American History / Thomas Jefferson: Orignial Pragmatist

Thomas Jefferson: Orignial Pragmatist

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Autor:  anton  02 April 2011
Tags:  Thomas,  Jefferson,  Orignial,  Pragmatist
Words: 845   |   Pages: 4
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In his book The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, Daniel J. Boorstin attempted to “recapture the Jeffersonian world of ideas” by reconstructing the writings of the Jeffersonian from the American Philosophy Society. He attempted to show the relationship between the different Jeffersonian conceptions, starting with God and ending with society. Furthermore, Boorstin’s attempted to bring coherency to the Jeffersonian tradition in order to save it from the “vagueness which has enveloped much of liberal thought”. Among the major themes in the book is the materialist conception of the Jeffersonian, which begins with ideas of the Creator as the divine “Architect” of nature, and the economy of nature, which explains the efficiency and the practicality with which the Creator made nature. These ideas become the foundation for which all other Jeffersonian ideas stem from. Among them are early conceptions of pragmatism. Therefore, the thesis of this paper concerns Jeffersonian thought exhibited early traces of pragmatism in its ideas of the Creator, the “physiology of thought and morals”, and “useful knowledge”.

The Jeffersonian materialist conception of God, the “Architect” of nature, reasoned that God “must have made it possible for everyone to discover His existence and His character”. Therefore, God could be externally validated through observation of nature, which made God tangible. For example, David Rittenhouse believed “that facts which men did not yet know…would confirm the quality which already had been proved by astronomic science.” Hence, what has been observed through science can predict what lies in other parts of the universe that has yet not been observed. This suggested that there could be no subject-object split between God and man. Such arguments against subject-object split reflect pragmatist William James’s belief of realism nearly one hundred years later, which would later influence pragmatist Hilary Putnam’s conception of realism another hundred years after that.

Jeffersonian ideas on thinking also exposed pragmatists’ ideas on truth, plurality, theories, and absolutes. Jefferson remarked that “differences of opinion…like differences of face, are a law of our nature, and should be viewed with the same tolerance.” Boorstin further commented that since people had varying ways of thinking, the Jeffersonian believed it to be futile to pursue an absolute or to bring consistency among different thoughts through theories. This varying ways of thinking would lead to experimentation and the use of experience in determining the truth. Pragmatist William James expressed similar feelings as the Jeffersonian. Dickstein explained James’s notion that “truth were conditional and constantly evolving rather than abstract and absolute” with a “preference….for facts over theories.” Hence, James expressed similar feelings towards truth, plurality, absolutes, and theories as Jefferson.

Boorstin’s depiction of the Jeffersonian idea of “useful Knowledge” closely mirrors several of pragmatist John Dewey’s ideas on education. The Jeffersonian believed mind and body to be one. Since the mind could not survive without a living body, thinking was seen as a mode of action derived from a functioning body. Similarly, Dewey felt that the first obstacle in education was the dualism of action and knowledge. Dewey felt that knowledge was a form of action much like the Jeffersonian, and that knowledge could be obtained through action, but knowledge for its own sake could only be subordinate to action and practice. Jefferson concurred that “knowledge is of little use, when confined to mere speculation: But when speculative truths are reduced to practice…knowledge then becomes really useful.” Both conceptions exhibit the important premise of pragmatism of practicality. He went on to say “a powerful, prosperous, republican community could result only if each class was qualified for its practical task.” Dewey concurs with this sentiment as Richard Hofstadter points out in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that Dewey “saw education as a major force in social reconstruction.” Therefore, both the Jeffersonian and Dewey viewed education as the prime vehicle in advancing societal needs and exhibited the important feature of pragmatism that all activities should be result driven.

In conclusion, when the idea of pragmatism was developed into an established philosophy, it found among its influences the Jeffersonian tradition some one hundred year before it. For instance, the Jeffersonian distaste for metaphysics such as dualisms between man and God, and thought and action, can be seen in pragmatist William James beliefs of realism, and John Dewey’s ideas on education. James and the Jeffersonian believed that there exists multiple ways of thinking, resulted in the idea of plurality of truths, and because of such they viewed an inherent fallibility in theories and absolutes. Jefferson and Dewey’s general ideas on education mirror each other closely. For example, their belief that education should provide the skills and knowledge to improve the society show the result oriented character of pragmatism. Boorstin himself sums it up the best: “Eighteenth-century America could provide the inspiration, but not the confirmation for a pragmatic philosophy.”

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