American philosophy, encompassing the thoughts and ideas of philosophers associated with the United States, developed and reflected the country's collective identity over time, even without possessing a concrete set of defining features.
In the 17th century, with the arrival of European colonizers, the American philosophical tradition took root in the religious ideologies of the Puritans, emphasizing the relationship between the individual and the community. Colonial documents like the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties bear testament to this. Thinkers such as John Winthrop underscored public life over private, while others like Roger Williams advocated religious tolerance over religious homogeneity.
The 18th-century American philosophy was bifurcated, initially influenced by Reformed Puritan Calvinism due to the Great Awakening, and later by Enlightenment natural philosophy. It was utilized in the 1750s and 1770s to create a unique intellectual culture for the United States, giving birth to an American variant of the European Enlightenment. During this period, the works of philosophers like Francis Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Locke, Wollaston, and Berkeley were introduced to Colonial British America. American-born philosophers Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Edwards, both of whom were educated at Yale and influenced by Berkeley, adapted and extended Enlightenment ideas to develop their own American theology and philosophy. They were instrumental in shaping American political philosophy and the works of the Founding Fathers.
While Johnson transitioned to Anglican episcopal religion and built his moral philosophy based on William Wollaston's Natural Religion, Edwards remained a Calvinist and a hard determinist, intertwining Christian Platonism with empiricist epistemology, leveraging Newtonian physics. Despite their different theological paths, both were influential in establishing Enlightenment ideas in America.
In the later part of the century, Scottish innate or common sense realism became the dominant philosophy in American academia, replacing the native schools established by Johnson and Edwards, and continued to hold sway until the Civil War.
Edwards, known for his intense sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," emphasized God's sovereignty and holiness. He conceptualized Resistance as a fundamental metaphysical category, explaining it as the exertion of God's power visible in Newton's laws of motion. Despite incorporating Enlightenment ideas, Edwards maintained the Calvinist doctrine, underlining the role of God's unconditional grace as the determining factor of human destiny.
Samuel Johnson, sometimes referred to as "The Founder of American Philosophy", played a key role in these shifts, proposing a universal moral philosophy that could be accepted by all religions and fostering the development of education and knowledge classification systems.
As civil and political philosophy gained traction around the time of the Stamp Act, many of the nation's Founding Fathers wrote extensively on these topics. The result of these debates and writings were the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the United States Constitution in 1788. The Constitution outlined a federal republican form of government, characterized by a balance of powers and checks and balances between the judicial, executive, and legislative branches.
While many of the Founding Fathers professed deism, all except two (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) were publicly associated with denominational Christian churches. An alternate moral philosophy, known as Scottish Innate Sense moral philosophy or Scottish common sense realism, was introduced into American Colleges in 1768 by John Witherspoon. Although some claim this philosophy was the basis for America's founding documents, others argue that Johnson's American Practical Idealism and Edwards' Reformed Puritan Calvinism were more influential.
Thomas Paine, an influential promoter of Enlightenment political ideas in America, wrote "Common Sense", a pamphlet that provided justification for the American revolution and independence. Nonetheless, the most impactful philosophical influences were the "Founding Grandfathers", like Johnson, Edwards, and Franklin, who instilled the idealistic moral philosophy of "the pursuit of happiness" in the young men who would become the Founding Fathers.
The release of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" led to a significant impact on American philosophy, especially with thinkers like John Fiske, Chauncey Wright, Herbert Spencer, and William Graham Sumner. These philosophers argued for the re-conceptualization of philosophy through an evolutionary lens, aiming to understand morality and the mind in Darwinian terms. Social and political philosophies, like the belief in survival of the fittest and laissez-faire capitalism, were also interpreted in light of Darwin's theories.
Another significant philosophical movement of the 19th century was Pragmatism, initiated by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Pragmatism put forth the idea that belief is that which drives one to act, and a proposition's meaning is rooted in the practical consequences of accepting it as true. This uniquely American philosophical movement focused on the practical implications of ideas and their effect on action, distinguishing it from traditional rationalist or empiricist schools of thought.
Peirce, a polymath known for his contributions to logic, mathematics, and semiotics, is renowned for establishing the foundational documents of pragmatism. He emphasized the role of scientific method in shaping belief and coined the pragmatic maxim, which suggests that the conception of an object is equated to a conception of its practical implications. This maxim served to clarify confusions and foster the development of explanatory hypotheses. Peirce's philosophy, deeply intertwined with his three-category system, supported the belief in the discoverable and immutable truth, objective idealism, and the reality of continuity in space, time, and law.
Pragmatism, an influential school of thought that originated in America in the late 19th century, was pioneered by figures such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Pragmatism advocated for understanding and evaluating beliefs based on their practical implications and consequences.
William James, a renowned pragmatist and psychologist, expanded the scope of pragmatism to include theories of truth. James advocated radical empiricism, which held that the relations between objects were as real as the objects themselves, and that multiple, correct interpretations of truth could exist.
John Dewey was a prolific figure in the public sphere who extensively wrote on political and social matters. He argued against the individualism of classical liberalism and is known for his work in the philosophy of education.
In the 20th century, American philosophy saw the emergence of process philosophy and analytic philosophy, and a decline in the dominance of pragmatism. Influenced by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, process philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne considered events and processes as the primary ontological categories.
Meanwhile, analytic philosophy, which initially began in Europe, took dominance in America. The analytic tradition, represented by figures like W.V.O. Quine, advocates that philosophy should align closely with science in its quest for clarity and understanding of the world. Quine is also known for his critique of logical positivism and his theory of the indeterminacy of translation.
Lastly, Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana was one of the leading proponents of pragmatism and realism in the 20th century. His concept of "animal faith" posits that knowledge is not the result of reasoning but is necessary for successful interaction with the world.
Saul Kripke, a former student of Quine at Harvard University, is a seminal figure in analytic philosophy, best known for his contributions in areas such as modal logic semantics, philosophy of language, interpretation of Wittgenstein, and theory of truth. Another notable philosopher under Quine's tutelage was David Kellogg Lewis, famed for his controversial stance on modal realism.
Thomas Kuhn, a leading philosopher in the history and philosophy of science, is renowned for his work, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". In it, Kuhn postulates that scientific progression transpires through paradigm shifts, as scientists encounter and attempt to resolve novel puzzles.
American philosophy, largely focused on abstract and conceptual analysis, began returning to social and political issues around the 1970s. Ayn Rand gained popularity during this time, promoting ethical egoism and her belief system, Objectivism, through her novels. Despite criticism from some academic circles, Rand's influence, particularly within the American libertarian movement, remains substantial.
John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice", published in 1971, brought forth a version of social contract theory, envisioning justice as fairness. Rawls' original position and veil of ignorance concepts have had significant impact on discussions of social justice.
Robert Nozick, in contrast to Rawls, advocated for minimal state interference in his book "Anarchy, State, and Utopia", defending individual liberty and arguing that government should restrict its role to areas like policing, defense, and legal administration. Nozick's entitlement theory of justice stands as a key libertarian perspective on distribution of wealth and resources.
Alasdair MacIntyre, while not American-born, has significantly influenced the landscape of philosophy in the U.S., primarily through his advocacy for virtue ethics, a moral theory rooted in Aristotle's philosophy. MacIntyre critiques modern philosophy and life for lacking a coherent moral code and sense of purpose, recommending a return to true political communities where virtues can be properly nurtured.
Outside the academic realm, the Civil Rights Movement and figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. brought political and social issues to the forefront. King is recognized for his nonviolent and civil disobedience approaches to advancing civil rights.
Feminism, particularly the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, significantly impacted philosophical thought. Central figures such as Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," along with philosophers Alicia Ostriker and Adrienne Rich, challenged fundamental assumptions such as objectivity and rights-based political theories, which they viewed as masculine approaches to ethics. They held the belief that there is no value-neutral inquiry and emphasized the importance of analyzing the social dimensions of philosophical issues.
In the late 20th century, a revived interest in pragmatism was seen, driven largely by philosophers Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty. They were well-known for their works on quasi-empiricism, philosophy of mind, language, and science, among other topics.
The philosophy of mind became a focal point of American philosophical discourse, with figures such as Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, John Searle, and Patricia and Paul Churchland contributing to debates around the nature of mind and the hard problem of consciousness, an issue first posed by Australian philosopher David Chalmers.
The 21st century saw the emergence of embodied cognition as a major theory in the philosophy of mind. This perspective, defended by philosophers Shaun Gallagher, Alva Noë, and Andy Clark, integrates the mind, body, and world, and is considered a natural progression of pragmatism and the thoughts of earlier philosophers such as Kant, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.
American legal philosophers Ronald Dworkin and Richard Posner have made significant contributions to political philosophy and jurisprudence. Posner is recognized for his economic analysis of law, while Dworkin is known for his theory of law as integrity and legal interpretivism.
Cornel West, an American philosopher, is renowned for his cultural analysis in relation to race, gender, and class issues, as well as his connections with pragmatism and transcendentalism.
Finally, Alvin Plantinga, a Christian analytic philosopher, has gained prominence for his arguments concerning free will, the problem of evil, the belief in God's existence, and his ontological argument for the existence of Yahweh. Michael C. Rea has further built upon Plantinga's work, asserting that both naturalism and supernaturalism are necessary foundations for research.