American Philosophy

Phil 176: Historical Philosophers—American Philosophy

This course in American Philosophy begins with an examination of John Locke’s theory of natural rights, which posits entitlements to life, liberty and property, and an assessment of the role Locke’s ideas played in the American Revolution and the construction of its founding documents.  We then turn to the growing popularity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the subsequent century and its consequences for the idea of God-given rights referenced in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.  Religious philosophers influenced by Kant and Hegel gave an idealist interpretation of evolution via natural selection, reading natural history on Earth as the realization of an end or goal that we can embrace as good upon reflection.  And Darwin shared in this optimistic reading shorn of its theological commitments by viewing human history as natural selection for intelligence and virtue.  After reviewing this material we will focus on the responses to Darwinian biology formulated by those American philosophers who founded Pragmatism: Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. 

Phil 176 – American Philosophy – Course Syllabus –  W 2019

1. America’s Founding Ideology: Natural Rights

Source 1: Locke’s Two Treatises

Phil 176 Handout 1 – Locke



Source 2: Rough Draft of the Declaration

Source 3: Declaration of Independence

Essay Assignment #1: Due in Class – 2/6/19

Source 4: Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice

Recommended: Phil 176 Supplementary Handout – An Analysis of the Effect of Locke’s Political Philosophy on the US Constitution

2. The Epistemology of America’s Founding Ideology: The Self-Evidence of God-Given Rights

Source 5a: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapter 1.

Source 5b: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapters 2-3.

Phil 176 – Handout 2 – White’s Assessment of the Basis of Belief in Natural Rights


3. The Role of Natural Rights Ideology in Abolitionism

Source 6: Frederick Douglas, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852).

Source 7: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

Source 8: Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963 

Source 9: Daniel S. Malachuk, “Antebellum Natural Rights Liberalism,” in Levine, Merrill and Stoner (Eds.), The Political Thought of the Civil War, University Press of Kansas (2018), pp. 74-97.

Phil 176 – Handout 3 – The Political Potential of the Ideal of Natural Rights

Recommended: Sandel’s criticism of Rawls’ “Political” Liberalism

Essay Assignment # 2: Due in Class: 3/6/19

4. Darwinian Skepticism about Natural Rights

Source 10: Aaron Zimmerman, Veneer Theory, in D. Machuca (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Moral Skepticism (2018), pp. 199-212.

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

Recommended: Phil 176 – Handout – Huxley’s Skepticism about Natural Equality

Recommended: John C. Greene, “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist,” Journal of the History of Biology, 10, 1 (Spring 1977), pp. 1-27.

Recommended: Weikart on Darwin’s Socioeconomic Views

Phil 176 – Handout 4 – The Application of Natural Selection to the Study of Humanity’s Past and Future 

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

Phil 176 – Handout 5 – Dewey’s Assessment of Darwin’s Influence on Philosophy

5. Charles Sander Peirce

Source 12: C.S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November 1877), pp. 1-15.

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – Charles Sanders Peirce

6. William James

Source 13: William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” The International Journal of Ethics, 1, 3 (April 1891), pp. 330-54.

Phil 176 – Handout 7 – William James

Study Sheet for the Final Exam 


Additional Material

Algernon Sidney, The Discourses Concerning Government

Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy

Locke and Shaftesbury: The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina

J.P. Greene “An Uneasy Connection…”

T.H. Breen “Ideology and Nationalism…”

Phil 176 Handout on Breen and Greene

P. Wood “Liberty is Sweet…”

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

Further Founding Documents

U.S. Constitution

Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

Further Chapters from White’s Analysis of the Founder’s Epistemology

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

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

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.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law, Harvard Law Review (1918)

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) 

What Are Normative Principles of Thought and Action for Humans Conceived of as Animals Evolving Via “Natural” Mechanisms of Selection?

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – C.I. Lewis “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori”

Phil 176 – Handout 7 – Sidney Hook, “Naturalism and First Principles”

Old Essays

Essay 2 S 17