The Irony of American Philosophy

When I speak to people – and I mean Americans – about American philosophy more people than you might think look back at me somewhat bewildered and even chuckle as if I have said something amusing. American Philosophy? What’s that?

 

The irony of American Philosophy is that what makes it most genuinely American has also ensured that most American’s know very little about it. At the center of the American character is the frontier mentality that formed when people from Europe arrived at an uncultivated wilderness and started converting it into a nation. If you arrive in New England in fall for instance, you don’t have time to think about much besides finding the best place to settle, chopping down trees, building shelters and surviving winter.

 

The hardships and dangers of settling a continent have built into the American character a rugged individualism and a utilitarian attitude that we are still known for today. In this mindset ideas are seen as tools to be used to accomplish ends.

 

In the hands of some truly original thinkers this attitude has given American philosophy the flavor that distinguishes it as genuinely American. The Self-Reliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James are perfect examples. Emerson’s call to find ones own way and rely on nothing but your own experience and Peirce and James’s defining of truth based on real results of ideas once put into action are profound assimilations of the frontier mentality into philosophy.

 

The irony is that as Americans we have the same rugged individualism and utilitarian attitude built into us and that means that few of us ever pay much attention to philosophy – even our own. It also means that many of us who did read about Self-Reliance or Pragmatism used those ideas for our own ends. Emerson’s -Reliance was used by industrial barons of his day to justify their own brutal advancement. Pragmatism – a profound philosophy about the nature of truth and reality – has similarly often been reduced to utilitarian opportunism and used to justify all sorts of selfish actions.

 

So the very character that distinguishes American Philosophy as American has also ensured that it is largely ignored or misunderstood by Americans. It seems to me that it is a noble cause to change this. And I believe that I can make an argument for this on pragmatic grounds.

 

In our complex, rapidly changing, globally inter-connected world we need to think deeply in order to be able to respond to life with enough depth and wisdom to act effectively. When all we were busy with was building cabins, salting meat and trying to survive through the winter a good axe and a strong grip might have been enough. Today we are trying to figure out how to live together on an overcrowded planet with shrinking resources amidst violently conflicting world views. So we need big thinkers who understand not just our world, but how we think and how our ideas can create the change we need.