Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 1. American Life and American Philosophy

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 1. American Life and American Philosophy

THE PREVAILING other-worldliness of American philosophers seems to be the only explanation for our failure to develop an original and vigorous political philosophy to meet our unique political experience. On a priori grounds it seems indisputable that philosophy must share the characteristics of the life of which it is a part and on which it is its business to reflect. But we actually do not know with certainty what kind of philosophy any given set of historic conditions will always produce. Thus no one has convincingly pointed out any direct and really significant influence on American philosophy exercised by our colonial organization, by the Revolutionary War, by the slavery struggle, by the Civil War, by our unprecedented immigration, or by the open frontier life which our historians now generally regard as the key to American history. The fact that, excepting some passages in Calhoun, none of our important philosophic writings mentions the existence of slavery or of the negro race, that liberal democratic philosophers like Jefferson could continue to own and even sell slaves and still fervently believe that all men are created free and equal, ought to serve as a reminder of the air-tight compartments into which the human mind is frequently divided, and of the extent to which one’s professed philosophy can be entirely disconnected from the routine of one’s daily occupation. Indeed, it would seem that most of our philosophy is not a reflection on life but, like music or Utopian and romantic literature, an escape from it, a turning one’s back upon its prosaic monotony. But though genuine philosophy never restricts itself to purely local and temporal affairs, the history of philosophy, as part of the history of the intellectual life of any country, is largely concerned with the life of various national or local traditions, with their growth and struggles, and the interaction between them and the general currents of life into which they must fit, with the general conditions, that is, under which intellectual life is carried on.