Monday, August 9, 2010

The Magnificent Seven (American Philosophers)

There was quite a bit going on in American philosophy, starting in the late 19th century and extending well into the 20th.  These names stand out, I think:  C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Josiah Royce, Ralph Barton Perry, George Santayana and Roy Wood Sellars.

Santayana was actually born in Spain, of course, but spent only his early years there; his philosophical career can fairly be called American.  And, I don't mean to discount other American philosophers of prominence in the 20th century, some in the pragmatic tradition, some not.  But these seven seem to me to be of particular significance.  Perry and Sellars, unfortunately, are mostly forgotten, it seems.

They were all, naturally enough, influenced by the theory of evolution.  They were all not religious in any traditional sense.  They all had concerns which related to practical and social (science, education, politics, art, law) matters in addition to any concern they may have had with the "special" metaphysical or epistemological concerns of philosophy which seem, to me at least, so apart from the way we live our lives (Peirce perhaps can be said to have had more of an interest in certain of the "special" concerns than the others, but as the creator of the pragmatic method he was something of a revolutionary and turned the focus of those concerns to us and the world in which we live, and away from futile speculations induced by the tendency to "doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts").  And, they all felt philosophers could, as philosophers, address those concerns; and they addressed them.

One wonders if the time in which they worked contributed to their emphasis on the real.  There were great changes being made in technology, the character of America was changing with massive immigration, there was the Great War, the new movements in art, music and literature.  The world was rather hard to ignore.  Some think we live in a similar time.  Perhaps we'll be fortunate, and we'll encounter similar minds.

Of course, they differed in very significant respects as well.  But they were all participants in an effort to "recover" philosophy, to use Dewey's word, to addressing the "problems of men" to use Dewey's phrase.  I think that philosophy may have returned to the contemplation of the practically useless for a time.  But there are indications that might be changing.  In any case, I hope that's changing.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, that is a butt-kicking collection of names. Personally, I'd probably drop Sellars off of the list. He doesn't seem to me to be in the same weight class as the others. But then, we might add Oliver Wendell Holmes, to keep it at seven and add a jurisprudential pragmatist.