The Influence of Separatism Over Harvard and the First Generation of Americans

Thursday, February 26, 2009

One place where the mix of separatist inclination and traditional establishment was dramatically highlighted was a across the Charles river from Boston, in the town of Cambridge, where in 1636, a college was founded and named after its first major benefactor: John Harvard. Harvard was not a college similar to what we might think of colleges now. The universities of Europe still moved in the 1600’s in the circle established by scholastic theology in the Middle Ages, which is to say that the chief tool of learning was logic, not the laboratory experiment. The principal source of truth was authority, not nature. The principal language was Latin, with the principal authority being Aristotle.

17th century thinkers aspired to the creation of a summary of all knowledge. A framework that William Ames, the greatest of English Puritan academics, called tecnologia, which would, they hoped, perfect the whole man. They emphasized chiefly what we today would call classical learning. The six arts of logic, theology, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and physics. They included virtually nothing that we would call professional of vocational studies, including nothing that we might call practical.

The Art of Argumentation

Logic was the art of discoursing well. It concentrated on the arrangement of arguments in sharp-like fashion from the general to the specific. An arrangement which would assure victory in argument and a full exploration of the terms of the argument. That explains why the New Englanders were so intent on college-building so quickly. The culture of Puritanism was built upon logical argument. It was built on the exposition of Biblical texts. Calvinism itself was very much an exercise in the arrangement of logical and interrelated theological axioms. To preach well was a department of discoursing well, so you needed an institution which trained people in discoursing well.

Puritan preaching, in fact, developed a rigorous methodology that was patterned after university logic, in which the preacher was expected to follow a stated three-part formulae. First would come the doctrine: a particular biblical verse or biblical verses would be read out and then they would be taken apart, term by term, for the exposition of every possible meaning. The next part of the sermon would be the uses: those various meanings would be reassembled in a series of linked and persuasive theological propositions. Then the preacher would turn to the application. These applications or uses would be turned into a series of practical, everyday rules for living or self examination, or maybe just for pious mediation.

Pious meditation. It was on that last point that a question was bound to be presented. If the purpose of Harvard college was the raising of a ministry who could pose practical questions, who could create an atmosphere of pious meditation, then why was that the education that fitted them for this was based on what everybody admitted to be an education in pagan classical authors: Aristotle, Cicero and so forth.

Using the Ancient Pagans and the Source of Knowledge

Medieval universities had coped with this by asserting that the study of these pagans could be redeemed by understanding that God actually used them to announce the truth, or that the truths that pagans articulated had somehow been borrowed from the Bible. Or that all truth is God’s truth, even if that are the pagans that discovered it first. But if Protestantism was supposed to involve a comprehensive renovation of Christianity, then it was going to be difficult to stop that renovation short of questioning such rationalizations. That questioning settled principally on two issues, the logic curriculum and the structure of human psychology.

Logic, in both the medieval and Protestant uses of the term, referred to both the origins of knowledge (epistemology, how we know things), and the arrangement of that knowledge to yield truth statements or axioms. The Puritans were realists, which is to say that they understood that the senses convey real information about the world around us. The measure of one’s intellectual insight laid in how one arranged the data one encountered into orderly relationship. This order was an entirely logical one, not an experimental one. But it did assume that there was order in the nature of things, imposed by the God who created things. Discerning that order was very much a matter of getting propositions about God and nature that illuminated the inner essence of things and the hidden will and plan of God.

Unfortunately for the aspiring Harvardian in the 17th century, protestant scholastic textbooks all united in offering different ways of arranging these propositions about God and nature. The question for the pious New England student turned on who’s system yielded the more theologically orthodox protestant conclusions. On that point there was very little agreement.

William Ames, representing the more radical approach to intellectual system building, was critical of using the ancients as the foundation for moral reason. For instance, Ames believed that ethics should not stand as an independent study on its own, with its teachings hammered out by logical connections between moral axioms. Ames believed that ethics should be studied only as a department of theology, which is a shorthand way of saying that there was no moral truth or theory of moral truth worth studying apart from Calvinistic Protestant Christianity. The highest kind of life for a human being, wrote Ames, is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God. So, any attempt to study ethics, apart from what God had revealed about the topic, was pointless. Why go to Aristotle? Why go to Cicero? God’s revelation of this truth in the Bible was the only material from which to lift a logical system of moral philosophy.

Ames was skeptical that the classical pagans could convey moral truth purely by the efforts of unassisted reason. Ames did not object to the notion that knowledge was the fruit of logic, that it resulted from linking correct propositions to correct propositions; but he was unconvinced that ethics could be based on the same data or the same premises as natural philosophy. This had direct implications for the study of human psychology (although the scholastics had no idea of the social science discipline called psychology). I’m saying this precisely because ethics, according to Ames, could not be rightly understood as a function of unassisted reason. This is the way scholastics understood human physique.

Human Nature and Belief in God

From the very beginnings of European universities in the 1100’s, the inner life of human beings had been pictured as a series of faculties: will, understanding, judgement and so for. Right reason was dependent on adequate comprehension of how these faculties operate. There was, unhappily, no consensus on how the faculties were to be appropriately arranged. The greatest of the scholastics, Thomas Aquinas, was an intellectualist, which is to say that he believed the intellect to be the queen of the faculties.

A number of important protestants, including Calvin, agreed. But there was also one tradition in medieval thought, going all the way back to Augustine, which found human behavior too much unpredictable to be the result of the governing intellect. Instead, these Voluntarists, including Ames, gave to the will the place of greatest power. True Christian faith, wrote Ames, has a place in the understanding, but it cannot be received without genuine turning of the will towards God. Belief involved understanding, but understanding alone did not define belief. The will, said Ames, must be moved and rechartered to embrace the good.

Harvard Curriculum and the New Structure of Society

The Harvard curriculum swayed steadily between the competing demands of these theories. And with good reason. Intellectualism implied one sort of relationship between Church and society, and Voluntarism implied a very different one. A church order like the one in England could claim the allegiance of all the people of Massachusetts if what was necessary was only an intellectual ascent to theological propositions. If what Massachusetts Bay wanted most was the creation of a somewhat modified, somewhat more pious and purified version of the Church of England; such an intellectual ascent was all that was needed to induct everyone in that society into the church. So, it only made sense to teach at Harvard that the intellect was indeed the queen of the faculties.

But if, as Ames insisted, it was the will the true queen; then God could be served by nothing less than the full conscious embrace of those propositions as an active love. And that only by divine grace. If the voluntarists were right, then the corresponding notion of the church and society had to be that of the separatists, who denied admission to the church to all but those who could made a conscious willing profession of divine grace.

Of course, to embrace voluntarism meant surrendering the pretence that Puritanism was only about rehabilitating the Church of England. It meant revolutionizing any basis for establishing a puritanized version of a national church in Massachusetts. But if that happened, then Massachusetts’ society would become completely detached from the Church, it would, even worse, become exactly the sort of pagan society described by the classical authorities that the Puritans were so suspicious about.

The Harvard curriculum, at first, shifted uncomfortably in the shadow of William Ames. Ames, who died in the Netherlands in 1633 as yet another Puritan exile from English religious oppression, was the most dearly loved of all Puritan theologians. The high personal standing he enjoyed in the Puritan churches made it difficult to keep Ames from being put at the center of the Harvard curriculum.

The founders of Harvard were of Puritan beliefs by conviction and of scholastic tradition by habit. And habit meant that Ethics should be taught at Harvard as a stand-apart subject, starting with Aristotle. And Massachusetts went on its way, trying to think of itself as an integrated Christian society, just as in the Middle Ages it had been. The problem was that between 1630 and 1660 subtly it became much harder to keep the old intellectual habits at Harvard. Part of this arose from an unpleasant and unanticipated development in the history of New England. The Puritans had children who did not necessarily wanted to be Puritans, or not at least in the way their parents had been. It was the first instance of what would be a common experience among immigrants to the New World.

Separationism and the New Generation

The generation born in America enjoyed all the blessings of the environment that the immigrant generation had helped to build in America and probably took them for granted. At worst, it actually experienced a sense of embarrassment among the enthusiasm and sacrifices that brought their parents to leave the old country in the first place.

In this case, a new generation was born in New England which felt none of the urgency of piety that took their parents to abandon England for the New World. And far worst than merely feeling embarrassed, the new generation found itself entangled in a web which their parents had spun as they thought for their own good and for the greater glory of God.

What New England’s second generation discovered was the downside of the separatist impulse to exclude all but the gracious from the church. They had never known the oppression of the crown. With that, they lacked the passion and determination to find grace in their own souls. Since grace, and not birth, was what qualified New Englanders for membership in the churches, the separatist impulse in Puritanism left them on the outside of the churches starring in. As it did so, the claim of Massachusetts to be a godly society began to weaken. After all, how can a society consider itself godly when its children are outside the discipline of the church and cannot confess enough faith to join it.

Linked to that challenge from inside, was a second challenge from the outside. By 1687, the English government finely reached out to impose control over Massachusetts’ affairs. Revoking the original Massachusetts Bay Company charter, introducing Church of England worship into Boston, and even restructuring Harvard. There was yet a third challenge to the godly New England by the 1680’s. This came from entirely intellectual rather than political sources. That was a spectacular revolution in thought, called the Enlightenment.


The Essence of Puritan Thinking and the Exodus to the Americas

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

There is one sense in which those who argue for the non-existence or irrelevance of the American mind are right. America is not the creation of someone’s ideas. Its discovery by Europeans at the end of 1400’s emerged from no particular plan or blueprint. It was the offspring of a handful of relentlessly practical entrepreneurs who were looking for shorter and more direct paths for trade with the Orient than the tedious way Eastward around Africa. The fact that they discovered not a direct rout to China but two enormous land masses on the Americas was not an occasion for joy. Once it became apparent that these land masses could not be easily gotten around, most Europeans lost interest in America. Those who remained interested turned their attention to extracting by the readiest means available whatever articles of commercial wealth the American continents possessed.

After most of the treasures have been lifted by murderous European hands from the poorly armed and poorly defended native American owners, the curiosity of most of those Europeans, mainly the Spanish, focused on the preservation of a few colonial posts and the exploitation of some commodities, like fur, timber and fish.

The result was that a century after Columbus realized that there was not quick sea rout Westward to Asia, Europe’s total investment in America was limited to a thinly spread collection of soldiers, missionaries and freebooters. That sums up, in not too flattering terms, what the original European settlement of the American continent was all about. All of which provides absolutely no precedent for the appearance in 1630 on the coast of New England of what looked for all the world like a fleet of university professors and their students. They were called Puritans. And a very great deal of what we call American intellectual history flows downstream from them.

The Beginning of Calvinism and Puritan Theology

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther raised the banner of theological rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church in what has become universally known as the Protestant Reformation. The specific issue which triggered the reformation was theological, but that issue implicated a host of others, and in short order, Luther’s followers had begun to remodel other features of traditional Catholic belief.

In Switzerland, a French protestant named John Calvin reconstituted the organization of the Church. The Church had always been a hierarchy, with the bishop of dioceses at the top and the Pope in Rome as the bishop of the bishops; the priests below and the lay people underneath. Calvin refashioned this hierarchy, with priests now renamed as elders or presbyters ruling the churches jointly with lay leaders. Calvin also refined and expanded Luther’s theological protests, so that a uniquely Calvinist protestant theology eventually emerged based on five fundamental points.

The first of these points was total depravity. In other words, all human beings are born sinners and the of God’s grace if they expect to live their lives here and enjoy eternal life in the hereafter. Secondly, unconditional election; since human beings are born sinful, they don’t have any prospect of pulling themselves up by their own ethical efforts, they have to hope for God’s grace and his initiative. The third point was limited atonement. The thing which justifies God in bestowing grace on sinners is the redemption made by the self-offering and death of Jesus Christ. However, this atonement is not free for all, it would apply and it is limited to only those whom God elects to receive grace. Next point is irresistible grace: when God does choose someone to receive this grace, there is no resistance in it; given the fact that is God who is doing the choosing, it is hard to think how they could. The last point in Calvin’s thinking is known as perseverance of the saints: God never lets any of his elects fall away.

These five points were not actually formulated as a system until a century later after Calvin’s death, and they had to compete with several others forms of protestant theology. But Calvinism was certainly the most logical, and in England, the most dangerous of Protestant theologies. Dangerous, but not because England was more pious than the rest of Europe.

The Church of England

King Henry VIII of England brought his kingdom into the Protestant column in the 1530’s guided strictly by a political desire to get the Pope’s meddling fingers out of his realm. Henry lived and died with the notion that he could deny the sovereignty of the Pope in England while retaining traditional Catholic theology and the structure of bishops, priests and people; only with himself rather than the Pope at the top of the hierarchy.

England was so conservative in his religious ways that Henry was much more successful pulling this off than it seems possible. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558, settled matters down in pretty much the shape her father had expected. Under Elizabeth, the English Church would be independent of Rome, and probably a good deal more protestant in its theology than Henry may have wanted. But its structure would be national. Every English subject would automatically belong to the Church of England, be baptized into it at birth and would support it with compulsory taxes. Its hierarchy would be traditional. There would continue to be bishops, priests and people. And its worship would be liturgical, out of a national manual known as the Book of Common Prayer.

Elizabeth made life exceptionally nasty for anyone who clung to the old Catholic ways. Any kind of affection for Catholicism was treated by Elizabeth in England as treason. But life could be as nasty for those English protestants who felt that Elizabeth had left entirely too many of the old Catholic ways in place. They considered Calvin as the model and solution for English Christianity. Elizabeth regarded them as been fully as much apart as the Catholics. These were the people who became known first as Precicians, because they wanted to be too precise about Church reformation. Then eventually as Puritans.

Puritans in Different Shapes and Colors

For the first two decades of her reign, Elizabeth had more to deal with from the Catholics at home and abroad than from the Puritans. Puritans of various shapes won lodgements at many levels in the English Church, the English Universities and even in the Queen’s government. A number of Elizabeth’s bishops, like Edmund Grindal, who served as the senior archbishop of the Church of England; and entire colleges within the universities had sympathy with Calvinist ideas.

This could happen because many of these Puritans were interested in little more than some mild tweaking. These represented the mildest challenge to the Queen’s dictate. Other Puritans, shifting a bit more towards the radical end of the spectrum, wanted more than just a tweaking of the Church of England. These Puritans wanted the Crown to mandate the adoption of the Calvinist system of presbyterian organization.

There were other Puritans yet for whom Calvin was only a starting point on the road to reform, not the goal. People who were impatient with the bishops ruling over the churches were often not better pleased with Calvin’s committee of ministers doing the same thing. These Puritans, known as Independents and later as Congregationalists, demanded that each congregation be given sole right to rule its own affairs.

Still other Puritans, more radical still, were the Separatists. They wanted membership to Church limited only to those who give testimony and evidence of having received God’s grace, even if that meant separating such congregations of the elect from the rest of England’s presumably impure society.

After 1588, the year when Spain’s “Armada Invencible” failed in its effort of reconquering England for Catholicism, Elizabeth’s attention turned increasingly and uncomfortably to the Puritan dissidents of her realm. Efforts to whip the Puritans into line with Elizabeth’s Church settlement began in earnest. When Elizabeth died in 1603, the Puritans hoped for sympathy from her successor, James of Scotland, who had been raised as a Calvinist.

James came to England to become King precisely because he was sick of Calvinism and he persecuted the Puritans with even greater vigor. When James died in 1625, his son Charles I proved to be even more severe. English Puritans began to look for a way out.

A New Exodus

Handfuls of the separatists left first, abandoning England for the Calvinist Netherlands; and then in 1620 as pilgrims to the English grand land in America known as New England. Nine years later a major exodus of some 400 Puritans followed them to New England and set up the colony they called Massachusetts Bay. Not for gold, not for glory; but for the first time in America, in pursuit of an idea.

Leaving 17th century England was a little like trying to leave the old Soviet Union. Unless you had a very plausible reason, the attempt was interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction. The Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay produced what they thought were very plausible reasons. They organized themselves as a commercial enterprise, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and they were all going to make their fortunes in America. That the leaders of the Company were all Puritans was purely accidental, and the Puritan clergymen who happened to be emigrating with them promised that any experiments in reformation that they might be inclined to were only the better part of Church reformation, whatever that meant. It turned out to mean almost anything.

Within ten years, the Massachusetts Bay Company welcomed several thousand Puritan refugees and set up a string of thriving towns stretching Westward from the principal settlement Boston. These towns looked like nothing anyone could have found in old England. In the first place, there was no bishop. Each town established its own church and each church called whomever it wished as the town minister. There was also no prayer book, instead there was plenty of highly Calvinistic preaching. In a number of these churches, merely being born of English parents on English soil was no adequate qualification for church membership. Instead, ministers and elders began asking for testimonies of grace before meeting people to membership.

If this looks like Puritanism sliding to Congregationalism and ready to slide some more into outright Separatism, still, the Puritans of Massachusetts also struggled with some of the older notions of English established national church order. Every town was required to establish a church. Everyone in the town was required to attend. Ministers no longer functioned as officers of the realm, as they did in England. Even marriages had to be performed by a magistrate, just to keep church apart. Still the opinion of ministers in civic affairs were eagerly sought after and they were part of almost every civil event in Massachusetts.

One place where this mix of separatist inclination and traditional establishment was dramatically highlighted was a across the Charles river from Boston, in the town of Cambridge, where the first University in the American continent was founded: Harvard.


The Great Convention of American Intellectual History

Monday, February 23, 2009

Whenever a brave soul ventures to teach a course on American intellectual history or the American mind, the result is very curious. Your usual course of study follows what I call the “Great Convention” of American intellectual history, and a conventional listing of the authors who should be read in such a course. It looks something like this:

The Puritans

First of all begin with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay in the 1630’s. If you really want to be daring, begin with America before the Puritans actually arrived and built the town of Boston, just to emphasize the enormous emptiness of the American landscape and the work that would require to reclaim it from the wilderness. This will show how much work had to be done that could not spare time for thinking by these Puritans. But touch, if you like, on the fact that these Puritans possessed a university trained leadership and organized themselves around a university trained clergy, sunk deeply in theology and medieval scholasticism. Note simply passing that the Puritans founded Harvard only sixty years after settling the town of Boston.

The First “thinker”: Jonathan Edwards

Move, as quickly as decency permits, to Jonathan Edwards. Not that Edwards is all that interesting as a thinker, but treat him undoubtedly as the last example of whatever thinking the Puritans did. Dwell at length at his role as a hell fire preacher during the Great Awakening of the 1740’s, but even more, dwell on the fact that the Awakening died out, that Edwards was fired from his job as pastor of a church, and that died just as he was assuming the Presidency of Princeton in 1758. Let Edwards stand as a sign of how badly America treats its thinkers, but somehow simultaneously make him out to be not much of a thinker after all.

Franklin as the Model American

This will get you by the third week of class to Benjamin Franklin. Here you will rhapsodize on Franklin’s famous autobiography and how it introduces us to the model American: practical, commonsensical, businesslike, born with an eye to the main chance.

You can, if there is time, talk a little bit about the ideology of American Revolutionaries. Jefferson, the Declaration and all that; but don’t forget to keep Benjamin Franklin in the front of the stage.

Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

From Franklin, to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists. Read a few New England novelists and then get ready to jump again to William James, John Dewey and the triumph of pragmatism as the first true and only American philosophy, precisely because it is a philosophy which sees no intrinsic use for ideas, but uses them only as instruments for obtaining results.

The rest of the course can be spent studying the works of John Dewey, on results-oriented social commentary and the New Left of the 1960’s. With that, your work of the semester is done. In addition to hitting all the conventional highlights, this kind of course makes it clear that American intellectual history has only two real messages: how we escape the influence of religion and why all American intellectual roads lead to pragmatism. That is the Great Convention.

The Problems with the Convention

There is, however, a difficulty with this great convention of American ideas. Rather, there are actually three difficulties. The first is that the more you look at this, the more apples and oranges get mixed together. Notice that there are very few systematic thinkers here, apart from Edwards and Dewey. Notice also that these writers are different and incompatible. Emerson, for instance, never wrote a book longer than 45 pages. He was an essayist who specialized in the miniature, at a time when writing miniatures for literary reviews paid very handsomely. He earned most of his celebrity as a thinker as a popular lecturer. Dewey, by contrast, was a lifelong academic, a terrible speaker and an intolerably dense writer who nevertheless managed to become an American intellectual idol by the time of his death in the 1950’s. That’s one problem.

The second problem is that most of this convention is suspiciously concentrated around one location: Boston. That is a product, I suspect, of the dominance among American intellectual historians of Harvard and Harvard trained academics. It’s true, Harvard has played a great role in American intellectual life, but it is not the only place.

The third and the most serious problem of the Great Convention is that it presents this succession of thinkers as though they composed a linked chain, like one of those charts showing the development of the Homo Sapiens from a monkey to an upright man. Like those charts, however, the great convention ignores a number of missing links.

Between the day the Puritans founded Harvard and the day Jonathan Edwards began preaching stretches an entire century. New Englanders wrestled mightily with the impact on the world of scholasticism by Cartesian epistemology and Newtonian science. Far from acting as the coda to the Puritan era, Edwards shaped the creation of two generations of independent preachers and theological thinkers who applied Edwards’ creative adaptations of New England's’ struggle with Newton, questions of personal identity and religion.

Nor can it be said that Benjamin Franklin represented some great new departure in American ideas. Franklin was an amateur, an entrepreneur of ideas. Whether he had any significant intellectual impact on anyone in America is not clear. There were Edwarseans for a hundred years after the death of Jonathan Edwards, but I’ve never yet heard anyone tagged as a Franklinian. Franklin’s own adopted home of Philadelphia belonged, at least intellectually, not to Franklin, but to the 18th century Enlightenment as a whole.

The Enlightenment and the Romantics

There are various ways of defining the Enlightenment, both in Europe and America. And we have to say that even Jonathan Edwards belongs to the Enlightenment, to the same Enlightenment of Benjamin Franklin. In the simplest terms, the Enlightenment was the attempt to create, out of criticism and skepticism, a new objective and universal understanding of the world. Rather than standing aloof from the religious concerns of the evangelical awakeners like Jonathan Edwards, the Enlightenment actually incorporated those concerns and produced a generous flowering of what came to be called moral philosophy, with its headquarters in Philadelphia.

The Enlightenment also produced a counterpart in political theory, in the ideology of the American Whig party, represented principally by Abraham Lincoln. By contrast with these heavy Whigs, Emerson and the transcendentalists were romantics. I mean romantic in a very specific sense. Puritanism and its renewal by Jonathan Edwards in the 1740’s opposed many of the things the Enlightenment stood for. Puritans and Edwardsians were people of religious faith. They accepted certain truths about their God and the world as they were described in the Bible. Many of those truths were sorted out and shaped by the theology of John Calvin and by the experience of religious individualism and moral rigor laid down by the first Puritan generation.

But Puritanism was more complex than we often think. Even Edwards had an overlap with the Enlightenment in his respect for reason and universal moral principles. Puritanism and the Enlightenment represent what I also called the two cooks of American intellectual history. We ought to call them the two souls of American intellectual history. It is interesting that Puritanism and the Enlightenment were souls that could inhabit the same American body without necessarily inducing schizophrenia.

In order to switch the analogies back, the two cooks didn’t always fight over what the soup tasted like. Romanticism, however, was another matter. The Enlightenment’s dedication to reason, nature and science paled after a while on succeeding European generations. During that long century that stretches between the French Revolution and the First World War, a massive pilgrim movement against the Enlightenment appeared, which denounced reason as stale and dubious, and which exalted feeling. This movement didn’t seek to control nature but to adore it.

The Enlightenment believed that all real questions have real answers, and that these answers were knowable and universally compatible with one another. The romantics disagreed. Reason was a limited and broken tool. It did not reveal a half of what it claimed to reveal about the world. The romantics believed that people needed to be guided by passion, rather than reason; and that what appeared true to some people was not necessarily true for others or for other cultures.

Consequently, Ralph Waldo Emerson should not be at all linked to Benjamin Franklin, but to the European romantics.

The Beginnings of Pragmatism

The great convention is right on at least one thing. That is the revolutionary outburst of pragmatism at Harvard after the civil war. But even here the great convention often fails us. By trying to see the first generation of the pragmatists, people like William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Sanders Peirce; the great convention frequently presents them as forming part of a full-blown movement waiting to pop out of the American soil. This ignores how very much Pragmatism’s origins were tied to specific historical events: to the catastrophe and disillusion of the civil war, to the adoption of Charles William Eliot’s curriculum reforms at Harvard in 1869, and to the increasing role played by corporate cash and federal regulation in driving out religion from the universities.

The great convention also downplays how different John Dewey’s brand of Pragmatism was from William James’. Or how much it grew out the soil of Transcendentalism. Or how vainly Josiah Royce struggled to substitute a rival version of Pragmatism for James’. Above all, the great convention misses the boat entirely on two developments in the 20th century which none of the pragmatists could have foreseen. The first of this was the rise of a neo-orthodox religious critic and the persistence with which Theology continued as an intellectual enterprise in America.

The second of these developments was a massive wave of European immigrate intellectuals and the emergence from their context, in violent fashion, of a new left in the 1960’s and the new conservatism of the 1980’s and 1990’s. My aim is to lay out for you an entirely different map of the American mind from the one that is laid out by the great convention.

A New Way of Presenting American History

I want to begin, like the others, with the Puritans, but I want you to see them as participants in a larger transatlantic realm of philosophical work, with living connections to the Cartesian and Newtonian revolutions of thought. And I want to see Edwards and his awakeners, and the Enlightenment and its reasoners as those two souls within the American body. Conflicting but not cancelling each other out. I want us to understand the genuinely revolutionary implications of American Romanticism and to understand, in the case of Pragmatism, how historical context shaped ideas.

In the case of Abraham Lincoln and the Whigs, I want us to see how ideas can just as easily shape those historical contexts. I want us to understand American Pragmatism, and to understand why there are as many as 13 different brands of Pragmatism and why Josiah Royce’s dissent is important for us today. Finally, we will talk about what Pragmatism could not account for: the new left, the old left and the new conservatives.

Rather than a great convention that declares winners and losers, what I think we have in American life is more like an ongoing conversation, in which the personalities change but the fundamental positions and the fundamental attitudes do not. I also have a more basic aim at this moment. That is to convince you that Americans really do have a mind. The American Republic was, after all, founded on the idea that all men are created equal. For that reason if for no other, it’s about time for us to get acquainted with our own mind.


Introduction to the History of American Ideas

Saturday, February 21, 2009

There are many ways in which you can study American history. You can study the social history of America, or the political or economic history of America. In so doing you may sometimes feel that these three ways of studying America almost present three entirely different Americas to our gaze. Sometimes it seems as though one didn’t happen in the same place as the other. What ties all the various kinds of history together, however, is how we think about them and how we think, as a nation, about America. This is what we call intellectual history.

As a discipline, intellectual history can cover a broad territory: a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of popular culture, social criticism, literature, political ideas, and all of it stirred by two cooks from which we inherit our most fundamental assumptions: the Puritan cook of New England and the secular cook of the eighteen century’s Enlightenment. Naturally, as the saying goes, the more cooks, the more liable you are to spoil the soup, and the more liable you are to see the two cooks end up beating each other over the head. That’s what makes the study of American ideas so interesting.

The Psalmist said: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”. That expresses for me how central the history of ideas is to American history.

Is there an American Mind?

I must admit that there are large numbers of people for whom the very proposition that there is an American mind is a puzzlement. By far, the largest segment of that population of skeptics are those who believe that the great defining characteristic of Americans, as opposed to the Germans or the French or the Chinese, is precisely that we don’t labour under the burden of a national mind. American are doers, not thinkers; or at least we are more inclined to “can do” than “think about”. We expect knowledge and education but only to the extent that it helps us solve problems or make sales.

Part of the reason for this is that we are comparatively new among the nations of the Earth, and we had the job of developing an entire continent on our hands for the last two hundred and some more years. This kept us busy to pay much attention to how we think.

Another reason is the fear we have of what ideas can do to people if they become to preoccupy with them. We have the example of the last century in Europe to remind us of what furies people are capable of unleashing in the name of ideas, whether those ideas go by the name of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or the “final solution”.

We are people of moderation in ideas. We are of the political center. Sometimes we even congratulate ourselves on not possessing an American mind at all. In his famous address on the American Scholar in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson jeered at the book-learned class, who valued books as such but not as related to nature and the human constitution. Emerson believed that character is higher than intellect, and he hailed the coming of a democratic paradise in which the single person made up his own mind on everything without the dictate of others.

Doers not Thinkers

The great American historian and librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin summed this up when he described early Americans as a people who focused on immediate, changing and unpredictable needs. They did not pursue the absolute nor spent their thinking on doctrinal things. In every aspect of American life, Boorstin said, ideology was displaced by organization. Sharp distinctions of thought and purpose were overshadowed by the need to get together on common purposes. Even American lawyers, said Boorstin, proceeded undogmatically from case to case, rich in the prudence of individual cases but poor in theoretical principles.

The Effect of Democracy

European observers, however, were not so confident that this was a good thing. The French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous commentary on American democracy based on his travels through the United States in the early 1830’s. He dismayed to find that there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than the United States. And not only philosophy, less occupied with theology, with political theory, with fewer great artists, illustrious poets and celebrated writers.

This had occurred, according to de Tocqueville, not as one of the virtues or strengths of democracy, not as something to be boasted about; rather, de Tocqueville treated this as one of the effects of democracy. De Tocqueville would have agreed with Emerson. In a democracy everyone is permitted and even encouraged to think for themselves. The problem is that maybe that wouldn’t always take us in encouraging directions.

Each, said de Tocqueville, withdraws into himself and claims to judge the world from there. A man who undertakes to examine everything by himself would give little time and attention to each thing. And so, in democracies, de Tocqueville concluded, people have only the shallowest of ideas and tend to be tightly chained to the will of the greatest number. In other words, democracy has gave us a thoughtless heart.

No one, however, has been harder on American mindlessness than American themselves. James Fenimore Cooper complained in 1838: “In America the popular press scrutinizes over public men, letters, the arts, the stage and even over private life”. In 1842, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story blamed the vast predominance of the taste for light reading and amusing compositions over that for solid learning and severe and suggestive studies. He took that as a sign of American intellectual decrepitude. The consequence is, said Joseph Story, that many of our best minds devout all their thoughts and time to labours of this sort.

The psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, writing in 1879 said that the college curriculum should not be controlled by the churches and denominations that founded them. There are, Hall wrote, less than half a dozen colleges or universities in the United States where metaphysical thought is entirely free from reference to theological formulae. And the faculties, Hall said, were composed of professors who did nothing but parrot what their teachers had taught them.

If so many Americans and Europeans agree that there was no intellectual life worthy of a historical survey, what am I doing here talking about it?

I want to talk about the American Mind as a historian, not as a philosopher. The preoccupation of professional history people ever since history became an independent discipline in the 1800’s, is to look for historical change and historical explanation in purely material rather than intellectual causes. A model for this has always been Carl Marx, who effortlessly reduced all human events to a struggle, to a dialectic between different economic classes. Marx was neither unique nor original in this, but his reduction of everything to purely material causes carried virtually every other history practitioner along with him.

The result has been the triumph of either social and economic history; or cultural history, which tends to treat all intellectual activity as a front for the real causes: political or economic power, whether this comes in the form of the so-called Annales School, or more recently in the clothing of the so-called New Historicism. It’s what people owned, or ate, or manipulated that counts; rather than what they thought. It is not, in another words, that Americans lack a mind, it’s that in the minds of many historians is the “minds” that don’t matter.

Whenever a brave soul does venture to teach a course on American intellectual history or the American mind, the result is very curious. Your usual course of study follows what I call the “Great Convention” of American intellectual history. I will talk about this convention in the following article: The Great Convention of American Intellectual History.