Hickok, Laurens Perseus (1798–1888)

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Laurens Perseus Hickok was America's first systematic philosopher and also won distinction as a theologian and educational administrator. He was born in Bethel, Connecticut, and was educated at Union College. He trained for the ministry under William Andrews and Bennett Tyler, who was a major spokesman for "old school" Calvinism. Hickok served well as pastor at Kent, Connecticut (18231829), and Litchfield, Connecticut (18291836). He then became professor of theology at Western Reserve College (18361844) and Auburn Theological Seminary (18441855). His alma mater, Union College, called him to serve as vice-president and professor of mental and moral philosophy (18551866) and president (18661868). In 1868 he retired to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he wrote several books over the next twenty years.

The core of Hickok's philosophic enterprise was the attempt to allow adequate weight to the claims of reason and experience in all domains of intellectual life. Ultimately, he was convinced, the rational and the empirical modes of thinking could not lead to contradictory conclusions; human intelligence might begin with general principles and rationally deduce facts or might begin with observed facts and gradually uncover general principles. In either case the facts were the same, and the principles were the same. Rational science is science as known by God; empirical science is science as learned by men. Different criteria of validity are to be applied to man's ideas in these two types of scientific thinking. In the empirical area ideas are tested by their experimental consequences; in the rational area ideas are tested by their congruence within a systematic pattern. Each type of thinking has, however, its proper place; the speculative mode should not be used when the investigative mode is in order, but neither should men become so enamored of empirical investigation that they neglect rational speculation.

Despite this careful balancing of empirical and rational method, Hickok did not regard the discoveries of empirical science as part of philosophy. His own work Empirical Psychology; or, The Human Mind as Given in Consciousness (1854) was an introspective study of the workings of the human mind. Hickok thought of this study as prephilosophic. He also published a philosophic work in the same fieldRational Psychology; or, The Subjective Idea and the Objective Law of All Intelligence (1849). Here no attention was given to the data of introspection; hence, this work was properly "philosophy." In all the other fields to which he gave consideration, Hickok's work was completely dominated by rational, speculative system building.

Although there was some trace of the ideas of Immanuel Kant in American philosophy before Hickok, he was the first professor of philosophy in the United States to attempt to make systematic use of Kant and the post-Kantian German rationalists. Thus, he was an important figure in the transition from the orthodox academic teaching of Scottish realism in the first half of the nineteenth century to the dominance of idealism in the latter part of the century.

See also Empiricism; Experience; Kant, Immanuel; Rationalism; Reason.


works by hickok

Rational Psychology; or, The Subjective Idea and the Objective Law of All Intelligence. Auburn, NY: Derby Miller, 1849; rev. ed., New York, 1870.

A System of Moral Science. Schenectady, NY: G.Y. Van Debogert, 1853; rev. ed., with the cooperation of Julius H. Seelye, Boston: Ginn and Heath, 1880.

Empirical Psychology; or, The Human Mind as Given in Consciousness. Schenectady, NY: G.Y. Van Debogert, 1854; rev. ed., with the cooperation of Julius H. Seelye, Boston: Ginn and Heath, 1882.

Rational Cosmology; or, The Eternal Principles and the Necessary Laws of the Universe. New York: Appleton, 1858.

Creator and Creation; or, The Knowledge in the Reason of God and His Work. New York: Lee, Shepard and Dillingham, 1872.

Humanity Immortal; or, Man Tried, Fallen and Redeemed. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1872.

The Logic of Reason, Universal and Eternal. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1875.

works on hickok

Union Worthies, Number Two; Laurens Perseus Hickok, Class of 1820, published by Union College in 1947, contains three appreciations of Hickok by Harold A. Larrabee, Herbert W. Schneider, and Julius Seelye Bixler, as well as a bibliography of Hickok's chief writings. Other discussions are in H. W. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946; 2nd ed., 1963), and in Joseph L. Blau, Men and Movements in American Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1952).

J. L. Blau (1967)