Welcome to Elon University's American Philosophy Web Site. Please read about the class below. If you are interested feel free to read our essays, or contribute to our discussion board
It is not narcissistic for a group of American students to take a class on American philosophy. For the sake of national conscious, most countries mandate their students know certain elements of their cultural history. German students are required to memorize verses of Goethe, and French students would be embarrassed if they were caught without an understanding of Sartre. American students however, are neither indoctrinated nor even pressured to know their own intellectual tradition. This leads to a disharmonious community of Americans and popular misconceptions of America (e.g. America is great because ‘you can do anything’). This is particularly upsetting due to the uniqueness of the American tradition, a tradition so special centers for the study of pragmatism are popping up in Eastern Europe and East Asia. American philosophy is something American students can embrace and embody, especially if students approach it enthusiastically.
The American philosophers attempted to develop a tradition of thought that completely separated itself from the archaic wisdom of old Europe. The name they eventually settled on for this tradition, pragmatism, reflects the practical nature of the tradition. Our country was settled by various peoples who shared an optimistic attitude, that the abundant land and resources of America offered an opportunity to develop an entirely new culture. Later philosophers elucidated this spirit and culture. The Spring 2009 Elon University American philosophy class sought to understand this tradition, which has so perfectly captured the singularity of the American experience.
Yet if the class was to understand a new tradition, why understand it in an old way? The traditional American university classroom experience is largely a perpetuation of old European university interface. Although there are many people in a traditional classroom, there is no sense of a learning community, the professor instructs, and each student demonstrates their proficiency of the material individually. While individual knowledge is preferable to ignorance, communitarian knowledge is preferable to individual knowledge. A central theme in American philosophy is the importance of working to better communities. Thus, our class decided to make our knowledge public.
Instead of students writing traditional papers to meet the requirements of our professor, each student in our class wrote an article length essay to be published in an anthology. In this way, our collective knowledge has the potential to be meaningful to the American community, who are able to read this anthology for inspiration and enlightenment. The essays concerned the relevance of the teachings of Emerson, our spiritual and philosophical progenitor; in a study of other noted American persons or philosophers. Concerns over the quality of the essays or what grades they would receive were almost irrelevant: what mattered was that American students found an outlet of expression to help their compatriots.
It is an ambitious project, but certainly not one that is impossible. Our uniquely American optimism and confidence in our ability is reflected in the title of our anthology, a quote from Emerson. “The only sin is limitation.” This website is yet another manifestation of our collective intellectual expression, and we hope it answers any inquiries about our endeavor.
-Nick Sharrer, Spring 2009 American Philosophy