a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media

Donate to Harvard Square Library

Sign Up for Updates
Home » Theology & Philosophy » America from Colonial Beginnings to Philosophical Greatness

America from Colonial Beginnings to Philosophical Greatness

Eternal Wheel, by Herbert F. Vetter

America from Colonial Beginnings to Philosophical Greatness

by Charles Hartshorne

When the American colonists crossed, first the Atlantic, and then the mountains and the prairies on their way westward, they tended to leave certain things behind, the fine arts most obviously, but also theoretical science. Three things, however, were not left behind, at least not for long: the art of government, religion, and philosophy. The first could not be dispensed with, nor the second; and indeed, the very reasons for leaving the Old World were often intensely religious. Also philosophizing, like religion, is almost native to human beings as such. Moreover, the diversity of religions favored philosophical reflection, and it led to the early establishment of freedom of thought to a degree which had been uncommon in western civilization generally. So we need not be surprised that Jonathan Edwards was far better as a theologian and philosopher than any of the colonists was as a scientist. Down to the end of the nineteenth century the country produced only one natural scientist of superb quality, Willard Gibbs, and it is typical of the situation that few U. S. citizens have ever heard of him. Pure scientific theory was not greatly encouraged in a land where the need was for applications of existing knowledge to transform a wilderness into farms, habitations, roads, railroads, and other means of communication. The inventor, not the scientist, was most honored. Practicality was in order, but the political and religious questions were not to be evaded, and reflection upon them could be accepted as practical enough. Such reflections easily led into the depths of philosophy. Thus, it was perhaps almost predictable that Gibbs should have been followed by a half dozen philosophers great distinction and many others of only lesser merit. Europe does not yet quite realize it, but this was one of the supreme philosophical flowerings of all times and all lands.

It is supposed by many Europeans that most philosophical ideas originated in Europe and then, in a delayed and usually inferior form found their way across the Atlantic. Of course this has happened, but it has also happened that the first formulation appeared in this country, and in some cases Europe still has not caught up. Even when a European did say it first, the American version may have been independent—or, sometimes, an improvement not a diminution. Thus, Royce’s version of the basic idealistic argument from epistemological to metaphysical idealism has elements which in clarity and cogency surpass anything in Berkeley or Hegel. Finally, in the Six Classical American Philosophers, so designated by Max Fisch, we have had a group not surpassed in any country during the past one hundred years. I doubt if it would be too much to say, not surpassed in all continental Europe. That Europe has not been aware of this is one of the not unnatural consequences of the situation. The provincialism of European countries, due in part to the two great wars and to other causes, is one reason they have not maintained the superiority with which they are accustomed to credit themselves.

I have been speaking of superiority in philosophy. Science is another matter. Here provincialism tends everywhere to be transcended, and besides, conditions in this country have been much less favorable for scientific than for philosophical creativity. What in Europe went into basic scientific reflection tended here (until recently at least) to go into secondary experimentation and applications. On the other hand, what in Europe went into the cultivation of each country’s own philosophical heritage, or of its borrowings from Germany, here went into a courageous and informed confronting of the international philosophical scene. Since there were in philosophy no tempting physical applications or ingenious experimental tests whose devising could distract from theoretical inquiry, and since the ferment of religions, with none established or clearly dominant, kept pointing to theoretical issues, American philosophers were relatively free to be as theoretical as they wished. In the Classical Period, for special circumstantial reasons, it happened that two of the six men, Santayana and Whitehead, were born and largely educated in another country, four had a vivid awareness of religious values, while Santayana and Dewey were radical critics of all religion in anything like a conventional sense. One, James, was immersed at the outset of his career in the new science of psychology. Peirce was deeply versed in mathematics, several branches of physics, and the new science of symbolic logic, with some exposure to experimental psychology. Whitehead was a distinguished geometrician and contributor to theoretical physics, as well as a great logician. Dewey was an expert in the psychology of education, still another. Royce was one of the most profound students of German philosophy who has ever lived, in Germany or out of it. All six were deeply concerned with philosophical problems and more than superficially acquainted with the history and international status of these problems. These six men between them possessed an awareness of the intellectual landscape in some respects never before exhibited. Although each was intimately influenced by one or more of the others, yet not one is merely derivative, or anything like it. I submit that their equipment to deal with the totality of knowledge of their day was better, even considering how much more there was to know, than had been that of Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche in Germany. The American group was, for the most part, in the middle of the problems produced by scientific advances, not on the periphery of them, but they were also richly sensitive to the religious and humanistic heritage going back to the Greeks. It was a golden opportunity, and I am convinced that it elicited some golden results, but we in this country are so modest that we look in awe to some venerable university abroad as if the refinement of its traditions guaranteed superior wisdom. I for one am not convinced that we have any less to give than to gain from interchanges with Europe or Britain, though I should be less sure of this had not one very great Englishman—so typically not English in many ways—thrown in his lot with us for a dozen grandly productive years.

To make the upsurge of American philosophy of the last one hundred years possible it was necessary that the base of philosophizing should be broadened to include more than politics, religion, and somewhat stale echoes of European science. Gibbs may have been the only great natural scientist of his day and country, but the northeastern American universities began about that time to be alive with scientific activity. Two young men with philosophical inclinations, Charles Peirce and William James, were exposed early and intensively to this ferment. They were also brought up on religious interests, treated in a highly intellectual way, and with a noble trust in reason. A third, Royce, came under their influence and also under some of the influences which had molded them, but Royce added a grasp perhaps not surpassed in Germany itself of the philosophical tradition of that country, in which he was for years a student. All three men, indeed, were well aware of German—and James at least of French—thought. The German influence also came to the country through immigrants of philosophical gifts and in many other ways. This influence did not make the philosophy of this country a mere weakened echo of German idealism, for all of our principal philosophers were exposed, in a way no German is likely to be, to the entire force of the English tradition, with it ideals of clarity and sobriety. Thus, while Peirce apparently did his first careful philosophical reading in Kant, he also discussed the reasoning with his mathematician father, who showed him many logical flaws, and with Chauncey Wright, a scientist and vigorous disciple of John Stuart Mill, with whom he had ‘daily’ argument for years. Peirce, James and Royce gave the philosophy of this country a foundation as broad and deep as that which any country has ever had. I shall be accused of exaggeration, but not perhaps by those who know these men. In the past one hundred years there has, I think, been nothing in the world like the philosophical renaissance in the United States between 1865 and the present day in the high quality of imaginative philosophizing.

I also find that almost the entire gamut of philosophical problems confronting Western civilization has been centrally dealt with during the two or three centuries of philosophizing in this country, and that nearly all the important points of view have been represented, and well represented, by one or another of its philosophers. To survey the resources of philosophy generally one scarcely needs, any longer, to look across the Atlantic. There is somewhat more need to look across the Pacific, but there are competent Buddhist scholars among us also.

The most famous recent philosophical movements in Europe—Bergsonianism, existentialism, phenomenology, analysis—are not, one may suggest, so superior to the American classical philosophers as has been widely assumed. A great deal of Bergson, without his neglect of intellectual devices, is in James, Peirce, and Whitehead; Peirce might be called the first phenomenologist of all, and in some ways he remains still the best. James and especially Whitehead are rich in subtle phenomenological accounts. When Whitehead called metaphysics “a descriptive science,” he meant that concepts are to be derived from concrete experience. As for sensitiveness to the central role of language in philosophy, Peirce in his theory of signs was in some ways at least the equal of Wittgenstein. He said, long before the latter, that the certainty of mathematics is a matter of our own sign-using conventions.

Even if my own efforts, including months of study with Husserl and Heidegger, to appreciate the continental and British achievements have been somewhat unsuccessful, so that my remarks in the previous paragraph require to be largely discounted, it still would not follow that the American movement deserved to be neglected. On the whole it has been just what those mentioned were not, at once daring and constructive, while yet concerned with canons of evidence and analytic clarity. The claim to have rendered obsolete all philosophical speculation, all metaphysics in the grand manner, may plausibly be made, but, I submit, it ought in honesty to test its case against the strongest, not the weakest, of recent representatives, those who combine the old imaginativeness and courage with adequate knowledge of modern logical techniques. These representatives have worked largely in this country rather than in Europe. It is quite obvious to that the most penetrating, imaginative, and yet careful, speculations of the last one hundred years have occurred here, not elsewhere. Wittgenstein may be subtler than anyone else as an unspeculative philosopher, though it might be hard to say what he sees that neither Peirce nor Dewey was aware of. Moore may have been a better man to scare a young student out of daring to speculate than we have had, though Lovejoy was searching, without wishing to scare anyone, but unless positivism or positivism plus a poetic existentialist anthropology, or plus a subtle theory of language in its more banal or harmless aspects—unless these are the precious gifts of philosophy, Europe has had little to offer of late. In any case, these things are now capably represented among us.

Has there been progress, in the sense of solutions to problems, in the course of our philosophical history? To answer this question is to declare one’s own philosophy. I think that there are five major problems which have been pervasive from Edwards and Parker to Peirce and Whitehead, and that the treatment of these by the last two is incomparably more illuminating than that by earlier thinkers. This treatment is speculative, not positivistic or merely “therapeutic.” The problems are solved, not dismissed or dissolved. It was Dewey who first said that philosophical problems are abandoned, not solved, but the Peirce-Whitehead theory of Creative Relativity positively solves problems. The almost innumerable writers who today deny the solubility of speculative puzzles, or who answer speculative questions by arguing that they need not arise if we are careful, do not know or understand this particular form of solution. If I am wrong, if the thing to do is to dismiss or avoid the questions, then there have been, or are, those among us who are capable of defending that position in one or another of its several forms. It is, however, amusing that British writers today seem almost unable to see that anything philosophical is going on here unless it be of the positivistic or therapeutic sort. It is true that we have fallen into a bit of a trough from the wonderful heights of the recent wave, but another wave may be forming.

The five speculative problems are: God and Cosmos, Mind and Matter, Freedom and Causality, Substance and Event, and finally a priori and Empirical knowledge (or Reason and Experience). One may add to these a sixth problem which practical or political rather than speculative, Equality and Sovereignty. The clue to the adequate philosophical illumination of this practical problem cannot be found, I believe, until we have gained some understanding of the theoretical ones.

At least the first four and the last of the six problems are fairly close to the surface from the beginning. All the colonial philosophers had much to say about God; Edwards had a radically idealistic theory of matter; he anticipated much that has been current lately concerning the alleged compatibility of moral freedom with strict causal determinism and argued this question at length and with great sharpness; he almost anticipated Whitehead’s analysis of substance into an event-sequence, perhaps following some hints of Descartes. The fifth speculative problem, that of Reason and Experience, was sharply formulated by Theodore Parker.

My view—naive enough, some will think—is that none of the problems were satisfactorily illuminated anywhere in the world in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or early nineteenth centuries, but that several of them at least can now be given a reasonable solution, thanks chiefly to the work of our ‘Six Classical Philosophers,’ especially Peirce and Whitehead—work chiefly written, though not always immediately published, between the years 1866 and 1933, that is during the last third of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth centuries. During the second third of our century, much good detailed work has been done, but in general not quite of a fundamental nature. We have been going through one of those skeptical eras, like that of the Second Academy, which may seem to themselves almost definitive, but which so far have always been followed by new outbursts of speculation. There are signs that anti-speculation will not be the last word this time either. It may not be amiss to take a good look at the overall adventure of American thought from Edwards to Dewey, so that we shall not perchance exchange our best inheritance for an inferior European product, or a superficial contemporary fashion.

Whether Europeans can profit by the study of our tradition is for them to consider. We learned from them for centuries; if they are too preoccupied, or for some other reason unable, to learn from us now, it is possibly their loss. It must be admitted that multitudes of young philosophers in this country today seem determined to Europeanize themselves as much as possible. The glamour of the old world, with its incomparable artistic riches, and its one time speculative grandeur, still fascinates. Perhaps it is for the best that it be so. We do not want to fall into mere provincialism ourselves, but our own tradition is at least worth a closer look than some of us appear to suspect.

That the foregoing talk of ‘solving’ speculative problems will sound quaint to many, I well know. Doubtless it is wise to take all such talk with considerable reserve, but the fashionable clichés about the essentially illusory nature of metaphysical ideas are, I am very sure, not nearer to literal correctness. We must, with Hume, and even more than Hume, be skeptical of our skepticisms, or we shall only be duped in a different way from the overconfident metaphysicians. Let it be not forgotten that Kant thought he knew exactly what were the limits of human knowledge or of humanly significant questioning. His work produced one of the maddest speculative outbursts of all. The wise balance here is not necessarily attained by giving free rein either to suspicion of, or to confidence in the human power to find rational overall meaning in life and the cosmos. Moore, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Heidegger, ably represent one extreme; but where in England, Germany, or France today are the able representatives of the balancing contrary attitude of speculative confidence? Heidegger never gets free of anthropomorphism, and even in his anthropology he eschews what most of us mean by rationality.

Whitehead’s prophecy of thirty years ago is still plausible, that while Europe has lost her speculative freedom and courage, this country has not. The chief qualification to be added is that if the present trend away from our heritage were to go far enough, the Western world as a whole would be in the plight Whitehead saw Europe to be in. Let it not be so. The Western world needs all of its heritage to survive. Consider one of our now declining rivals, Marxist communism. Communism has offered an alleged solution to all of our six problems, and this claim is one of its assets. If we have no better solution, or no solution, this is scarcely a source of strength.

It is rather alarming that the communist solutions have been, to so large an extent, merely duplicated by many of our living free world philosophers. Of course a communist can be right, and indeed must be right in some beliefs, but consider this: the communist says, “the solution to the God problem is that ‘God’ stands for a superstition, encouraged by certain vested interests.” Just so do many of us think. The communist says that mind is an emergent quality of certain material systems and that matter can exist in total independence of mind. Just so say many of us. The communist thinks, or at least does not clearly deny, that human liberty and strict causal regularity are compatible, and that moral freedom is the “acceptance of necessity,” or at least, of the laws of nature This is today a fashionable philosophical position everywhere. The communist view concerning events and substances is perhaps less clear-cut; but similarly cloudy, and not significantly different, is the view held by many of us. The communist thinks that all knowledge is empirical, with an element of rational interpretation which is ultimately pragmatic, and this too is a favorite doctrine among us, so here are five speculative problems concerning which we apparently are scarcely wiser than the communists.

I believe that the communist is in serious error on all five topics, though least so in respect to the fourth, substances and events. I admit that there are some true insights, for instance “the transformation of quantity into quality” has a certain validity, but we have a vastly superior heritage than any communist is utilizing, and why should we not cultivate that heritage?

The value of reminding ourselves of our superior speculative insight is rather in the positive inspiration which it might furnish us and our friends. We cannot respond with a uniform generally accepted system of our own. Our method of freedom rules that out, but it might be well if many of us freely came to accept a system which carries thought to the highest level open to us. We believe that we have something precious to maintain, and yet mere political freedom seems not quite enough. I believe that the communist content is basically wrong at most points, but so may ours be if we do not take care.

Is there really no connection between our faith in the right not to be tyrannized over for the alleged benefit of future generations, as this benefit is defined by a ruling clique, and the belief that only one, namely God, has an unconditioned right to prefer His/Her wisdom to that of the rest of us? Has the definition of a liberal, one “who knows that he or she is not God,” really been superseded? Or does it now mean “one who knows that there is or may be no God?” Is there not some loss of cutting edge with this shift? If there is a connection between human equality and the common immeasurable inferiority of all human beings to deity, then it might help our political idealism to arrive at the most enlightened view of deity which our history makes available.

Can faith in the value of freedom have simply no connection with superior insight into its universal metaphysical principle? If that principle is merely causality, then we have nothing to offer which has not been common property for more than two thousand years, but suppose the principle is the secularization of the theological ideas of creativity, of action which no causal explanation can ever derive from antecedent conditions, or of decision whose possibility can indeed be explained, but not the realization of precisely this possibility rather than others which would have been equally explicable from the same conditions.

Can our greater faith in the value of consciousness and ideas be simply unrelated to any superior insight into the cosmic role of the mind? If that role is to emerge from mere matter, that is, if mind is not of cosmic dimensions at all, then we can be no wiser than Marxists on the basic point. Suppose, however, mind really is the explanation of matter, as many great intellects, from Leibniz and Berkeley to Peirce and Whitehead, have held? Then it is we who are free to understand this.

Is it really likely that we shall make the most of our principle of the preciousness of individuality if we have no carefully conceived doctrine of the nature of enduring individuality in the stream of events connected together in space-time? Marxists mock our notion of soul or self, claiming that the social group is the enduring identity, not the person. If in reply we merely assert the individual against the group, then we are likely to fall into an anarchism no better than the collectivism we oppose and rather less realizable in practice. The Buddhists long ago rejected the ‘soul,’ but they did not fall into either anarchism or collectivism. Their wisdom at this point is essentially duplicated, more or less independently, by the ‘Buddhisto-Christian’ view of Peirce, and still more completely, and with improvements, by Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism.’ Incidentally, it is worth noting that Emerson, Peirce, and Whitehead have had affinities—of which to some extent they have been conscious—with far Eastern thought.

Can mere empiricism give us a standard for judging the forces of history, and for distinguishing, however cautiously, tentatively, or roughly, between the ethical and the triumphant? Over a century ago Theodore Parker argued vigorously that religious and ethical first principles, like scientific ones, cannot be empirical. Royce continued the argument, and James unwittingly provided a brilliant example of the hopeless inconclusiveness of empiricism when applied to transempirical problems. Peirce, Whitehead and some more recent writers, have carried the analysis further.

The value which I have been imputing to recent speculative philosophy, chiefly American, though with partial analogues in Italy (Varisco), France (Lequier, Boutroux, Bergson, Le Ruyer), Germany (Fechner, Wenzl), and England (Ward, Alexander), and elsewhere, does not of course imply its acceptability as it stands. I shall mention four out of a number of respects in which I personally find it unsatisfactory. First, concerning the method and logical status of speculative philosophy: are its statements analytic, synthetic a priori, consequences of meaning postulates, phenomenological insights, or what? I find neither Peirce nor Whitehead sufficiently clear at this point, though not so unclear as many of their critics suppose. Second, though Whitehead seems to me to have come closer by far than any other metaphysician in the grand manner to ridding theistic philosophy of its well-known antinomies, nevertheless his exposition on this topic is marred by serious ambiguities and apparent or real inconsistencies, which suggest that he was groping toward a theory which he did not quite reach. In the last conversation which I had with him he indicated just that. If his view can be freed of these weaknesses, one may well put Whitehead above other great theistic philosophers, who have not even been in the neighborhood of a tenable theory of deity. The rest are all impaled upon the horns of ancient dilemmas which arise from their very principles. Whitehead’s difficulty here arose, on the contrary, chiefly from his not quite adhering to his general principles when he came to the religious problem. He did not wander far from them either, but far enough to get into trouble, yet the remedy was in his own hands. This, though to a lesser extent, is also true of Peirce. It is not true of Augustine, Thomas, Spinoza, Kant, or Hegel.

Third, Whitehead’s rather Platonic theory of ‘eternal objects’ seems to do insufficient justice to the case for a more nominalistic view, and is doubtfully consistent with the ultimacy assigned to process or ‘creativity.’ Peirce suggests a conception of the “evolution of the Platonic forms themselves” which may provide a clue.

Fourth, since Whitehead has ceased to write, new interests and new criteria have emerged in philosophy, for instance a new attention to the centrality of language in human thought. Everything has to be reconsidered in the light of these new preoccupations, but no recent work of high genius, such as scores of careful students have found Whitehead’s to be, can be evaluated by a raising the of the eyebrows, whatever our remarkable contemporaries at Cambridge or Oxford may think. It needs to be reconsidered, yes, but reconsidering is still considering. The cultures of England and this country have by their confluence produced no greater joint product than Whitehead’s vision of cosmic creativity. Even it, of course, is but a stepping stone; however, the claim of many to need no such stone will be more impressive when we see them reaching more exalted philosophical objectives without its aid than they are now contenting themselves with. I dare to say that one might about as easily reach great heights in philosophy without benefit of the work done in modern America as to reach them in physics without using the work of modern Germans. Is this statement extreme? If so, it can cause little harm. The most one can do with European provincialism, in which some citizens of the United States choose to participate, is to mitigate it ever so slightly. The economic bases of that provincialism alone seem to guarantee its persistence far into the future.

The vigor of the American philosophical development would not have been possible without careful consideration of the work of German, French, and British writers. We Americans have been in a position to travel, and to import foreign publications and foreign scholars, and we have not made it a point of honor to refuse to learn from these. This good fortune and this modesty are sources of strength. Our danger, however, has become an inverted snobbery, turned against our own past.

My proposal, then, is that philosophy in this country, not of course only here but particularly here has arrived at a metaphysics in which human freedom and human consciousness are given a congenial setting, unfavorable both to collectivism and to anarchic individualism, but favorable to reason in religion and religion in reason, and furnishing an ethical principle—not, of course, an ethical code—which is valid for all rational beings, independently of factual circumstances. Those of us who can accept this doctrine are in no danger of wondering what it is that our political freedom enables us to enjoy.

A philosophy of cosmic freedom and creativity can consistently exercise tolerance toward other philosophies, even those seeming to deny freedom, yet tragedy is logically inherent in a philosophy of freedom, such as Whitehead’s. There can be no absolute harmonization of multiple freedom, even by divine ‘persuasion,’ not because God is weak but because it is meaningless to speak of absolute control over free beings. For a metaphysics of freedom, a simply ‘unfree’ being is also an incoherent notion; hence the notion of absolute control or absolute providential guarantee is logically, not just factually, vacuous. The higher the level of freedom, the greater the inherent risks of conflict as well as opportunities of valuable harmony. Thus, human life is bound to have aspects of great danger. How shall the miserably poor who now largely inhabit much of the world acquire some share in the wealth they see around them; and not someday, but soon? They refuse to wait. Our native optimism, not our best speculative philosophy, is at fault here. We did not believe that the dilemma of the all too even race between population and resources could be so desperate as the facts show it to be. Indeed, we all along refused to read Malthus intelligently and thereby lost a great opportunity to prepare ourselves for what is now upon us. Dewey, so far as I know, has ignored the Malthusian problem, and Peirce and Whitehead take it too lightly by far. Royce, the careful student of Hegel, ignored Marx, though surely Hegel’s greatest contribution, for good or ill, was precisely his unintended part in the production of Marxism.

It is not that Whitehead, for instance, was committed to a sociopolitical or ethical code which is held to be uniquely fitting for all situations. Quite the contrary, he denies this, but he did not focus, as we need to, on certain tragic aspects of things: race prejudice, stubbornly persisting in all our cities in spite of rapidly rising consciousness of rights on the part of the victims, population increase beyond any comfortable possibility of production increase, and finally the grim dilemma, risk nuclear destruction. We still want a tragedy free, comfortable domestic existence. It cannot be. Individual self-interest is not an ultimate idea, for ultimately every individual perishes—and indeed everything we know will presumably perish—except God. Here is the genuine alternative to mere individualism. We have given it lip service, have not quite believed it. The “glory of God” is more literally the aim of existence in Whitehead’s or Peirce’s philosophy than in conventional Christianity.

The times which try people’s souls also sift their philosophies. If I am right, suitable working ideas are in principle derivable from ‘neoclassical metaphysics,’ as I call it; but they need focusing on the actual needs and dangers.

“From Colonial Beginnings to Philosophical Greatness,” Monist 48, 3 (July, 1964).

Series Navigation<< A New World and New World ViewThe Idea of Creativity in American Philosophy >>

Tagged with:
Categories: Theology & Philosophy