The American Embrace of Evolution

The philosophy of Pragmatism that I have begun to discuss in my previous posts is probably the most uniquely American formation of philosophy. It is, of course, building on, and in response to, its European contemporaries and predecessors, but it has a flavor that is characteristic of the American spirit.

 

I believe that one way that the spirit of America can be understood is as an embrace of the reality of evolution. American philosophy, therefore, can be seen as a philosophical embrace of evolution. As I tried to show in the post here called “The Pluralistic Universe of William James” there is a certain experience of reality that is at the heart of that embrace. It is a forward looking, adaptive leaning into life, characterized in my mind by the four elements that I mention in my about page: “utilitarian attitudes, utopian aspirations, action orientations and mystical inclinations.

 

No doubt, this leaning has its positive and negative aspect. Typical criticisms of American thought are centered on its lack of respect for the wisdom of the past and its brazen attitude toward rushing into the future.

 

Pragmatism was developed initially by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, with John Dewey expanded upon it. Peirce, James and Dewey were all doing philosophy in the decades following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s book did not introduce the idea of evolution, or even “survival of the fittest.” It did introduce the theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. What was significant about this was that it identified the mechanism of evolution as blind trial and error with no intelligent design behind it.

 

Peirce, James and Dewey, along with a cascading number of thinkers in the later part of the 19th century, accepted the fundamental ideas of Darwin as an accurate description of reality, although with some reservation and disagreement. And the philosophy of Pragmatism that they developed can be understood as a philosophy in response to the reality of evolution. By stating that the truth of an idea is not inherent in the idea itself, but is only discovered when that idea successfully proves itself in practice, Pragmatism upholds an evolutionary definition of truth.

 

Pragmatists insist that ideas, like everything else, only survive if they prove to be successful adaptations to the environment. This notion runs through almost all of American philosophy starting perhaps with Benjamin Franklin, running through Ralph Waldo Emerson, then Peirce, James and Dewey right up to many present day philosophers.

 

In the posts of this blog I intend to bring out the details of the philosophy and the history of the development of the American embrace of evolution.