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    Jonathan Edwardss Idealism


    Jonathan Edwards is generally acknowledged to be one of the most prominent

    American philosophers.1 In this chapter I sketch his early intellectual develop-

    ment, and analyse his general philosophical position. This chapter is though more

    historical than other chapters. For Edwards belongs to a generally unknown past

    the rudimentary knowledge of which (at least) is requisite for a historically ade-

    quate analysis of his philosophical arguments about God. So I begin with his main

    dates, studies and philosophical sources that make up the necessary historical in-

    formation. The first section also has another end. In the past scholarship sought to

    1 He is said, for instance, to be certainly the ablest American philosopher to write before the great

    period of Peirce, James Royce, Dewey, and Santayana. (William K. Frankena, Foreword, in

    Jonathan Edwards The Nature of True Virtue, ed. William K. Frankena (Ann Arbor: University of

    Michigan Press, 1960), v.) and the greatest American theologian and the greatest American phi-

    losopher before the Civil War. Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of

    Philosophy in America, 2 vols. (New York: Capricorn Books, 1977) I.137. Edwards was the most

    acute philosophical thinker on the American scene up to the time of Charles Pierce. John E.

    Smith, Jonathan Edwards (London/Notre Dame: Chapman/University of Notre Dame Press, 1992)

    1. For He was both more profound and original, and more acute in philosophical reasoning, than

    any other American in the eighteenth century. Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards's Moral

    Thought and Its British Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981) 13. Ed-

    wards was the most brilliant Yale College graduate of his time and in due course to become the

    most distinguished name in the intellectual life of his generation Edwin Oviatt, The Beginnings of

    Yale 1701-1726 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916) 415, similarly Richard Warch, School

    of the Prophets: Yale College, 1701-1740 (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1973) 93,

    273, 296, George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press,

    2003) 1. Edwardss reputation as a philosophical theologian has been no less prominent in recent

    scholarship than it was among his contemporaries, and with good reason; he was with little doubt

    the most philosophically adept American thinker of the colonial period. Robert E. Brown,

    Jonathan Edwards and the Bible (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 130-131.

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    single out a single influence. Perry Miller contended for he dominant influence of

    John Locke on Edwards and Norman Fiering more recently argued for Male-

    branche. Their source material is scarce and their followers now few. The philo-

    sophical profile in this chapter seeks to show that there is not one or two philoso-

    phers who influenced Edwards, but that there is a very broad range of thinkers

    posing the same questions though with varying answers. Thereafter I present the

    general philosophical position Edwards articulated following his education and

    maintained to the end of his life. I conclude the chapter with an attempt to deepen

    the knowledge of Edwardss logic, physics and metaphysics by evaluating and

    showing how they developed out of his studies.

    Edwards intellectual development/The formation of an idealist

    The most important dates of Edwardss life can be given succinctly. 2 He was born

    October 5 1703, East Windsor, Connecticut. Following Grammar school, he stud-

    ied as an undergraduate and a graduate at Yale College from 1716 to 1722. After a

    period of independent study and ministry in various churches, Yale appointed

    Edwards tutor in May 1724, where he seems to have taught the main philosophi-

    cal subjects. In February 1727 he became minister in Northampton of the most

    prominent church in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and held this posi-

    tion until his dismissal in 1750. He then settled in Stockbridge, Massachusetts,

    and completed his major books Freedom of the Will (1754), Original Sin (1758),

    Concerning the End for which God Created the World (1765) and The Nature of

    True Virtue (1765). Earlier publications included Religious Affections (1746). In

    1757 he was appointed president of Princeton College, but died on March 22,

    1758, following a smallpox inoculation.

    Of greater importance for a historically informed philosophical assessment

    is how and when Edwards arrived at his general position. However, the scholar-

    ship on Edwardss philosophical development has long suffered from the early

    2 The definitive biography is now Marsden, Edwards. For autobiographical material, see Jonathan

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    editors mistaken dates of most of his early manuscripts.3 Fortunately, Thomas

    Schafers analyses of the early manuscripts during the last quarter of the twentieth

    century has led to a revision of their dates, and consequently to a (more) correct

    account of Edwardss philosophical development.4

    Although there is no complete contemporary record of his curriculum and

    earliest sources, the main scope of his syllabus can be reconstructed from circum-

    stantial evidence and the chief philosophical influences can be inferred from his

    3 For example, Egbert C. Smyth, Some Early Writings of Jonathan Edwards, American

    Antiquarian Society 10 (1895): 212-247. One does, however, still come across rather dated presen-

    tations of Edwardss philosophical influences and position. For instance, Smith, Jonathan

    Edwards 14-28, and Bruce Kuklick, A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000 (Oxford:

    Clarendon Press, 2001) 5-25, which is a slightly revised version of Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen

    and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (New Haven/London: Yale University

    Press, 1985) 15-42. Contrary to a mass of research it has been claimed of Edwards not having any

    firsthand knowledge of the main figures of Western philosophy. Miklos Vet, Edwards and

    Philosophy, in Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an introduction to America's theologian, ed.

    Gerald R. McDermott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 153, with approval of the

    commentator Magdalena Sevcikova, Alternative viewpoint: Edwards and Philosophy, ibid., 171. 4 Thomas A. Shafer, Editor's Introduction, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: The

    'Miscellanies': a-500, ed. Thomas A. Shafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 59-90.

    There are also helpful suggestions in Wallace E. Anderson, Editor's Introduction, in The Works

    of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson (New

    Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1980), 2-3, 8-9, 37, 147-153, 173-191, 313-331, 394-395,

    401-404, 407-408. There are in addition several good studies on Edwardss intellectual develop-

    ment: Anderson, Editor's Introduction, 5-136, Norman Fiering, The Rationalist Foundation of

    Jonathan Edwards's Metaphysics, in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan

    O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), Fiering, Jonathan

    Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context 13-47, William S. Morris, The Young Jonathan

    Edwards: A Reconstruction (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1991), William S. Morris, The

    Genius of Jonathan Edwards, in Reinterpretation in American Church History, ed. R. Pierce

    Beaver (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). I have benefited from these in writing this


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    early writings.5 Edwardss studies agreed most likely with the Harvard College

    education of his father and grammar school teacher Timothy Edwards, and his

    Yale tutor and cousin Elisha Williams.6 Harvard had during the second half of the

    5 These sources are various. There are letters from this period: Edwards, Letters and Personal

    Writings e.g. 32-33, 37-38. There are also notebooks, especially Jonathan Edwards, The

    'Miscellanies': a-500, ed. Thomas A. Shafer, Corrected ed., vol. 13, The Works of Jonathan

    Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, 1994). In addition he kept records of books of

    interest: Jonathan Edwards, Catalogues of Books, ed. Peter J. Thuesen, The Works of Jonathan

    Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). This supersedes the dated Thomas H.

    Johnson, Jonathan Edwards' Background of Reading, Publications of the Colonial Society of

    Massachusetts 28 (1935): 193-222. Moreover, there is historical material from his educational

    institution. For a general account of Yale in the relevant period, see Warch, School of the

    Prophets, Oviatt, Beginnings of Yale, Brooks Mather Kelley, Yale: A History (New

    Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1974) 11-36, John C. Schwab, The Yale College

    Curriculum 1701-1901, Educational Review 22 (1901): 1-5. Fine accounts of Edwardss studies

    are found in Fiering, Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context 23-33,

    Anderson, Editor's Introduction, 7-34, Morris, The Young Jonathan Edwards: A Reconstruction

    59-102. Edwardss B.A. curriculum appears also to have been almost identical with the Harvard

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