A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

5 Innovative Amateurs, 1829-1867

The prospect for creative thought that would preserve nineteenth-century speculation lay with people at the periphery of the educational system. Although their influence was often curtailed, they energetically responded to challenges and did not fear that Germany would undermine cultural verities. This chapter surveys five innovative strategies, in both philosophy and religion, to outline a vision of the world less constricted than that of American academic divines and philosophers. James Marsh, president of the University of Vermont in the 1820s and 1830s, struggled to make it a viable institution, and used Kantian ideas in what might be called the philosophy of religion to push the New England Theology into a less intellectualist direction. The more well-known Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected this theology, and in eastern Massachusetts made German idealism prominent in a new religion—Transcendentalism. Emerson had Harvard connections but was not an academic and gave up a pulpit; he became an exemplary man of letters, lacking any institutional affiliation. In Connecticut, the minister Horace Bushnell took German ideas and moved in the direction of Hegel. In Mercersburg, a small isolated German Reformed Seminary in western Pennsylvania, John Williamson Nevin did appropriate Hegel to revivify Protestantism. Further west, a group of philosophers outside any college applied Hegel in a secular manner to interpret the civic life of American culture. William Torrey Harris led these 'St Louis Hegelians'.


Kant in Vermont

James Marsh, who was born in Hartford, Vermont, in 1794, graduated from nearby Dartmouth College in 1817. His later education, which included influences from the Andover, Harvard, and Princeton seminaries, left him disenchanted with the individualism of American theology, and he brought to his presidency at Vermont a different orientation. His main achievement was making idealist philosophy available in the United States by publishing in 1829 an American edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's work, Aids to Reflection (1825).

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