Brownson, Orestes Augustus (1803–1876)

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Orestes Augustus Brownson, a Transcendentalist philosopher and journalist, was born in Stockbridge, Vermont. He had little formal education. Until 1822 he belonged to the Congregationalist Church; he then joined the Presbyterians but was quickly repelled by their depreciation of human reason and by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. In 1824 he became a Universalist, being ordained a minister in 1826. Three years later he abandoned Christianity and joined the socialist sect of Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright; at this time he wrote in behalf of the Workingmen's Party. He was reconverted to the Christian religion in 1832, when he joined the Unitarians.

Brownson was introduced to philosophy in 1833, through the works of Victor Cousin, whose disciple he remained for ten years. Cousin was warm in his praise of Brownson as a philosopher. Though Brownson later criticized Cousin's philosophy for its eclecticism and psychologism, he always remained under its influence. His reading of Immanuel Kant and the Italian idealist Vincenzo Gioberti were major factors in shaping his mature philosophy. For a while he was a member of the Transcendentalist group that met in Boston and at Brook Farm, but he considered their thinking poorly grounded and undisciplined.

In 1838 he founded the Boston Quarterly Review, which in 1842 was merged with the U.S. Magazine and Democratic Review of New York. In 1844, he was received into the Catholic Church. The same year he founded Brownson's Quarterly Review, which he published, except for the years 18651872, until 1875. Most of Brownson's numerous articles and reviews appeared in this publication. His most important book was The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny.

Although Brownson was a deeply religious thinker, he insisted that philosophy should begin not with authority or faith, but with data of reason. He criticized the notion of Christian philosophy proposed by the Annales de philosophie chrétienne for failing to do justice to the rational nature of philosophy.

Like Cousin, he made the starting point of philosophy the analysis of thought, stressing, in opposition to Cousin, its objective, rather than its subjective, side. All thought, he maintained, presupposes the presence of an object that can be analyzed into three elements: the ideal, the empirical, and the relationship between them. The ideal is the a priori element in all thought; it is that which makes any experience intelligible. The ideal is not a Kantian category, which Brownson interpreted to be a subjective form, but a necessary aspect of the object of knowledge. Since the object must be real in order to present itself to thought, its ideal, or content, must also be real. Further analysis revealed that this content includes both necessary and contingent "being," which Brownson identified respectively with God and creatures. God is a necessary and independent being; creatures are dependent existences, so called because they stand outside (exstare ) their cause. Hence Brownson adopted the "ideal formula" of Gioberti: "Being creates existences" (Ens creat existentias ). Accordingly, creative being is present to the mind in all its thinking; it alone makes thought possible.

Brownson defended himself against the charge of ontologism, which was condemned by Rome in 1861, on the ground that he did not teach that we have an immediate intuition of God, but only of being. Though being is God himself, we discover this only by rational analysis.

In his early days, Brownson believed in the divinity of humanity and the infallibility of the popular will. Political experience in later life convinced him of the absurdity of these notions. He rejected the idea that government and law have a purely human origin. Only in a qualified sense did he admit that governments derive their powers from the assent of the governed. All power ultimately comes from God; he alone has absolute sovereignty. Brownson thought the American constitution more nearly perfect than others because it recognizes the existence of the Creator and of God-given rights of individuals, which the government is bound to respect and protect.

See also Being; Cousin, Victor; Gioberti, Vincenzo; Kant, Immanuel; New England Transcendentalism.


works by brownson

The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 20 vols. Edited by H. F. Brownson. Detroit: T. Nourse, 18221907.

works on brownson

Brownson, H. F. Orestes A. Brownson's Early, Middle, and Latter Life, 3 vols. Detroit: H. F. Brownson, 18981900.

Cook, T. I., and A. B. Leavelle. "Orestes A. Brownson's The American Republic. " Review of Politics 4 (1) (January 1942): 7790; 4 (2) (April 1942): 173193.

Farrell, Bertin. Orestes Brownson's Approach to the Problem of God. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1950.

Fitzsimons, M. A. "Brownson's Search for the Kingdom of God: The Social Thought of an American Radical." Review of Politics 16 (1) (January 1954): 2236.

Maynard, Theodore. Orestes Brownson, Yankee, Radical, Catholic. New York: Macmillan, 1943.

McMahon, F. E. "Orestes Brownson on Church and State." Theological Studies 15 (1954): 175228.

Parry, S. J. "The Premises of Brownson's Political Theory." Review of Politics 16 (2) (April 1954): 194211.

Raemers, Sydney A. America's Foremost Philosopher. Washington, DC: St. Anselm's Priory, 1931.

Schlesinger, A. M., Jr. Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939.

Armand A. Maurer (1967)

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Brownson, Orestes Augustus (1803–1876)

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