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  • The American Reception of Jules Lequyer:From James to Hartshorne
  • Donald Wayne Viney (bio)

The influence of Jules Lequyer [or Lequier] (1814–1862) in philosophy, especially American philosophy, is disproportionate to the widespread ignorance of his name and to the fragmentary state of his literary remains. On the subject of free will, Lequyer’s influence on William James (1842–1910) was profound, although James did not acknowledge his debt to the Frenchman, nor has it been recognized by most James scholars. It is true that James considered Lequyer “a French philosopher of genius,”1 but inexplicably, he never mentioned Lequyer by name in his published work. Lack of knowledge of Lequyer among Anglophones is perhaps not surprising since, in addition to James’s curious silence, it took more than a hundred years after Lequyer’s death for English translations of his work to be made. From the latter half of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth century, the non-French reading public could have acquired knowledge of the outline of Lequyer’s thought, but only by paying very careful attention to philosophical journals, histories of philosophy, and encyclopedias.

The American philosopher who, more than any other, introduced Lequyer to the English speaking world was Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000). He provided philosophers with a glimpse of the genius of Lequyer’s writing by including translated excerpts in his seminal anthology, Philosophers Speak of God (1953), coedited with William L. Reese (b. 1921).2 In addition, Hartshorne alludes to or discusses Lequyer in all but five of his twenty-one books and in many of his articles. Harvey H. Brimmer II (1924–1990)—Hartshorne’s student at Emory University (1955–1962)—helped to further Lequyer’s reputation with an article in Paul Edwards’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy and with a translation of Lequyer’s quasi-autobiographical meditation, “The Hornbeam Leaf.”3 Brimmer’s [End Page 260] doctoral dissertation, titled “Jules Lequier and Process Philosophy,” was never published, but it was the first book-length English language study of the Frenchman’s thought. Brimmer included English translations of two of Lequyer’s works as an appendix to his dissertation—the translations were made by Brimmer and his wife, Jacqueline Delobel Brimmer (d. 2008).4 The Brimmer-Delobel translation never achieved a wide readership, for it was never published outside the dissertation. It was only at the end of the century that large segments of Lequyer’s writings were available in English translation.5 A complete edition of Lequyer’s writing in English translation has yet to be published.

The story of Lequyer’s reception in American philosophy can usefully be divided into three stages: (1) Lequyer’s influence on James on the subject of free will; (2) the brief, intermittent, and scattered discussions of Lequyer’s ideas about free will in the philosophical literature between the times of James and Hartshorne; and (3) Hartshorne’s presentation of Lequyer as a forerunner of process philosophy and theology. While not ignoring Lequyer’s ideas about free will, Hartshorne highlighted hitherto neglected aspects of Lequyer’s thinking that bear on the nature of God and God’s relation to the world. Hartshorne championed Lequyer as a “neglected genius,” and he chastised historians of philosophy for overlooking his importance.6 It remains to ask how American philosophy might profit by being more attentive to Lequyer’s work. I suggest that the answer to this question begins with a serious attempt to understand Lequyer as someone worth studying in his own right, not merely as one who influenced great philosophers or who contributed to important philosophical schools of thought. [End Page 261]

I. Lequyer’s Influence on William James

The works of Charles Renouvier (1815–1903) were the literary bridge to carry Lequyer’s name across the Atlantic to America. Only one philosopher, however, seems to have taken notice, but he was one of America’s greatest philosophers, William James. James credited Renouvier with bringing new clarity to the ancient problem of free will. In the story now so familiar to James scholars, James was spiraling into depression until he read Renouvier’s “Second Essay.” James’s former commitment to determinism gave way to a...


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