John Witherspoon's American Revolution: Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States

By Gideon Mailer | Go to book overview

{ CHAPTER 4 }
“CALL THE CONCLUSIONS DRAWN FROM
THESE PRINCIPLES MUST BE VAGUE”
American Moral Philosophy after Witherspoon

In 1725, Francis Hutcheson suggested that “strong affections” excited the pursuit of virtuous action and could be understood self-consciously for the first time during youth. This was an impressionable phase, which Hutcheson’s student Hugh Blair later described as a stage when “your character is now … of your own forming; your fate is, in some measure, put into your own hands.… Habits have not established their dominion. Prejudices have not pre-occupied your understanding.” In 1741, Blair would become a minister, and in 1762 he would assume the first Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh, which he would hold until 1783. He learned from his former teacher and mentor that the senses were “every Determination of our Minds to receive Ideas independently on our Will, and to have Perceptions of Pleasure and Pain.” Warm attachment between young men was portrayed by Blair in aesthetic terms: good deeds done by one individual to another were pre-rationally sensed as beautiful. He had also become influenced by new strains of Scottish common sense philosophy, which built on work by John Locke and Hutcheson in order to outline the interaction between primary sentiments and secondary reason. His writings would be widely disseminated in America during and after the Revolutionary era.1

1. For Hutcheson on the “strong affections” of moral sensibility, see Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue…, 2d ed. (London, 1726), xv. On the “Determination of our Minds,” see [Hutcheson], An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections; with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (London, 1728), 4. See also David Fate Norton and Manfred Kuehn, “The Foundations of Morality,” in Knud Haakonssen, ed., The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2006), II, 954–958. For Hugh Blair on youthful sensibility, see Blair, “Sermon XI,” in Sermons by Hugh Blair, D.D. …, new ed. (Dublin, 1784), I, 176; Blair, “On Taste,” in Essays on Rhetoric, Abridged Chiefly from Dr. Blair’s Lectures on That Science, 4th ed. (London, 1801), [1]. On Blair’s popularity in the new American Republic, see Warren Alan Guthrie, “The Development of Rhetorical Theory in America, 1635–1850,” Speech Monographs, XV (1948), 61–71; David Daiches, “Style

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