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.