American Philosophers at Work: The Philosophic Scene in the United States


In his classic study of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "in no country of the civilized world is less atten- tion paid to philosophy than in the United States." De Tocque- ville's reference was to the formal philosophy of the schools and to technical doctrines in which visions of life and judgments of value are expressed, but so obscurely that their vital bearing is missed. He went on, however, to pay a remarkably perceptive and generous tribute to the philosophical attitudes which he found embodied in American habits of understanding and conduct. At a time when the population of the United States was ethnically much more homogeneous than it is today, de Tocqueville found "com- mon to the whole people" the following rules of philosophical method:

To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family-maxims, class-opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices: to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson used in doing otherwise, and doing better; to seek the reason of things for one's self, and one's self alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to aim at the substance through the form--such are the principal char- acteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans. But if I go further, and if I seek among these char- acteristics that which predominates over and includes almost all the rest, I discover that in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals to the individual exercise of his own understanding alone. America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied.

Additional information

Includes content by:
  • Max Black
  • Rudolf Carnap
  • Nelson Goodman
  • Clarence I. Lewis
  • Ernest Nagel
Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1956


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