Saturday, June 8, 2013

Princeton's Thoughtleadership & Scottish Enlightenment

'When John Witherspoon arrived at Princeton in 1768, he found a curriculum that represented some of the most significant innovations of the period' writes Thomas Miller. How did Princeton at that time relate to Scottish Enlightenment? And what should this tell us about Princeton's relationship to Common Sense Realism?

Let's take a look at Murray N. Rothbard's interpretation of Scottish Enlightenment:
'In this atmosphere corrosive of Christian faith and values, it is remarkable that the Scottish Enlightenment was linked very closely with the Presbyterian Church. How did this happen? How did a Scottish kirk that, in the 16th century under the aegis of John Knox, had been fiery and militant, become softened into a church that welcomed the Enlightenment, i.e., natural law, reason, and latitudinarian if not skeptical Christianity?'
'The answer is that in the two centuries since John Knox the hard-nosed Calvinist faith had weakened in Scotland'

While Murray N. Rothbard sees a contrast between Scottish Enlightenment and the fierce militancy of 16th century Presbyterianism, I don't think Scottish Enlightenment could have existed without John Knox's educational vision. In the bookreview of Arthur Herman's book Scottish Enlightenment: the Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Irvine Welsh we read:
'And through innovations in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, town planning, soldiering, administration, medicine and even tourism, the Scots invented the modern world of capitalist democracy. The springboard for this was the most powerful legacy of the Presbyterian revolution: a universal (or near-universal) education system.'
Samuel Finley's West Nottingham College in Maryland implemented this same vision in Cecile County Maryland. Leading up to the American revolution, 'enlightenment' and 'fierce militancy' of Presbyterianism functioned as two sides of the same coin as Princeton's President Samuel Finley, the architect of the American revolution, explains in his 1757 sermon on the Song of Deborah:
'they who expect divine knowledge without studying Scripture; the Holy Spirit, without Prayer; saving blessings, without attending on gospel ordinances; or Deliverance from temporal enemies, without Fighting against them, discover their deep Ignorance of Scripture, of Reason, and the Whole scheme of divine government'
The success of Princeton's thoughtleadership leading up to the American revolution was based on it's approach to solving the tensions between 'moderates' and 'evangelicals', Old Lights and New Lights, fronteer Scots-Irish and New-England puritans, Scottish and non-Scottish segments of US Presbyterianism. Samuel Finley's sermon (1761) on Romans 14 verse 7 and 8 adresses these different tensions and aims at creating a common sense among Americans:
'For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.'
To understand John Witherspoon's (succeeded Samuel Finley as Princeton's President in 1768) relationship to Thomas Reid and Common Sense we should keep in mind that 'Common Sense' took on a life of it's own in the thirteen Colonies thanks to Thomas Paine's political pamphlet for Independence in 1776. How to connect the two?

Common Sense became the interpretation of the classic stoic 'sensus communis' in two directions: the intrinsic value of the community and of the individual. And here comes in Rhetoric as the skill needed to sustain peace in society. C. Jan Swearingen quotes Thomas Reid's 'Eloquence' on Logic, Rhetoric  and the Fine Arts:
'Power of Speech one of the best gifts of God to Man. ..without it they could never have associated in Political Society, ....never had laws or government...must have remained Savages to all Generations'
The role 'sensus communis' plays in Aristotle's rhetoric illustrates how these two are linked:

'In rhetoric, the term is used to mean the whole set of unstated assumptions, prejudices, and values (see endoxa) that an orator can take for granted when addressing an audience. These are those opinions absorbed from society and the Zeitgeist without being exposed to to critical consideration'
Michelle F. Elbe and Lynée Lewis Gaillet in their paper 'Educating Community Intellectuals: Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, and Civic Engagement' provides us the key element to solving this puzzle:
'Witherspoon was interested not in the emerging belleistric tradition or epistemology rhetorics promoted by Hugh Blair and George Campbell, but rather "with the practical art of speaking to public controversies"
Which reminds us of Jay Heinrichs' description of Aristotle:
'He was no Sophist, though he found a middle ground between the absolutism of Socrates and the sophists’ untrustworthy pragmatism.'
Thomas Miller gives great insight into the nature of the training at Princeton at the time:
'According to Bohman, Witherspoon developed the most extensive program of oratorical study in revolutionary America. The students' diaries and letters are full of references to their compositions. Virtually every evening students gathered for speeches and debates in the main hall. These exercises, which sometimes included dramatic performances, were attended by the whole school as well as by townspeople and visiting dignitaries, who would occasionally offer comments and suggestions.'
Wikiepedia states:

'Thomas Reid often quotes Cicero, from whom he adopted the term "sensus communis"'

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