A Brief Introduction to American Philosophy


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


Philosophy doesn’t “know” national boundaries.  For example, there isn’t a generic “Canadian” or “Cuban” philosophy.  While philosophy can sometimes be categorized by “national or cultural boundaries” (for example: “French” Philosophy and “German Idealism”), it is important that one not get caught up in “-isms” and “-ists” when one studies philosophy.  Consider what is wrong with talking about “British Philosophy” for example.  Some people who use this term mean to speak only of what is (wrongly) called “British Empiricism,” but it is worthy of note that Berkeley was Irish (and emphatically considered himself Irish, not British), Hume was Scottish, and neither would have been happy being labeled “British.”  We need to consider, however, the wealth of different “philosophies” which can be attributed to Great Britain (or the United Kingdom, or the collection of islands).  This diversity is made manifest by the following examples: St. Anselm’s philosophy of religion (especially his ontological argument), Thomas Hobbes’ materialistic rationalism, Thomas Reid’s common-sense realism, T.H. Green’s Hegelian idealism, J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Albert Whitehead’s “process” philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s logical atomism, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy.  To use the phrase “British Philosophy” is to hide differences rather than clearly identify a national philosophic trend! 


Nonetheless, there is something distinctive to be marked out by the ‘American’ in ‘American Philosophy’.  As Alan Ryan notes, the primary characteristic is not simply being American (whatever that means), after all we have thinkers like Jonathan Edwards (Calvinism); Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau (American or New England transcendentalism[1] ); and a strong school of Hegelians (including, at an earlier stage in his career, John Dewey).  The American philosophers we will be concerned with (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and John Smith) are all pragmatists and, thus, have a strong concern for the relationship of both knowing and valuing to acting.  This concern is clarified by considering the following points:


pragmatists emphasize the importance of adopting what can be called the agent point of view.  For example, Hilary Putnam characterizes pragmatism as the view which adheres to the “supremacy of the agent point of view.”  He notes Alexander Bain’s [1818-1903] definition of belief as “that upon which a man is prepared to act” and he notes that in to adhering to such a view pragmatists reject the “god’s eye point of view.”[2] 


While many philosophers and periods of philosophy have emphasized the study of knowledge and values as theoretical pursuits, the pragmatists emphasize the practical point of view.  Basic to the pragmatists’ view is the idea that we ought to be concerned with the practical consequences of our actions and valuations.  Pragmatists maintain that wherever we encounter an intellectual dispute (whether about facts or about values), we ought to be able to show the practical difference that must follow from our taking one side or the other to be right.  They maintain that both knowing and valuing need to be seen as actions within environments consisting of centers of resistance and conflict—environments requiring continual examination and re-adaptation of our conceptual and linguistic apparatus. 


Thus pragmatists see us as organisms in a changing environment.  For them the basic “organic” situation we find ourselves in is one where we have problems or doubts, where we strive to overcome these and, ultimately, enter into a more stable situation or relationship with our environment. 


Summarizing these points, C.I. Lewis [1883-1964] (who was one of the celebrated American pragmatists) characterizes pragmatism as follows: “pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that [1] all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that [2] all judgments are implicitly, judgments of value, and that, [3] as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of justifiable ends of action.”[3]    


In his “The Development of American Pragmatism,” John Dewey maintains that

pragmatism...presents itself as an extension of historical empiricism, but with this fundamental difference, that it does not insist upon antecedent phenomena but upon consequent phenomena; not upon the precedents but upon the possibilities of action.  And this change in point of view is almost revolutionary in its consequences.  An empiricism which is content with repeating facts already past has no place for possibility and for liberty.... 

  Pragmatism thus has a metaphysical implication.  The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, or a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic.[4] 


One of the “defining characteristics” of pragmatism is what I will call contextualism: the view that our problems, beliefs, theories, and solutions must be seen as arising within a context which gives them meaning and life.  The pragmatists maintain that one of the predominant problems of previous philosophizing was its propensity to take things out of context. 


     Another “defining characteristic” of pragmatism is indicated by the influence of Charles Darwin (1809-1882; 1859: Origin of Species, 1871: Descent of Man) on their metaphysics and epistemology.  As the above contextualism would imply, pragmatists emphasize a “picture” of us as organisms in a particular and changing environment.  They conceive of “experience” not as subjective, nor as objective, but, rather, as a relationship between organism and environment.  This has significant implication for the pragmatists’ metaphysical views.  Their emphasis upon the “agent-centered view” makes many of the “old dualisms” pointless—the worries raised by idealism vs. realism, and freedom vs. determinism make little sense to them.  Their emphasis upon the organism in a changing environment constitutes a fundamentally different way of looking at things. 


As H.S. Thayer notes,


...Darwinism...challenged the idea of a universe created for or directed to some overall final purpose....The particular conditions and form of change, rather than universal “laws” of growth become the significant item.  And particular changes, variations among and within species, were seen as functions of particular adaptive circumstances and purposes or “struggles.”  The variability of life in nature, the contingencies of successful and unsuccessful adaptations, appeared to render any philosophic attempt to formulate a complete system of natural phenomena or to legislate the goals of nature vain and pretentious.  Chance and design were both features of the world but in neither case deducible from metaphysical principles.  Finally, man’s life was seen as set within nature and like all other living forms subject to uncertainty, unprivileged although advantageously equipped for survival.[5] 


For James, Darwinism pointed to the instrumental character of thought.  For James, Peirce, and Dewey, Darwinian thought clearly pointed to the experimental and purposive nature of thought.  The idea here is that there is a fundamental connection between meaning, valuing, and acting.  For these thinkers, thought points to consequent [rather than antecedent] phenomena. 


The various “defining characteristics” have significant implications for the pragmatists’ ethical and social philosophy.  Since they recognize no hard and fast distinction between facts and values, they are proponents of no “ultimate” or “fixed” values.  While they generally advocate a teleology, it does not assign (established) religion or any particular deity an important role.  Moreover, the pragmatists assign little “value” to ideals, obligations, or goals which are impracticable. 


These “defining characteristics also have significant implications for their epistemology.  They emphasize the interrelationships of doubt, inquiry, and habit; and they claim that truth and meaning are to be found and recognized in action. 


     Insofar as the pragmatists maintain that intellectual activities are to be tied to solving problems and consequences—to the resolution of conflicts, one can sell ask:


“What conflict or problem led to the development of this philosophical view?”  In his “The Group,” Alan Ryan maintains that Louis Menand provides a plausible response:


what tension between which organisms and what environment produced that philosophical position [pragmatism] as an answer? 

  Louis Menand’s answer in The Metaphysical Club is both dramatic and persuasive.  It is, he thinks, the Civil War to which we must look for the answer.  More exactly, it is the Civil War as it was experienced by young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and by his teachers, friends, and intellectual antagonists in the mid-nineteenth-century Cambridge.  The “problem” to which the philosophy of pragmatism seemed eventually to supply a solution was the problem of conviction.  The idea that the nineteenth-century was the century of a crisis of faith is familiar enough.  Yet pragmatism was a solution to a somewhat different crisis of faith.  It was not the loss of conviction but a surfeit of it that pragmatism addressed.  In Menand’s account...pragmatism aimed to wean us off religious and ideological convictions—convictions of which the social, political, and moral beliefs of most people are subspecies.  The problem of belief to which pragmatism provided an answer was not the familiar Victorian problem of a loss of faith, but the problem of an excess of faith.[6] 


In this course, I will explore a possible “supplement” to this answer: in addition to a concern with “an excess of faith,” the pragmatists had a very deep “faith” in [“commitment to”] democracy, and this social concern was important to their thought.  This, however, will have to wait till later in the course.  


2. A Quick Historical Background:


Discuss the Medieval World-View as an integrated world-view relating facts and values.  The problem of Early Modern Philosophy: formulating an adequate conception of scientific knowledge while providing a place for genuine moral experience in a compatible manner.  That is, relating facts and values in a coherent overall picture. 


     Rationalism begins with our ideas and tries to show how they can provide us with both scientific knowledge of the world and moral truths.  Rationalism and the problems of dualism, determinism, theodicy, skepticism, and representationalism. 


     Empiricism begins with our perceptual experiences (also referred to as “ideas”) and tries to show that by tracing our complex and advanced ideas back to these experiences, we can legitimate both scientific knowledge of the world and moral truths.  Discuss empiricism and the problems of an atomistic and associationistic psychology, representationalism, skepticism, materialism, and valuation.  Where the traditional empiricists relied upon the individual and maintained that one needed to “see for oneself,” the pragmatists followed Peirce in emphasizing a public methodology which required that others be able to “see” as well.[7] 


     Kantianism: noumena vs. phenomena [things in themselves vs. things as we experience them] and the limits of human reason or knowledge vs. room for faith (god, freedom, and immortality).  Problem: assets are deficits. 


     Hegel—what is real is rational and what is rational is real; and there is a progressive development of what is real.  The universe is a process through which the Absolute as Spirit realizes itself.  Here value and reason exhibit themselves. 


As John E. Smith notes,


it is important to note that the thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, on the whole, dominated by an ideal of theoretical knowledge.  The human self was conceived, by the empiricists and the rationalists alike, as essentially a spectator, and it was taken for granted that the human mind could be understood as an instrument concerned solely with the acquisition of theoretical knowledge....Peirce started with the conception of man as a being capable of thinking; he started with the concrete individual and with the fact that thinking is always localized and called for on specific occasions....The mind is no longer a timeless spectator and its function in thinking is no longer taken as the disinterested pursuit of truth.  Thought becomes instead the means of producing belief....[8] 



 Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] As Alan Ryan notes (in his John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (N.Y.: Norton, 1995), pp. 49-50), “transcendentalism” was an awkward label for a philosophy whose critical aim was to insist on the gulf between claims made within experience and claims made about experience as a whole.  The name suggests that it was a philosophy of the transcendental realm, but the transcendental was exactly what Kant claimed we knew nothing about and about which we could say nothing.  What transcendentalism preserved was the thought that it was morally important that we should continue to believe that the world made the sense that transcendental Christianity claimed for it.  We could not know that the world had its unity and value bestowed on it by a creator, but we could certainly believe it.” 

[2] Cf., Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (La Salle: Open Court, 1987), p. 70. 

[3] C.I. Lewis, Collected Papers (Palo Alto: Stanford U.P., 1970), p. 108. 

[4] John Dewey, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” [1922] originally published as “La Développment du Pragmatisme Américain,” in Revue de Métaphysique et du Morale v. xxix (1922), pp. 411-430.  English translation in Studies in the History of Ideas v. 2 (NY: Columbia U.P., 1925), pp. 352-377.  It is excerpted from his Philosophy and Civilization [1931]), in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, ed. H.S. Thayer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982), pp. 32-33. 

[5] H.S. Thayer, “Introduction,” in his Pragmatism: The Classical Writings, op. cit., p. 19. 

[6] Alan Ryan, “The Group,” The New York Review of Books v. 48 (May 31, 2001), pp. 16-20, p. 16.  Ryan is referring to Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (N.Y.: Farr, Strauss and Giroux, 2001). 

[7] Cf., John E. Smith, The Spirit of American Philosophy (Albany: SUNY, 1983), pp. 23-24. 

 [8] Ibid., p. 11. 

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