A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

Introduction

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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