Sweeney’s Booknotes: American Philosophy before Pragmatism

Russell B. Goodman, American Philosophy before Pragmatism, The Oxford History of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

9780199577545_140This fine introduction to early American philosophy features Edwards prominently. Its six chapters are devoted to Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, “Strands of Republican Thought,” Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau (respectively). Its author, who is Professor of Philosophy and Regents’ Professor at the University of New Mexico, notes that none of his great thinkers was a professor of philosophy. “All were practical men,” he says, “though in different ways” (p. 1).

Goodman employs a largely Kantian understanding of “the Enlightenment” as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” (p. 4), and interprets Edwards accordingly as a pre-Enlightenment figure. This is out of fashion today, as most of us are finding ways to demonstrate Edwards’ place in the intellectual networks that constituted what later came to be called “the Enlightenment.” But given Goodman’s usual manner of engaging his subjects in relation to subsequent themes in American philosophy, it is reasonable.

The chapter on Edwards offers an admirable précis of the clergyman’s philosophy, with discussions of his views of God and space, matter/resistance, idealism, continuous creation, occasionalism, pantheism/panentheism, the beauty of the world, sacred history, the deist challenge, true virtue, human freedom, original sin, personal identity, and even chattel slavery (a topic addressed in all six chapters). Following my good friend and colleague, Oliver Crisp, he exaggerates Edwards’ occasionalist view of causation and belief that all that is comes from and subsists in God (which Goodman associates with “pantheism” or “panentheism” rather than Deuteronomy 30:20, Job 12:10, Psalm 36:9, Acts 17:28, Ephesians 4:6, Colossians 1:17, and related biblical passages). He suggests that Edwards denied the force of secondary causes. (He did not, in my judgment. We need a dissertation writer to unpack this theme in Edwards, doing justice to his scattered comments on secondary causes, laws of nature, and natural law in relation to his ontological realism.) And like most current philosophers, Goodman defines compatibilism as “the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism” (p. 39), failing to note that Edwards’ argument in Freedom of the Will (1754) was that free will is compatible with “necessity” (defined in terms of moral “certainty”), which Edwards sought to distinguish from “determinism.” But in the main, Goodman’s summaries are helpful and reliable.

The first part of chapter two contrasts “Franklin and Edwards” (pp. 48-56). Compared to Edwards, Goodman writes, Franklin “lived a very different life. Whereas Edwards remained in New England and in the church, contending against the new modes of thinking we call the Enlightenment, Franklin left Boston for Philadelphia in 1723 at the age of seventeen, and became a representative Enlightenment figure: an important scientist, influential statesman, and founder and inventor of secular institutions from the Library Company of Philadelphia to the United States of America” (p. 48). Further, “although Franklin lived fifty-two of his eighty-four years as a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards, he operated in a very different framework, in which religion was a choice, divinity had receded as an element in explanation and experience, and the main action was by human beings in such public spaces as newspapers, conventions, salons, and scientific societies” (p. 55). Goodman depicts Edwards as a man who looked backward as Franklin looked forward. This is all too neat and tidy. It ignores dozens of recent books and articles that place Edwards and other Christian writers in the transatlantic “republic of letters” and so-called British “Enlightenment” (a word not coined to refer to this era of Western intellectual history until the nineteenth century).

Given the way that Goodman usually portrays Edwards as a throwback to the pre-modern world, it will come as little surprise that he does not mention Edwards in the book’s “Epilogue: Some Continuities in American Philosophy” (pp. 234-60). He is most interested, ultimately, in nature as a source of philosophical reflection, the influence of Emerson, various strains of pragmatism, and related, late-modern American intellectual history.

Goodman’s work does not obviate the need for the Swedish scholar Sebastian Rehnman’s book on Edwards’ philosophical thought, Edwards on God (Ashgate, forthcoming), which promises to serve as the go-to source on the subject. But his treatment of Edwards now joins the ranks of short surveys by philosophers and historians–John Smith, Morton White, Paul Conkin, William Clebsch, Bruce Kuklick, and others–who interpret him in light of later American philosophy. It deserves a wide reading.