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Reviewed by:
  • American Philosophy before Pragmatism by Russell B. Goodman
  • V. Denise James
Russell B. Goodman. American Philosophy before Pragmatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 281. Cloth, £27.50.

Goodman’s book is neither a survey, nor a comprehensive history of American philosophy before pragmatism emerged in the late nineteenth century in the works of Charles S. Peirce and William James, nor does it explore undiscovered depths of American thought possibly overlooked or lost to time. Rather, Goodman’s treatment of five men—-Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau—attempts to follow James’s understanding of what philosophies are and to “convey each writer’s feel for the ‘whole push’ of things” (3). In that regard, Goodman succeeds and gives the reader a sense of each man’s motivations. Each is given his own chapter, including an interlude and an epilogue. Goodman promises to connect the men with three common threads: their response to the Enlightenment, a “dialectic of reception and invention” (4) related to the world, and their responses to slavery. The book leaves this reviewer with mixed views about whether it delivers on its promises. [End Page 686]

The first chapter is devoted to Edwards. Like subsequent figure-based chapters, it serves as a good starting point for a student reader, and provides a synoptic view of Edwards’s theology and response to philosophical trends of his time. Edwards’s biography is of a preacher who wrote defenses of “continuous creation” (19) in the face of deism. Goodman helps us understand Edwards’s criticism of the Enlightenment’s anthropocentric philosophies, his contention that God is the source of all good and therefore the cause of any uniquely good human endeavor, including the peculiar institution of slavery. Goodman contends that Edwards, who had baptized blacks, “knew that slaves were human beings” (45) and, like many of his era, defended slavery on grounds that were both racist and theological, befitting his class aspirations.

As with much of the book, Goodman has little to say about why we should turn from one thinker to another. It is unclear what narrative strand supports the move from Edwards, the “last Puritan thinker,” to his contemporary “Franklin, the great American philosophe” (2). The chapter recounts Franklin’s biography and offers an interesting account of his moral philosophy. Instead of a moral theory, Goodman claims, Franklin “provides, rather, a series of instructions on how to live, and a set of virtues” (68). This interpretation of Franklin’s evolving moral philosophies is one of the work’s strongest points. We get a sense of the breadth and depth of Franklin’s person and thinking, but no sense of why Franklin’s views on slavery changed. We know Franklin owned slaves, defended New World slave-holding in Europe, but was influenced to change his mind while in France. Franklin’s abolitionist turn is given short shrift.

Given even less consideration in the first two chapters is how Edwards and Franklin perceived the Native American populations they encountered; Edwards was a missionary, and Franklin was a Pennsylvania official who advocated forming a militia to defend the colonies from the “French and hostile Indian tribes” (61). While the book cannot cover every facet of each thinker’s ideas, for both, the “Indian question” looms large, related to robust discussions of both “Americanness” and slavery.

The interlude traces how the emergence of republicanism in James Madison’s Federalist relates to prior ancient and modern notions of republicanism. It offers a succinct overview of Madison’s views, as the reader ponders why Madison is not being treated like the other figures. Transitioning to the Jefferson chapter does not settle the question; rather, the chapter proceeds like the previous ones, centering on Jefferson’s ideas over his lifetime rather than specifying where they intersect with those of Madison. Goodman offers a compelling claim against the common view of Jefferson as deist, arguing instead that Jefferson was an Epicurean who, “by abandoning creation and the idea of one God… decisively departs from deism” (122). The remainder of the chapter discusses other dimensions of Jefferson’s worldview and, predictably, attempts an exposition of his views...


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