American philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries

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

1. Colonial America

The early Puritan communities were sustained by an intense and continuous involvement with abstract ideas. To the Harvard undergraduate studying Ramus’ Dialectica, as to the townsman poring over Calvin’s Institutes, questions concerning conversion and sanctification were understood to lie at the heart of New England covenant theology, and these in turn were inseparable from a set of problems in what we now call epistemology, ontology and ethics or moral psychology.

In the immediate background of New England Puritan divinity lay an unstable synthesis of medieval scholasticism and Calvinist theology, with what Calvin himself called the ‘awful decree’ of predestination at its centre. This synthesis would be exploded by Newton’s Principia and Locke’s Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, the two works together regarded in England’s American colonies, as in England and Europe, as heralding the advent of a New Science and a new philosophical empiricism.

The great monument of the encounter between covenant theology and the new empiricism is Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will (1754), deservedly famous for its apparently effortless reinterpretation of Calvinist doctrine within the newer framework of Newtonian physics – especially the new atomic or ‘corpuscular’ theory of matter – and Lockean sensationalism. This was the first significant work of philosophy produced in America, and the first American work in any category to have an important influence on European thought. Yet, although certain elements of his metaphysics were absorbed into Concord Transcendentalism, Edwards’ influence on American philosophy was otherwise virtually extinct by the end of the eighteenth century (see Edwards, J.).

After Edwards, ‘abstract’ discourse in America – that is, discourse concerned with ideas and principles – shifted from a theological to a political register, as it did also in Europe (for example, in Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques). In European political theory, a new sense of cultural relativity or ‘climate of contingency’ is reflected in the contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau: consent is the necessary basis for the polity, and the particular form of a society may vary according to cultural and historical contingencies. According to ‘Lockean liberal’ interpretations of the political philosophy of the Founders (Hartz, Boorstin), the Continental Congress applied the principles of Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government to their own case in declaring their independence from Britain: the monarch had violated his contract with the people, so the arrangement between them was dissolved.

The Federalist Papers (1787–8) of John Madison and Alexander Hamilton (with some assistance from John Jay) constitute an extraordinary intervention of philosophy in the historical process, as they were written for a New York newspaper in the period when the Constitution was being voted on in the state legislatures. In the background of this and other American political documents of the late eighteenth century lies a sea of European ideas and their American inflections, including not just Lockean liberalism, but the moral sense theory of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and classical republican theory (deriving ultimately from Aristotle and Polybius via Machiavelli, Montesquieu and the English ‘Country party’ of Bailyn, Pocock and Dowling). Classical republican theory, with its vocabulary of ‘luxury’ and ‘corruption’ as opposed to ‘virtue’, allowed the American colonists to think of themselves as returning to something like the ‘virtuous’ state of ancient Rome. Moral sense theory provided an idea central to many revolutionary documents: that all human beings are possessed of a ‘moral sense’ that discerns right from wrong in the same way as the ear hears a dissonance in music (see Moral sense theories).

It was in fact the transmutation of moral sense theory into the common sense epistemology of Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart and Sir William Hamilton that became the dominant philosophy taught at American universities from the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century. These writers offered a defence of direct perception against the scepticism of Hume that, in the hands of such teachers as John Witherspoon of Princeton (appointed in 1766), or Levi Hedge, the first professor of philosophy at Harvard (1792), could be seen as ‘deist’ or ‘Christian’. God created a material world, these writers held, which we by our ingenuity and careful observation can know and improve. Witherspoon, a conservative Scottish Presbyterian who became a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, taught that moral questions could be investigated scientifically, and argued against radical scepticism on the ground that we know our experiential errors by means of other experiences. His Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Eloquence (1800) became a standard college text. Scots common sense theory helped make empiricism and science orthodox within the universities, while in its realism and insistence that relations are perceived, it anticipated doctrines of Peirce and James (see Common-sense ethics; Common Sense School).

Citing this article:
Goodman, Russell B.. Colonial America. 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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