The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview
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Chpter 24
A NEW SCIENCE AND A NEW PHILOSOPHY

FOR AMERICANS as, in fact, for Europeans a major shift of thought set off the twentieth century from the nineteenth. Developments in science stood at the center of change. The shift compared in magnitude with that earlier revolution marked by the emergence of science itself in the seventeenth century.

A particular view of the cosmos governed work in the natural sciences and conditioned social thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Descartes and Newton had painted for men a portrait of the universe as, in the words of Davis Hume, "one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines . . . adjusted to each other with an accuracy that ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them . . ."--a deterministic universe of relentless cause and effect, a universe that could be represented by a model. This view of nature etched by natural science provided a background for social thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The description of a mechanistic nature suggested by natural science had its counterpart in the picture proposed by the classical theorists of an economy as, like a bridge, a balance of stresses and strains, an equilibrium of pulls and thrusts. Classical economic theory continued beyond John Bates Clark into the twentieth century. The determinism of the Newtonian cosmos also had its reflection in the determinism of what Karl Marx called scientific socialism.

In 1887 Charles Peirce bought a house and tract of land in what he called the wildest county in the northern states. Son of a Harvard mathematician, he had grown up in Cambridge where he became a friend of the young William James. Peirce had taught for a time at Johns Hopkins. Moving his library and his family to the new

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