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What is American philosophy?
The term "American philosophy" most often refers to the school of pragmatism, which began in the late-nineteenth century. Pragmatism is internationally recognized to be a distinct form of philosophy, not only created by philosophers from the United States, but also reflective of American culture. There were, of course, intellectuals in the United States before the pragmatists, and some of their work was highly original, linked to distinct cultures: seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century political theorists, abolitionists, suffragists, evolutionists, Native American thinkers, American Hegelians, and New England transcendentalists.
Many American philosophers after the pragmatists have worked within analytic, empirical, continental, and postmodern traditions, as well as later forms of pragmatism. American philosophy, broadly understood as an intellectual aspect of culture, would include all of these fields. However, American philosophy, as systematic philosophy, traditionally understood, narrows the subject down.
Which early American philosophical strains were most influential?
The thought of several Native American orators, the St. Louis Hegelians, the transcendentalists of New England, and writers on evolution all influenced pragmatist philosophy, either directly or by their emphasis of what were to become enduring American themes to be taken up by pragmatists and others.
Early american philosophical strains
What was the Native American philosophical tradition?
There are as many Native American philosophies as there are distinct nations and tribes. Over most of its history, their philosophies were transmitted orally from one generation to the next. As American indigenous cultures and tribes were destroyed by war and the loss of ancestral lands, these transmissions were largely lost. Some transmissions were recorded by early anthropologists in condescending ways that distorted them. There are contemporary attempts to reconstitute Native American traditional oral knowledge, as critiques of Western philosophy, religion, technology, and economics. Such critiques now form the content of Native American or Indigenous American Studies, as well as the late-twentieth century philosophical sub-field of Native American Philosophy.
However, the speeches of eighteenth and nineteenth century Native American leaders who sought to resist removal to reservations and preserve the lives, cultures, and lands of their peoples endure as unreconstituted early American philosophy. Noteworthy in this regard is Teedyuscung, who, when he spoke at treaty councils in Pennsylvania, began: "I desire all that I have said ... may be taken down aright." Teedyuscung, Tenskwatawa, and Sagoewatha spoke like Americans.
For Native American tribes it has been a struggle to preserve their rich artistic and spiritual values. Native American philosophy has become a subject of interest at universities in recent years (iStock).
Who was Tenskwatawa?
The Prophet, Tenskwatawa (also known as Tenskatawa, Tensquatawa, or by his original name, Lalawethika; 1775-1834) was the brother of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Tenskwatawa was a powerful orator who preached a return to Native American traditions as a form of resistance against destruction and oppression suffered. In a speech to Governor William Henry Harrison in 1810, he expressed what was later to become a broadly American form of self-creation, combined with biting wit:
It is true I am a Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only my existence; from my tribe I take nothing. I am the maker of my own fortune; and oh! that I could make of my own fortune; and oh! that I could make that of my red people, and of my country, as great as the conceptions of my mind, when I think of the Spirit that rules the universe. I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear the treaty and to obliterate the landmark; but I would say to him: "Sir, you have liberty to return to your own country."
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