Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Chauncey Wright: Theoretical Reason in a Naturalist Account of Human Consciousness

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Chauncey Wright: Theoretical Reason in a Naturalist Account of Human Consciousness

Article excerpt

In contemporary philosophical context, "naturalism" can stand for a wide range of programmatic commitments, from refusal to credit explanations that appeal to the supernatural to the much more specific reductionist and scientist ic proposals in the spirit of Quine and his followers. In biology, it usually refers to an interest in natural history. The sense in which the term is most relevant to the discussion present is best captured by Dewey, when he postulates continuity of the lower . . . and the higher . . . activities and forms, while precluding a reduction of the latter to the former.1 Thus understood, naturalism can be seen as one of the principal threads running through the work of classical pragmatists, starting with James and Peirce who, in their different ways, were also guided by a vision of an uninterrupted continuity between the human and the "merely" natural, secured by the emergence of human thought from the antecedent animal existence. Unlike the later naturalists, then, pragmatists were primarily interested in developing the implications of nineteenth-century work in natural history for understanding human cognition. In fact, one could say that being a pragmatist implied a commitment to explaining rationality naturalistic ally.

Interestingly enough, just around the time when the pragmatists were beginning to articulate their programmatic commitments, Chauncey Wright, a positivist philosopher and a close fore-runner of pragmatism, was commissioned by Darwin to produce an evolutionary account of the emergence of human consciousness. Wright was an early champion of Darwinism and, what is more unusual, an unreserved supporter of the principle of natural selection, i.e. the view that complex adaptation is due to spontaneously arising variations differentially favored by the selective pressure of extinction. His defense of the principle against the criticisms of an influential Jesuit naturalist St. George Mivart, in a paper titled "The Genesis of Species" (1871),2 made an impression on Darwin, who suggested that Wright should write yet another paper - this time, on the evolutionary origins of human consciousness.3 Wright complied with this request completing, as a result, his most original and most philosophical essay, "Evolution of SelfConsciousness" (1873),4 which he then sent on to Darwin. In the year between writing the two papers (1872), Wright, along with Peirce and James, became one of the founding members of the Metaphysical Club.

According to Menand, Wright was a pivotal figure in the club of which he was a senior member.5 Earlier, he participated in a number of other private societies around Cambridge, the members of which included, among others, his old friends James Thayer (a future Professor of Law at Harvard) and Ephraim Gurney (its future Dean).6 He had been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in I860,7 and in 1870 he was invited to give lectures on psychology by Eliot, who was in the process of transforming Harvard into a modern world-class research and teaching institution. This invitation had a special significance since, according to Madden, Wright's philosophical views were widely known and strongly opposed by the theological faculty.8 Wright turned out to have no talent for classroom instruction, so the teaching engagement was not renewed; yet in private gatherings he had a reputation of a very sharp conversationalist and debater. As Peirce once put it: "There was then living here a thinker who left no remains from which one could now gather what an educative influence his was upon the minds of all of us who enjoyed his intimacy, Mr. Chauncey Wright."9

Wright's influence on Peirce and James is well- documented. Peirce met Wright in 1857, and the two became rather close, in good part because Wright was the only person around who was "up to Peirce' s speed in mathematics and logic."10 Peirce recollects having "long and almost daily discussions" with Wright for a period of "about two years. …

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