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Wright, Chauncey (1830–1875)


Chauncey Wright, the American philosopher and mathematician, was born in Northampton, Massachusetts. On the surface, his life was completely uneventful. From 1852 to 1870 he worked as a mathematician for the Nautical Almanac ; he was twice a lecturer at Harvard Collegein psychology in 1870 and in mathematical physics in 1874and he occasionally tutored private pupils. In 1860 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which he was later secretary. He visited Charles Darwin in England in 1872the major social event of his life. Between 1864 and 1875 he contributed numerous articles to the North American Review and the Nation. His longer articles were published posthumously in 1877 under the title Philosophical Discussions ; his Letters appeared in 1878.

Wright was not successful as a lecturer, but he was a splendid tutor, and many interested individuals sought to converse with him. It was through this easy interchange of ideas that men such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. came to feel the influence of his philosophy. Wright was the mentor of the Metaphysical Club, which met in Cambridge in the early 1870s and included Peirce, James, and Holmes among its members.

Role of Scientific Concepts

Wright was America's first technically proficient philosopher of science. He constantly criticized Herbert Spencer as being ignorant of the nature of scientific inference. Spencer tried to assemble all the results of scientific investigation and to fit them together into a total picture of the universe. However, Wright claimed, the theoretical concepts and principles of science are not simply summaries of events; rather, they are tools for extending our concrete knowledge of nature. Theoretical concepts, he said, are finders, not merely summaries, of truth.

Some commentators point out that this "working hypothesis" notion of scientific principles is similar to John Dewey's instrumentalism. According to Dewey, all ideas are working hypotheses and all thinking is experimental, scientific thinking being only a limiting case in the sense of having ideal controls. Wright, however, did not formulate an instrumental view of mind in anything like this general sense. All he did was to emphasize the "working hypothesis" nature of scientific concepts; he did not generalize this interpretation into an account of all thinking. To say that Wright "prefigured" Dewey's brand of pragmatism can mean no more than that he provided the logic of scientific inference that later philosophers generalized into a pragmatic view of mind.

Scientific Explanation

Wright distinguished two types of scientific explanation. First, an event can be explained by stating the cause of its occurrence even when it is not possible to show that the characteristics of the event are resultants of any combination of characteristics of the cause. Second, in cases like the parallelogram of forces, one can explain not only the occurrence of an event but also its characteristics as resultants of some combination of characteristics of its cause. Wright felt that some events could never be explained in this second sense, and hence he was advocating, in an embryonic way, a doctrine of emergence. He also believed that this distinction would allow a universal determinist, or necessitarian, to account for novelty and newness in the universe. Furthermore, he thought it provided the means for formulating an enlightened materialist doctrinenamely, that all mental events can be explained by physical events in the first sense but not in the second sense.


Wright analyzed the logical structure of evolutionary thought in his articles "The Limits of Natural Selection" (1870), "The Genesis of Species" (1871), and "Evolution by Natural Selection" (1872). He called these articles his definition and defense of Darwinism, and Darwin was sufficiently impressed to reprint "The Genesis of Species" and distribute it in England. Since Wright was answering specific questions, his essays have a piecemeal quality, but they are filled with enlightening points. Of particular interest are his comparison of explanation in biology with explanation in geophysics, his analyses of "accident" and "species," and his defense of "every event has a cause" as a presupposition of scientific investigation.


In his cosmological essays Wright condemned the nebular hypothesis and criticized Spencer's defense of it. He referred to the production of systems of worlds as "cosmic weather." He believed that cosmic events, like ordinary weather, show on the whole no development or any discernible tendency whatever. In the stellar world there is a doing and undoing without end. Wright based his nondevelopmental view on what he called the principle of countermovements, "a principle in accordance with which there is no action in nature to which there is not some counter-action" (Philosophical Discussions, p. 9). He was, obviously, much impressed with the conservation principles of physics. Beginning with his concept of countermovements, and depending primarily upon the first law of thermodynamics and the conservation of angular momentum, he worked out a technical and elaborate hypothesis about the origin of the sun's heat and the positions and movements of planets.

Other Doctrines

Epistemologically, Wright was in the Humean tradition, but unlike many British empiricists he emphasized the empirical verification of beliefs and was indifferent to the origins of belief. Concerning religion, he was an agnostic. James observed that "never in a human head was contemplation more separated from desire." Wright simply had no desires about God one way or another. In moral philosophy he was a utilitarian, defending, in particular, J. S. Mill's views.

The metaphysical topics that most interested Wright were self-consciousness and a priori knowledge. In Philosophical Discussions (pp. 199266), after sketching a naturalistic account of self-consciousness, Wright tried to show that the notion of substance was meaningless. He believed that ultimate reality consisted of "neutral phenomena" and that the distinction between subject and object is only a classification through observation. Wright's position was essentially a neutral monism and was a precursor of William James's notion of pure experience.

Unlike most nineteenth-century philosophers, Wright did not deny the existence of a priori knowledge. Quite to the contrary, he insisted that all knowledge, even the perception of qualities as well as relations and abstract concepts, has an a priori element, and this element can be explained experientially (Letters, pp. 123135). This analysis is particularly interesting at the present, since we are currently offered various forms of "factual" or "pragmatic" concepts of a priori knowledge.

See also Cosmology; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism; Dewey, John; Evolutionary Theory; Explanation; James, William; Knowledge, A Priori; Mill, John Stuart; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Pragmatism; Utilitarianism.


works by wright

Philosophical Discussions. Edited by C. E. Norton. New York: Holt, 1877.

Letters. Edited by J. B. Thayer. Cambridge, MA: Wilson, 1878.

Philosophical Writings. Edited by Edward H. Madden. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958.

works on wright

Madden, Edward H. Chauncey Wright. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.

Madden, Edward H. Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Contains complete bibliography of articles on Wright.

Edward H. Madden (1967)

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