Two Philosophies

In the American philosophy the Age of Reason and the idealism of Romanticism were equally influential during the early 19th century. The practical and rational nature of the American society was clearly reflected in philosophy even though other areas of the humanities were more Romantic. It also should be noted that since the Americans were more men and women of action than speculative thinkers, philosophy was by no means the central factor in American culture. Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s that he did not know any people who were so uninterested in philosophy than the Americans. Even though he exaggarated, it was easy see that the Germans, English and French avoided the practical aspects of philosophy compared to American thinkers who looked for useful solutions and mixed political and theological ingredients with their philosophy.

The so called Scottish approach became the quasi-official philosophy of nineteenth-century America. Few educated Americans, in the generations between 1790 and 1870, were not familiar with concepts of the Scottish school. John Witherspoon, who left Scotland to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1768, brought it to America. During the Revolutionary era the major strain of American philosophy had been Lockean empiricism, which had fitted admirably with the political and scientific interests of the times. As Locke's popularity faded in America and England, Americans found a satisfactory replacement in the philosophy of "common sense" in building up their democratic ideals. The Scottish approach was an answer to those needs.

It provided a means by which men could establish workable standards of religious, aesthetic, and moral truth. It gave, as one of its proponents, Thomas Reid, claimed, "to the human mind the power to make original and natural judgments which serve to direct us in the common affairs of life, when our reasoning faculty would leave us in the dark". These judgments, he continued, "make up what is called the common sense of mankind", providing men with best possible moral and social codes.

These sentences were based on the principle of the Scottish school that men possess two sets of senses: external and internal. External senses provide knowledge of the outside world; these ideas group by association and are made into new ideas by rational organization and synthesis. Internal sensations are of three kinds: first, those of the mind itself, which originates first principles such as the idea of God, the existence of the soul, or the certainty of will; second, those of beauty and taste; third, those of morality, or ideas of good and bad. These senses are common to all men.

The Scottish philosophy could be adapted nicely to the American society, its ideals of consensus and the common good. It was an extremely useful weapon against the skepticism of Hume and the rationalism of the Deists, as well as an affirmation of the older belief in a "moral sense". Most convenient of all, it destroyed nothing and gave more or less satisfactory answers to bothersome theological questions. The basic optimism of the Scottish philosophy fitted American needs nicely, especially its assumption that all men whatever their condition, possessed an inherent moral sense which could be strengthened and improved by proper education and application. The principles of "common sense" gave reason to believe that the average individual could fulfill those obligations which the American political system placed upon him.

For decades the Scottish thinking dominated the intellectual and cultural aspects in the curricula of American colleges: it was usually divided into three parts as Natural, Mental, and Moral Philosophy, and taken usually during the third or fourth years of study. Its academic practice was very pragmatic: its aim was to organize and codify rather than to explore or test ideas. Francis Wayland, in his book Elements of Moral Science (1835), suggested that a philosophy text "ought to exhibit what was true rather than discuss what was doubtful". Wayland's text book was very typical and also popular; during the next 60 years it sold 200 000 copies.

The Scottish approach was not an American invention but it gave a strong stimulus to an American philosophical innovation, Pragmatism, which began to gain prestige and popularity in the 1870s and 1880s and which finally replaced the Scottish approach from the American universities.

As I mentioned, the idealism of Romanticism was important in American philosophy as well. Transcendentalism - a Kantian term - was chronologically parallel with the practical Scottish approach. It came from Germany but via English and French sources and translations. It was a diverse, individualistic and theological trend in philosophy, and hardly to be called a school. Yet, since it dealt with problems of knowing, believing, and acting, it had pertinent philosophical implications, even though some regarded it strictly as a gospel.

It was also a very American movement, since the Transcendentalists used Kant's concepts quite freely. The "practical reason" was a good ethical guide, the "categorical imperative" a principle of morality, and the "pure reason" an intuitive source of truth. Nor were the Germans the only source of inspiration; the Transcendentalists read Plato, Oriental philosophy, and the older Berkeleian idealists. American Transcendentalism was an eclectic habit of mind rather than a system. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the young minister who resigned his pulpit in 1832, was its most important spokesman and writer. His writings Nature, Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul form the basis of the Transcendentalist thought.

The core of Transcendentalism lay in its theory of knowledge. Neither Locke nor the Scots gave convincing answers to the question, How do we know? Transcendentalists therefore went beyond reason; affirming the validity of intuitive truth, they assumed that knowledge was available to every man within himself. Like the idealists, they postulated two realms: a perceptible world of sensations, and an unseen world beyond, of pure ideas, beauty, truth, and goodness. This intuitive sense could pierce beyond the material world into suprarational, "transcendental" realm of "ultimate reality" that lay behind phenomenal appearances.

Transcendentalism, however, was more than epistemological speculation. It was a way of finding an answer to what Emerson called "the practical question of the conduct of life, How do I live?" It had religious, ethical, and social implications for the times. Unlike the older view that the ability to know God directly was granted only to the elect, Transcendentalism held that this intuitive sense was every man's birthright. This was convenient for the many Evangelical groups of the Second Awakening which were very influential during the first half of the century.

Transcendentalism was also powerfully individualistic. "Trust thyself", wrote Emerson. Transcendentalism had thus - somewhat paradoxically - much in common with the optimistic, individualistic, egalitarian spirit of Jacksonian democracy of the 1830s and 1840s, although Emerson could never bring - and maybe he did not even want it - himself to unqualified approval of the President of "the ordinary people", Andrew Jackson. In any case, Transcendentalism resembled Jackson's democracy emphasizing the worth of the individual and the principle of self-reliance.

On the other hand, the influence of Transcendentalism on the mainstream of American philosophical thought was not large, nor did it cause a major interest in academic circles. It was not able to deal effectively with the powerful economic and social forces shaping the contemporary American life, nor was it able to adjust to all the new ideas of science (like Darwinism) after the 1850s. By the latter decades of the century, new winds of philosophical doctrine - like Pragmatism - had blown much of it away. In addition, the Scottish school was too tough a competitor as well as associations which were formed around the philosophy of Kant, Hegel and others.

Transcendentalism was chiefly influential as a literary- religious phenomenon and as an alternative to the materialistic and un-cultural America. Its influence was best seen in literature, painting, religion, and ethical and moral problems. It was also a source of inspiration for various Utopian experiments. Emerson's friend, Henry David Thoreau, adapted the Transcendentalist ideals in his own way of life: he lived modestly, close to nature, almost as a hermit.