By Allen Guelzo, Princeton University
The Scottish common sense philosophy, or ‘Scottish realism’, as it is sometimes called, had broad application for Americans, almost to the point where it could be described as the unofficial American philosophy of the early Republic. It formed a basis for talking about morality, without getting bogged down in arguments over religion and churches.
Scottish Common Sense
There’s a famous college textbook on moral philosophy, or ‘ethics’, by Francis Wayland. Wayland’s book was called The Elements of Moral Science, and it was first published in 1835. It opened the way for Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia to formulate a philosophy of medicine, and the Scottish common sense philosophy allowed the first law schools and legal theorists to create a system of self-evident moral regulations that were as regular and scientific as nature itself.
Even faster than medicine or ethics, Scottish common sense thinking allowed the development of American legal theory. We can see this especially in the great commentaries of Joseph Story and James Kent, because American legal theory grew from 1790 until 1850 without falling on the one side over to raw legal relativism, or on the other to propping up the authority of law by appeals to religion.
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Complaints against Scottish Realism
The Scottish common sense philosophy allowed thinkers—especially in law, but also in other areas—to appeal to a kind of independent, autonomous moral sense within everyone. It’s called ‘common sense’ because it is shared commonly with everyone, which automatically tells us what is good and true and beautiful.
While Scottish common sense realism may have been the great favorite of American thinkers, like Joseph Story and James Kent, but it didn’t pass without contest. It didn’t pass without contest from theological purists, and critics like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose complaint against American intellectual dependence on Europe was—in large measure—really a stalking horse for his personal complaint against Scottish realism. Many American Protestants still saw the Enlightenment as synonymous with Deism, scientific naturalism and religious unbelief.
Princeton Theological Seminary
Among American Presbyterians—who were only a generation or two removed from Scotland—there was a strong desire to reconcile the demands of reason and religious experience.
The Princeton Theological Seminary, which was founded by Presbyterians in 1812, became home to a series of sober religious realists like Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who made Scottish common sense realism the philosophical foundation for what became known as the Princeton theology.
Hodge and Alexander had difficulty directing people’s attention to a universal moral sense within, though, while so much of American Protestantism was plunging exuberantly into the experience of radical revivalism. Much of that revivalism, of course, was modeled after the Great Awakening and with steadily more exotic aspects.
Dissent against Scottish Realism
Set against the reasonableness of Hodge and Alexander was the most famous intellectual descendent of the Edwardsian tradition, Charles Grandison Finney, who had little trust in appeals to slow and gradual argument, and who popularized dramatic appeals not to the reason, but to the will. Religion, therefore, was one place where there was a lot of dissent against the use of Scottish realism.
It was not the only place where that dissent broke out. American art moved out of its infant stage as the creation chiefly of portrait painters who were creating portraits for the mercantile classes, and into a glorification of the American landscape.
American architecture abandoned the classical for the Gothic, and abandoned the portrait for the landscape, especially in the emergence of the gauzy and impressionistic beauty of the Hudson River School. Taken together, what this dissent was based upon was a new sense of resentment and unease that the best answer to Hume’s skepticism was not, after all, a restatement of reasonableness and universality, such as we find in the Scottish realists, but a terrific embrace of will and emotion.
This was not a uniquely American development. The disasters of the French Revolution had shown Europeans how far short reason might fall of perfection. From the pens of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Wordsworth and Agra broke forth a common wail of protest against the Enlightenment that today we call Romanticism.
Just how pervasive the Romantic revolt could be can be seen in how it touched even legal theory. The rule of lawyers like Hamilton and Jefferson was preeminently the rule of Enlightenment and reason. Resentment of that rule broke out into criticism of law as a profession, and the glorification of an ordinary justice based on honesty and equity over and against legal theory.
Andrew Jackson may have been the best example of this Romantic anti-legalism, but its most popular example was the legendary Tennessee congressman ‘Davy’ Crockett, whose legal thinking could be reduced to this one single and favorite legal maxim of his: “Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead.” No application of reason. No application of complex notions and theories. Just be sure you’re right.
There’s an appeal there that balances almost on the brink of doing what you feel is right, and that was an expression of Romanticism.
Common Questions about Scottish Common Sense Philosophy
The Scottish common sense philosophy allowed thinkers—especially in law, but also in other areas—to appeal to a kind of independent autonomous moral sense within everyone. It’s called ‘common sense’ because it’s shared commonly with everyone.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s complaint was against American intellectual dependence on Europe. It, however, seemed to be a stalking horse for his personal complaint against Scottish realism.
The Princeton Theological Seminary was founded by Presbyterians in 1812. It became home to a series of sober religious realists like Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who made Scottish common sense realism the philosophical foundation for what became known as the Princeton theology.