In an earlier post I characterized American Philosophy as an ever deeper embrace of the concept of evolution. Another way that I understand the general trajectory of American philosophy is as an ever more sophisticated defense of religion, or at least the religious impulse.
With “The Enlightenment” of Europe came the scientific revolution that relentlessly impressed itself in human consciousness. Religion, which had provided the dominant understanding of reality before that time, was under attack. A great deal of philosophy and theology over the past few hundred years has been a defense of religion in the face of the victories of science.
In America one of the defenses of religion came in the form of what was often called “New Thought.” Emerson was part of the “New Thought” of Unitarianism, William James called his ideas of pragmatism “The New Thought” as well, and in more recent times Andrew Cohen has described his work as “The New Enlightenment.” It can be seen that these different “New Thought” movements were all part of the same battle that was being fought on two fronts. On one side each defends spiritual truth from the dominance of scientific materialism. On the other side, each pushes against the religious and spiritual norms of the time and encourages a deeper embrace of spiritual ideas that does not reject the rationalism of science.
Emerson’s Transcendentalism, James’s Pragmatism, and Cohen’s Evolutionary Enlightenment, were all fending off scientific materialism and awaken a deeper and more authentic spirituality at the same time. Ralph Waldo Emerson took issue with empiricists, particularly the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who held the view that only knowledge arising from direct experience is real. William James had a similar quarrel with the English philosopher, Herbert Spencer and Andrew Cohen with contemporary neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett.
Emerson was also badgering the Unitarian church of his day for its overly intellectual and uninspired preaching. James argued against any metaphysical view of reality on the grounds that they were scientifically unverifiable and offered his philosophy of Pragmatism to justify religious belief. Andrew Cohen today, among others, speaks against the pluralistic, “I have my truth, you have yours” contemporary spiritual atmosphere and calls for an awakening to the spiritual implications inherent in being part of an evolutionary process.
A tradition of American New Thought has grown over the centuries through the recognition of the validity of spiritual truth and the need for a deeply authentic relationship to that truth. It is a middle path between scientific materialism and religious orthodoxy.