Fiske, John (1842–1901)

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John Fiske, the American philosopher and advocate of evolutionary theory, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and baptized Edmund Fisk Green. He changed his name to John Fisk shortly after his mother remarried in 1855 (the e was added in 1860). He grew up in Middletown and attended the Congregational Church, but he became dissatisfied with orthodox Christianity and found himself drawn to the philosophical and theological implications of modern science. He early declared himself an "infidel," meaning by the word "non-Christian" rather than atheist. While he was a student at Harvard, he was punished by the college faculty for reading Auguste Comte in church.

Fiske's main philosophical work, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, developed from lectures given at Harvard in 1869 and 1871, and was completed in London during 1873 and 1874. In it he acknowledged himself a disciple and expositor of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, the importance of which, he believed, would in time be seen to surpass that of Isaac Newton. This judgment did not appear extravagant to Fiske, since Spencer's law of evolution was "the first generalization concerning the concrete universe as a whole." According to Fiske's formulation of this law, "The integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, which primarily constitutes Evolution, is attended by a continuous change from indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to definite, coherent heterogeneity of structure and function, through successive differentiations and integrations." He illustrated the law's operation at great length with examples drawn from organic processes, the nebular origin of the solar system, comparative philology, and the development of civilization.

Fiske maintained that at some time in the past, human evolution had reached a stage in which man's brain alone continued to evolve; ultimately, a level was achieved at which the individual's brain continued to develop after his birth. This process, which necessitated a period of prolonged infancy accompanied by the evolution of strong parental affection, provided the physical setting for the evolution of the resulting family into clans and society; for the origin of morality in the altruism demanded by family care; and for cultural progress, through the enhanced receptivity of yet developing minds. Prolonged infancy was the cornerstone of an evolutionary explanation of civilization; indeed, Fiske believed that this theory was his most important contribution to philosophy.

Fiske aimed to show the unity of all knowledge, the inevitability of progress, and the ultimate harmony of science and religion. He appealed to the law of evolution to accomplish the first two aims and to "Berkeleian idealism" to accomplish the third. All knowledge is "relative" in the sense that it consists only of classifying and discovering regularities among phenomena. What underlies and creates our experience or phenomena Fiske calls the "Unknowable," "Deity," and "Absolute Power." This "Deity" is the only proper concern of religion, while the regularities discoverable among the phenomena in which Deity manifests itself are the scientist's laws of nature. Thus Fiske's "cosmic theism" reconciles religion and science. Religious dogmas that intrude upon the scientist's world of phenomena are vestiges of primitive, anthropomorphic stages of religious development. Miracles must therefore be rejected, and the doctrine of special creation must give way to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Pantheism, which according to Fiske identifies Deity with the phenomenal world, is rejected, since Fiske's Deity is an "unconditioned existence" which is "something more than the universe." He rejects Comte's Religion of Humanity as a mere conceit. Materialism is rejected because it is at least conceivable that matter is reducible to mind or feeling, but inconceivable that feeling should evolve from matter; thus, the view that Deity is "Spirit" is plausible.

The major difference between Fiske and Spencer is Fiske's greater emphasis on the religious implications of evolutionary philosophy. Whereas Spencer was guarded, Fiske was unambiguous in calling what lay behind the phenomenal world "Spirit," and he took pains to prove that it was a plausible object of earnest religious contemplation. A further difference between the two thinkers is that Fiske, unlike Spencer, brought evolutionary philosophy to the defense of social conservatism, in the belief that inevitable progress obviated the need for radical social and religious change.

Fiske greatly enjoyed living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as late as 1878 he retained the hope of gaining a permanent position at Harvard in either the department of history or that of philosophy. He declined job offers from other universities, but at Harvard he could obtain only temporary positions as a lecturer and as assistant librarian of the college. Early in life Fiske sought to make a living from his writing. Later he was always short of money and tried to make ends meet by going on the lecture circuit; however, he achieved genuine popularity both as a writer and lecturer only in the last decade of his life.

Throughout his life Fiske retained an earnest religious attitude, which he expressed in his later popular lectures in terms were more and more conciliatory toward New England Protestantism. Thus "The Unseen World" (1876), the title essay of his first collection of essays, merely urged that science could not refute the immortality of the soul and that "a simple act of trust" in immortality was not unreasonable. In "The Destiny of Man" (1884), another title essay, Fiske said that the human soul was not merely the end product, but the goal of the great evolutionary process contrived by God. Finally, in Through Nature to God (1899), Fiske argued, in reply to T. H. Huxley's Romanes lecture "Evolution and Ethics" (1893), that nature is not morally indifferent but, on the contrary, that evolution "exists purely for the sake of moral ends." He also argued that science offered confirmation of the existence of God and of immortality.

After 1887 Fiske wrote nearly twenty volumes on American history. He was never an original philosopher, but through his clear writing and well-phrased public lectures he helped to advance American religious liberalism. He was a competent popularizer of Darwin's theory of evolution at a time when most religious writers were attacking evolution with frenzy.

See also Comte, Auguste; Cosmos; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism; Evolutionary Theory; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Newton, Isaac.


Fiske's more philosophical works include Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy; Based on the Doctrine of Evolution, with Criticisms on the Positive Philosophy, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1874); The Unseen World, and Other Essays (Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1876); Darwinism, and Other Essays (London and New York: Macmillan, 1879); The Destiny of Man Viewed in the Light of His Origin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884); Excursions of an Evolutionist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884); The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886); A Century of Science, and Other Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899); and Through Nature to God (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899). Josiah Royce examines Fiske's philosophy in the introduction to the 1902 edition of Cosmic Philosophy. Milton Berman's John Fiske: The Evolution of a Popularizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) includes an extensive bibliography.

Andrew Oldenquist (1967)