The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright
Chauncey Wright was a village philosopher whose village happened to be Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was not a professor—he taught two courses at Harvard near the end of his life, and both were generally considered complete failures—and he never wrote a book. His production consisted almost entirely of dense and extremely dry periodical pieces, generally book reviews, for The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The North American Review. He died, quite suddenly, in 1875, at the age of forty-five. But he flourished—and had an influence on such younger contemporaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James—during one of the most disruptive decades in American intellectual history, the decade between the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, which forced the revision of many of the prevailing systems of philosophical and scien-tific thought, and the inauguration of Charles William Eliot as president of Harvard in 1869, which marked the closing of the era of the American college, with its emphasis on moral instruction, and the beginning of the era of the modern university, with its emphasis on scientific research.
In between those events, of course, was the Civil War, which, like all traumatic wars, made the beliefs and assumptions of the pre-war period seem, to younger people especially, naive, complacent, and obsolete. Those beliefs and assumptions had not prevented the country from going to war, and they seemed to have done nothing to prepare it for the terrible violence the war released. Young Cambridge intellectuals who lived through the war scarcely needed the incitement of Darwin’s book to question the verities of their parents’ generation. They were in the market for a mentor who was not associated with the pre-war intellectual establishment, and whose views seemed systematic, hardheaded, and up-to-date. Chauncey Wright was their man.
Two of the three volumes that make up the new edition of his work, The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright, are reprints: Philosophical Discussions is a selection of Wright’s essays edited by Charles Eliot Norton and first published in 1877, two years after Wright’s death; Letters of Chauncey Wright is a memorial volume, printed privately in 1878. The third volume is a collection of tributes to Wright by some of his contemporaries and of articles on Wright by twentieth-century historians. This volume is introduced by Edward H. Madden, a longtime student of Wright’s life and work. The edition is certainly welcome, but there is an odd omission. Not all of Wright’s pieces were published in Philosoph-ical Discussions. The new edition not only does not include any of these uncollected writings; it does not even provide a complete bibliography of Wright’s work. It seems unfortunate to have gone to so much trouble to resurrect this almost forgotten figure and then to leave part of his body still buried in the stacks.
Wright was a man who, almost literally, lived for conversation. He came to Cambridge from Northampton, where he was born in …
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