A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

11 Professional Realism, 1912-1956

At the turn of the century, a number of younger philosophers, identifying with the pragmatic emphasis on practice, called for co-operative endeavors to move philosophy away from an endless repetition of competing systems that led nowhere. This new generation hoped that scientific enquiry might become the model in philosophy and result in collaborative efforts and progress. The same impulse led many of these men, mainly but not exclusively associated with Harvard, to rebel against the pragmatic idealism that had been on offer in their graduate philosophy classes. In a series of joint publications, they argued for realistic philosophies that the sciences influenced and that went back to Descartes, Locke, and the Scots for inspiration. The younger philosophers who adopted realism were, like the Columbia naturalists, continuing an irregular walk away from religion. This chapter surveys the evolution of realism from the early stages of a revolt against Royce at the turn of the century to the professional concerns fifty years later.

Overall, the two generations of thinkers who formulated these views did not match their mentors in talent or creativity. In 1905 William James spoke of 'the gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young Ph.D'.s boring each other in seminaries, and writing those direful reports of the literature in the “Philosophical Review' ”. James had one word for this 'dessicating and pedantifying process': 'Faugh!' 'The over technicality and consequent dreariness' of the young were appalling. The realists came of age in the new university order and exhibited the standard characteristics of individuals in that order: their philosophizing began with a set of problems that their mentors and graduate training had bequeathed. As James put it, they regurgitated 'what dusty-minded professors have written about what other previous professors have thought'. His students gained preferment by earning a Ph.D. and publishing about these problems. The professional system, with a set of professorial grades culminating in tenure and promotion to a full professorship, was established during this time. Professors not only moved up the ranks in a single institution, but also might move around the system, obtaining a coveted chaired professorship

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