- Philosophy as Teaching:James’s “Knight Errant,” Thomas Davidson
In 1905 William James wrote an essay in McClure's Magazine recalling the importance to his own work of the Scottish-born philosopher Thomas Davidson. In the essay, James states that Davidson was "essentially a teacher." What is interesting when one looks at Davidson's life and work is that, for Davidson, teaching does seem to be an essential feature of what it means to be a philosopher. Here, I develop how Davidson construes this linking of philosophy and teaching with a concluding emphasis on the two schools he established: Glenmore, a summer philosophy program in the Adirondacks and the "Breadwinners' College," an open school he began for working persons in New York City. I offer this as a discussion paper so that James's recollection of Davidson's importance to his own work may provoke us to consider how we presently understand the linking of teaching and philosophy. This seems especially appropriate for an academic culture such as ours in which much of our time is spent teaching and in which we are often primarily evaluated by a separate category of professional "research."
The American tradition has "lost" any number of its important philosophers to the idiosyncrasies of scholarship and cultural memory. We have forgotten Samuel Johnson and the St. Louis Hegelians; we have routinely suppressed evidences regarding the intellectual accomplishments of Margaret Fuller and Jane Addams; we have denied the status of "philosophy" to W. E. B. DuBois and Henry David Thoreau among others; and we have narrowly escaped losing the work of pragmatism's initiator, Charles Peirce. These once lost and now, in some cases, redeemed thinkers have in common that they wrote something of significance. In an essay in the May 5, 1905, edition of McClure's Magazine, William James attempted to redeem a thinker who had not written work that bore this sort of significance. Not that he had not written extensively, but the writing was stiff, scholarly, and, for the most part, not highly original. In short, as philosophical writing, this person's work was not remarkable. Despite this, James believed this person's presence in our philosophical tradition to be important enough to be commended to our memory as a "knight errant of the intellectual [End Page 239] life" (James 1911, 80). The idea is intriguing: a philosopher whose writing is unremarkable but whom we should not forget, and who, James said, "was always essentially a teacher" (85).
The thinker in question is the rambunctious, itinerant Scot, Thomas Davidson, a member of several of the Cambridge philosophy and metaphysical "clubs" established in the later years of the nineteenth century. Davidson grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland, and became, according to Mildred Bakewell Hooker, a "wandering scholar," traveling the world to study in Canada, the United States, Italy, and Greece among other stops (Hooker n.d., 1). He was, his friend William Knight wrote, "from first to last, a peripatetic, and intellectual free-lance" (Anderson 1982, 20). Davidson was an exceptional linguist, fluent in French, German, Italian, Greek, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Early in his career he taught in Scotland and London, and in 1882 he, together with a group of young men and women, established "The Fellowship of the New Life," whose aims included the cultivation of character through attention to simplicity, education of the young, and manual labor coupled with intellectual pursuits (Davidson 1925, xxi). In 1884, a socialistically oriented branch of the Fellowship separated to establish the more well-known Fabian Society. In the same year Davidson left for the United States, where he lectured at Bronson Alcott's Concord Summer School and set out to establish an American version of the Fellowship. Then in 1889, with money borrowed from his friend Joseph Pulitzer, Davidson purchased 166 acres in Keene, New York, in the eastern Adirondacks. There he built his own rustic summer school, Glenmore, which he ran until his death in 1900. It is notable that James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and William Torrey Harris were among the regular participants. Just two years prior to his death Davidson took on perhaps his most interesting educational task—the development of his...