“Are we still evolving?” That’s the question of the day. Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the more important and pointed question: are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.
The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.
As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers…
Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.
But American philosophy generally has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it. Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.
The evolution vs. creation debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.
What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Hecht on the Scopes Trial... on Darwin...15 answers to creationists...theistic evolution...theistic evol DS1...DS2 Coyne vs. Shermer...Hitch on theistic evol...defining religion...evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)]
James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,
I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.
If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…
Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…
a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.
Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish expat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.
Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine. Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”
James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything.
Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.
“St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free.
But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.
Finally, for now: at the TPA meeting the other day I attended a talk where an old (but misguided) friend contended that “pluralists can’t be pragmatists.” That was irritating. I kicked the nearest percept I could find and repeated Dr. Johnson’s boast: “I refute you thusly.” My foot, or rather my idea of my foot, is still throbbing.
Speaking of evolution: Denis Dutton has interesting thoughts on the evolutionary origin of art, music, and creativity…