Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Americans: The Colonial Experience. Book 2. Viewpoints and Institutions. Part 5: An American Frame of Mind

Chapter 24.  Wanted:  A Philosophy of the Unexpected
  • New concept of knowledge
    • new meaning to the idea of liberation
    • knowledge might be different from what man had learned previously
    • European culture depended traditionally upon  the monumental accomplishments of the few
    • American culture depended on the new and accumulating ways of man
      • life proved uncongenial to any special class of knowers
      • people were more interested in the elaboration of experience than in the elaboration of truth
      • society was freed from the notion that every institution needed a foundation of systematic thought
      • the best living did not have to be supported by the most sophisticated thinking
  • A person's mind was sound not when it possessed the most refined tools for dissecting and ordering all knowledge, but when it was most sensitive to the unpredictable aspects of the environment.
  • It was more important for a person's mind to be open and unencumbered rather than elegantly furnished.

Chapter 25:  The Appeal to the Self-Evident
  • An expression of the currents of American thinking by John Adams
    • distrust of ruthless demands on genius
    • preference for slower, more sober advances of the public mind
  •  Liberation in America
    • opportunity to bring philosophy into the skeptical and earthy arena of daily life
    • not the opportunity to combat ancient and erroneous philosophical systems with modern ones
  • Jefferson's argument for freedom of speech, press, and religion arose form a desire to allow each mind its free and direct response to its unique experience rather than by a desire that every mind be enlightened by modern philosophers.
  • Basic American questions were being settled in the arenas of experience rather than of controversy or learning
    • progress seemed to be confirmed by daily experience
    • progress became naturally identified with growth and expansion
  • Mercantilism
    • an example of American facts destroying European theories
    • assumption that wealth of world was a pie and that a bigger slice for one country meant smaller ones for the rest
  • Ben Franklin and others prepared America for its rapid 18th century expansion in a way of naivete, in a readiness to have proven themselves in experience.
    • from the beginning, Americans formed a habit of accepting only those ideas which already seemed to have proven themselves in experience
    • things as they were used as a measure of how things ought to be

Chapter 26.  Knowledge Comes Naturally
  • America was one of the last places where European settlers arrived before explorers, geographers, and naturalists
  • Synonymy of physical and intellectual expansion
    • automatic expansion of knowledge through enlarging and populating the country
    • Lewis and Clark's expedition (ultimate example of new American identity)
  • Continent was a great reservoir of the unknown until the late 19th century
    • early scientific works written by Europeans
      • American too busy exploring the land to write elaborate books
      • interest directed to uses of land rather than a schematic description of it
    • European scholars entered their various prejudices and fancies resulting in less than accurate findings
  • Heart of continent led to frequent absurd conjectures
  • Knowledge came in small, miscellaneous parcels
  • English gardeners and naturalists made Americans aware of the wealth around them

Chapter 27.  The Natural-History Emphasis
  • New facts and experiences
    • gained by effort, talent, and courage in England
    • forced themselves on even the most indifferent or insensitive in America
  • Natural history
    • the recording of experiences and scenes of everyday life
    • most distinctively American contribution to knowledge
    • differences between natural history and physical sciences point out the dichotomy between New World and Old World concepts of knowledge
      • notebook of miscellaneous items vs. an organized theory
      • popular vocabulary vs. abstruse language
  • Few American contributions made in physical sciences
  • Knowledge of the New World gathered there was inevitably ill-assorted
  • Flood of impressions pouring out of America to the stay-at-home English was main stream of knowledge from New World
    • America reshaping the very concept of knowledge
    • writers of works of natural history described objects within scope of common man
      • required no theoretical training
      • did not depend on abstruse definitions or on a structure of philosophy or argument
      • no single or necessary order of material
      • any alert American might add to natural history by noticing a plant, etc.
      • few could understand the theories of a physical scientist the likes of Newton
  • New types of knowledge
    • not a unified, aristocratic knowledge
    • no system of philosophy leading to a monopoly of knowledge
    • factual and miscellaneous American knowledge required no preliminary training
    • began with first novelty that came to attention -- no need for explicit premises or precise definitions
    • became self-made since one could start anyplace
    • ideal knowledge for a mobile society
      • path that did not necessarily run through the academy, monastery, or university
      • path that opened to everywhere and to every man

Related posts:
The Americans: The Colonial Experience by Daniel Boorstin,  Book 1.  The Vision and the Reality Part 1.  A City Upon a Hill:  The Puritans of Massachusetts.  (12/8/2014)
The Americans: The Colonial Experience. Part 2. The Inward Plantation: The Quakers of Pennsylvania.  (12/10/2014)
The Americans: The Colonial Experience. Part 3. Victims of Philanthropy: The Settlers of Georgia.  (12/13/2014)
The Americans;  The Colonial Experience, Part 4.  Transplanters:  The Virginians.  (12/14/2014)

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