Philosophical Differences – In America (of all places)

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Top Ten6

10 Great American Philosophers


When one thinks of great philosophers (which probably isn’t too often), one most likely thinks of dead Europeans. Almost all writers studied in a philosophy class will be European, and in some classes there will be absolutely no mention of American philosophers at all. There are good reasons for this —

America really hasn’t existed for all that long, and there perhaps hasn’t been as much general emphasis on philosophy as in some other countries like the big three of France, Germany and Great Britain. But in its relatively short life span America has produced some great thinkers, including…

10. John Dewey

Portrait of John Dewey

John Dewey was a leading scholar in the American philosophical school of pragmatism. This isn’t the same pragmatism spoken of by politicians, but is instead a rejection of the notion that thought is meant mainly to describe or mirror reality. It could be described as a realist point of view — essentially, it claims that most philosophical topics should be viewed in terms of their usefulness, as opposed to purely on their representative accuracy.

Although he made contributions to philosophy and psychology, perhaps Dewey’s greatest impact was as an educational reformer. In Dewey’s view, it’s vital that classroom activities focus on meaningful activity in place of rote learning. Students should be invested in what they are learning and the curriculum should seem relevant to their lives. He viewed learning by doing to be an important factor missing from American education. In the early days of American education there was a great focus on memorization, such as remembering all the state capitals. But the influence of Dewey and others started to move education towards focusing on teaching children how to think critically.

9. John Rawls


John Rawls was one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century. After serving in the Pacific during World War Two, he came back and got a PhD in moral philosophy from Princeton, and would go on to teach there and atCornell, MIT and Harvard. Rawls is best known for his defense of egalitarian liberalism in his work A Theory of Justice.

In the book, he attempts to find common ground between the two seemingly conflicting concepts of liberty and equality. Rawls ultimately concludes that it’s important that we define justice as fairness. He states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty,” meaning freedom of thought, freedom of expression, etc. In Rawls’ view, we have certain basic rights that should not be infringed upon. He also claims that we should have a “fair equality of opportunity.” This means society and government should be set up to give equal opportunities to each person, as best as can be done. Because of these two requirements, Rawls views both strict communism and laissez-faire capitalism as unjust. And so, we as a society must strive for a middle ground, trying our best to find a balance between liberty and equality.

8. Jonathan Edwards


Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest influences on American protestant theology. Born in Connecticut in 1703, Edwards was one of the leaders of the Puritan movement, which seeked to distance Protestantism from Catholicism. Puritans believed that the Bible itself should be the final word on what we should do, and disliked the Catholic traditions that didn’t come from the Bible directly.

Because of this focus on the Bible, education and literacy was emphasized. Edwards himself attended Yale University at age 13, and would go on to write extensively on religious topics ranging from metaphysics to ethics. Perhaps Edwards’ most influential idea was his defense of theological determinism, within which he stated that God is the ultimate and final cause of everything that happens. This has had both positive and negative effects — if people believe God is the ultimate cause, then they will believe it vital to do what God has ordained. This could vary from something as noble as feeding poor children to something as stupid as “witch” burning. So, for both good and ill, Edwards had a huge impact on American religion and, by extension,  society.

7. Cornel West


Cornel West is one of the most publicly known philosophers today, and perhaps the most well known African American philosopher. While West has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, he is also a very active social commentator and political activist. His writings tend to deal with relevant real world issues — in his books, he has analyzed wide ranging social problems having to do with race, class and justice.

Many of his main beliefs stem from his Christian background, which he mixes with his belief in democratic socialism, a somewhat rare combination. Growing up he was influenced largely by the church his family attended, but also by the Black Panther Party and the writings of Karl Marx. West has sometimes come into conflict with administrators because of his activism, which eventually led to his resignation at Harvard. His most famous and influential book was Race Matters, a series of essays that came out soon after the Rodney King beating. In it, he discussed the problem of African American poverty, and argued against recommendations from black leaders that he felt were unlikely to solve the problem.

6. Michael Sandel


Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard, is most likely the most popular living political philosopher. He is very well known for his lectures and books, even outside academia. His class on justice at Harvard routinely has more than 1000 students, and he has taken an adapted lecture version on the road, speaking in America, India and countries in East Asia. The entire course can also be viewed on Harvard’s website for free.

Sandel believes that in order for us to be good citizens we must first grapple with hard ethical choices. In his lectures he acts somewhat like Socrates did, asking questions of his audience and expecting answers. In this way, he engages the audience and encourages them to question why they believe what they believe. Sandel thinks this is especially important considering the modern emphasis on being neutral. He argues that we can’t really be neutral, and will always make value judgments of some kind. Because of this, it’s vital that we confront our beliefs and engage in deep reflection over what it means to be good.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading figure of American Transcendentalism, and had a great influence on later thinkers. Transcendentalism was largely a reaction against rationalism and Calvinism. In his book Nature, Emerson argues that nature acts as an intermediary between man and the divine. Emerson thought that it’s possible to legitimately have beliefs that are not falsifiable. He believed we should look within ourselves to gain “transcendental” knowledge, or intuitive belief we derive from our inner mentality.

Because of this, Emerson was a great believer in the supremacy of the individual over the group, a viewpoint rarely held throughout history. Transcendentalists like Emerson believed that groups corrupt the individual, and thus it’s crucial to decide for ourselves what’s important. This focus on the individual would greatly influence the thought of American intellectuals and the public.

4. Charles Sanders Peirce


Charles Sanders Peirce was a mathematician, chemist, and geodist (a mixture of applied math and earth science), but he considered scientific philosophy, particularly the study of logic, to be his calling. He had an extraordinary range of interests, writing on subjects as different as astronomy and economics. In his most well known writings, he argued that the scientific method was the superior method for determining truth. Pierce is known as the founder of pragmatism, but he disliked the way others used the term. In fact, he was so concerned about misuse he relabeled his own method as pragmaticism, to distinguish it from pragmatism’s new meanings.

He also argued against determinism, the idea that all events are ultimately decided outside of will. He believed that the universe displays degrees of habit, but even with the same input there is variation. Because of his greatly varied contributions, Pierce is something different to different people. A psychologist, a logician, a physical scientist and a philosopher will all have something to learn by studying different aspects of his writing.

3. Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson is of course best known for being one of the founding fathers of the United States. He wrote much of the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President. He was a politician, but his political actions and beliefs were greatly influenced by his basic philosophical beliefs. In fact, Jefferson was a member and, for a time, the president of the American Philosophical Association.

Much of his writing described abstract principles as opposed to concrete political doctrines. Jefferson was a defender of democracy, and he argued for a will of the people. But he also realized that the majority could abuse those not in agreement with them, and so he was one of the first defenders of civil rights in America. Unfortunately, his belief that “all men are created equal” didn’t extend to non-white men, as he was a slave owner all his life. Despite this hypocrisy, his philosophical arguments for freedom put forth in the Declaration were eventually used by others in various human rights movements that extended civil rights farther than they had ever been. Because of his wide ranging influence, Jefferson is certainly one of the most important political philosophers in American history.

2. Henry David Thoreau


Henry David Thoreau held many occupations during his life — teacher, lecturer, surveyor, naturalist, head of a pencil company (seriously, his family sold pencils) — but he always thought of himself as a writer. He probably began writing poetry while in school at Harvard, but his most influential writings would be his philosophical essays and nonfiction. He is often grouped with Transcendentalism, a religious movement that promoted individualism and believed in the inherent goodness of people.

The subject of individualism is perhaps where Thoreau did his greatest writing. In an essay on civil disobedience, Thoreau argued that individuals have an obligation to determine what is right and what is wrong for themselves — just because society says something is correct doesn’t make it so. This applies both to laws and unwritten mainstream beliefs. He believed it critically important for individuals to think for themselves. Part of what differentiated Thoreau from many other philosophers is that he didn’t prescribe one form of the good life; he believed that each person had to figure it out for themselves. He told people not to emulate him, but to search inside themselves to discover what was important to them. This made him a unique modern philosopher, and one of the most important influences on American thought.

1. William James


William James made important early contributions to both psychology and physiology. Those two fields were where he focused much of his life, but he always threw in some philosophical analysis and would turn increasingly towards philosophy as he aged. His 1,200 page book The Principles of Psychologylaid much of the groundwork for modern psychology, and greatly influenced both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. But it included not only pure psychology, but also philosophy and personal reflection that influenced many important later philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

James also wrote much about religion from a relativist position, discussing the commonalities of all religions and whether or not religion and science can coexist. He argued against extremism on both sides, coming to conclusions on his own as opposed to always agreeing with one side or the other. Because of the great diversity of subjects that he wrote about, and the ways he mixed them together, William James was one of the most influential thinkers in American history.

Philosophical Differences – In America (of all places)

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World Wide Words Issue 852 – WIF Style

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Issue 852: Saturday 5 October 2013



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Agnotology.

3. Snippets.

4. Old-fashioned look.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

On a wild hair I queried this expression last week and many readers from the US readers explained it to me. Let Ryan Kelley stand in for them all: “The young country singer Jake Owen most definitely did not invent the term wild hair. I am from the midwestern United States — Ohio specifically — and the term has been in use for all of my 32 years. It is a country term, no doubt. The most common use I’ve found is in the phrase getting a wild hair up your ass. It does imply an urge to move because of discomfort — even to travel. Sometimes, though, it also implies general annoyance or discomfort, as in ‘he got a wild hair up his ass and trashed the whole bar!’ Not the most proper of American sayings. It’s definitely a common one where I’m from, though, and one that most people would easily understand.”

Others surmised that it should be spelled hare rather than hair, on the model of mad March hares or the British hare off for going away at speed. Several readers noted that they have encountered it in that spelling and others suggested that there are actually two versions, the hare one being much the more polite. The evidence that I’ve now turned up, having been clued in by these comments, is that the original is undoubtedly hair. The confusion seems to be similar to the one between hairbrained and harebrained.

Small person problem Paul Witheridge accidentally started a hare running (sorry) when he retold a story about passwords last week, whose punchline was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. “No, no!” cried some thoughtful students of the vagaries of English spelling, “It’s dwarfs”. That’s the traditional spelling, which Walt Disney used in the title of his film in 1937, though correspondents objected to dwarves on more general grounds. However, dwarves has become quite widely used. My feeling is that if it was good enough for J R R Tolkien, who are the rest of us to argue? (“Hobbits are a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves.” — The Hobbit, 1937.)

Not of the people? Carolanne Reynolds followed up my snippet last week about the use of hoi polloi by noting that many people don’t think it means the common people. She quoted Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University: “it is often misused to mean ‘the upper class’ (does ‘hoi’ make speakers think of ‘high’ or ‘hoity-toity’?).”

Weird species names Jim Delaney wrote, “An unusually-named species of tree got a mention in the Daily Telegraph on the same day as your latest newsletter arrived.” It has the formal name Sorbus admonitor (the second word is from the same source as admonish) but it has the common name no parking whitebeam. It’s a new species, officially identified in 2009. First found in the 1930s near Lynton in North Devon, the original had a No Parking sign nailed to it.

2. Agnotology

Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance.

Agnotology refocuses questions about “how we know” to include questions about what we do not know, and why not.
Londa Schiebinger, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1 Sep. 2005.

Historians of science have tended to focus on the processes by which scientific knowledge gets accepted. In recent decades, some scholars have come to see that processes that impede or prevent acceptance of scientific findings are also important. Such processes include the very human desire to ignore unpleasant facts, media neglect of topics, corporate or government secrecy, and misrepresentation for a commercial or political end. They often generate controversy, much of it ill-informed. Examples include the health implications of tobacco and of genetically modified plants, the safety of nuclear power, the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and the existence or extent of man-made climate change.

The word’s earliest appearance seems to have been in a book of 1995, The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. This was by Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University in California. He coined it from the classical Greek agnōsis, not knowing, plus the suffix -(o)logy, a subject of study, from Greek logos, word or speech.

3. Snippets

Attack of the vapers The growth of e-cigarettes, in which users breathe in a vapour of water and nicotine, has popularised the slang terms vaper for the person using the device and vaping for the process, as well as the verb vape. These have been known for several years among the users of various drugs and seem to have been created from vaporiser. One reason for their becoming more popular is that e-cigarette smokers are banding together, using vaper as a self-identifying term, to campaign against proposed EU rules that would ban most e-cigarettes currently on the market because their nicotine levels are too high.

Haloodie doody! Last week saw the inaugural Halal Food Festival in London, which showcased varieties of cuisine from around the world, from hot dogs to curries to fish and chips, that had been prepared as prescribed by Muslim law. The festival’s founder, Imran Kausar, has coined haloodie as a descriptive term for foodies who follow a halal diet.

Yucky stuff I’ve a job for somebody with the right qualifications: become a disgustologist. Valerie Curtis, the director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describes herself by this word because she researches the scientific background to aversion and repugnance. Disgustologist and disgustology have appeared quite widely in the past couple of weeks because her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion has just been published. This isn’t the first appearance of disgustology — the earliest example I’ve turned up is from The Economics of Hate by Samuel Cameron (2009) in which he lists it alongside other social science topics such as humiliation studies.

4. Old-fashioned look

Q From Colleen Sullivan: Can you tell me any more about the origin and usage of the phrase an old-fashioned look? From what little I can find online, people seem to define it as merely disapproving. But I first encountered it in Terry Pratchett’s work; he seems to mean something more subtle than that, less “I don’t like what you’re doing” but more scepticism of someone else’s naiveté or foolishness. Is Pratchett using the phrase in a weird way?

A I don’t think so. I agree there’s more to this originally British expression than just disapproval. This is one of several examples by Terry Pratchett, in which it is certainly being used in the way you describe:

He looked Carrot up and down. “Joining the watch, are you?”
“I hope to prove worthy, yes,” said Carrot.
The guard gave him what could loosely be called an old-fashioned look. It was practically neolithic. “What was it you done?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” said Carrot.
“You must of done something,” said the guard.
“My father wrote a letter,” said Carrot proudly. “I’ve been volunteered.”
“Bloody hellfire,” said the guard.
Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett, 1989.

The problem with subtle idioms is that their meaning is often hard to tease out. I can remember being puzzled by it long ago, since so few appearances are in contexts that make the sense obvious. My sympathies are with a character in Celia Brayfield’s recent novel Mister Fabulous and Friends who complained, “I wasn’t giving you an old-fashioned look. I wouldn’t know how to give an old-fashioned look.”

The idiom appears early in the twentieth century. This is the first I’ve so far found:

“Would you have me give pain to our good Queen Osburga by breaking the King’s commands?”
“No,” said Alfred, with a quick, old-fashioned look. “We cannot do that, boys.”
The King’s Sons, by George Manville Fenn, 1901.

Old-fashioned, as a way to describe a style from an earlier era, hence antiquated, begins to appear in the written record in the late sixteenth century. Almost immediately, it also begins to refer to values, attitudes or tastes that belong to an earlier time.

Somehow, our current idiom grew out of this. It may derive from the stereotypical attitudes of older people disapproving of modern ways: “They didn’t do that in my day.” Early users, in a time of changing attitudes at the end of the Victorian period, may have been looking back at the supposedly prissy and moralistic views of the previous century, so an old-fashioned look may have communicated similarly old-fashioned views.

The giver of the look may indeed be gently exasperated about foolishness or naiveté, as in this exchange about prison:

“It’s not unusual, you know, stabbings and that. Happens all the time. There’s some pretty bad people in there.”
“Dealing drugs?”
She gave him an old-fashioned look. “No, dancing round their handbags.”
Disturbia, by Christopher Fowler, 1997.

But other emotions may lie behind it. In her story The Tiger’s Bride, Angela Carter wrote, “He offered me what my old nurse would have called an ‘old-fashioned look’, ironic, sly, a smidgen of disdain in it.” In Where Did It All Go Right? of 2002, Al Alvarez comments: “She gave me what she used to call an ‘old-fashioned look’ — amused, sceptical, out of the corners of her eyes.”

My impression is that old-fashioned look is itself becoming rather old fashioned. Many recent examples are prefixed by “as my granny used to say” or similar comments that put its popularity back a generation or two.

5. Sic!

• Dead serious? “My local daily newspaper, the Borneo Post,” Bernard Long emailed, “is a never-ending source of unintended amusement. But a headline on 27 September had me sputtering my breakfast tea across the dining room table: “Decomposed Corpse Found in Cemetery”.

• Kevin Horne noted the opening sentence to an article on the New Orleans Menu site dated 1 October: “Wolf Kohler’s Crescent City Brewhouse is not a German restaurant, but Wolf himself is.”

• A couple of malapropisms arrived at almost the same moment. One was submitted by Leo Boivin from an obituary in the Washington Post on 27 September: “After retirement he researched, wrote and published a family history which included interesting antidotes about various ancestors.” The other came via Neil Hesketh from the website of his local TV station WAVY in Virginia: “That’s the problem with rampant use of heresy in these proceedings — there is no way to test the evidence.”

• The Barbican in London sent Andrew Haynes an email on 30 September which announced the Bicycle Film Festival 2013: “Highlights include the ever-popular Urban Bike Shorts, featuring stories about amputee brothers chasing their BMX dreams, three female couriers in London and a postman in Afghanistan.”

World Wide Words Issue 852 – WIF Style