Philosophic Thought in France and the United States: Essays Representing Major Trends in Contemporary French and American Philosophy

By Marvin Farber | Go to book overview

IDEALISM IN AMERICA

H. G. Townsend*

A philosophical vocabulary is notoriously lacking in precision. As yet no remedy has been discovered. If a technical or quasi-scientific language is invented, it narrows the range of discourse to an esoteric few who eventually find that they have little or nothing to say even to each other. The other alternative is to use the common language of history and literature and thus court the disaster of vagueness. Every writer has to use to the best of his ability a more or less intelligent compromise between these two extremes. Perhaps no common philosophical term has been more abused than "idealism." It has had a long history and has been defined in so many contexts that it must of necessity be defined again and again. The popular use of the term is especially misleading. More often than not it is taken as a synonym for any ill- grounded hypothesis which appears to common sense to have in it more of hope than it does of observation. Idealism is, however, widely used in a less objectionable manner in conversation and literature to mean that beyond the objects of common experience there is to be discovered a world of meanings, relations, and objects not immediately presented to the senses. This use of the word has at its heart the sound discernment that idealism as a philosophy is deeply concerned with the humanistic problems of value, history, civilization, education, religion, etc.

In the more restricted language of philosophers idealism is a theory of the nature of being and knowing. Specifically it is the theory that the universe is some sort of an intelligible order and that insofar as men discover that order, they truly know. To whatever degree human knowledge is fragmentary, confused, contradictory, to that extent it is presumed to be unreliable. The value theory of idealism is more or less congruent with its logic and metaphysics. In such a definition an effort is made to find the common denominator rather than to enumerate the fractions.

____________________
*
Born in 1885. Ph.D., Cornell University, 1913. He was the senior member of the department of philosophy in the University of Oregon, where he taught from 1926 to the time of his death in December 1948. He was the author of Philosophical Ideas in the United States ( 1934) and of periodical papers on philosophical topics. He did extensive work on the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards, and prepared a book for publication on The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards as found in his Private Notebooks.

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