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Louis Agassiz and the Platonist Story of Creation at Harvard, 1795-1846

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 66, Number 3, July 2005
pp. 437-449 | 10.1353/jhi.2005.0045

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Journal of the History of Ideas 66.3 (2005) 437-449

David K. Nartonis

Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1846, naturalist Louis Agassiz took Harvard College by storm with his idealist approach to nature. In his initial lectures, repeated in New York the following year, Agassiz announced, "We have that within ourselves which assures us of participation in the Divine Nature and it is a particular characteristic of man to be able to rise in that way above material Nature, and to understand intellectual existences." He then made it clear that by intellectual existences he meant a divine plan of creation. "What naturalists intend when they speak of what they call 'types' . . . may be easily understood by comparison. We all know that architects construct our dwellings according to plans conceived by them before the erection of the edifice." There is no doubt that Agassiz valued the careful collection of observational data. "It has only been step by step that man has acquired an insight into this plan." But his empiricism, if that is the right term, was entirely subordinate to apprehension of divine ideas, which alone deserved to be called science. In one recent account, The Metaphysical Club, which contains an excellent discussion of Agassiz's American career, author Louis Menand accurately describes this dual emphasis on observation and intuition. But Menand leaves unstated the problem of Agassiz's welcome at Harvard, attributing his instant popularity to force of character.

A fuller explanation of Agassiz's welcome is to be found in the Scottish textbooks that dominated the Harvard philosophy curriculum prior to his arrival. Like Agassiz, textbook authors Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown recognized observation and intuition as twin sources of human knowledge. According to them, we observe our own moral tendencies and interpret them in the light of intuited ethical principles that even God must obey. Similarly, we observe nature and interpret its workings with the aid of intuited principles of common sense. There is no doubt that this dual emphasis on observation and intuition was entirely consistent with Agassiz's idealist biology. But his definition of species and genera as intellectual existences in the divine mind was not to be found in the official Scottish texts. In fact, Dugald Stewart, who governed the philosophy curriculum after 1820, insisted that there are "no existences in nature corresponding to general terms, and the objects of our attention in all our general speculations are not ideas but words." This was "long misunderstood by philosophers, who imagined that a generic word expresses an actual existence distinct from the individuals of which the genus is composed." Similarly, Thomas Brown lamented, "One fundamental error . . . as long as it retained its hold of the understanding, must have rendered all its energies ineffectual, by wasting them in search of objects, which had no real existence . . . I allude to . . . the various orders of universals." In this one respect, Stewart and Brown were in agreement with Alexander Pope when he counseled his many American readers "presume not God to scan" and ridiculed those who would "soar with Plato to th' empyreal sphere."

But Harvard students and faculty were also reading books that promoted the intellectual existences that Agassiz saw behind nature and the Scots did not. Chief among these books were Plato's Works (ca. 360 BCE), Philo's De Opificio Mundi (20 BCE to 50 CE), Ralph Cudworth's The True Intellectual System of the World (1678), and John Norris's An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intellectual World (1701–04). These combined with such widely popular literature as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1668) and the prose works of Samuel Coleridge to form a kind of unofficial curriculum that ultimately made Agassiz's idealist view of nature especially welcome at Harvard. Modest at first, Harvard interest in intellectual existences bloomed with the appearance of books by Romantic writers on campus. In order to illustrate this long development, I will bolster my explanation with data from Harvard College library borrowing records—handwritten lists of the books borrowed by each library user during a one- or two-year period, which are nearly complete after 1770.

Harvard College library records show that the most borrowed...

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