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I • ' · PHILOSOPHICAL TRENDS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA THOMAS A. GauncE THE nineteenth century was largely a formative period in American philosophy. Historical circumstances were unfavourable to the development of indigenous systems of thought~ and philosophical conceptions· nearly all ,came from Europe. What happened to these conceptions after crossing the Atlantic is a story that deserves to be better known than it is. Not only does it possess intrinsic. interest as a chapter in the history of ideas, but it also helps to illuminate the dQctrines expounded later by such "typically American" philosophers as Peirce, James, and Dewey. Mor~ over, 1t serves to cast a significant light on certain aspects of American civilization which emerged during the century. My purpose in the present paper is to relate this story in its broadest outlines. It is reasonably accurate to say that the philosophical .trends of the period were four in number. Until the middle of the century, Transcen dentalism was the dominant mode of thought outside academic circles, while the Scottish philosophy of Common Sense prevailed within the universities. After 1860, the mantle.of the Transcendentalists fell on the St. Louis Hegelians, that re·markable group of enthusiasts for classical Germ~n philosophy which was formed in the Middle West. The last thirty years of the century witnessed the arrival of Evolutionism in both the Darwinian and Spencerian versions. Its impact soon swept away the Scottish doctrines, and left a permanent effect on the intellectu.allife of the country. I Transcendentalism was the form which philosophical romanticism first took in America. It has been characterized as a·n inheritance from Kant admixed with elements from the systems of Fichte and Schelling.1 This was, indeed, its primary source. But in the case of such a major representative of the movement as Emerson, the influence of Platonism was also paramount. Both these sources were superimposed on the native moral earnestness which was carried over from the Puritan tradition. One might· say, therefore, that Transc~ndentalism was an amalgam of Platonism, Puritanism,· and German romanticism, with the third of these as the most important. 1 Teutonic ideas came to America in two ways. The :first was through the Am,erican edition of Coleridge's dids to Reflection, published iri 1829 with a long introduction by James Marsh, President·of the University of Vermont. This work, which was saturated with .the spirit of Kantism, tH. G. Town.send, PhilosopMcal Ideas in the United States (New York, 1934), 78 ff. 133 134 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY became a veritable source book for American .romantics. The second medium was provided by young intellectuals like Bancroft, Ticknor, Hedge, Henry James Sr., and Edward Everett, who. made pilgrimages to Germany in the first few dec·ades of the century, and returned full of admiration for the culture they had discovered.. Emerson was expressing a common opinion when he said of Everett that he had "an immense advantage in being the· first. American who sat in the G~rman universities and brought us home in his head their whole cultural methods and results."2 Such men laid the foundations for Transcendentalism. The movement itself was restricted mainly to New England. The principal advocates, Emerson, .Channing, Parker, and Ripley, ~ere Uni-. tarian clergymen who sought a more adequate formulation for their theology. They felt that the pallid negativism into which their faith had fallen was doubly ineffectual. On the one hand, it ma~e little progress in the struggle against rationalistic materiali~m which portrayed the individual as a mere puppet of natural laws, and reduced his consciousness to a byproduct of physical forces. On the other hand, it was out of harmony with the new spiri f of the times. This was the period when American society was changing from an agrarian and commercial economy to an industria] one. Vast natural resources were beginning to be exploited by men- of energy. and initiative. The age of Jackson had gi.ven fresh content to notions of political democracy. If Unitarianism was to be a vit~l factor in the community, it required a philosophy that would express the dominant motifs involved in these changes. That is to say, it needed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 133-142
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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