Common Sense and Pragmatism as Philosophical Grounds for Politics

By Amato, Joseph | Modern Age, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Common Sense and Pragmatism as Philosophical Grounds for Politics


Amato, Joseph, Modern Age


America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense by Scott Philip Segrest (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010)

With this bold and well-written work, Scott Philip Segrest--an instructor in American politics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point--makes a bid to join the conservative tradition of German refugee, philosopher of history, and political thinker Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). He sees his work as an explicit effort to fulfill Voegelin's suggestion that "someone write a history of the common sense tradition," which Voegelin discovered in the early 1920s in the course of attending pragmatist John Dewey's Columbia University lectures on the American and British tradition of philosophy. Throughout his work, Segrest repeatedly affirms Voegelin's main proposition that the transcendent is found within the operation of human spirit and civilization's search for order.

In addition to his primary goals of defining the worth of the commonsense school of thought, establishing it as distinctly embodied in the American political tradition, and acknowledging that the commonsense tradition was significantly anticipated by Aristotle's epistemology and shared common ground with eighteenth-century natural rights advocates like Jefferson, Segrest contends that the school was best given form by three American protagonists, the first two of whom were illustrious Scottish immigrants who, the cream of a thriving Scottish university education, were outstanding students of philosophy and divinity, and Presbyterian ministers as well.

The first of these Scots, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon (1723-1794), was invited in midlife to serve as president of Princeton College in the 1760s. The second, James McCosh (1811-1894), became president of the same college, almost exactly one hundred years later. The third, psychologist and philosopher William James of New England, gave the commonsense tradition a fresh and enduring vitality.

As both a creator and representative of the commonsense tradition in America, John Witherspoon was influenced by such commonsense progenitors as philosophers the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and especially Thomas Reid. As heir of that tradition, Witherspoon challenged Hume's skepticism, which reduced ideas to a posteriori additions to sensations and experience, and denied intuitions of God and truths of conscience that go with elemental construction of meaning. On similar grounds, Witherspoon attacked preeminent Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. In criticizing Hume, Kant mistakenly conceived truth as contingent on a priori impositions of space, time, and cause on sense experience--and conceived the moral good as predicated on a duty resting on a universalized goodwill toward all humanity, which stands beyond circumstances and is independent of interests of self, others, and community.

Even more pertinent to the articulation of the commonsense tradition, Witherspoon, according to Segrest, extended his critique to Locke's philosophy, challenging its epistemological dependence on sensory empiricism and an ethics derived from laissez-faire political liberalism. While he agreed that democratic politics is about ensuring and exercising rights, Witherspoon reproved Locke for his compact based on individual rights and Hobbes for one rooted in survival, and argued for a broader covenant based on recognizing and balancing interests, rights, and other activities, along with reciprocal duties to community and obligations to God. A slave owner himself, Witherspoon denounced the domination and ownership of workers. He even supported revolution when rulers did not use government to extend protection to the weak. He signed the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that Britain confiscated property and took away the fruits of industry and means of life.

Witherspoon as a philosopher stood in essential agreement with Aristotle, Aquinas, and the classic tradition of natural law. …

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