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  • "Esthetic Sensitivity":The Sublime Architecture of Paul Conkin's Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers
  • Peter Kuryla (bio)

Among the many writers of American intellectual history who have tackled the subject of either Puritanism or Pragmatism as a distinctive set of ideas, few have ventured much connection or continuity between them. More than forty years ago the historian Paul K. Conkin in his Puritans and Pragmatists attempted precisely that, although not without a certain measure of diffidence. "Even the most perceptive reader," wrote Conkin, "may find the unity too elusive to be convincing."1

Given the relatively recent reprinting of Puritans and Pragmatists by Baylor University Press (2006), it seems fitting to revisit this underappreciated book and its qualified suggestion that the two strains of thought might somehow be connected. Puritans and Pragmatists is an intensely moral piece of writing, particularly when it comes to what Conkin calls "esthetic sensitivity." Certainly the central theme of the book—that Puritans and Pragmatists alike partake from an elusive yet somehow common aesthetic and moral sensibility—deserves some consideration within the historical context of the late 1960s. (The book first appeared in 1968.)

Puritans and Pragmatists is a set of introductions to, and evaluations of, the thought and character of eight men who Conkin adjudges "eminent American thinkers," namely: Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Santayana. It begins with a "Puritan Prelude" that sets the groundwork for comparisons. The persistent theme of Conkin's text is more about Puritanism than Pragmatism; he sketches the rough outlines of an American tradition that mutated from Puritanism and its various Antinomian and Arminian challengers, culminating in different varieties of Pragmatism. Thus many of the questions that bedeviled the Puritans of the 17th century prove persistent throughout, despite the thinkers surveyed having been compelled to adapt to changing intellectual circumstances and contexts. Pragmatism rightly considered (which for Conkin really means Deweyean Pragmatism) is essentially a secular updating of the best Puritan impulses, namely the rigor of the calling (if not by God then by nature), and the careful balance of the aesthetic or ecstatic with purely rational or instrumental versions of experience. Jonathan Edwards and John Dewey are the heroes of the book, George Santayana the biggest disappointment, as "he tried to erect a disinfected idealism in the realm of spirit, where neither moths nor rust could corrupt" (405). William James endures a sustained beating for Arminian lapses of judgment. (I imagine that James would take this beating personally, get depressed, and then recover with characteristic good humor were he alive to receive it.)

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A statue of Benjamin Franklin by Daniel Chester French at Palmer Hall, Princeton University. Photo by Randall Stephens.

The facile way to criticize Puritans and Pragmatists would be to ask why a book about eight white males—all East Coast types (of a sort) no less—was written during one of the most tortured periods in recent United States history, in an era characterized by a heightening of racial, ethnic—and only slightly later feminist—consciousness. Why not include W.E.B. DuBois with the Pragmatists, like Cornel West did some twenty years later in his American Evasion of Philosophy? How about Jane Addams? And given Conkin's background (he hails from East Tennessee) why the East Coast? It's hardly America writ small.

Perhaps this serves as a small reminder that intellectual history in the United States took a while to catch up with what was then rapidly emerging as the dominant approach in the 1960s: social history. The so-called consensus school (a misleading but nonetheless useful term), which emphasized American "style," "character," and "mind," was collapsing in favor of more focused histories of a far less celebratory variety. Of course, these were the years of the big, influential studies of American slavery, but for intellectual historians, the late 1960s and the early to mid-1970s also witnessed the emergence of what has since been called the "republican synthesis" with respect to histories of the American Revolution and the Constitution. Bernard Bailyn won a Bancroft and a Pulitzer for the Ideological Origins...


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pp. 24-26
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