Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Russell B. Goodman's "American Philosophy Before Pragmatism"

Russell Goodman is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his book, American Philosophy Before Pragmatism, and reported the following:
My book tells a story of the development of philosophy in America from the mid 18th century to the late 19th century. The key figures in this story, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, were not professors but men of the world, whose thinking blended with religion, politics, and literature. I consider them in relation to the philosophers and other thinkers they found important: the deism of John Toland and Matthew Tindal, John Locke’s political and religious philosophy, the moral sense theories of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, and the Romanticism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The book concludes with an Epilogue on some continuities in American philosophy, especially between Emerson and the pragmatists.

Page 99 does not mention any of these thinkers, however, so in that regard it is not a good guide to the book’s subject matter. But it does concern a main theme of the book, discussed by all the writers on whom I focus: American slavery. The page opens a section entitled “Slavery in the American Republic” that begins with my statement that “there is considerable irony in the fact that people so concerned with freedom should have constructed a republic that acknowledged slavery--without, however, ever using the words ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ in the Constitution.” As examples I mention the Constitution’s fugitive slave law, which referred to “Persons … held to Service or Labour in one State … escaping into another,” and its legalization of the “importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” at least until 1808. A third example, defended by James Madison in the Federalist, states that the population of each state is to be “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

In his 1844 address commemorating the abolition of the slave trade in the British West Indies, Emerson wrote that “[l]anguage must be raked; the secrets of slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been." We do not need to rake language very deeply to consider who the non-free and non-Indian persons mentioned in the Constitution were, and or to learn what the polite word "servant" meant in a society in which slavery was legal. Three of my main subjects—Edwards, Franklin, and Jefferson, were slaveowners, but all five played a role in disturbing the uneasy American equilibrium that included slavery.
Learn more about American Philosophy Before Pragmatism at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue