The American Embrace of Evolution

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 8 Comments

The philosophy of Pragmatism that I have begun to discuss in my previous posts is probably the most uniquely American formation of philosophy. It is, of course, building on, and in response to, its European contemporaries and predecessors, but it has a flavor that is characteristic of the American spirit.

 

I believe that one way that the spirit of America can be understood is as an embrace of the reality of evolution. American philosophy, therefore, can be seen as a philosophical embrace of evolution. As I tried to show in the post here called “The Pluralistic Universe of William James” there is a certain experience of reality that is at the heart of that embrace. It is a forward looking, adaptive leaning into life, characterized in my mind by the four elements that I mention in my about page: “utilitarian attitudes, utopian aspirations, action orientations and mystical inclinations.

 

No doubt, this leaning has its positive and negative aspect. Typical criticisms of American thought are centered on its lack of respect for the wisdom of the past and its brazen attitude toward rushing into the future.

 

Pragmatism was developed initially by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, with John Dewey expanded upon it. Peirce, James and Dewey were all doing philosophy in the decades following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s book did not introduce the idea of evolution, or even “survival of the fittest.” It did introduce the theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. What was significant about this was that it identified the mechanism of evolution as blind trial and error with no intelligent design behind it.

 

Peirce, James and Dewey, along with a cascading number of thinkers in the later part of the 19th century, accepted the fundamental ideas of Darwin as an accurate description of reality, although with some reservation and disagreement. And the philosophy of Pragmatism that they developed can be understood as a philosophy in response to the reality of evolution. By stating that the truth of an idea is not inherent in the idea itself, but is only discovered when that idea successfully proves itself in practice, Pragmatism upholds an evolutionary definition of truth.

 

Pragmatists insist that ideas, like everything else, only survive if they prove to be successful adaptations to the environment. This notion runs through almost all of American philosophy starting perhaps with Benjamin Franklin, running through Ralph Waldo Emerson, then Peirce, James and Dewey right up to many present day philosophers.

 

In the posts of this blog I intend to bring out the details of the philosophy and the history of the development of the American embrace of evolution.

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Sam Rosen
11 years ago

Jeff, this is really fascinating. I can sense that this investigation is crucial for those of us striving to understand the heritage and future of evolutionary thought. And, of course, being a multi-generation American it’s particularly interesting. Can’t wait to track this inquiry as your own thinking develops, and hopefully we can develop this into a rich intersubjective body of understanding!

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Over time I hope that people with an understanding of this American line of thinking will contribute their own thoughts as comments here.

Dana Pasila
11 years ago

Hi Jeff, Have read your line of inquiry, its great. I can see the differences in American thought, the philosophical direction you are investigating, that has impacted the culture and that defines America vs , for instance, what I see as a lack of definition in Canadian culture – especially of an independent cultural movement. Its interesting to note the differences as these two countries are both fairly young culturally yet have in a fundamental way developed very differently. What draws me to the American idealism/philosophy you describe is its dynamic qualities – how it upholds the possibilities of human… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Dana, FYI you might find the book “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind” by Richard Maurice Bucke interesting. It was written in 1904 and Bucke was a Canadian who considered the American poet Walt Whitman to be his spiritual teacher. Buche’s book is quoted in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. Perhaps there is more philosophical connection between these two nations than we realize.

Dana Pasila
11 years ago

Thanks Jeff, I am definitely going to check that book out. I’ve never heard of Bucke – and its especially cool to hear of his connection to Walt Whitman, whose poetry describes the human spirit so deeply.

Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
11 years ago

Trinities

Father*Son* Holy Spirit
Truth*Beauty* Goodness
Mystery*Contingency*Relation
Security*Excellence*Variety

Diana Spiegel
Diana Spiegel
11 years ago

It is so interesting to see the evolution of thought on the topic of evolution!

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi, Jeff and all others, Interesting that there’s such objection to the idea of evolutiuon, those who refuse to accept what others have seemed to pesented as irrefutable and convincing. Maybe those deniers don’t really hurt anyone with their blind refusals except themselves in making others scratch our heads in pitying them. There seems to be a lot of pushback of accepted knowledge and maybe some of it is warranted, science having sold bills of goods shown to be unworthy. The deniers seem like the kind of folks who may have been sleeping in class, who skipped class or are… Read more »