“We are, I think, in the right Road of Improvement, for we are making Experiments.”
“They are more inclinable to read Men by Business and Conversation, than to dive into Books, and are for the most Part only desirous of learning what is absolutely necessary, in the shortest and best Method.”
THEY saw new perspectives and found new viewpoints in their new place. There was no American system of thought, but there were signs of American ways of thinking. As the community-plans drawn in Europe were changed in each colony, ways common to the colonies began to appear. The following chapters will illustrate these ways of thinking about knowledge and education, about the learned occupations, about law, medicine, and science. New things were seen from the New World, not because Americans had sharper vision but because their vision was less obstructed by the piled-up wealth of the past.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident …”
The Declaration of Independence
BY THE EARLY 17th century, Europe had accumulated a rich but cumbersome cultural baggage. Systems of thought, established institutions, professional traditions, dogmatically-defined bodies of knowledge regarded as all that was worth knowing—these cluttered the landscape of England and of Europe. The bare earth was almost nowhere visible.
Systems always breed more systems; when new liberating movements arose in England and on the continent during the 17th and 18th centuries, they took the familiar European form of anti-systems. Thus, “the Enlightenment,” which claimed to free men from superstition and from the dogma of old authority and petrified thought, itself acquired much of the rigidity and authoritarianism of what it set out to combat. The European Enlightenment was in fact little more than the confinement of the mind in a prison of 17th- and 18th-century design. The new “rationalism”—which Europeans boasted was their new freedom—was the old human dogmatic servitude. What Carl Becker described as “The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers” was a mirage of freedom. The best European minds of that age labored to build the new-model walls in which they were to be confined. Liberation could not be conceived in any other way in Europe.
Life in America was to give new meaning to the very idea of liberation. For Americans, cultural novelty and intellectual freedom were not to mean merely the exchange of one set of idols for another; they meant removal into the open air.
The most fertile novelty of the New World was not its climate, its plants, its animals, or its minerals, but its new concept of knowledge. The wealth of the new-found land could enable men to live well by Old World standards, but the realization that knowledge itself might be different from what men had before believed—this opened up realms never before dreamed of. Men in the New World found unsuspected possibilities in life everywhere. No American invention has influenced the world so powerfully as the concept of knowledge which sprang from the American experience. To understand that discovery we must look to the earliest colonial days.
When has a culture owed so little to its few “great” minds or its few hereditarily fortunate men and women? One of the contrasts between the culture of Europe and that of the United States is that the older culture traditionally depended on the monumental accomplishments of the few, while the newer culture—diffused, elusive, process-oriented—depended more on the novel, accreting ways of the many.
In most past societies—certainly in the aristocratic societies of western Europe—rulers and priests had been the “explaining” classes. They were the acknowledged possessors of the ways of knowing, the secret keys to the ancestral treasurehouse of mystery and of knowledge. The Protestant Reformation, with its dogma of the universal priesthood of all believers, did, of course, discourage reverence toward a special class of “knowers,” but there soon arose a “protestant” priesthood (in the Geneva of Calvin or the London of Archbishop Laud) which, in its turn, denied freedom of discovery to the laity or to heretics. The common people could show their good sense only by acting according to ways approved by their “betters.”
American life quickly proved uncongenial to any special class of “knowers.” Men here were more interested in the elaboration of experience than in the elaboration of “truth”; the novelties of a New World led them to suspect that elaborate verification might itself mislead. As William James explained at the close of the 19th century, technically completed verifications are seldom needed in experience. In America, he said, “the possession of truth, so far from being … an end in itself, is only a preliminary means toward other vital satisfactions.” Sometimes consciously, sometimes through the force of circumstance, Americans listened to the dictates of “self-evidence.” Before long this appeal to self-evidence became a distinctive popular epistemology—a substitute for philosophy or a philosophy for non-academic thinkers.
The more encumbered a society is with ancient culture and institutions, the more likely is its most profound and well-organized thought to diverge from its way of acting. One of the ways in which American experience liberated the New World was by freeing men from the notion that every grand institution needed a grand foundation of systematic thought: that successful government had to be supported by profound political theory, that moving religion had to be supported by subtle theology—in a word, that the best living had to have behind it the most sophisticated thinking. This mood was to explain the superficially contradictory strains of the practical and the traditional in the American mind—the openness to novel ways that worked and the readiness to accept ancient and traditional laws—for both common sense and common law were time-proven and unreflective ways of settling problems.
In America what seemed to be needed was not so much a new variant of European “schools” of philosophy as a philosophy of the unexpected. Too much of the best-elaborated thinking of the European mind added up to proof that America and its novelties were impossible. A less aristocratic and more mobile New World required a way of interpreting experience that would be ready for the outlandish and would be equally available to everyone everywhere.
“Common sense” was, of course, an old and thoroughly respectable notion in western European civilization. Some Scottish thinkers in the 18th century—they were not without their influence in America and one actually had become the favorite philosopher of George III—elaborated a special “philosophy” of common sense. In America, however, the more influential appeal to self-evidence did not take any such academic form; it was a philosophy which had no philosophers. It had to be so, for it was a way of thinking pervaded by doubt that the professional thinker could think better than others.
The appeal to self-evidence did not displace more academic and more dogmatic modes of thinking among all Americans, but American life nourished it until it became a prevailing mode. It was not the system of a few great American Thinkers, but the mood of Americans thinking. It rested on two sentiments. The first was a belief that the reasons men give for their actions are much less important than the actions themselves, that it is better to act well for wrong or unknown reasons than to treasure a systematized “truth” with ambiguous conclusions, that deep reflection does not necessarily produce the most effective action. The second was a belief that the novelties of experience must be freely admitted into men’s thought. Why strain the New World through the philosophical sieves of the Old? If philosophy denied the innuendoes of experience, the philosophy—not the experience—must be rejected. Therefore, a man’s mind was wholesome not when it possessed the most refined implements for dissecting and ordering all knowledge, but when it was most sensitive to the unpredicted whisperings of environment. It was less important that the mind be elegantly furnished than that it be open and unencumbered.