A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000 Summary

Bruce Kuklick


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It may surprise readers to learn that Bruce Kuklick’s A History of Philosophy in America is intended to be a textbook. Attempting to “steer between the Scylla of philosophers’ suspicion of history and the Charybdis of historians’ suspicion of philosophers,” Kuklick provides a survey of the development of American thought, a movement he believes demonstrates “the long circuitous march from a religious to a secular vision of the universe.”

Kuklick is particularly well qualified to write such a study. The author of more than a half-dozen books on an array of subjects involving American politics and philosophy and the editor of works by Thomas Paine and William James, Kuklick brings his considerable knowledge of American intellectual history to bear on his sweeping examination of the growth of philosophy in the United States. His subject demands that its author be thoroughly familiar with the sometimes obscure writings of dozens of figures who have shaped American thought during three centuries. Fortunately, Kuklick proves capable of handling this task with exceptional skill and clarity.

The task Kuklick sets for himself is a most ambitious one. First, he wishes to trace the growth of American philosophy from its beginnings in the theological studies of men associated with the Protestant ministries in New England and in the colleges, principally Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, set up to prepare young men for those ministries. Early philosophers were concerned with issues of free will versus determinism. They concentrated their efforts on explaining how God is present in the natural world and how the deity relates to man. For them, the work was no simple academic exercise; ideas mattered, because through them people could come to understand God’s plan for salvation. Kuklick’s goal is to show how the writings of eighteenth and early nineteenth century figures better known as theologians shaped the thought of those involved in the development of philosophy as a professional discipline at American universities. At the same time, he summarizes the thought of major figures, providing detailed analysis of their principal works and examining the sources on which they drew for inspiration. As he explains the work of later philosophers, he incorporates commentary on the influence of earlier American figures as well as that of European giants whose work clearly shaped American thought from the founding of the colonies.

Along the way, Kuklick provides interesting commentary on the development of American higher education and the role of philosophy departments in institutions as diverse as Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and Calvin College. This book is as much about the way philosophy developed as an academic discipline in American institutions of higher education as it is about the ideas promulgated by American thinkers. Readers learn from Kuklick’s careful analysis of the political dynamics that shaped postsecondary learning in the United States how personalities had as much to do with the success of individual philosophers as did the quality of their thought.

A question lying beneath the surface of Kuklick’s study surfaces on occasion, providing a theme that links philosophers across the generations: Do philosophers wish only to study the world and humankind, or do they wish to influence human behavior? Put another way, do those who practice philosophy—especially those in institutions of higher education—wish to remain passive commentators on the human condition, or do they wish to become leaders in their communities and country, shaping moral standards and social policy to bring about a good and just society? The answer has changed over generations, but Kuklick is convinced that his contemporaries at the end of the twentieth century elected to remain on the sidelines, writing to and for each other rather than stepping forward to participate in the process of shaping the future of the country.

Kuklick makes it clear that the influence of European thought shaped American philosophy from its beginnings in the colonial era until the end of the...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)