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


Source 1: Locke’s Two Treatises

Source 2a: Rough Draft of the Declaration

Source 2b: Declaration of Independence       

Source 3: The Interactive Constitution


Source 4: Critique of Locke on Property

Allan Greer, “Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America,” The American Historical Review, 117, 2 (April 2012), pp. 365-86.

Source 5: Sentimentalist Critique of Locke

Source 6: Jefferson’s Moral Philosophy and Attitude toward Slavery

Thomas Merrill, “The Later Jefferson and the Problem of Natural Rights,” in Levine, Merrill and Stoner (eds), The Political Thought of the Civil War,” Univ of Kansas Press 

Helo and Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 60, 3 (July 2003), pp. 583-614

The Declaration was an Application of Locke’s Theory Notwithstanding Jefferson’s embrace of Moral Sense

Source 7: Locke’s Epistemology

Michael Rabieh, “The Reasonableness of Locke, or the Questionableness of Christianity,” The Journal of Politics, 53, 4 (Nov 1991), pp. 993-57 

Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity

Source 9a-b: Are Natural Rights Self-Evident? In Search of America’s Moral Epistemology 

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

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

Source 10: Full Belief in Natural Rights: 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.

Source 10: Sandel’s criticism of Rawls’ “Political” Liberalism

Source 11: Aaron Zimmerman, Veneer Theory, in D. Machuca (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Moral Skepticism (2018), pp. 199-212.

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

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

Source 14: John Dewey, A Common Faith, New Haven: Yale University Press (1934)

Source 15: Charles Mills – Black Radical Kantianism


Phil 176 Handout 1 – Locke

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

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

Phil 176 – Huxley’s Skepticism about Natural Equality

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

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

Phil 176 – Handout 6 – Charles Sanders Peirce

Phil 176 – Handout 7 – William James


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

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

Study Sheet for the Final Exam 


Lecture 1: An Introduction to the Course – Spring 2020

Lecture 3: Locke 2

Lecture 4: Locke 3

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

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

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

Lecture 22: Douglas-Lincoln-King 1

Lecture 23: Douglas-Lincoln-King 2

Lecture 24: Douglas-Lincoln-King 3

Lecture 25: Douglas-Lincoln-King 4

Lecture 26: Zimmerman 1 

Lecture 27: Zimmerman 2 

Lecture 28: Dewey 1

Lecture 29: Dewey 2

Lecture 30: Peirce 1

Lecture 31: Peirce 2

Lecture 32: Peirce 3

Lecture 33: Peirce 4

Lecture 34: Peirce 5

Lecture 35: James 1

Lecture 36: James 2

Lecture 37: James 3

Lecture 38: James 4

Lecture 39: James 5

Recommended Texts

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.

Locke’s Moral Theory:

Locke’s Political Theory:

Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

Locke’s Epistemology:

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

Locke, Racism, Slavery, and Indian Lands

Greer on Indian Property

Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

U.S. Constitution

Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

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

Natural Rights and the 9th Amendment to the US Constitution

Corfield v Coryell

Griswold v Connecticut

Goldberg’s opinion in Griswold v Connecticut

George Fitzhugh

The Emancipation Proclamation 

The 14th Amendment

The Slaughterhouse Cases

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

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

Weikart on Darwin’s Socioeconomic Views

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

Leo Strauss – Natural Right and History

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

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

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) 

Essay 2 S 17