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Self-Reliance and the Portability of Pragmatism
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Self-Reliance and the Portability of Pragmatism

I. Introduction

Flush with the juices of adolescence, American philosophy declared independence from its European parentage in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his generation. In 1837, Emerson addressed the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society on the occasion of its inaugural meeting for the year, which he called a “holiday.” Emerson began:

I greet you on the recommencement of our literary year. Our anniversary is one of hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor. We do not meet for games of strength or skill, for the recitation of histories, tragedies, and odes, like the ancient Greeks; for parliaments of love and poesy, like the Troubadours; nor for the advancement of science, like our contemporaries in the British and European capitals. Thus far, our holiday has been simply a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give letters any more. Perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectations of the world with something better than the expectations of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves.1

Emerson proceeded to argue that for the arising of American genius, the “first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature.”2 After nature come the influences of the minds of the past, which is to say nature as encountered through the experiences of others rather than directly. Emerson insisted on the danger of the influences of the minds of others, keeping them a distant second. In fact, he argued in many places that one cannot understand the minds of others in matters of encountering nature unless one first has a direct and original relation of one’s own to the universe.3 [End Page 93] Among the many implications he drew from this is the importance of distancing American philosophy from that of Europe until the Americans know their own mind. The third important and necessary influence, after the direct encounter with nature and the proper appropriation of the minds of the past, is learning from action. By action he meant the enormous energy of American business and agriculture in his time. He knew such “action” was the primary image Europeans had of America, all push and shove, no serious philosophy. He himself complained about the predominance of action in American culture, giving the American scholar a “love of letters” when Americans were too “busy” to give letters more than love. Yet he knew that learning from action was a key influence needed for the flourishing of American philosophy. For all its adolescent rebellion and enthusiasm, Emerson’s clarion call to self-reliance announced the themes that would mature in American philosophy to which I shall return shortly: nature, relating to the minds of the past from the standpoint of the present, and learning from action.

Before that, however, I want to point out that American philosophy also had a promising childhood. Jonathan Edwards, a century before Emerson, was surely a child of Europe who thought of himself as contributing to the European conversation quite directly, however far west in the colonies. From Edwards’s many original contributions to that conversation, let me signal three. First was his emphasis on relating to the world through what he called “affections” or “dispositions,” which later would be developed by Charles Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, as the concept of habit.4 The importance of dispositions in Edwards was that it gave him a significant protection from the nominalism that was so rampant among those, such as John Locke, from whom he learned so much. Charles Peirce much later would claim, with only some exaggeration, that all of philosophy’s major errors derived from nominalism...