American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC096-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2019, from

3. Classical American philosophy

Although Wright was regarded as the leader of the Metaphysical Club, Peirce and then James proved to be its most significant members. Peirce seemed destined for intellectual achievement from an early age, and he began publishing papers on logic and semiotics in the 1860s. ‘Some Consequences of Four Incapacities’ (1868) contains the first published statement of his view that all thought is in signs, and ‘On a New List of Categories’ (1867) a first statement of his categorial scheme. Peirce presented what came to be called ‘the pragmatic maxim’ to the Metaphysical Club in an 1872 version of his paper ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’ (1878): ‘Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearing, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object’. In ‘The Fixation of Belief’ (1877) Peirce considers four ways in which we come to form beliefs: by authority, tenacity (holding on to the beliefs one already has), rationality, or science. Only science, Peirce argues, has the integrity that comes from allowing itself to be determined by ‘some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect’ (Peirce 1877).

Peirce worked at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in the 1860s and 1870s, and was appointed to a lectureship in logic in the new Graduate School at Johns Hopkins in 1879; but he was dismissed in 1884 and, despite occasional lectures at Harvard arranged by William James, never taught regularly again. In a series of papers in The Monist in the early 1890s he developed a system of metaphysics according to which absolute chance operates in the universe, but so does ‘evolutionary love’; and matter is ‘effete mind’. Central to Peirce’s many writings was the idea of three categories, Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. He held that all signs are ‘thirds’: besides a purely linguistic element and an object of reference, they contain an irreducible element of interpretation.

William James studied chemistry in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard in the 1860s, and biology with Louis Agassiz (including fifteen months in Brazil), receiving his degree in medicine in 1869. He began teaching anatomy and physiology in 1872, and became an assistant professor of psychology in 1875, when he established the first psychological laboratory in America. James’ earliest publications did not report research in physiology or the new psychophysics, however, but were a series of critiques of books on science, philosophy and culture. He argues in ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’ (1879), for example, that reason is a passion, and at the end of ‘Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence’ (1878) he anticipates the voluntaristic pragmatism of his later works:

The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing. The knower is an actor, and co-efficient of the truth on one side, whilst on the other he registers the truth which he helps to create.

(James 1878: 21)

James’ masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology (1890) gathers and integrates his writings of the 1870s and 1880s in a one-thousand-page work of physiology, psychology, and philosophy. The book became a standard text in newly established psychology programmes (especially in its shortened form), and influenced philosophers as diverse as Edmund Husserl (by its phenomenological description) and Bertrand Russell (by its distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and by description – see Knowledge by acquaintance and description). James introduces the ideas of the stream of thought and the ‘vague’ or ‘fringe’ areas of consciousness, in opposition to the discrete atomic sensations of traditional British empiricism. He stresses the importance of attention and habit in our mental life, and offers a theory of the emotions as responses to, rather than causes of, emotional behaviour. James’ moral outlook appears throughout the Principles and indeed throughout his philosophy, but is particularly explicit and prominent in the collections of papers, some from as early as the 1870s, that he published as The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1896).

Although he credited Peirce with originating pragmatism, a lecture James gave at the University of California at Berkeley in 1898 entitled ‘Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results’, contains the first published use of the term. Pragmatism, for James, is the view that ‘the effective meaning of any philosophic proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive’. He credits ‘English-speaking philosophers’ such as Locke and Berkeley with introducing the pragmatic ‘custom of interpreting the meaning of conceptions by asking what difference they make for life’, as Berkeley did when he found the ‘cash-value’ of matter to lie solely in our sensations.

Josiah Royce was brought up in the California goldrush town of Grass Mountain, studied English at Berkeley and philosophy in Germany. At Johns Hopkins from 1876 to 1878, he studied with George Sylvester Morris, a scholar of German philosophy and a proponent of T.H. Green. Receiving his Ph.D. in 1878, Royce taught English at Berkeley, then philosophy at Harvard, where he became a mainstay of the department. Royce introduced formal logic into the curriculum, and was a respected idealist opponent of James’ more naturalistic, open-ended pragmatism.

Royce’s early philosophical writing is in accord with his lifelong interests both in the history of philosophy, and in developing his own version of metaphysical idealism. His first book, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885) argues for an Absolute Mind that contains all thoughts and their objects. In The Spirit of Modern Philosophy: An Essay in the Form of Lectures (1892), Royce traces ‘the rediscovery of the inner life’ from Spinoza to Kant, with special emphasis on Fichte – praised for his ‘beautiful waywardness’, the Romantic School, including Goethe, Novalis and Schelling, and Hegel. Royce argues, however, that the inner life is essentially public: that we live in our coherence or relationships with other people.

The third great pragmatist to emerge in the late nineteenth century, John Dewey, had neither the scientific background of Peirce and James, nor their association with Harvard. Dewey attended the University of Vermont in his home town of Burlington from 1875 to 1879. He studied not only the Scottish school but Kant and Hegel with the university’s philosophy professor, H.A.P. Torrey (1837–1902). According to his own testimony, Dewey found in Hegel’s philosophy ‘an immense release, a liberation’ from a sense of divisions between self and world, soul and body, nature and God. Enrolling in the new graduate school at Johns Hopkins in 1882, he studied Hegel and Green with Morris, logic with Charles Peirce, and the newly emerging experimental psychology with G. Stanlely Hall (1844–1924). Appointed to a post at the University of Michigan in 1884, he taught there, with the exception of a year at Minnesota, till 1894 when he began teaching at the University of Chicago.

Dewey’s early papers argue for a reconciliation of Darwinism, Hegelian idealism and religion. Intelligence, Dewey asserts, is latent in evolving matter. In the 1890s Dewey called his synthesis of Hegelianism and science ‘experimental idealism’, but he gradually moved – as he says in the title of his autobiography – ‘from absolutism to experimentalism’. His paper ‘The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology’ (1896), presages his future instrumentalism and pragmatism in its attacks on the prevailing stimulus–response theory, which Dewey sees as preserving a sharp metaphysical and epistemological distinction between sensory stimulation and motor response. Stimulus and response are, Dewey argues, aspects of a basic ‘sensorimotor coordination’, a ‘circuit’ or ‘continual reconstitution’. The sensorimotor coordination, like Dewey’s later ‘problem situation’, shares with Hegelian logic the idea of a progression of temporally evolving wholes.

Dewey’s educational philosophy also took shape in the 1890s, when he was a professor not only of philosophy but also of psychology and pedagogy. He worked with high school faculty in Michigan, and with the Laboratory School at Chicago. In ‘Interest in Relation to the Training of the Will’ (1896), Dewey argues that because interest is a complex of felt worth and incipient action, when we are genuinely interested in something, we do not have to will to do it. Only through such genuine interest, which ‘marks the annihilation of the distance between the person and the materials and results of his action’, can the will be effectively trained (Dewey 1896). In ‘My Pedagogic Creed’ (1897), Dewey maintains that education is ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’, and that therefore it must seek ‘forms of life that are worth living for their own sake’ (Dewey 1897).

Citing this article:
Goodman, Russell B.. Classical American philosophy. American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC096-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.