“American Philosopher”, part 1


There are a couple of nice little nuggets I’d like to pull out of this second video of American Philosopher.  First, I was excited to see the late John E. Smith join the video as an interviewee, though he seemed not to be mentioned in the teaser.  Smith was a great distiller of good information, and his work Spirit of American Philosophy has much merit.  That said, I am a bit skeptical about the claims he makes about the origin and character of archetypal American philosophy.  While it’s easy to see that pragmatism as an trend more readily absorbed into American academia.  Here are some of the claims from the film blurbs that I’ll address in kind.

  • “I think our practicality had so much to do with our need to subdue a continent.” –Smith
  • “I do?n’t think that pragmatism would ever have existed without the USA.  I just don’t think it could have developed on the soil of European philosophy at that time.” –Sartwell
  • “There’s a tendency among Americans to want to solve problems.” –Lachs

While I’m all for American philosophy and the laudable insights of pragmatism, phrases like this go a bit too far.  Sure, the American context may have been conducive to the flourishing of practical thought, but to say that America is the only possible progenitor of this thought is narrow-minded.  I think already in the time of Ancient Greek philosophy there are some decent examples of a pragmatic turn (Aristotle expresses a number of these characteristics).  Roman philosophy expresses a bit of this tendency, as do a number of aspects of Eastern philosophies (of which there is an implicit, almost chauvanistic, dismissal in Sartwell’s comment).  Furthermore, there is a sense in which Europe was already leaning towards a practical form of Existentialism (evident in Nietzsche and Heidegger, I think), and now the continent has their own pragmatists (Habermas, Vattimo, etc.).  I sincerely doubt Americans want to solve problems more than people in other countries, nor are they necessarily in general more practical.  My sense is that what got America a reputation for solving problems and being pragmatic is simply that a few of the proponents of such ideas found their way into higher academia and were accepted anyway1.  America is great and we’ve had some great philosophical insights, but let’s not give ourselves too much credit or resort to denying the possibility of historical counterfactuals wherein we didn’t provide such thought.

More interesting to me were Bernstein’s reflections on the relevance of philosophy to the American practicality (as opposed to the relevance of practicality to it’s philosophy).  It is actually surprising, if the textbooks are to be believed, that philosophical thought (particularly Enlightenment European philosophy) would have had such a powerful influence on the statebuilding process.  The founding fathers myths and stories are dripping with tales of inspiring figures with particular philosophical ideas conjoined with the concomitant practicality required to compromise where necessary to make them effective.  Likewise, American history is at least characterized as following a trajectory of philosophical self-awareness at the time of various social revolutions.  As Bernstein put it, “you couldn’t make any sense of America without understanding philosophy.  Very frequently the most significant progressive moments in American life is a coming together of a certain kind of practical-idealism.”  I nearly laughed when I heard the start of this sentence, but Bernstein, Anderson, Campbell, and Anne Rose (also not mentioned in the teaser) actually make a pretty decent, if succinct, case for this idea that philosophy is actually relevant to progress in American culture 2.  I have elsewhere read exchanges between Bernstein and Rorty arguing more broadly on this topic–whether philosophy really has the ability to impact culture.  I have always thought that whether or not it was true (I suspect it is) that Bernstein’s position is the more “pragmatic”; in other words, it is good for us to at least act like philosophy can influence culture and human progress.  Nobody is arguing that it can provide insight, so there is no need to dismiss the possibility that that insight can have a fruitful consequential bearing on our practical experiences unless we have a more effective replacement.

Also interesting was the brief defense of philosophy as a bastion of practicality.  John Sturh and David Vessey (both uncredited in the teaser video) made this point by essentially stating that philosophy is the only discipline that really systematically gravitates towards questions of what we ought to do–or how our choices and actions can be used to alter ourselves and our world.  It’s certainly an argument I would love to flesh out more in discussion.

In the end, I think SIU Carbondale’s Randy Auxier really does the best job of giving a good “American character” to the conception of the American Philosopher:

It’s not the Anglo- or European- American experience; it just includes that.  It includes the Native American experience.  It includes the African American experience.  And all of these things come together to form the context of insight, intuition, and experience that gives rise to the philosophy.  You couldn’t have Ralph Waldo Emerson without the combined influence of all of those different traditions.  There is something in Pragmatism and American Personalism, American Idealism, and even in process philosophy that expresses the American experience.  The thing that I would say characterizes that most adequately has to do with a certain–not only practicality–but a certain assumption about the inseparability of the way a person lives and the way a person thinks. –Auxier

While Auxier is guilty of a few simplifications about what could have caused what, he does a good job of capturing the complexity and variety of “American” philosophy in a way that neither dilutes its definition to the point of meaninglessness nor narrowly overemphasizes specific content…other than the fact that this implicitly cuts the cord between so-called American philosophy and the defacto standard of philosophy in America, contemporary analytic thought.  Sartwell also has a quoteable nugget right at the end of this short which hints at many of the same assumptions:

I think the way I have tried to answer some philosophical questions has changed the way live…or, the way I live has changed my answers to philosophical questions.

The artificially spliced in editorial comment from Lachs, “That’s very American”, couldn’t have been a more apropos way to end the short film.

  1. I partially credit James’ simultaneous work in psychology and philosophy with helping get that foot in the door.
  2. Social psychologists, anthropologists, economists, and historians may have better explanations, though, for why moral and social progress boomed at times–and I am guessing few of their answers have much to do with the development of American philosophy