Nature Mystics and Scientific Progressives

The European Enlightenment produced two responses; Scientific Rationalism and Romanticism. The Scientific Rationalism represented in the science of Sir Isaac Newton and the philosophy of John Locke. Romanticism produced the writing of Goethe in Germany and the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge in England.

Newton and Locke advocated searching for truth in the empirical reality of our actual experience; Goethe and Wordsworth were open to more intuitive paths to truth.

These two poles – Natural Mysticism and Scientific Progressivism – seem to act as opposing attractors in American Philosophy reflecting the same split that resulted from the original Enlightenment in Europe. As you look through the history of American Philosophy you find different individuals and ideas landing either closer to or further from one of these poles or the other. The tension created through the back and forth motion generates the energy of friction that keeps philosophy evolving and developing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American Romantic who created arguably the greatest creative explosion of poetry and literature in American history. He looked to nature for an experience of truth and tried to capture the essence of that truth in prose and poetry.

On the other hand, William James along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey were trying to apply the thinking of science to problems in philosophy and psychology. In fact William James called his philosophy Radical Empiricism- he saw it as more empirical in nature than even John Locke’s ideas, because James felt that even thoughts had to be treated as real objects and not simply as mental relationships between “real” objects.

Emerson was a Nature Mystic, James was a Scientific Progressive.

But just as thought had swerved from the Nature Mysticism of Emerson to the Progressivism of James, Peirce and Dewey, it inevitably swung back. Towards the end of his career at Columbia University John Dewey’s progressivism was challenged by some of his more traditionalist colleagues, most notably Mortimer Adler and Marc Van Doran. Marc Van Doran is known as a magnificent teacher beloved by his students. Three of Doran’s students would play key roles in giving birth to another great Romantic period in American history, the counter-culture of the 1960′s.

These students of Van Doran’s were: the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the writer Jack Kerouac. Now that is a great story for another time.