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American Philosophy

Early American Philosophical Strains

What was the most striking Native American contribution to American philosophy?

There is growing recognition of the influence of Native American thought on eighteenth and nineteenth century Euro-American ideas, as well as later on in history. Contemporary pragmatist scholars have traced contemporary concerns with community well-being in a pluralistic society to early Native American attempts to negotiate with Euro-Americans. Others have identified deeper mainstream American cultural debts to indigenous peoples.

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), in his second book, Lila (1991), draws a fascinating and neglected comparison between what was to become the distinctly direct and plain American style of speech (if not always writing) and speeches in English made by Native American Great Plains leaders. Pirsig quotes Ten Bears, speaking in 1867 to other Native Americans and representatives from Washington:

I was born on the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls…. I lived like my father before me, and like them I lived happily.

While pragmatists such as John Dewey (1859–1952) were often prolix, their writing was nevertheless direct and innocent of the high style of European abstraction and unnecessary embellishment. Their ideas were not unnecessarily complicated. The same can be said of much New England transcendentalist writing, although maybe not of the St. Louis Hegelians, of the more idealist pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and Josiah Royce (1855–1916), or the process philosophers Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and his follower Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000).



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