American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC096-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

2. 19th century philosophy

The most original and influential early nineteenth century philosophical writers arose not in the universities, however, but among the Concord Transcendentalists. This group included Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), Frederick Henry Hedge (1805–90), George Ripley (1802–80), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), Margaret Fuller (1810–50) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). Among these, Emerson and Thoreau stand out for their power as writers, and for their influence on such subsequent philosophers as James, Dewey, Nietzsche, and Ghandi.

Emerson enjoyed a highly visible career as a lecturer and writer. His sources include the classical philosophy he studied at Harvard, English and German Romantic poetry and philosophy, Hinduism and other non-Western philosophies and, of course, Christianity. Emerson’s first book, Nature calls for a new ‘original relation to the universe’ (Emerson 1836). His controversial ‘Divinity School Address’ (1838) condemns the ‘Monster’ of historical Christianity and urges the divinity graduates to find their own original natures, without which they can offer nothing to others. One makes the most sense to others, Emerson holds, by diving deeply into one’s own heart. Emerson’s First Series (1841) and Second Series (1844) of essays offer striking aphorisms and powerful paragraphs advocating a life of ‘self-reliance’, expanding ‘circles’, deep-seeing ‘intellect’, and balanced ‘experience’. Representative Men (1850) and The Conduct of Life (1860) are important later works.

Thoreau thought of philosophy as a practice: a life of ‘simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust’ (Thoreau 1854). Walden is a record of that practice, based on two years spent living in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, and offers a series of reflections on nature and human life. Thoreau finds the mass of men and women living ‘lives of quiet desperation’, driving themselves like slaves. In Walden’s long opening chapter on Economy, Thoreau construes his life at Walden as an ‘experiment’ to show how little is really necessary for life and, by contrast, how needlessly complex most people’s lives happen to be. Later chapters blend descriptions of Walden Pond with reflections on the peculiar power of literature – ‘the work of art nearest to life itself’ (Thoreau 1854), on reading, vegetarianism, spring, ice, living in the present and neighbourliness. Thoreau’s other works include his essays ‘Walking’ (1862), and the influential ‘Civil Disobedience’ (1849).

After the Civil War (1861–5), two of the many philosophical clubs scattered throughout the East and Midwest played a special role in the development of American philosophy. The ‘St. Louis Hegelians’ were led by William Torrey Harris (1835–1909) and Hans Conrad Brokmeyer (1826–1906). Brokmeyer emigrated to the US from Prussia in 1844, practised law, and eventually became lieutenant governor of Missouri. A leader in the German community, he worked on a translation of Hegel’s Logic, which circulated in manuscript. Harris, a native of Connecticut who left Yale in his junior year, taught school in St. Louis and eventually became United States Commissioner of Education. He studied Bronson Alcott and Emerson, Goethe and Victor Cousin; with Brokmeyer, he founded the St. Louis Philosophical Club in 1866 and The Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1867. The latter was the first technical philosophical journal in the USA or England, and published papers not only by US and English Hegelians such as Harris and Edward Caird, but by Peirce, Dewey, and William James (parts of The Principles of Psychology were first published in the journal). A few weeks of joint philosophical efforts among the Midwest and Eastern ‘idealists’ and the university professors of philosophy occurred during the summers of 1879–83, when the Concord School, founded by Emerson and Alcott, enlisted Harris, William James, Benjamin Peirce (Charles’ father, a Harvard professor of mathematics), James McCosh (last of the Princeton Scottish realists), George Sylvester Morris (the Hegelian teacher of Dewey and Royce at Hopkins), and Emerson himself as lecturers.

The Cambridge Metaphysical Club had its origins in James’ 1868 proposal to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr (1841–1935) that they should establish ‘a philosophical society to have regular meetings and discuss none but the very tallest and broadest questions’ (Kuklick 1977: 47). By 1871 the club centred around six men, all with Harvard degrees: James and Holmes, Charles Peirce, Chauncey Wright, Nicholas St. John Green, and Joseph Bangs Warner. Green, a Boston attorney, introduced the thought of the British psychologist and philosopher Alexander Bain (1818–1903), particularly his definition of belief as ‘that upon which a man is prepared to act’. Wright was a mathematician employed by the Nautical Almanac as a ‘calculator’, and an occasional lecturer in psychology and physics at Harvard. He applied Darwin’s evolutionary theory to the development of consciousness in such publications as ‘Evolution of Consciousness’ (1873), maintaining that consciousness comes about not from any new capacity but from using an old capacity – forming images – in a new way (see Evolution, theory of).

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