What Is American Philosophy?

Americans have always practiced philosophy. They have asked and tried to answer big questions about the way things are: What is true? What am I? How should I live? What is right? What is wrong? How do I know? The Puritans brought these questions with them from Europe and we still ask them today. American Philosophy itself—as something that was called by that name—first appeared in the late 1860s with the creation of a philosophical movement called Pragmatism (1870-1910). Pragmatism is based on the idea that what is "true" is what works in practice: what has practical, observable consequences for our lives. It was created by Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) and developed by William James (1842-1910), who famously claimed that "truth" is what "happens to an idea" (James is one of the four thinkers featured on this site). Pragmatism is the first formal American philosophy, that is, the first philosophy created in America and recognized as a branch within the professional disciplines of philosophy in America, Europe, and around the world. Today it is experiencing a revival.

But Pragmatism didn't come from nowhere. It arose from earlier philosophical movements carried to America from Europe, and from early American discussions of philosophical questions among its religious, literary, scientific, and political leaders and everyday citizens themselves. The Puritans who came to America in the 1630s believed that humans were depraved, or fallen from God's grace, but they also believed that they might be saved if they used their human ability to reason – or think – to examine the bible and the world around them in order to understand God's will. The work of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) illustrates these claims and is featured on this site. The Puritans (like later settlers) also brought with them from the Europe the ideas of the Enlightenment, primarily the notion that man is a creature capable of rational inquiry and deliberation. In the 1700s, Americans adapted and used this philosophical idea as a political principle in the period that has come to be called the American Enlightenment (1680-1820). Thinkers and writers of this period believed in learning from tradition and the past, but they disdained blind acceptance of any kind of knowledge, especially of religious doctrines. This is because they held that rational beings are by definition innovative: they adapt what they have learned to respond to the demands of present conditions. The writings of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), also featured on this site, are products of the American Enlightenment.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose work is also on this site, inspired a religious, literary, and political movement called Transcendentalism (1820-1870). Emerson and his circle believed that human beings are not only innovative, but perfectible: their power to think enables them to develop their unique talents and become the best version of themselves that they can be. The Transcendentalists also rejected Enlightenment notions of rationality in the abstract and considered the actual experience of persons thinking. They focused on the whole individual: a thinker, yes, but one with feelings who lives in a particular context and tries to make sense of his or her place in the universal order of things. Transcendentalism is often referred to as American Romanticism, an American form of European Romanticism. As late mid-nineteenth century philosophers continued to think about rationality in terms of individual thinkers, Transcendentalism evolved into Pragmatism's commitment to the notion that an idea is true if it a makes a practical difference in the life of the person who thinks it. Truth is not some abstract certainty that exists outside of human experience.

If you move now to the Timeline, you will be able to follow this briefly sketched history of ideas. The story begins with Puritan conceptions of human depravity and ends with modern assertions about human potential, moving from the American Enlightenment (1680-1820) to Transcendentalism (1820-1870) and Pragmatism (1870-19100. Along the way you will see and learn about the people, texts, correspondence, maps, architecture, and events of the different periods.