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

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 10. Chauncey Wright

Chauncey Wright (1830–75), a computer for the Nautical Almanac who had made important contributions to mathematics and physics, had, like most of the thinking men of his day, been brought up on Hamilton. But his reading of Mill converted Wright completely; and while never a disciple of Mill to the extent that Fiske was of Spencer, he was in a fair way to re-enforce and develop Mill’s logic in a most original manner when an untimely death cut him off. All his papers, published mostly in The North American Review (1864–73), fill only one volume. But if the test of a philosopher be intellectual keenness and persistent devotion to the truth rather than skill in making sweeping generalizations plausible, Chauncey Wright deserves a foremost place in American philosophy. Unlike Fiske, Wright knew at first hand the technique of biologic as well as mathematical and physical research, and his contribution to the discussion of natural selection was highly valued by Darwin. But he rejects the evolutionary philosophy of Spencer, not only because of its inadequate grasp of modern physics, nor merely because, like all cosmogonic philosophies, it goes beyond the bounds of known fact, but primarily because it is metaphysical, that is, it deals with the general laws of physics as abstract elements out of which a picture of the universe is to be drawn. To draw such a picture of the universe is a part of religion and of poetic or myth-making art. It does not belong to science. For whenever we go beyond the limited body of observed fact we order things according to our imagination and inevitably develop a cosmos as if it were an epic poem, with a beginning, middle, and end. The scientist, according to Wright, is interested in a general law like gravitation not as a description of the cosmos, but rather as a means for extending his knowledge of a field of concrete fact. Metaphysics speculated about universal gravitation before Newton. What Newton found was a law which enabled him to deduce the facts of the solar system and led to the discovery of many more facts which would not otherwise have come to light,—the existence of the planet Neptune, for instance. If the philosopher wishes to be scientific, let him discipline himself by carrying on an original investigation in some department of empirical science so as to gain a clear idea how knowledge is actually used as a basis for discovering new truths. Anticipating the instrumentalism of Dewey, as well as the pragmatism of James, Wright points out that the principles of modern mathematical and physical philosophy are rather the eyes with which nature is seen than the elements and constitution of the object discovered, that general laws are finders, not merely summaries of truth.