American Philosophy

Phil 176: Historical Philosophers—American Philosophy

This course in American Philosophy begins with an examination of John Locke’s theory of natural rights, which posits entitlements to life, liberty and property, and an assessment of the role Locke’s ideas played in the American Revolution and the construction of its founding documents.  We then turn to the growing popularity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the subsequent century and its consequences for the idea of God-given rights referenced in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.  Religious philosophers influenced by Kant and Hegel gave an idealist interpretation of evolution via natural selection, reading natural history on Earth as the realization of an end or goal that we can embrace as good upon reflection.  And Darwin shared in this optimistic reading shorn of its theological commitments by viewing human history as natural selection for intelligence and virtue.  After reviewing this material we will focus on the responses to Darwinian biology formulated by those American philosophers who founded Pragmatism: Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. 

Phil 176 – American Philosophy – Course Syllabus –  Spring 2020

Lecture 1: An Introduction to the Course – Spring 2020

1. America’s Founding Ideology: Natural Rights

Source 1: Locke’s Two Treatises

Phil 176 Handout 1 – Locke



Lecture 2: Locke 1 (Too Long to be Uploaded Here: Download from Gauchospace)

Lecture 3: Locke 2

Lecture 4: Locke 3

Essay Assignment #1: Due by 5PM – 4/22/20

Lecture 5: Locke 4

Lecture 6: Locke 5

Lecture 7: Locke 6

Lecture 8: Locke 7

Lecture 9: Locke 8

Lecture 10: Locke 9

Lecture 11: Locke 10

Lecture 12: Locke 11

Lecture 13: Locke 12

Source 2a: Rough Draft of the Declaration

Source 2b: Declaration of Independence

       Source 3: The Interactive Constitution


Recommended: Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice

Recommended: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

Recommended: Phil 176 Supplementary Handout – An Analysis of the Effect of Locke’s Political Philosophy on the US Constitution

Recommended: Natural Rights and the 9th Amendment to the US Constitution

Recommended: Corfield v Coryell

Recommended: Griswold v Connecticut

Recommended: Goldberg’s opinion in Griswold v Connecticut

Lecture 14: Locke’s Influence on America’s Founding Documents

Recommended: The Role of Locke’s Theory of Property Right in Justifying Colonial Appropriation of Native Lands 

2. The Epistemology of America’s Founding Ideology: The Self-Evidence of God-Given Rights

Source 4: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapter 1.

Source 5: M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapters 2-3.

Phil 176 – Handout 2 – White’s Assessment of the Basis of Belief in Natural Rights

Recommended: Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)


Lecture 15: White 1

Lecture 16: White 2

Lecture 17: White 3

Lecture 18: White 4

Lecture 19: White 5

Lecture 20: White 6

Lecture 21: White 7

3. The Role of Natural Rights Ideology in Abolitionism

        Source 6a: Slaves as the First Real Americans: 1619 Podcast Episode 1

Source 6b: Frederick Douglas, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852).

Source 7: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

Source 8: Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963 

Source 9: Daniel S. Malachuk, “Antebellum Natural Rights Liberalism,” in Levine, Merrill and Stoner (Eds.), The Political Thought of the Civil War, University Press of Kansas (2018), pp. 74-97.

Phil 176 – Handout 3 – The Political Potential of the Ideal of Natural Rights

Recommended: Sandel’s criticism of Rawls’ “Political” Liberalism

Recommended: George Fitzhugh

Recommended: Mill v Carlyle on Abolition

Recommended: The Emancipation Proclamation 

Recommended: The 14th Amendment

Recommended: The Slaughterhouse Cases

Lecture 22: Douglas-Lincoln-King 1

Lecture 23: Douglas-Lincoln-King 2

Lecture 24: Douglas-Lincoln-King 3

Lecture 25: Douglas-Lincoln-King 4

Essay Assignment # 2: Due in Class 5/20/20 

4. Darwinian Skepticism about Natural Rights

Source 10: Aaron Zimmerman, Veneer Theory, in D. Machuca (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Moral Skepticism (2018), pp. 199-212.

Recommended: T. Huxley, On the Natural Inequality of Men (1890)

Recommended: Phil 176 – Handout – Huxley’s Skepticism about Natural Equality

Recommended: John C. Greene, “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist,” Journal of the History of Biology, 10, 1 (Spring 1977), pp. 1-27.

Recommended: Weikart on Darwin’s Socioeconomic Views

Phil 176 – Handout 4 – The Application of Natural Selection to the Study of Humanity’s Past and Future 

Lecture 26: Zimmerman 1 

Lecture 27: Zimmerman 2 (this lecture won’t upload: find it on the Gauchospace page for the course)

Source 11: J. Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (1909)

Phil 176 – Handout 5 – Dewey’s Assessment of Darwin’s Influence on Philosophy

*Recommended: Leo Strauss – Natural Right and History

Lecture 28: Dewey 1

Lecture 29: Dewey 2

5. Charles Sander Peirce

Source 12: C.S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November 1877), pp. 1-15.

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – Charles Sanders Peirce

Lecture 30: Peirce 1

Lecture 31: Peirce 2

Lecture 32: Peirce 3

Lecture 33: Peirce 4

Lecture 34: Peirce 5

6. William James

Source 13: William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” The International Journal of Ethics, 1, 3 (April 1891), pp. 330-54.

Phil 176 – Handout 7 – William James

Lecture 35: James 1

Lecture 36: James 2

Lecture 37: James 3

Lecture 38: James 4

Lecture 39: James 5

Study Sheet for the Final Exam 


Additional Material

Algernon Sidney, The Discourses Concerning Government

Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy

Locke and Shaftesbury: The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina

J.P. Greene “An Uneasy Connection…”

T.H. Breen “Ideology and Nationalism…”

Phil 176 Handout on Breen and Greene

P. Wood “Liberty is Sweet…”

R.D. Brown, Self-Evident Truths, chapter 7

Further Founding Documents

U.S. Constitution

Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

Further Chapters from White’s Analysis of the Founder’s Epistemology

M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapters 4-5.

M. White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford UP (1973), chapter 6 and epilogue.

L.G. Schwoerer, “Locke, Lockean Ideas, and the Glorious Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas (1990), pp. 531-48.

recommended sources:

The English Bill of Rights

R. Brookhiser, Correcting the Constitution, American History, December 2015

W.M. Treanor, “Taking Text Too Seriously: Modern Textualism, Original Meaning, and the Case of Amar’s Bill of Rights, Michigan Law Review (Dec 2007), pp. 487-53.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law, Harvard Law Review (1918)

Jeremy Bentham’s Critique of the Doctrine of Natural Rights in Anarchical Fallacies (1843) 

M.L. Dudziak, Oliver Wendell Holmes as a Eugenic Reformer (1986) 

What Are Normative Principles of Thought and Action for Humans Conceived of as Animals Evolving Via “Natural” Mechanisms of Selection?

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – C.I. Lewis “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori”

Phil 176 – Handout 7 – Sidney Hook, “Naturalism and First Principles”

Old Essays

Essay 2 S 17