Ethics and Socialism: Tensions in the Political Philosophy of J. G. Schurman

By Burns, Steven A. M. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Socialism: Tensions in the Political Philosophy of J. G. Schurman


Burns, Steven A. M., Journal of Canadian Studies


Ethics and Socialism: Tensions in the Political Philosophy of J.S. Schurman

This paper examines the political theory of the Canadian philosopher, Jacob Gould Schurman, based especially on his work, A Series of Ten Lectures on Ethics. Schurman's Prince Edward Island roots and his convictions about Canadian autonomy helped to guide his influential assessments of the Philippines (after the American take - over in 1898) and the Balkans (just before the 1914 - 18 war). Schurman's writings on socialism, however, have not been examined, even though the contemporary socialist movement constituted a serious challenge to his position. This paper argues that his criticism of socialism is grounded in his ethical theory, but that his account of what good is salvageable from its doctrines exposes a conflict in his own thought.

Jaeob Gould Schurman (1854 - 1942) was a Canadian philosopher of considerable distinction. He well deserves the chapter which Leslie Armour and Elizabeth Trott devote to him in their history of English - Canadian philosophy.(f.1) As he is otherwise not widely remembered, a sketch of his life will serve to introduce the man himself to those readers who do not know of him as well as to introduce the political principles which are my main topic.

Schurman's most significant contribution to philosophy is his work on evolutionary theory, and his attempt to embrace the new science without losing his grip on the foundations of ethics. In biographical terms, this Maritime Baptist strove for the greatest openness to new discoveries and the wider world while remaining true to the principles of his Canadian upbringing. This led to valuable innovations in his work on Darwin and Kant, but a similar confrontation with socialist politics after he had emigrated to the United States led to difficulties in his political philosophy. The central aim of this paper is to examine his writings on socialism in the context of his ethical thought. A primary tool in this examination is the book, A Series of Ten Lectures on Ethics, a work of Schurman's not noted in the standard bibliographies but important for the way in which it integrates his thought in ethics and in political theory. A subsidiary theme is that his Canadian and European education rendered him an awkward, if enthusiastic American in his later years.

Biography

STUDENT

Jacob Gould Schurman was born on Prince Edward Island and died in New York City after an influential career in philosophy and public service. His great - grand - parents, of Dutch descent, were prominent citizens of the state of New York and they moved to Canada as United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution. Schurman was born in 1854, the third of eight children of Robert and Lydia (Gouldrup) Schurman, who were farmers at Freetown, Prince Edward Island. Named Jacob, he later took a contraction of his mother's maiden name as his middle name, and was called Gould by relatives and friends.(f.2)

Gould Schurman was destined to complete a cycle; at 32 he left the newly independent Canada and moved to New York state, attaining considerable influence at the heart of the new American empire. He was the longest - serving and arguably the most successful of Cornell University's presidents, and served in various capacities as an adviser to presidents of the USA, including McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Coolidge and F.D. Roosevelt. He presided over the Philippine Commission of 1899, was the United States' Minister to Greece (1912 - 13) and to China (1920 - 25), and US Ambassador to Germany (1925 - 29). He continued to travel and lecture in retirement, and was 88 when he died of a heart attack in 1942. He was buried in St. Matthew's Church cemetery, Bedford, NY. A national monument to him has been erected in Freetown, PEI.

The route he travelled was not an easy one. Scholarships played the key role. Educated in a one - room school, he left the family farm at 13 to work in a Summerside store.

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