Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 4. Scotch Common-Sense Realism

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

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 4. Scotch Common-Sense Realism

In 1835 De Tocqueville reported that in no part of the civilized world was less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. Whether because of absorption in the material conquest of a vast continent, or because of a narrow orthodoxy which was then hindering free intellectual life in England as well as in the United States, the fact remains that nowhere else were free theoretic inquiries held in such little honour. As our colleges were originally all sectarian or denominational, clergymen occupied all the chairs of philosophy. Despite the multitude of sects, the Scottish common-sense philosophy introduced at the end of the eighteenth century at Princeton by President Witherspoon, spread until it formed almost the sole basis of philosophic instruction. Here and there some notice was taken of Mill and Positivism, and Edward’s Freedom of the Will continued to agitate thoughtful minds inside and outside of the colleges, but in the main both idealism and empiricism were suspected as leading to pantheism or to downright atheism. The creation of the earth before man was a potent argument against Berkeleian idealism or denial of matter. The Scottish common-sense realism was a democratic philosophy in that sense that it did not depart widely from the popular views as to the nature of the material world, the soul, and God. It did not rely on subtle arguments, but appealed to established beliefs. It could easily be reconciled with the most literal interpretation of the Bible and could thus be used as a club against freethinkers. Above all, it was eminently teachable. It eliminated all disturbing doubts by direct appeal to the testimony of consciousness, and readily settled all questions by elevating disputed opinions into indubitable principles. It could thus be authoritatively taught to adolescent minds, and students could readily recite on it. Unfortunately, however, philosophy does not thrive under the rod of authority; and in spite of many acute minds like Bowen, Mahan, Bledsoe, or Tappan, or powerful minds like Shedd and Hickok, American philosophy before the Civil War produced not a single original philosophic work of commanding importance. To the modern reader it is all an arid desert of commonplace opinion covered with the dust of pedantic language.