Student Work for Philosophy 3387

American Philosophy

American Philosophy: Notes on its European Background in European Philosophy

Vicki Wynne

Phil 3387

for: C. Freeland

In embarking on a study of American pragmatism it soon becomes evident that a fairly firm grasp of European philosphy is necessary; after all, this is what American thinkers were taught at university and responded to. Cavellıs linking of Emerson with the dialogue continuing through Kant all the way to Wittgenstein forced me to remember what Kantıs concerns were in the first place, and I thought it might be beneficial to trace a (very) skeletal version of the issues that led to Kantıs work and, in turn the thought of Emerson and later pragmatists. What follows is a sort of ³Cliffıs notes² to this period taken from Ch. VI of Will Durantıs The Story of Philosophy (Simon & Schuster, 1961), which nestles ideas in their context rather nicely.

I. From Voltaire (1694-1778) to Kant. ³The road here is from theoretical reason without religious faith, to religious faith without theoretical reason. Voltaire means the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedia, the Age of Reason.² (p. 193, Durant) But if religious faith was attacked by hostile reason, it was only natural that faith retaliate. II. From Locke (1632-1704) to Kant. Locke proposed to apply scientific method to human psychology ­ do we have innate ideas, such as right and wrong and God? Despite his Christianity, Locke held that all knowledge comes from experience and through the senses. The mind is a tabula rasa; experience writes upon it until sensation begets memory and memory begets ideas. Apparently, then, we can know nothing but matter, and must accept a materialistic philosophy.

Not at all, said Berkeley (1684-1753). Rather, this analysis proves that matter does not exist except as a form of mind ­ all our knowledge of a thing is merely our sensation of it, and the ideas derived from these sensations. If your thumb had no sensations, a hammer could strike it forever and arouse not the slightest attention from you. It is only a bundle of sensations and memories, a condition of the mind.

But materialism was not going to succumb so easily. Hume (1711-1776) enters the debate claiming that we know the mind as we know matter: by perception, though in this case it is internal. Never do we perceive any such entity as ³mind²; we perceive merely separate ideas, memories and feelings. The mind is only a name for an abstract series of ideas; the perceptions, memories, and feelings are the mind; there is no ³soul² behind this process of thought. Had Hume destroyed the mind as effectually as Berkely had destroyed matter? Nothing was left; and philosophy found itself in the midst of ruins of its own making. (At this time a wit advised abandoning the whole debate with ³No matter, never mind²!) But Hume went further still; he also undermined science by destroying the concept of law. Observe, said Hume, that we never perceive causes or laws; we perceive events and sequences, and infer causation and necessity; a law is not an eternal and necesary decree to which events are subjected, but merely a mental shorthand for our experience.

III. From Rousseau (1712-1778) to Kant. Perhaps reason is not the final test in the controversy between mind and matter after all. In 1749 Rousseau won a contest by writing an essay on ³Has the Progress of the Sciences and the Arts Contributed to Corrupt, or Purify Morals?² Rouseseau wrote: ³I venture to declare that a state of reflection is contrary to nature; and that a thinking man [an intellectual, weıd now say] is a depraved animal.² (p. 197) It would be better to abandon our intellect and instead aim at training the heart and emotions. Education only makes a man clever, not good, and instinct and feeling are more trustworthy than reason. The idea that feeling was superior to intellect led to much of the romantic emotional literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and carried with it a revival of religious feeling (both of which traversed the Atlantic and had effect in America as well). In Emile, Rousseau argued that though reason might be against belief in God and immortality, feeling was overwhelmingly in their favor ­ why not trust instinct then, rather than yield to the despair of an arid scepticism?

When Kant read Emile he skipped his daily walk in order to finish the book at once. ³It was an event in his life to find here another man who was groping his way out of the darkness of atheism, and who boldly affirmed the priority of feeling over theoretical reaons in these supra-sensual concerns... to put these threads of argument together, to unite the ideas of Berkeley and Hume with the feelings of Rousseau, to save religion from reason, and yet at the same time to save science from scepticism ­ this was the mission of Immanuel Kant.² (p. 198)

© Copyright 1996 Vicki Wynne

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