Over a 300-year period American philosophy was distinctive in being touched by national historical developments—by America's status as a colony of Great Britain and as an intellectual province of Europe; by the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and Vietnam; by the rise of the university system, its relation to the wealth produced in the industrialization of the country, its specialized professionalism, and by the twentieth-century developments that made American thinkers the most privileged on earth. But this broad socio-economic and political context was not so important in shaping philosophy as the overwhelming Protestant character of the dominant culture, and the deep Christian commitment that extends to the present and distinguishes the United States from the other nations of the North Atlantic West.
The peculiar ahistoric religious individualism that had its birth in Jonathan Edwards especially shaped the outlines of American thought. Philosophy in America began with worries about the relation of the single believer to a God whose purposes were not ours, a spiritual anxiety. The end of the nineteenth century reaffirmed these worries when the first pragmatists constructed a new religious world-view that embraced evolution. In the twentieth century, as religious commitment declined, philosophers wrestled with the question of how a biological organism could know about itself.
The individualist, contemplative heritage had led early on to a division of labor between philosophers and thinkers on social affairs. None the less, through the nineteenth century, philosophical theologians and religiously inclined philosophers had an important public role in making the ways of God known to Americans. When intellectual life turned away from literalist Protestantism at the end of the nineteenth century, philosophy achieved its greatest prominence as thinkers were able to combine ostensibly modern scientific views with ideas that had a Protestant spiritual hue—the many varieties of pragmatism. In the twentieth century, however, philosophers (and many academics) became more secular, outdistancing public culture. Their subsequent isolation was partly a function of academic