Commentary Magazine


Science and Sentiment in America, by Morton White

Heart & Mind

Science and Sentiment in America: Philosophical Thought from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey.
by Morton White.
Oxford University Press. 358 pp. $8.95.

Near the end of his new book, Morton White says that “on all the lower floors of philosophical anti-intellectualism we can hear the noise of philosophers who live at the top. Those Americans who have lived at the very top of our high culture have thumped their message down to lower floors for two hundred years.” Now, of course, the high-level thumping has stopped, and the philosophers at the top have abandoned the heart for the head. There is still a thumping going on—it may even be louder than ever—but it is left now to sound alone in the hearts of “philosophasters” and kids. We have many specialized epistemologists and great-souled sages today, but no middlemen of “the grand manner” who reflect on the broader aspects of civilization as well as on the narrow, who feel called upon to wrestle with science as well as sentiment (and who sometimes even get them to embrace), who are “technicians but not mere technicians,” who are “seers but not madmen.” Not since John Dewey have we had whole men like these. Yet these are the only kind of men who can reach moral truth, and who can perhaps temper the thumping going on down below with some other and more moderate means of communication. This is the view—it is more like a plea—that Morton White puts forth as he traces the great high road of American philosophy from Jonathan Edwards to Dewey.

Temper the thumping down below and bring the heart back to the head up top; we are hearing this message a lot from writers about philosophy lately. So much so that if this message were the only virtue of Science and Sentiment in America it would be a questionable one for thumping, or even temperate tapping, even from as distinguished a student of ideas as Morton White. If rigid specialization exists on one side and anti-literate intuition on the other, who in the world is expected to be reading a book about the problem? Its very existence precludes the need to describe it, for there is no audience. Perhaps this is why such books turn out usually to be deadening and disorganized lamentations that plunk like used out ping-pong balls between mental logic and emotional lightning. But here is an admirable book, and one well worth the reading by both philosophers and historians of ideas. It is not like the ones I have just described. Not until the epilogue, at any rate, and by then you have read the body of the book, and have seen its virtues, and you don’t mind—at least not too much.

To begin with the virtues. As I see it there are two major ones. First—and there is wedged in here a major contribution to the history of ideas—White points out that the main argument of the Declaration of Independence is as much a product of the native American democratic animus as it is the legacy of John Locke. For while Locke’s moral philosophy rested on self-evident principles which could be accounted for by reason, those principles, when enunciated by the framers of the Declaration, rested on sentiment and affection. The influence at the top was principally that of Jonathan Edwards, who had added his “Sense of the Heart” to the empiricism and rationality of Locke. And the irony was that while Locke had avoided senses of the heart, or innate principles, for democratic reasons, fearing that in England they might be used to justify the conservative feudal tradition, his own use of deduction was modified on this side of the Atlantic because it represented heady stuff above the democratic and anti-intellectual hearts of “ordinary men and farmers.” In effect, Locke was out-democrated and out-sentimentalized by men using a method which he regarded as reactionary. True, some of this has already been said by American intellectual historians like Staughton Lynd and Bernard Bailyn, but what White contributes is a sharper presentation of the implicit distinctions between innate and self-evident, and also the development of the idea that in America the heart remained alluring, as a source of knowledge and morality for everyman, as a “people’s road” to truth, as “a form of populist anti-intellectualism”—even as in the later 19th century the influences of Darwin and Comte began to turn American philosophy in the scientific direction.

Emerson’s heart was “Reason”; James’s, the “Will to Believe”; and for Peirce it was the perceiving organ. Even in the philosophies of such ostensibly antagonistic figures as the idealist Josiah Royce and the empiricist Chauncey Wright, emotion played important roles. It is, in fact, especially important and significant that such scientifically minded men as Charles Peirce and Royce felt called upon to use one source as justification for the other, though from opposite directions. With Peirce pragmatism was justified by somewhat mystic universal, and with Royce the oversoul was fortified by logic.

And it is here that we encounter the second major virtue of Science and Sentiment in America. It helps to put in historical perspective the confusing contemporary joggling of philosophies on what one might call the lower floors of domestic intellectual life: where words that come from different sides of the tracks—like sensitivity and training—are coupled; where the scientific movement for ecological balance seems to have been able to enlist many of its young members only because they were previously trained in organic nature by the Yin-Yang set; where at times the head even seems to be used rigorously to justify its own domination by the heart. As White points out, John Dewey brought American philosophy into the action of life and so ended the dualism and tension between morals and science. But this also meant, unfortunately, that science in philosophy was allowed to march off to the towers, while sentiment continued to flood the malls, leaving a meeting-ground only under the auspices of “philosophasters.” Ironically, it was Dewey’s interest in all the problems of living, especially in education and politics, which placed him in the great tradition of technician-seers and caused him at the same time to contribute toward ending that tradition. Emerson had looked down his nose at empirical “Understanding”—“that wrinkled calculator”—yet Dewey, along with Wright and James and Santayana, still found truths in the great Transcendentalisms visions. The truth for Dewey was Emerson’s emphasis on life, on “the common experience of the everyday man.” Dewey and Emerson were on different sides of “that wrinkled calculator,” but as philosophers in the grand manner they were as one: critics of formalism and advocates of action. And this is the same combination that thrives today. It is still American, though the action has descended from the upper realms of specialized epistemology down into life and though it has certainly lost some valuable critical muscle in the fall.

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In his prologue, Morton White says that while his intention was to limit his focus “primarily to the most distinguished American philosophers,” he also wanted to look at the “relationship between American philosophy and the world around it, both intellectual and social.” In other words, he was approaching the history of ideas from the high and low roads (an attempt, I think, to exemplify his own entreaty to the American scholar—Emersonian in form, not content—to unite all the pathways: logic, learning, experience, and sentiment). The high road he has certainly traveled well. To my knowledge no one has done better. However, I think that White did forget the low road. Aside from some general statements there is very little of significance said about American social and cultural history as it relates to our philosophers’ sometime preference for the heart over the head. What could be called a middle road had been taken by White in his earlier book, Social Thought in America, where he dealt with Dewey as well as with the maverick economist Thorstein Veblen, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the historian Charles Beard, and others. And the lower road has, of course, been surveyed already by the late Richard Hofstadter. Yet because White’s views are somewhat different from Hofstadter’s (notably that there can be intellectual anti-intellectualism), and because Social Thought in America dealt more with the end of formalism than with the question of science versus sentiment, White should have covered his projected low road more thoroughly.

Nonetheless, Science and Sentiment in America possesses a unity of theme, a clarity of style, and a precision of thought which make it an exceptionally readable book. It may well be that this particular theme—heart-mind duality—is the most perfectly chosen one for a history of American philosophy, because its very exposition forces the writer to avoid falsely smoothed-out coherences and badly patched-up consistencies. White explores the tensions and the incongruities in the minds of men like Royce and Peirce and James precisely because his theme is those tensions. He may be forced to stretch occasionally—as when he makes Chauncey Wright an advocate of feeling, albeit that feeling is relegated to the “poetic” world—but that, like his giant-stepping along the low road, is forgivable.

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