Philosophies: American

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Philosophies: American

American philosophies are as varied and diverse as the many backgrounds and cultures that collaborate to form American life. Even so, there are some similar emphases that cross these differences. Often, philosophies in America valorize action and the practical aspects of thought; American philosophers are regularly concerned with problems of race, class, gender, and other ethical and political forces that shape and undergird more abstract thought; and even the more religious and spiritual elements of American philosophies are characteristically addressed to matters of community and personal growth.

Native American Philosophy

Well prior to the arrival of European colonists, the Iroquois had developed sophisticated political thought and a government with a clear division of powers; Mississippian peoples had constructed one of the largest cities in the Western hemisphere at Cahokia, spreading Mississippian religious and cultural influence throughout the region; and the Pueblo people had created intricate agricultural innovations, community structures, and economies. While it is impossible to tie together all the diverse traditions of thought and belief among the various cultures indigenous to the Americas, a few basic contrasts may be made between much of Native American thought and much of Western thought. There are clear differences in the treatment of individuality and community, in emphasis upon writing and oral communication, and in the separation, or lack thereof, between humanity and nature.

Such differences have, throughout the history of the Americas, led to misunderstandings between Native American peoples and European-Americans, as well as served as excuses to lie to, abuse, and kill indigenous people. Perhaps the most important of contemporary Native American thinkers, writers, historians, intellectuals, and activists is Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933), whose works are extremely critical of much of U.S. culture and call for a reevaluation of the richness of Native American ways of life and thought. In 2003 the philosopher Anne Waters published an anthology, American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays, a work key to understanding the breadth and depth of traditional and contemporary Native American thought.

Puritan Thought

Puritan philosophy arises out of sense of the separation and uniqueness that developed as the Puritans left England because of religious persecution and settled in the New World. The difficulty of such a journey and the problems of living in an unfamiliar land combined to add a kind of rigor and harshness to the Puritans' Christian theology and a strict ethical and social control over the members of their communities.

The first truly influential and famous of Puritan philosophers, Jonathan Edwards (17031758), came years after the Puritans settled in the New World, and is perhaps best known for his fiery sermons and his active role in the religious revivals of the Great Awakening. His endeavor to reconcile Calvinist theology and Congregationalist religious practices with Enlightenment philosophy and science put him squarely in the middle of the conflict between religious traditionalism and the increasing secularization of American society. Edwards's philosophy sought to discard neither religion nor science; rather, his systematic study of both brought him to espouse a naturalized religion in which religious affections and their effects on human conduct replace the supernatural as the primary objects of concern.


Transcendentalism, which blended philosophy, religious thought, social reform, and environmental concern, was most active during the first half of the nineteenth century, and most of its key figures lived in New England. These figures include Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), Henry David Thoreau (18171862), and Margaret Fuller (18101850). Through its major outlet for publications, the journal The Dial, transcendentalists focused on the individual as the source of moral authority and truth. Far from believing that this gave everyone the right to do whatever he or she pleased, however, the transcendentalists described how, by looking within oneself, one can experience and reflect upon the universal that exists through all things. People all have a spark of the divine with them, according to the transcendentalists, and thus can transcend, or overcome, their limitations by turning toward the beauty and truth that lies within. Criticized for being overly optimistic about the nature of humanity and impractical for their eschewing of accepted social norms in their quest for more esoteric and ephemeral insights, nevertheless, the transcendentalists had a long-lasting and far-reaching influence on American philosophy, literature, and social thought.


Pragmatism developed primarily out of the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), William James (18421910), and John Dewey (18591952). Peirce, a logician, semiotician, and philosopher, first developed the notion of pragmatism as a theory of meaning, a way of clarifying terms used in philosophic debate. Peirce claimed that when one understands "all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply," one understands the definition of that concept. Peirce was attempting to force otherwise unending metaphysical speculation to come to terms with the effects and consequences of philosophic debateto arrive at agreement as to the meaning of concepts by bringing those concepts into the shared realm of common experience.

While Peirce is normally heralded as the father of pragmatism, William James and John Dewey are usually credited with the popularization and refinement of this distinctly American philosophy. James, a psychologist, physician, and philosopher, emphasized the personal elements of pragmatic thoughtfocusing on what the adoption of pragmatic belief might mean for individuals confronted with difficult personal and philosophical dilemmas. James believed that by looking to consequences, and thus getting one's bearings through a consideration of the practical elements of a situation, one could resolve for oneself answers to otherwise endless difficulties. Dewey, also a psychologist and philosopher, and a key figure in the development of American educational theory, emphasized the social, political, and educational aspects of pragmatic thought. By looking to public and shared experience as the means of resolving philosophical debate, rather than antecedent arguments and abstract truths, Dewey's version of pragmatism focused on experimental inquiry and the refinement of practical, philosophic instruments of ongoing communication.

African-American Philosophy

African-American philosophy has historically struggled against the efforts of many European-Americans to marginalize and denigrate the importance of African-American experiences and reflections upon the unique situations of black Americans. For many centuries punished if they learned to read or write, black Americans communicated largely through the development of rich oral and religious traditions that cultivated unique and diverse philosophies of justice, morality, and human nature. As public participation and formal education among African-Americans increased following the Abolitionist Movement of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War, African-American scholars and activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), Alain Locke (18861954), and Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) contributed to national and international debates on human rights and the nature of justice.

W. E. B. Du Bois is most famous for his explanation of the phenomenon of "double-consciousness," by which he described the ambiguous ways in which African-Americans see themselves both from their own perspectives and from the perspectives of others. Du Bois, throughout his long career, argued that racism separates the human community, thus betraying its interdependent natures. From the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) early in his career to his later development as a communist, Du Bois worked continuously to embody and refine his social philosophy and reflections upon African-American experience.

Alain Locke, a Rhodes scholar and the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, remains perhaps the most famous of African-American philosophers. During his time at Howard University, the school became the prime location for the education of African-American social thought and philosophy. Locke also published The New Negro in 1925, an anthology of work meant to encapsulate and present the Harlem Renaissance. According to Locke, this movement embodied and carried forward the notion of value pluralism, a rejection of absolutist philosophies and a positive construction of alternatives to the essentializing tendencies of Western philosophy.

From his inspirational sermons, to his elaboration of the philosophy of non-violence, to his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. is a testament to the American spirit of uniting philosophy with action, theory with practice. Steeped in both the tradition of the Southern black churches and the philosophy of personalism espoused by Borden Parker Bowne (18471910) and Edgar S. Brightman (18841953), King believed in a living, personal God whose struggle for justice is evidenced in the concrete actions of ethical human persons. King urged that people treat each other with respect for the presence of God in the growth of individuals and communitiesthat is, he urged that individuals treat each other as persons. King's personalism and his encounter with the work of the Indian religious leader Mohandas Gandhi (18691948) led him to preach a philosophy of non-violent resistance toward social injustices, thus providing the grounds for one of the more momentous public movements in American history.

Feminist Philosophy

Women in American society have also been marginalized and their unique perspectives have been often overlooked and many times simply discarded. Despite this forced invisibility, American women have contributed to worldwide feminist movements, often in uniquely American ways far different from their counterparts in other nations and cultures.

From childhood, Jane Addams (18601935) was deeply troubled by the blight of economic and social inequality. As a philosopher, social activist, and founder of Hull House, a settlement house for immigrants and the working poor in Chicago, her work focused on rehabilitating communities in theory and in practice, and rectifying inequalities not by phil-anthropic charity work, but by cultivating sympathetic understanding and mutual concern. Addams offered her principle of reciprocity as an important tool with which to approach the building of communities. Addams insisted that the interaction of otherwise separate social groups be treated as reciprocal, that is, as offering mutual benefit. Viewed in this way, what might otherwise become an impersonal philanthropic enterprise that serves to make more explicit the line between giver and taker becomes instead an opportunity for mutual enrichment and the sympathetic understanding necessary to create a community.

In the late twentieth century, feminist Carol Gilligan (1936) wrote In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982), calling for recognizing the different and valuable ways that women think and evaluate moral situations. Having done extensive study on moral and psychological development, Gilligan found most research to be biased toward the male point of view. Focusing instead on care for others and responsibility toward relationships, feminine morality should be valued for its own merits and not treated as secondary to a more masculine emphasis on rules, rights, and laws, according to Gilligan.

Catharine MacKinnon (1946), an attorney, social activist, and writer, successfully argued that sexual harassment is, legally, a form of sexual discrimination. Her books and other writings have had a powerful impact on American and international movements in the legal status of pornography, hate speech, and women's rights. Other key contemporary American feminists are Sandra Harding (1935), Nancy Fraser, Donna Haraway (1944), and Alison Jaggar.

Western civilization seems clear, orderly, obvious, and without possibility of reform primarily because it defines the world in certain rigid categories. The product of this clarity, however, is a certain kind of insanity that can survive only by renewed efforts to refine the definitions and that, ultimately, becomes totally self-destructive.

source: Vine Deloria Jr., Spirit and Reason, p. 4.

Anglo-American Philosophy

Anglo-American philosophy, also known as analytic philosophy, is largely an import from European thinkers who immigrated to the United States during the first half of the twentieth century and their followers. Perhaps the most famous of these immigrants was Bertrand Russell (18721970), who was a serious academic philosopher and a great popularizer of both analytic philosophy and his own controversial ethical and political beliefs. Analytic philosophy focuses on rigorous argumentation, is typically quite amenable to scientific evidence and concerns, and tends to primarily address linguistic, logical, epistemological, and metaphysical issues. In some ways, analytic philosophy arose as a reaction to what was seen as a weakness in much of European philosophyits increasing tendency toward vagueness, metaphor, and literary conceit. By the end of the twentieth century, Anglo-American philosophy and its methods had become the most influential force in most academic philosophy departments in the United States, as well as in the largest group of professional philosophers, the American Philosophical Association.

See also Analytical Philosophy ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century ; Pragmatism .


Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1902.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1999.

Flower, Elizabeth, and Murray Murphey. A History of Philosophy in America. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1977.

Harris, Leonard, ed. Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1983.

Martinich, A.P., and David Sosa, eds. Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Transcendentalism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schneider, Herbert W. A History of American Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Smith, John E., Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds. A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Stuhr, John J., ed. Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Waters, Anne, ed. American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

Stephen Barnes

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