Harris, William Torrey (1835–1909)

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The American philosopher and educator William Torrey Harris was born in North Killingly (now part of Putnam), Connecticut. He attended preparatory schools in his native state and entered Yale College. There he was led to philosophy by Bronson Alcott's "Conversations" on Platonism, which convinced him of "the ideality of the material world" through "insight and reliance on reason." He left Yale in his junior year, dissatisfied with the deficiency of modern science and literature in the curriculum, and went to St. Louis.

In St. Louis, where Harris taught school for eight years and was an administrator for fourteen, he met Henry C. Brokmeyer, a Prussian immigrant who had acquired an enthusiasm for G. W. F. Hegel from reading F. H. Hedge's Prose Writers of Germany (1847) during some disputatious months at Brown University. In 1858, Harris, Brokmeyer, and a few friends began meeting informally as a Kant Club to find the root of Hegel's thought. Harris imported a copy of Hegel's larger Logic and encouraged Brokmeyer to undertake a translation, which was never satisfactorily finished but was circulated in manuscript. After the Civil War, adherents of the Kant Club joined the St. Louis Philosophical Society, organized in 1866 with Brokmeyer as president, Harris as secretary, and Denton Snider, G. H. Howison, A. E. Kroeger, and Thomas Davidson among the leading members.

When the editor of the North American Review rejected one of Harris's articles as "the mere dry husk of Hegelianism," Harris and the St. Louis Society founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Edited by Harris from 1867 to 1893, the Journal published numerous translations of German philosophers, particularly Hegel, and original essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, J. H. Stirling, James Ward, William James, John Dewey, and C. S. Peirce. In defending Hegel's views in America, Harris and Brokmeyer had been preceded by a group of Ohioans that included J. B. Stallo and August Willich, who became "auxiliaries" of the St. Louis Society, as did Emerson, Henry James Sr., Karl Rosenkranz, and Ludwig Feuerbach. But Harris was outstanding among American philosophers up to 1900 as an active public lecturer, a leader of the St. Louis movement and of the Concord School of Philosophy from 1879 to 1887, U.S. commissioner of education from 1889 to 1906, editor of America's first regular journal devoted to philosophy, and author of some five hundred articles and of a book on Hegel's Phenomenology and Logic.

Like Hegel, Harris saw philosophy as a science concerned with necessary factors in experience related systematically to a first principle. Reflection on sensible objects and their changes, he believed, immediately reveals two necessary factors with which philosophy is concerned, space and time. Both are "infinites" in that they are conditions of all experience. From a parallel analysis he concluded that there are three grades or stages of knowing. The first concentrates on the object and the surface of things as isolated and independent. The second sees how things exist only in relation to other things and thus concentrates on their dependence, on what they are not when taken by themselves as separate and isolated. The third "discovers the independence and self-relation underlying all dependence and relativity"; in discovering what is self-related it discovers "the infinite." These mutually related stages are to be found in every aspect of experience, and since there are no things-in-themselves behind experience, they characterize all aspects of our world. Harris thus attempted to put into plain English the main features of Hegel's dialectic. Through Brokmeyer, Harris came to believe that such dialectic illuminated the Civil War (legal right would be unified with moral right), American politics, and even problems of school administrationa use of philosophy that pleased the practical, institution-minded members of the St. Louis movement.

Proceeding dialectically from "seeming" to "truth," Harris analyzed causality and concluded that it incorporates space and time in a higher unity but also implies a "self-separation" of energy whereby a cause sends a stream of influence to other things. Without such self-separation a cause could not act upon something to bring about an effect. So conceived, causality must be grounded in "self-activity," which is necessarily self-related and thus independent, free, and creative. Ultimately, in Harris's view, the only authentic self-activity is God, conceived by Harris, following Aristotle and Hegel, as the unmoved motion and self-contained existence of Reason, which, as Reason, is also personal. Like Hegel, Harris believed that philosophy approaches Absolute Reason through conceptual analysis to first principles, whereas religion receives the Absolute "into the heart" through symbols.

As a corollary to the presupposition of relatedness in self-activity, Harris saw education as the self-development of the individual mediated through the salient traditions of civilization. With the self-development of the individual in view, he linked public schools with democracy, conceived of as self-government involving woman's suffrage and separation of religion from the state. With the traditions of civilization in mind, he criticized excessive vocationalism. Along similar lines, his social philosophy viewed civilized freedom as the will of the individual effectuated in such institutions as family, civil society, state, and the Invisible Church, the "absolute institution" uniting all people of all time. In spite of his stress on institutions, Harris apparently gave some kind of precedence to "self-activity" simpliciter ; he admired the ruthless individualism of the "gilded age" and condemned socialism in all its aspects.

See also Absolute, The; Aristotle; Dewey, John; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Howison, George Holmes; Idealism; James, Henry; James, William; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Rosenkranz, Johann Karl Friedrich; Ward, James.


works by harris

Hegel's Logic, a Book on the Genesis of the Categories of the Mind. Chicago: S.C. Griggs, 1890. The preface outlines the genesis of the author's views in relation to Immanuel Kant and Brokmeyer.

Introduction to the Study of Philosophy. Edited by Marietta Kies. New York: Appleton, 1889. Topically arranged selections from Harris's numerous articles.

works on harris

Leidecker, Kurt. Yankee Teacher, the Life of William Torrey Harris. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946. The most complete biography.

Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America, Philosophical and Literary Influences, 257304. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. Details on the St. Louis movement and the Concord School of Philosophy.

Schaub, Edward L., ed. William Torrey Harris. Chicago: Open Court, 1936. Essays by American philosophers on major aspects of Harris's life and thought.

Loyd D. Easton (1967)

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Harris, William Torrey (1835–1909)

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