Johnson, Samuel (1696–1772)

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Samuel Johnson, the American philosopher, was born in Guilford, Connecticut. He studied and taught at the college at New Haven, later called Yale. One of the first colonials to read Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, he introduced their thought into the college program. In 1722, having abandoned the Calvinism in which he had been raised, he went to England to receive orders in the Anglican Church. On George Berkeley's arrival in Rhode Island in 1729, Johnson paid him several visits, corresponded with him, and became one of his disciples. At the invitation of Benjamin Franklin, Johnson collaborated in the founding of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1754 he helped found King's College, later called Columbia University; he was its first president (until 1763).

Johnson wrote an autobiography and numerous letters, including correspondence with Cadwallader Colden as well as with Berkeley. His philosophical works include Synopsis Philosophiae Naturalis, written about 1714; Logic, written in 1714; Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written in 1714 and revised in 1716; and Elementa Philosophica, published by Benjamin Franklin. The Elementa was the first textbook in philosophy published in America. It has two parts, "Noetica" and "Ethica"; the "Ethica" had been published alone under the title A New System of Morality (Philadelphia, 1746).

Johnson's early works reflect the scholastic Platonism and Calvinistic theology in vogue in the New England colonies during the seventeenth century. The Encyclopedia, also called Technologia sive Technometria, was a product of his school days and shows the influence of the method and ideas of Peter Ramus. While using Aristotle's physics, it criticizes his metaphysics and ethics as secular and irreligious. Johnson held that there should be no secular science but that all learning should enter into religion and foster it.

Johnson's reading of Bacon, Locke, and Newton broadened and liberalized his thinking. He became an enthusiastic follower of Berkeley's immaterialism, blending with it elements of Puritan Platonism. The English divines, especially Samuel Clarke, influenced him to give up Calvinism and to join the Church of England.

His mature philosophy is contained in his Elementa Philosophica. The first part, "Noetica," contains his views on reality and mind; the second, "Ethica," concerns moral behavior. Mind or spirit is defined as intelligent, active being. The objects of mind are ideas or notions. There are no material substances corresponding to our ideas; sensible reality is a system of ideas communicated to us by God as copies of the archetypal ideas in the divine mind.

Arguing against Cadwallader Colden, Johnson maintained that minds are the only agents or active causes; matter is purely passive. Bodies, which are a set of ideas impressed on our minds by God, are entirely inactive and powerless. In Johnson's view, the vis inertiae, which Newton attributed to matter, is not a power at all; it is simply resistance, and resistance is the direct action of God on the human mind.

The existence of God is proved by the presence of eternal truths in our minds. Since these truths do not depend on our minds or on the actual existence of things, they must be communications of an eternally existing and necessary mind or God. We know these truths when our minds are illuminated by the divine mind. God is the fullness of being, and consequently he has the positive perfection of infinity.

Johnson defended the freedom of the will on moral grounds. If human actions are not free, then moral laws, rewards, and punishments are meaningless. God is not the only active cause; human minds are also genuine agents, endowed with freedom to choose or to reject, to act or not to act. Johnson accepted Newton's laws as regulating the movement of inanimate nature, but he insisted that the human spirit is not bound by necessary laws. In opposition to his former pupil Jonathan Edwards, he upheld the freedom of the human will and rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination as incompatible with genuine human freedom and as destructive of morality.

Johnson's writings are an important source for the condition of philosophy in pre-Revolution America and for the changes it underwent owing to the impact of eighteenth-century English thought.

See also Aristotle; Bacon, Francis; Berkeley, George; Clarke, Samuel; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Edwards, Jonathan; Franklin, Benjamin; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Ramus, Peter.


works by johnson

Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London, 1731.

Elementa Philosophica. Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1752.

Synopsis Philosophiae Naturalis. New York, 1929.

Logic. New York, 1929.

works on johnson

Beardsley, E. E. Life and Correspondence of Samuel Johnson. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1874.

Blau, J. L. Men and Movements in American Philosophy, 1517, 3940. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Carroll, Peter N. The Other Samuel Johnson: A Psychohistory of Early New England. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

Ellis, Joseph J. The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

Potkay, Adam. The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Ryder, John. "Cadwallader Colden, Samuel Johnson, and the Activity of Matter: Materialism and Idealism in Colonial America." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 32 (2) (1996): 248272.

Schneider, H. A History of American Philosophy, 711, 2126. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

Schneider, H., and C. Schneider, eds. Samuel Johnson, President of King's College: His Career and Writings, 4 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1929. Vol. I contains Johnson's autobiography; see Vol. II for his philosophical writings and "The Mind of Samuel Johnson" by H. Schneider.

Armand A. Maurer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)