04 April 2006

kuklick, stout

kuklick, stout

As I think I mentioned earlier, our philosophy department is sponsoring a spring lecture series on philosophy in America. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania already spoke back on March 15 on the topic of "Varieties of Philosophy in American."

This Friday, April 7, Jeffrey Stout will be speaking on "The Spirit of Democracy." Jeff Stout has been a professor of religion at Princeton University since 1975 and is one of the leading scholars addressing the place of religion within contemporary liberal democratic society. His talk will be from 1pm until 2pm on the mezzanine level of La Salle's Hayman Center. A light lunch will be provided and all are welcome.

While he was on campus several weeks ago, I had lunch with Bruce Kuklick and found out that he grew up down the block on the street where we live. He was able to fill me on the history of the neighborhood and the developments its seen over the decades.

Kuklick's talk was on American philosophy and American character, dealing with the question of whether or not we can properly speak of a distinctively American philosophy (rather than, say, philosophers who just happen to be American). Kuklick suggested that the notion of "American philosophy" is of relatively recent origin, going back to the Cold War era, and the development of "American studies," particularly at Harvard University, in order to vindicate the American way of life over against the threat of communism.

As the notion developed, the two figures originally isolated and valorized as distinctively American were Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, both with historic connections to Harvard University. The rest of the timeline eventually came to be filled in with Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey, providing a sweeping trajectory for American thought. The problem, however, is that this American "canon" can be taken as fairly arbitrary.

Of course, Kuklick noted, there are identifiable traditions within American thought, often involving students and teachers or shared institutional settings or general influence. Of these, Kuklick highlighted three as of major importance. First, there is the tradition of the "new divinity" coming out of New England, rooted in English and Continental Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Nathaniel William Taylor. Second, there is a tradition indebted to philosophy, particularly Scottish Common Sense realism and its unravelling: Francis Bowen, Noah Porter, James Marsh. Third, there are successive generations of Harvard thinkers: Josiah Royce, C.I. Lewis, W.V.O. Quine.

None of these traditions, however, can be construed as distinctively "American," Kuklick suggested. The first is rooted in the theology of the European Reformation. The second draws heavily upon Scottish and German philosophy. And the third maintained a lively interaction with English philosophy, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge.

Perhaps what might be seen as more American are the social contexts in which various philosophical perspectives arose or were adapted, but even these don't quite give American thought an entirely unique flavor. Kuklick pointed to three contexts in particular: the kinds of political theory the inform the American experiment, the successful inroads of logical positivism into Anglo-American professional philosophy, and the frequency of amateur philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, and William Torrey Harris.

At the end of his talk, Kuklick did backtrack a bit, suggesting that we might speak of "American philosophy" in the way we speak of "German idealism" or "English empiricism." There are many examples of Germans who weren't idealists and idealists who weren't German, but it does identify something. As he sees it, there are several aspects to the American experience and character that together distinguish us from other cultures: pervasive religiosity, an emphasis on practical science, and a tendency toward individualism.

These aspects of America, however, fail to really pick out any group of philosophers as distinctively American. Edwards certainly exhibits religiosity and, with his emphasis on personal conversion, helps shore up individualism, but he lacks a focus on practical science. James has a keen interest in religion and in practical science, but he takes a strong stance against the tendency toward individualism.

In the end it seems, if Kuklick is correct, that the category of "American philosophy" may heuristic at best and misleading at worst. All in all Kuklick's talk was challenging and warns us against any too easy generalizations about the character of American philosophical thought.