Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC096-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

Jonathan Edwards, the first great American philosopher, interpreted Calvinist theology within the newer framework of Newtonian physics and Lockean empiricism in his Freedom of the Will (1754). However, he was all but forgotten by the end of the eighteenth century, when political rather than theological issues held centre stage. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the moral sense theory of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Lockean liberalism and classical republican theory all contributed to the thought of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others who saw themselves as parties to a contract with a monarch, defenders of the rights of humans, and members of a new and virtuous republic.

In the early nineteenth century, Scottish common sense realism prevailed in the universities, but the most original and influential philosophical writing came from the communities of the transcendentalists. Emerson and Thoreau developed philosophies of life, language, knowledge and being in writings drawing on the Greek and Roman classics, English and German Romanticism, Christianity, and non-Western thought. After the Civil War (1861–5), a series of clubs in the East and Midwest, and the new Journal of Speculative Philosophy made Hegel more accessible to Americans; while in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the ‘Metaphysical Club’ of William James, Charles Peirce, Chauncey Wright and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr became the birthplace of pragmatism.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the professionalization of American philosophy: new graduate departments at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, professional journals, and state-supported universities in the Midwest building non-denominational departments of philosophy. By the end of the century, James had published his vast Principles of Psychology (1890) and enunciated a version of pragmatism; Peirce had produced an outpouring of writing on pragmatism, scientific method, logic, semiotics and metaphysics; and Josiah Royce and John Dewey were launched on influential academic careers.

Citing this article:
Goodman, Russell B.. American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC096-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.