that events and processes are the principal ontological categories. Process philosophy is Heraclitan in the sense that a fundamental ontological category is change. The middle of the 20th century was the beginning of the dominance of analytic philosophy in America.


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Analytic philosophy, prior to its arrival in America, had begun in Europe with the work of Gottlob Frege , Bertrand Russell , Ludwig Wittgenstein , and the logical positivists. According to logical positivism, the truths of logic and mathematics are tautologies , and those of science are empirically verifiable.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party , many positivists fled Germany to Britain and America, and this helped reinforce the dominance of analytic philosophy in the United States in subsequent years. Quine , while not a logical positivist, shared their view that philosophy should stand shoulder to shoulder with science in its pursuit of intellectual clarity and understanding of the world.

In Quine's epistemology, since no experiences occur in isolation, there is actually a holistic approach to knowledge where every belief or experience is intertwined with the whole. Quine is also famous for inventing the term "gavagai" as part of his theory of the indeterminacy of translation. Saul Kripke , a student of Quine at Harvard , has profoundly influenced analytic philosophy.

Kripke was ranked among the top ten most important philosophers of the past years in a poll conducted by Brian Leiter Leiter Reports: a Philosophy Blog; open access poll [66] Kripke is best known for four contributions to philosophy: 1 Kripke semantics for modal and related logics, published in several essays beginning while he was still in his teens. He has also made important contributions to set theory see admissible ordinal and Kripke—Platek set theory. David Kellogg Lewis , another student of Quine at Harvard , was ranked as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century in a poll conducted by Brian Leiter open access poll.

Thomas Kuhn was an important philosopher and writer who worked extensively in the fields of the history of science and the philosophy of science. He is famous for writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , one of the most cited academic works of all time. The book argues that science proceeds through different paradigms as scientists find new puzzles to solve. There follows a widespread struggle to find answers to questions, and a shift in world views occurs, which is referred to by Kuhn as a paradigm shift. The analytic philosophers troubled themselves with the abstract and the conceptual, and American philosophy did not fully return to social and political concerns that dominated American philosophy at the time of the founding of the United States until the s.

The return to political and social concerns included the popularity of works of Ayn Rand , who promoted ethical egoism the praxis of the belief system she called Objectivism in her novels, The Fountainhead in and Atlas Shrugged in These two novels gave birth to the Objectivist movement and would influence a small group of students called The Collective, one of whom was a young Alan Greenspan , a self-described libertarian who would become Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The book puts forth Rawls' view of justice as fairness , one which is based on a form of social contract theory.

Rawls employs the use of a conceptual mechanism called the veil of ignorance to outline his idea of the original position.

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