Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The history of philosophy in America begins with Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), a pupil of Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), who, during Berkeley's sojourn at Rhode Island, visited and corresponded with the distinguished advocate of immaterialism. Edwards was, however, influenced more by Locke than by Berkeley.{2} In his principal work, which is devoted to the discussion of the freedom of the will, he maintains that freedom, in the sense of self-determining power, is a contradiction, that true freedom (the quality of human action which raises it to the dignity of virtue) is a disposition of the heart, and that with this idea of freedom the foreknowledge and providence of God are easily reconciled. Edwards' Works were edited by S. E. Dwight (New York, 1844).

The disciples of Edwards, chief among whom were Jonathan Edwards, the Younger (1745-1801), and Timothy Dwight (1752--1817), confined their attention for the most part to the problems of freedom of the will, the nature of virtue, and the principles of the moral government of the universe; they also endeavored to supply a rational basis for the Calvinistic system of theology.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) deserves mention among those who helped to stimulate an interest in philosophical speculation during the years that preceded the Revolution. The practical morality and the sagacious reflections of "Poor Richard" are Franklin's title to distinction as the "Socrates of America."

At the beginning of the nineteenth century James Marsh (1794-1842) called attention to German speculation. He was succeeded by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), one of the leaders of the Unitarian movement, from which sprang the New England transcendentalism represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Theodore Parker (1810-1860).

The Scottish philosophy was introduced into this country by James McCosh (1811-1894), who, after having taught logic and metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast, came to America in 1868, and was appointed president of Princeton College in 1869. Dr. McCosh wrote Intuitions of the Mind (third edition, 1872), Laws of Discursive Thought (new edition, 1891), First and Fundamental Truths (1889), Realistic Philosophy (2 vols., 1887), etc. He opposed and criticised Kant, Hamilton, Mill, and Spencer, and advocated the common-sense philosophy, substituting the phrase "intuitions of the mind" for the expression "common sense." In the writings of Noah Porter (1811-1892), author of The Human Intellect (1868) and The Elements of Intellectual Science (1871), the doctrines of the Scottish school are modified by the introduction of elements from German transcendental philosophy.{3}

The most distinguished representative of ontologism in America was Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876), who was born at Stockbridge, Vermont. Brownson joined the Presbyterian Church at the age of nineteen; three years later he became a Universalist minister. In 1832 he became a clergyman in the Unitarian Church, in 1836 he organized in Boston the Society for Christian Union and Progress, and finally in 1844 he joined the Catholic Church. He died in 1876. In Brownson's Quarterly Review, of which the first number was published in 1844, he championed Catholic claims and discussed literary, philosophical, and political topics of interest at the time. His Works were published by his son, H. F. Brownson (10 vols., Detroit, 1882), who is also the editor of a little volume of extracts entitled Literary, Scientific, and Political Views of Orestes A. Brownson (New York, 1893).

Brownson distinguishes between intuition (direct perception) and reflection. The latter can contain nothing which is not first perceived directly by intuition: philosophy "begins and ends with thought. . . . Thought is, for us, always ultimate."{4} Now, "the careful analysis of intuitive thought discloses three elements: subject, object, and their relation, always distinct, always inseparable, given simultaneously in one and the same complex fact."{5} This complex fact is "given" by the action of creation, -- Ens creat existentias, -- in which subject, object, and the activity of object are synthetically united. This is at once the primum philosophicum and the primum psychologicum: "That of which we have immediate intuition in every process of reasoning and without which no such process would be possible or conceivable, is God the Creator."{6} "When Gioberti speaks of the ideal formula, defines it to be Ens creat existentias, and calls it the primum philosophicum, he speaks of the real, intuitive formula, not of the conceptual. He presents this formula as the primum both of things and of science."{7}

Among the American representatives of Spencerian philosophy mention must be made of Laurens P. Hickok (1798-1888) and of John Fiske (1842-1901). The latter in his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874) presents in somewhat popular form the tenets of evolutionistic philosophy. The former represents an important attempt to modify the synthetic philosophy so as to render it more compact in its inherent consistency and more consonant with theistic ideas. For the Spencerian conception of the mind, as purely passive, Hickok substitutes the notion of a mind partly passive and partly active. The activity of mind is, in its cosmic aspect, the active reason of God, through Whose absolutely free self-limitation there have been created certain mechanical "forces" which constitute the "thing-in-itself," -- the external world prior to our consciousness of it.{8}

{1} Consult M. M. Curtis, An Outline of Philosophy in America (Western Reserve University, 1896); A. Leroy Jones, Early American Philosophy (New York, 1898); J. B. Creighton, Philosophy of Kant in America in Kant-Studien, II, 2 and 3, III, and 2; Van Becelaere, La phil. en Amérique (Paris, 1904).

{2} On sources of Jonathan Edwards' idealism, cf. Philosophical Review, January, 1902.

{3} Cf. Falckenberg, op. cit., English trans., p. 565.

{4} Works, I, 58.

{5} Op. cit., II, 42.

{6} Op. cit., I, 270.

{7} Op cit., I, 445.

{8} Cf. Appendix to Seelye's translation of Schwegler's History of Philosophy (New York, 1894), pp. 467 ff.

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