A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

Synopsis

Here at last is an American counterpart to Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. The eminent historian Bruce Kuklick tells the fascinating story of the growth of philosophical thinking in the USA, in the context of the intellectual and social changes of the times. Kuklick sketches the genesis of these intellectual practices in New England Calvinism and the writing of Jonathan Edwards. He discusses theology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the origins of collegiate philosophy in the early part of the nineteenth century. We see the development of secular preconceptions and the emergence, after Darwin's writings of the mid-late nineteenth century, of forms of thought hostile to religion. Philosophy is situated in a variety of cultural contexts - the ministry, the growing system of higher learning, the conflict between philosophers andtheologians and between amateur and professional thinkers, the suspicion of European ideas, and worries about the relevance of philosophy to public and political life. Kuklick's narrative portrays such great thinkers as Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, C. I. Lewis, Wilfrid Sellars, W. V. Quine, and Richard Rorty, and assesses their contributions to philosophy. He brings us right up to date with the first historical treatment of the period after pragmatism, and the fragmentation of philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century. Kuklick steers a controversial course between the divergent views that historians and philosophers take of the significance of philosophy in recent years. Anyone interested in American intellectual history, or in how philosophy got where it is today, will enjoy this book.

Excerpt

This book sketches the history of philosophy in America, but I have been aware of many conceptual difficulties in the project. 'Philosophy' is a contested notion, and so is the notion of its 'American-ness'. Finally, such a history involves a package of ideas about the quality of thought.

By philosophy I mean more or less systematic writing about the point of our existence, and our ability to understand the world of which we are a part. These concerns are recognizable in the questions that thinkers have asked in successive eras, and in the connections between the questions of one era and another. For instance, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thinkers asked: what is the individual's relation to an inscrutable deity? How can human autonomy be preserved, if the deity is omnipotent? After Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, philosophers asked: how can human freedom and our sense of the world's design be compatible with our status as biological entities? Early in the twentieth century academic thinkers wanted to know: if we are biological organisms, enmeshed in a causal universe, how can we come to have knowledge of this universe; how can mind escape the limits set by causal mechanism? By the second-half of the twentieth century, professional philosophers often assumed both that we were of the natural world and that knowledge demanded a transcendence of the natural. They then asked: how is knowledge possible? What are the alternatives to having knowledge?

For three centuries Americans have pondered these concerns by relying on the formulations of the people whose views are examined in this book. These people, for better or worse, have elaborated the frameworks used in grappling with issues of human destiny. Just as intellectuals today worry about how to 'get right with theory', and consider it important, so did Americans in the past worry. Just as intellectuals in the present believe they have the sort of detachment from ordinary concerns that gives to their ideas a truth apart from any locality, so did the thinkers I treat in this book. But just as intellectuals today operate in a restrictive cultural context that must be considered in appraising their views, so must we also consider that context in the past.

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