American Philosophy

Phil 176: Historical Philosophers—American Philosophy

Is there a distinctively American philosophy? There are several reasons for pessimism on this score. One reason is the diversity of the nation’s population and the histories and ideas of those who have made it what it is. Another is the (supposedly) Protestant English (or Deistic) origin of America’s founding political philosophy insofar as that philosophy is to be found in our common laws and constitution.  Some read those documents and say that belief in the natural rights of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (family, friends and property) cannot be the philosophy of the founders given its incompatibility with the racial slavery they practiced.    Some say that Capitalism is distinctively American.  Some say Social Darwinism.  And some name Pragmatism.  But these philosophies also have fairly obvious British origins.  

Our aim in this course is to examine these three bodies of thought—(i) the natural rights philosophy articulated in America’s founding documents, (ii) the Social Darwinism that accompanied the economic ascendancy of the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and (ii) the pragmatic reaction to both Natural Rights philosophy and Social Darwinism framed by Peirce, James and Dewey. The tentative hypothesis we will test this quarter can be traced to Dewey: Pragmatism is our best hope of rescuing our (more or less shared) ideals of liberal democracy from Darwin’s destruction of Locke’s theory of natural rights. “The weaker our faith in Nature, in its laws and rights and its benevolent intentions for human welfare, the more urgent is the need for a faith based on ideas that are now intellectually credible and that are consonant with present economic conditions, which will inspire and direct action with something of the ardor once attached to things religious” (Dewey, 1939, 164-5)

Phil 176 Course Syllabus – 2017

Essay Assignment #1: Due in Class 5/8/17

Source 1: Locke’s Two Treatises

Phil 176 Handout 1 – Locke

recommended sources:

Algernon Sidney, The Discourses Concerning Government

Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy

Locke and Shaftesbury: The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina

Source 2: Rough Draft of the Declaration

Source 3: Declaration of Independence

Source 4: Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

Source 5: J.P. Greene “An Uneasy Connection…”

Source 6: T.H. Breen “Ideology and Nationalism…”

Phil 176 Handout 2 – Breen and Greene

Source 7: P. Wood “Liberty is Sweet…”

recommended source:

R.D. Brown, Self-Evident Truths, chapter 7

Source 8a: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapter 1.

Source 8b: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapters 2-3.

Phil 176 – Handout 3 – White

Essay Assignment # 2 – Due in Class 6/5/17

Source 9a: U.S. Constitution

Source 9b: Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

Phil 176 – Handout 4 – A Lockean Analysis of the US Constitution

Source 9c: L.G. Schwoerer, “Locke, Lockean Ideas, and the Glorious Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas (1990), pp. 531-48.

recommended sources:

The English Bill of Rights

R. Brookhiser, Correcting the Constitution, American History, December 2015

W.M. Treanor, “Taking Text Too Seriously: Modern Textualism, Original Meaning, and the Case of Amar’s Bill of Rights, Michigan Law Review (Dec 2007), pp. 487-53.

Source 10: T. Huxley, On the Natural Inequality of Men (1890)

Phil 176 – Handout 5 – Huxley’s Skepticism about Natural Equality

Source 11: J. Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (1909)

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – Dewey’s Assessment of Darwin’s Influence on Philosophy

Study Sheet for the Final Exam 


Additional Material

Source 8c: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapters 4-5.

Source 8d: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapter 6 and epilogue.

Source 12: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law, Harvard Law Review (1918)

recommended source:

Jeremy Bentham’s Critique of the Doctrine of Natural Rights in Anarchical Fallacies (1843) 

M.L. Dudziak, Oliver Wendell Holmes as a Eugenic Reformer (1986)