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A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000, by Bruce Kuklick

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A History of Philosophy in America

A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000, by Bruce Kuklick

When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of great minds from Europe - Aristotle, Nietzsche or Sartre. What about American philosophy? Hasn't America produced any viable and interesting philosophical perspectives? Is there even such a thing as "American" philosophy, distinct from philosophy elsewhere in the world?

Summary

Title: A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000
Author: Bruce Kuklick
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0198250312

Pro:
•  Good resource on American philosophy
•  Dense, but clearly written
•  Author doesn't hold back his opinions, so it's not a dry, academic text

Con:
•  None

Description:
•  Explanation of the development of philosophy in America
•  Approaches topic in chronological manner
•  Argues that American philosophy has lost its way

 

Book Review

There has been a lot of philosophy produced in America and that philosophy has been heavily influenced by the unique character of American religion and the American position in the world. This is the story told by Bruce Kuklick, Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, in his recent book A History of Philosophy in America. For the first time, you can read about the full scope of American philosophy from its earliest days through the dawn of the 21st century.

Key to understanding early American philosophy, and thus the whole course of American philosophy, is the parish ministries of New England where various forms of Calvinism held sway.

Most famous of the ministers was Jonathan Edwards, a religious leader who struggled with the Calvinist doctrines of grace and salvation - his ideas on these subjects became influential not just in America, but in Europe as well:

    "His views of human depravity and freedom, and their relation to experimental revivalism, were the core of learned debate in the colonies. Edwards bequeathed the central question to succeeding generations of American thinkers: how is the lone believer, at the mercy of a cosmos that was spiritually enigmatic, to assert moral freedom?"

Although later thinkers would abandon explicit Calvinism and even the Bible as the basis for addressing such issues, this question would continue to be a central topic in American thought. After the status of Calvinism dropped, it was replaced in part by natural science, but the outlook that took over was Pragmatism. This change was solidified through the work of such luminaries as William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism gained a very significant social status which reached far beyond academia:

    "In bringing earlier pragmatist ideas to fruition, Dewey gave philosophy its greatest public standing. He elevated scientific knowing, but stressed not the abstract logic of scientific reasoning but the practice of people of knowledge and the application of science to the social realm - the continuity of facts and value. Truth was prized because it enabled us to lead fuller and more satisfying lives; and intelligence was a quality of the activities of the community."

This idea of philosophers being well-known public figures will seem strange and foreign to people today because philosophy has lost so much of its potency through the last half of the 20th century. Indeed, Kuklick argues that this is directly the fault of philosophers themselves:

    "...philosophers disdained much of the rest of the academy and had little interest in what other practitioners wanted. This was true for both analytic philosophers and their opponents. While analytic philosophy was unintelligible to many because of its often forbidding use of mathematical symbolism, non-analytic philosophy was not known for its clarity..."
A History of Philosophy in America

A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000, by Bruce Kuklick

The result has been that the role of "public intellectuals" has been adopted by theorists in other disciplines, like History and English departments. This, too, is distinct to American philosophy, something not seen so much in other countries. Nevertheless, the Protestant Christian character has remained a defining element throughout, something documented in Kuklick's text. American philosophy continues to wrestle with the central question of how the individual in the world is supposed to assert some measure of moral freedom.

This question may not have any final answers, but Kuklick's book provides a good review of how Americans have tried to construct such answers. It is a dense text, and as such may not be easy for those with no background in philosophy; on the other hand it is written in a very clear and engaging style, which means that non-philosophers can get a lot out of it with a little effort.

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