Men and Movements in American Philosophy

By Arthur E. Murphy | Go to book overview
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2
THE AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT

I. CHARACTERISTIC IDEAS
OF THE REVOLUTIONARY ERA

The second half of the eighteenth century not only brought the beginning of the development of an American nation and an American culture, but also gave expression to a complete, rounded, and reasonably consistent pattern of thought and action. The pattern is sufficiently like that of the corresponding period in Western European intellectual life to have led to a general use of the descriptive phrase "the American Enlightenment" as a characterization of the age. We are to be concerned here with the ideas of the American Enlightenment the patterns of thought of the men who made our nation and gave direction to its heritage. We are to examine the philosophy which underlies our national existence, to try to see the pattern of enlightened ideas which forms the heart and core of the American mind.

This pattern was complete and rounded; it was applied in all the areas of human concern. Science, religion, politics, and economics in that age were all involved and interconnected in the thought of the men of the Enlightenment. The same methods were applicable to all; the same type of certainty was thought to be achievable in all. There was no conscious cleavage between philosophy and religion, religion and science, politics and economics, as there is for so many of us today. All the aspects of life and thought fell under one general pattern of understanding. Subject matters in these different areas might be discriminated from each other, but the same principles of analysis were thought to be applicable to all.

There are two qualifications to be expressed before we proceed to state the characteristic ideas of the Revolutionary era. The first

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