Book Review

Review of *American Philosophy Before Pragmatism*

The Book

American Philosophy before Pragmatism. Oxford University Press, 2015Russell B. Goodman, American Philosophy before Pragmatism. Oxford University Press, 2015

The Author(s)

Russell B. Goodman

Russell B. Goodman, professor of philosophy at the University of New Mexico, has written the second volume in the Oxford History of Philosophy series addressing philosophy in the United States.  The book acts as a prequel to the preceding U.S.-related volume in the series, The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak.  Goodman presents five major thinkers—Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau—as well as a chapter on ideas of republican citizenship developing during and after the revolution and a concluding chapter summarizing the influence of the book’s five central figures on the founders of pragmatism and their students.  The men discussed are exceptionally well known today, perhaps overly so.  Even if David Hume hailed Franklin as the American continent’s first philosopher, to what degree were any of them philosophers?  Goodman apparently has no interest in philosophers based in educational institutions.  That his subjects were public figures articulates a cruel but perhaps warranted judgment of philosophy in British North America or the United States prior to the twentieth century.  To find work relevant to contemporary concerns in philosophy or to fundamental questions of existence, morality, or social organization, one must turn to thinkers deeply engaged with practical problems, be they of science, statecraft, business, or religion.

I suspect that few readers will miss Thomas C. Upham, Laurens P. Hickok, or Andrews Norton, influential philosophers from the early and mid-nineteenth century, whose work was, if we go by the numerous editions of their most important books, well known to a wide reading public.  Goodman however is not interested in what pragmatism rendered “old fashioned.” Instead Goodman constructs a genealogy for our own times of American practical thinkers who everyone recognizes as important even though, Edwards aside, they had no systematic ambitions.  Goodman stresses the practical bent of the book by making the public stands his figures took on slavery central to the relevance of their ideas for today’s debates over citizenship, equality, and inclusion.

The historical and practical approach is particularly useful for the chapter on Edwards, whose work is often abstract and abstruse.  Goodman begins with discussion of how theologically conservative Edwards was even for his own time, so much so that he could not secure a position as a minister in any major town in New England and he worked most of his life in what was then at the frontier of English settlement.  Goodman presents a concise summary of Edwards’s contributions to trans-Atlantic debates on the relation of matter to thought, perception of space, definitions of quality, and the relation of the will to reason and sensation.  Goodman then turns to Edwards’s conception of history presented in “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” and A History of the Work of Redemption, an account of the “Great Awakening” of the 1740s.  The chapter concludes with Edwards’s contribution to early debates in New England over slavery.  In 1739, in one of the first public expressions of abolitionist sentiment by white Anglophone Americans, a group of revivalists in Massachusetts sought to defrock a minister on the grounds that his ownership of slaves was incompatible with Christian fellowship.  Edwards, who held three slaves as household servants, wrote a defense of his colleague, arguing that in both the Old and New Testaments slavery functions as a figuration of faithful submission to the Lord.  Edwards condemned the Atlantic slave trade as a cruel assault on innocent people that needed to be abolished, but he noted that since New Englanders benefited from the slave trade, even abolitionists were reluctant to end this practice and chose instead to view slavery as a question of personal morality.  Edwards conceded that slavery inside British North America was also cruel, to the degree that slave owners acted out of selfish interest rather than responsibility for the spiritual and material welfare of their slaves.  Edwards’s position was contradictory, accepting slavery in the abstract as moral, while readily conceding it to be immoral in most practical situations.  Noting Edwards’s inconsistency, Goodman observes, “of such small steps is moral progress sometimes made” (45).

A whiggish faith that debate leads to slow, but incremental progress informs the argument of the book.  The stakes in controversies that were “open” in the past took on firmer shape as debate deepened.  Eventually new values formed and arguments came to a close, a process for which debates over slavery seem to offer an ideal type.  Goodman traces Benjamin Franklin’s increasing commitment to abolition of slavery and extension of citizenship rights to African Americans, linking Franklin’s changing ideas on race to a growing concern over economic inequality within the British Empire and its corruption of governance.  His concerns resulted in proposals at the end of his life that the newly independent states in North America use tax laws to prevent concentrations of wealth while redistributing property to guarantee fuller participation in economic and political life.  Jefferson complicates the story of important thinkers coming to oppose slavery.  His theoretical opposition to slavery coexisted with much firmer opposition to racial equality, a contradiction in his own personal life given his relationship with the Hemings family.  His confusions combined with his economic dependence on slave property to render him incapable of envisioning, much less acting on, the United States as a country where “all men are created equal.”  Emerson and Thoreau show the triumph before the Civil War of firm conviction among educated white Americans in the Northern states that slavery must be abolished.  Emerson’s focus on self-development, however, leads to a less militant commitment to equality than Thoreau’s ideas of co-existence between all beings discovered in his largely solitary reflections on nature.

Goodman succeeds in linking the varied intellectual debates that occupied his principle figures to their practical implications, both of their own times and of today.  His readings as a result are fresh and convincing, though given the brevity of the book, no discussion is as intense as the topics deserve.  His presentations relate his figures to concurrent developments in Europe, but they do not demand more than a casual knowledge of the history of philosophy.  As an account of how five prominent thinkers in British North America and the United States responded to debates over slavery, the work illuminates the twists and turns involved when ideals and practical interests are in conflict.  These strengths will make this a useful book for some courses, particularly if combined with primary readings.  However, the book resurrects much of what characterized American studies at the middle of the twentieth century, particularly the focus on a handful of well-known men, used as exemplary figures to create a usable past.  I like the prosopographical method, when it is used capaciously to bring together contrasting exemplary figures.  I doubt whether the five men chosen for this book are sufficient for its argument.  Surely, anyone involved in teaching or researching the history of ideas and intellectual life in the United States before the twentieth century could readily come up with a list of additional figures who could illustrate Goodman’s basic proposition that practical engagement has been the most important source of philosophical thinking in the United States.  The famous, the forgotten, the misconstrued are all necessary for understanding the relationship of theory, practical engagements, and public action. My list would include some names that were once well known but are now forgotten to everybody but specialists, people like Francis Lieber, the student of Hegel who in the 1820s escaped Prussian police and found safety in the United States.  Once arrived and participating in the intellectual and political life of his new home, Lieber transcended what he learned from Hegel to develop a more robust and practically grounded theory of civil society, while becoming an advocate of judicial reform and the author during the Civil War of the world’s first codified laws of war.  Others like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Frederick Douglass are well known for their activism but the impressive theoretical explorations accompanying their efforts have slipped out of sight.  Certainly, both Stanton and Douglass were philosophers as much as Franklin, Jefferson, and Emerson, and their efforts to think through the relationship of law, race, gender, and citizenship found practical application in their political activities.  Goodman’s book provides a starting point, but each reader of this book must supply the other figures important for a fuller story.

About the Reviewer

Richard Cándida Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Smith has published seven books–most recently Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange (2017). He is also the Chair of Publications for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.

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