The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

Introduction

An account of the growth of American thought involves, in the first place, a study of the growth on American soil of knowledge of the physical universe, of human nature, and of social relationships. Since man's precise and tested knowledge of his environment, physical and social, and of himself has been at every point in time subject to varying limitations, he has speculated on that which he did not know. These speculative operations, sometimes casual, random, and entirely unorganized, have been transmitted from generation to generation as superstitions and folklore; sometimes they have been systematized as theology and philosophy. In either case such informal notions and beliefs, or organized ideas, properly belong to intellectual history. To knowledge and ideas must be added the values which men and women have held and cherished. The history of knowledge, of speculation and ideas, and of values cannot easily be traced without reference to the institutions especially concerned with making accretions to knowledge and thought and disseminating these. Thus the growth in America of schools, colleges, libraries, the press, laboratories, foundations, and research centers becomes an important condition for the growth of American thought.

Bodies of exact knowledge, patterns of thought, and all the agencies of intellectual life developed in America in relation to their counterparts in Europe. Each generation of Europeans who came to America brought prevailing or dissenting European ideas, brought in greater or less degree special intellectual techniques and the command of bodies of knowledge, brought concepts of the good and the desirable. All these played essential roles in the growth of American thought. Americans, old and new, familiarized themselves with newer intellectual currents in the Old World through travel and study abroad and through reading in the original or in translation reports of scien-

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