By Allen Guelzo, Princeton University
Alexander Hamilton sounded an Enlightenment note in The Federalist Papers. He made no effort to justify the constitution on the grounds that it reflected tradition or the truths of Christianity. It was nature, and by that they meant the nature rediscovered by reason that was the real standard. Interpreting what nature said, however, was more of a problem than it seemed at first.
Talking about Causes
To Isaac Newton, it was clear that motion in the physical universe was caused by gravity. To John Locke, it was clear that motion in the political universe was caused by scarcity, which was why people in societies agreed to sacrifice some portion of their natural rights in order to protect what they already had. To the Deists, it was clear that the social and physical universes had to be caused by something, so the need for that cause demanded a belief in God as a first cause.
Over the course of the Enlightenment, however, there remained a number of nagging questions. What exactly did we mean by cause? David Hume, a skeptical Scotsman who dabbled with ease in both history and philosophy, asked whether we were as sure as we thought we were when we talked about causes.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Orderliness in World
Let us take an example of a billiard ball. A billiard ball is something we can see and feel and verify, on the basis of seeing and feeling and verifying. We would do the same with a billiard cue and with a billiard table. But when we speak about the cue causing the ball to go into the pocket, then we’re suddenly introducing something: the cause—which we can neither see, nor feel, nor verify. How, then, can we say what caused I?
When Deists like Benjamin Franklin looked upon the world and announced that its orderliness was obviously the result of planning and providence, and that this showed that there was a God, Hume asked why it shouldn’t show that it was all created by a committee of gods; probably just one. The same thing could be said for human nature.
Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton might have been convinced that they had reached down and found a universal bedrock of human rights and human nature that was true for all of human society and that was the proper groundwork for any political constitution, but how did they know that they weren’t just fooling themselves? How did they know that there was such a thing as a human nature that is common to all humanity, which then caused certain political schemes to be appropriate and others to be tyrannical?
One answer to these questions came from Jonathan Edwards, who was a committed Protestant Calvinist and had no desire at all to see American religion dissolve into nature worship.
So, Edwards, too, raised the same skeptical questions about cause, and solved them by insisting that all causes were the immediate results of God’s immediate and sovereign action.
This acquired a certain degree of popularity among Edwards’s disciples in New England, people like Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy, the so-called ‘new divinity men’. However, this was an answer that demanded more sacrifice of the Enlightenment’s outlook than the Enlightenment was willing to give. This meant that the Edwardsian outlook, the ‘new divinity’, remained a minority report—an influential and vigorous one, but still a minority report in American life.
‘Common Sense’ Philosophy
A much more popular solution to the problem of skepticism was the so-called ‘Scottish’ or ‘common sense’ philosophy. While Scotland may strike as a terribly unlikely place to act as an outpost of philosophy in the Enlightenment, but in the 1700s, the great universities of England, Oxford and Cambridge were closed to all but members of the Church of England. In Scotland, where Presbyterianism reigned, the Scots were forced to develop their own universities at Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and they succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams as centers of medicine, law and philosophy, especially philosophy.
Scots like Francis Hutchison at Glasgow and Thomas Reid took their fellow countryman Hume at his word. The question that intrigued them was not whether people were jumping to the wrong conclusion when they would talk about X causing Y. The question that fascinated them was why people jump so universally to such a conclusion in the first place.
Hutchison and Reid believed in the existence of a real moral sense in everyone, one that moves us to recognize beauty and harmony and truth and morality when we see them. This common moral sense heads off David Hume’s skepticism and gets politics, law and morality back onto a common and realistic common ground.
Common Questions about Edwardsian Outlook and Scottish Philosophy towards Interpreting Nature
Benjamin Franklin looked upon the world and announced that its orderliness was obviously the result of planning and providence, and that this showed that there was a God.
Jonathan Edwards was a committed Protestant Calvinist who had no desire at all to see American religion dissolve into nature worship, so he raised skeptical questions about cause, and solved them by insisting that all causes were the immediate results of God’s immediate and sovereign action.
Hutchison and Reid believed in the existence of a real moral sense in everyone, one that moves us to recognize beauty and harmony and truth and morality when we see them.