The American Philosophical Experiment

Nations and cultures embody ideas. The individuals and institutions of a nation are reflections of the ideas and values held in common within it. In order to deeply understand a culture, or the people in it, you have to understand the ideas that are being shared.

The United States is a particularly vivid example of a nation built on a set of ideas. Born directly out of the European enlightenment, the American nation was a bold application of philosophy. The founders, individuals like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were fueled by the exciting new thoughts expressed in the writings of great European thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These ideas became the ideological foundation of a revolution that granted to each individual the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

From its start, the American character was created from the dynamic tension between two opposing tendencies: an anti-intellectual, action-oriented utilitarianism on the one hand and a passionate, utopian idealism on the other. And this contradictory set of character traits led to the development of a uniquely American philosophical tradition.

A little more than half of a century after the American Revolution, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s first men of letters, called for an intellectual, cultural and spiritual revolution to match the original political one.“Perhaps the time is already come,” he explained in his famous American Scholar Address,“when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” And in his first book, “Nature”, Emerson states:the foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

The next generation of philosophers, the most prominent of whom were children of members of Emerson’s closest intellectual circle, developed the philosophy of pragmatism – America’s greatest contribution to world philosophy. The central message of that philosophy is the cornerstone of the American soul. Simply stated, pragmatism insists that the validity of an idea can only be found in the practical difference it makes when put into action. The American philosopher and psychologist William James put it bluntly when he said: “what difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.”

The United States today is the most globally influential country in the western world and the American lifestyle is spreading rapidly across the globe. McDonald’s hamburgers, Starbuck’s coffee, and Levi’s blue jeans can be found everywhere. And as this lifestyle spreads the philosophical ideals and values that underlie it. Just what are the ideas and values that are spreading alongside the American lifestyle and what effect will they ultimately have on the future course of human history?

When I speak to people – including Americans – about American philosophy, more people than you might think look back at me somewhat bewildered. Americans are not known for their philosophy. And yet they have one and it is having an enormous impact on the world. By understanding more about the philosophy that lies behind the American mindset we can ensure that it is the most profound, subtle and noble aspects of that philosophy that help to shape our collective destiny.

This piece is reprinted from something I wrote for the Fair Observer.