Chauncey Wright and the Strong Arm of Science

Over my last two posts I have been reflecting on some of the ideas of Kant and Hegel and how they were picked up by the early Pragmatists. The German Idealism of Kant and Hegel was a new way of thinking about reality not as a pre-existing static background, but as a creative participatory event. Human beings were part of the creative process that fashioned and maintained our perception of reality and carried and expanded that reality through time.

Now I want to start to show how the American Pragmatists brought an original angle to this image of a co-created reality. The thinking of the American Pragmatists had an interesting almost earthy quality, a certain leaning toward physicality that might be a result of the fact that the two men most closely associated with the birth of Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, were both scientists and not philosophers. Charles Peirce studied chemistry at Harvard where William James received his medical degree.

Perhaps even more than the scientific backgrounds of Peirce and James, it might have been their association with Chauncey Wright that brought that particular flavor of grounded empiricism to their thinking. Wright was also studied science at Harvard and his teacher, Asa Grey, was Charles Darwin’s most fervent supporter in America and made the arrangements for the publication of On the Origin of Species in America. Like his teacher, Chauncey Wright would himself become a close correspondent of Darwin’s.

Wright worked as a calculator for the Nautical Almanac and tried to make all of his scientific calculations in a small portion of the year so that the rest of his time could be occupied with is favorite activity – engaging in philosophical conversation with friends about the relationship between science and religion. Wright was an empiricist to the extreme. He felt that in describing reality we should resort to neither supernatural (in the sense of being outside of nature) or metaphysical (in the sense of being beyond the physical) explanations for anything in the universe.

To Wright reality was made up of a collection of separate, interacting, observable and quantifiable empirical facts. He understood the workings of the cosmos to be very much the same as the workings of the weather. The weather is composed of a combination of air, water, barometric pressure, temperature, wind speed, etc. these separate empirical facts interact together and create the weather as we know it. There is no reason to appeal to any supernatural entities or metaphysical principles or motives to explain the weather. Wright referred to his conception of the universe as cosmic weather. Wright also believed that in describing evolution we must similarly appeal to nothing outside of the empirical facts. In his essay The Evolution of Self Consciousness, one of his few written pieces, Wright defends his belief that there is nothing required to explain the emergence of Self Consciousness through evolution beyond that which we can see.  

Wright was part of the circle of young intellects that were engaged in dynamic debate in and around Cambridge Massachusetts in the 1860’s and 70’s. One particular circle of young thinkers calling themselves The Metaphysical Club included Wright, Peirce and James among others. According to James and Peirce, Wright was something of the master in these discussions and he most certainly challenged his friends not to appeal to anything outside the observable to explain their conclusions. Both Peirce and James had greater spiritual, metaphysical and even supernatural leanings than Wright. And James in particular argued against what he saw as Wright’s nihilistic tendencies in his paper, Against Nihilism. Both James and Peirce in their own way believed that the universe and the process of evolution through which the universe emerged, had some inherent purpose, or at least that there were very good reasons to defend believing in such purpose.

The end result was a description of reality that was co-creative like Kant, and historical like Hegel, but the picture of the evolving universe that the American Pragmatists, and especially Peirce, began to paint was one of a self-contained evolving system. Their intellectual sparring partner, Chauncey Wright, would not allow the young Pragmatists to appeal to anything outside of the universe to explain it. In response the universal conceptions that Peirce, James and later Dewey would come up with adhered to this demand in an interesting way. They simply pulled everything into the system of the universe. What they began to create was an early “Integral” model of reality in which all aspects of the universe were seen as part of one dynamic whole system – like cosmic weather. In my next post I intend to go more deeply into the picture of the universe that the pragmatists were working on.