The Irony of American Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 4 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
12 years ago

Studying American Philosophy can help us understand our inclinations as we interact globally with those who don’t share our heritage.

12 years ago

Jeff recently gave a talk on the topic and I collected feedback from the participants that I wanted to share. Here are a few bits: “I thought the talk was fantastic – very clear, held my interest throughout and you covered an enormous amount of material in a very skillful and interesting way.” “I really loved Jeff’s presentation. The pace was great and the organization and content was beautifully presented! Very exciting and illuminating for me to understand the roots of contemporary American thinking and worldview in the larger context of evolution and where we are heading next.” “Great topic!… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Jeff’s surprise he mentions above is maybe akin to our disappointed reaction to how our attempts to democratize other nations is being played out, with some unexpected pushbacks. To put out ideas in the world is a part of a dynamic that should allow feedback and discussion. The resistance to democracy and capitalism, cornerstones of our way of life, is not surprisingly being challenged. Whether we can convince others of our way of life enough to sway other doubting and unsmpathetic nations will be a test of our values. Out of discussions, there should hopefully come greater understanding and perhaps… Read more »