Durant 1926: Introduction to American Philosophers

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


Introduction to American Philosophers

There are, as everybody knows, two Americas, of which one is European. European America js chiefly the eastern states, where the older stocks look up respectfully to foreign aristocracies, and more recent immigrants look back with a certain nostalgia to the culture and traditions of their native lands. In this European America there is an active conflict between the Anglo-Saxon soul, sober and genteel, and the restless and innovating spirit of the newer peoples. The English code of thought and manners must eventually succumb to the continental cultures that encompass and inundate it here; but for the present that British mood dominates the literature, though no longer the morals, of the American East. Our standard of art and taste in the Atlantic states is English; our literary heritage is English; and our philosophy, when we have time for any, is in the line of British thought. It is this new England that produced Washington and Irving and Emerson and even Poe; it is this new England that wrote the books of the first American philosopher, Jonathan Edwards; and it is this new England that captured and remade that strange, exotic figure, America’s latest thinker, George Santayana. For Santayana, of course, is an American philosopher only by grace of geography; he is a European who, having been born in Spain, was transported to America in his unknowing childhood, and who now, in his ripe age, returns to Europe as to a paradise for which his years with us were a probation. Santayana is steeped in the “genteel tradition” of the old America.*

* Cf. his own analysis of the two Americas: “America is not simply a young country with an old mentality; it is a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practices and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind—in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions—it is the hereditary spirit that prevails, so much so that Mr. Bernard Shaw finds that America is a hundred years behind the times. The truth is that one-half of the American mind has remained, I will not say high and dry, but slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the back-water, while alongside, in invention and industry and social organization, the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids. This may be found symbolized in American architecture. …The American Will inhabits the ‘skyscraper; the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion.”—Winds of Doctrine, New York, 1913; p. 188.

Santayana is steeped in the “genteel tradition” of the old America.

The other America is American. It consists of those people, whether Yankees or Hoosiers or cowboys, whose roots are in this soil, and not in Europe; whose manners, ideas and ideals are a native formation; whose souls are touched neither with the gentility of the families that adorn Boston, or New York, or Philadelphia, or Richmond, nor with the volatile passions of the southern or eastern European; men and women moulded into physical ruggedness and mental directness and simplicity by their primitive environment and tasks. This is the America that produced Lincoln and Thoreau and Whitman and Mark Twain; it is the America of “horse sense,” of “practical men,” of “hard-headed business men”; it is the America which so impressed itself upon William James that he became its exponent in philosophy while his brother became more British than an Englishman; and it is the America that made John Dewey.

New America is characterized by “horse sense,” “practical men,” and “hard-headed business men.” William James was impressed by it. John Dewey grew up in it.

We shall study Santayana first, despite chronology; because, though he is the youngest of our greater philosophers, he represents an older and a foreign school; and the subtlety of his thought, and the fragrance. of his style are like the perfume that lingers in a room from which the flowers have been taken away. We shall have, very probably, no more Santayanas; for hereafter it is America, and not Europe, that will write America’s philosophies.

We shall have, very probably, no more Santayanas; for hereafter it is America, and not Europe, that will write America’s philosophies.


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