The philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States was influenced by three contemporary movements:
- Romanticism, which in the USA took the name of Transcendentalism.
- Darwinism, the effect on the thought of the theory of evolution.
- Pragmatism, a Hegelian movement focused on the role of experience in knowledge.
Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of education in his speech The American Scholar (1837) saying that one is educated by nature, books and action. The study of nature is equivalent to 'knowing yourself'. Books for him are reports of how others thought and should be read not as sacred cows but as a creator to reach your own thought. Thirdly, action, the process by which we become aware of ideas, because the student speaks from experience, not from imitating others.
In Experience Emerson describes a vision of the fluid universe where permanence is a matter of degrees. He believes that there is no final explanation and that knowing is an endless process. This means that there are no eternal virtues or ultimate truth. In Intellect he argues that the truth appears in surprising intuitions, but not repeatable, like God who is only found in the present moment. He criticizes historical Christianity that proceeds as if God were dead.
"... permanence is but a word of degrees ..." Emerson
Morality, according to Emerson, develops historically, but sometimes our morality must be abandoned. Thus he questions the established and opens himself to renewal. Is this a translation of his relativism into moral thought? In any case it proposes a moral system through virtues and heroes and their corresponding vices and villains. These sometimes take the form of old age and youth, other times of a specter preacher who has never really lived. Conformism is Emerson's main vice and the opposite of the virtue of independence. His historical heroes are: Plato, Moses, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus and even Napoleon.
Son of a pastor at Emerson Unitarian Church, he was a pastor himself for 3 years. However, in
Divinity School Address he criticizes Christianity for stifling the spirit instead of making it happy.
Power is another Emerson theme. The type of power that interests him is more intellectual or artistic than political or military.
Henry David Thoreau agreed with Emerson on his 'religiosity in nature that surpasses human religion'. But he did not believe in nature as a symbol, the physical world was the realm of the spirit. He argues that our aesthetic and emotional reactions are part of religion and reality. He understood the universe as an organic unit in which mind and matter are inseparable. We are beings with senses immersed in a sensory world. The philosopher seeks the knowledge that will emerge from natural experiences. If we do not perceive the harmonious interdependence of the natural world it is not because of an error in nature but because of our incomplete knowledge. Thoreau appears as the American heir to Kant's critical philosophy because he investigated the relationship between the knower and the known. Emerson, who saw the senses as illusions, did not understand this link.
"... always be alert to find God in nature." Thoreau
The original point of Thoreau's philosophy lies in the concept of consciousness. In Walden (1854) he writes on the discipline of looking at what there is to see. Knowing is a practical and evaluative activity that is 'embodied', that is, knowing not from a neutral position but through somatic experiences. Thus it touches a central problem in modern philosophy: knowledge depends on the skill of the knower. Since the perception of objects has this subjective aspect, the world appears as a sphere surrounding each conscious individual. It is only through the lens of our own subjectivity that we can access the external world.
In other words, there is no purely objective observation. He considers Science to be a discipline that enriches our knowledge and experience, according to Thoreau. It expresses, however, the fear that weighing and measuring things to collect quantitative data may narrow the vision of what has been studied instead of expanding it. Witnessing the rise of positivism with his idea of complete objectivity Thoreau attempts to place the observer at the center of his own universe.
Charles Sanders Peirce was a physicist and is best known for two articles: The Fixation of Belief and How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1877). In them he makes a defense of the superiority of the scientific method and the pragmatic notion of clear concepts. His thinking is quite close to that of Einstein who held that the entire meaning of a physical concept is determined by an exact method of measurement.
Enlightenment philosophy, influenced by the physical discoveries of the time, advocated determinism. Peirce argued that there were no scientific observations to support determinism. As a practical scientist he knew that the measurements of an object vary according to the refinement of the measuring instruments. He concluded that the universe appears to have variable statistical regularity and does not display a deterministic law, an exact regularity. There are the apparently regular movements of great physical objects like planets, but we also see the processes of imagination and thought that are of pure freedom and spontaneity.
"There are three things that you can never hope to achieve with reasoning: absolute certainty, absolute precision,absolute universality. ” Peirce
Three influences predominate in Peirce: Hegel in the evolution of ideas; Lyell in the evolution of geological structures; Darwin in the evolution of species. Peirce's thinking was evolutionary.
William James published The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy in 1897, a collection of essays. In science, James notes, we can wait for the results of an investigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases we must believe even if all the evidence of the facts is not present. For example, if we are mountaineering and we have to decide whether or not to cross an ice bridge because it will not possibly support our weight. In this case, he says, we have 'the right to believe', especially since it is of vital importance. It is a case in which the fact (crossing the ice bridge) cannot exist if a preliminary faith does not exist.
James applies his analysis to religious belief, particularly the case where salvation depends on belief in God before having proof that God exists. He justifies the belief according to the results of it. In addition, he extends it to other spheres when he affirms that a social organism of any type depends on the belief that each member will fulfill his social duty. Moral questions are also not sustained by what James calls 'sensory tests'. Quoting Pascal, he says that these are not matters of science but of the heart.
In the Reflex Action and Theism essay, James attempts to reconcile science and religion. He affirms that in the most evolved animals a level of thought intervenes between sensations and action and that is where, in human beings, thought about God appears. He maintains that this is a natural human response to the universe and is independent of any proof of the existence of God. He believes in a theism that affirms an opacity in things, a dimension that is beyond our theoretical control.
"As a general rule, we do not believe in facts and theories for that we are not ready.” William James
In The Will to Believe are also his most developed arguments on morality. According to the author, moral obligations are based on sensitivity. They operate by inclusivity and a series of historical experiences: learning to live without polygamy, slavery, judicial torture and arbitrary royal power. However, it recognizes that these conquests are not final and may be changed in the future.
John Dewey needed to expose the flaws in the existing tradition in order to articulate his own. He thought that the characteristic of Western philosophy was its assumption that what we can know is perfect, stable, and eternal. Three examples are Plato's Forms, the Christian concept of God, and Cartesianism. This latter tradition has made a radical distinction between true reality and the endless varieties of the world's human experience.
Dewey argued that Cartesian philosophy impoverished nature. He rejects the dualism between being and experience and proposed that all things are subject to change and that they change. The static is not natural and the experience is not purely subjective because the human mind is part of nature. The challenge, then, is to determine how to live well with the processes of change, not how to transcend them.
Dewey developed a metaphysics that examined the characteristics that encompassed human experience. Three of these were: precariousness, stories and purposes.
A precarious event makes the experience problematic. Thus any obstacle, disruption, danger or surprise is precarious. The cruelty of a tyrant, the destruction of a flood or the colors of the sunset are equally natural. Human ideas and moral standards must be viewed through this prism. Human knowledge is completely intertwined with precarious and constantly changing nature.
"Like all experience, it is constituted by the interaction betweenthe subject and the object ... is not merely physical or merely mental…” Dewey
History meant a process of change and when processes are identified they are subject to change. The logical result is that fate is not sealed by human nature, temperament, character, talent, or social role. With proper knowledge of the conditions necessary for human growth, an individual can develop in multiple ways. The purpose of education, then, is to promote the fruition of an active human history.
The purposes or final cause is a philosophical concept from the time of Aristotle. For Dewey a purpose is a deliberately constructed historical result and the specific purpose was 'the construction of good' There is no absolute good against which actions can be evaluated but any purpose that promotes human prosperity is good as long as it takes into account precariousness.
Dewey was involved in the American pragmatism movement started by Peirce and James. It integrated James' concept of shifting reality and his idea that the mental experience and the physical world were unclear. He also embraced the importance of experimental research.
Pragmatists were generally inspired by dramatic advances in science and technology during the 19th century. Many had formal scientific training and experimented in the natural, physical, or social sciences.
Willard Van Orman Quine produced original works in logic, ontology, epistemology, and linguistics. He developed a systematic philosophy that is naturalistic, empirical, and behavioral. His epistemology aimed to explain psychologically how scientific knowledge is obtained.
In Epistemology Naturalized (1969) Quine outlines his epistemology. According to Descartes, he affirms that epistemology deals with the foundations of science. However, he thinks that the search for Descartes is a lost cause. According to Quine there can be no strict translation of the notion 'body' in sensory terms so the steps between the evidences of the senses and scientific doctrine are far from being certain.
Quine proposes that we only have the stimulation of sensory receptors as evidence in the construction of our image of the world. So to understand how we make this construction, you have to study psychology empirically.
In ontology Quine recognized only concrete physical objects. He rejected notions like properties, propositions, and meanings as ill-defined or scientifically useless.
"Language is conceived in sin and science is its redemption." Quine
In the philosophy of language Quine opted for the behavioral theory of learning and an indeterministic concept of translation from one language to another in such a way that, according to him, there is no correct translation. This is an example of his vision of 'ontological relativity'. This stipulates that for a given scientific theory there are a multitude of alternatives all covered by the same evidence. In conclusion, there is no point in arguing that one theory or another truly describes the world.