Sunday, August 11, 2013

How Witherspoon Used Hutcheson & Reid's Work

From my previous post it should now be clear that the debate on rhetoric and moral philosophy in Scottish philosophy is directly linked to preaching and theological questions. In 'The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon' Thomas Miller writes:
'Hutcheson helped create an intellectual environment where secular inquiry could be defended against orthodox Calvinists, who were appalled that ministers would attend the theater...Hutcheson's moral philosophy did serve to empower the politely educated as the voice of enlightened harmony while his moral-aesthetic assumptions tended to depict opposing political groups as self-serving and unreasonable factions.'
Witherspoon wrote his Ecclesiastical Characteristics in 1753 as a direct response to Hutcheson. In it he 'ridicules the idea that aesthetics can provide a model for morality', he rejects the idea 'that an enlightened individual can understand what is best for society' and he also rejects the 'common good' idea. John Witherspoon rejected the Jim Wallises & Michael Gersons of his day.

Which brings us to Thomas Reid, who offers an alternative to the moral-sense theories of both Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. What did John Witherspoon think of Thomas Reid's alternative?

In answering that question we should keep in mind that community intellectual John Witherspoon was, as Thomas Miller insists, first of all a practioner of the art of rhetoric. It's not hard to imagine how, at Princeton, Hutcheson's moral philosophy was converted into a potent revolutionary weapon through John Witherspoon's Calvinist heuristic. We could argue that the same thing happened to Reid's 'common sense'. Shouldn't we also keep in mind the fact that 'common sense', through Paine's pamphlet, took on a life of it's own in revolutionary America.

As with the declaration of independence, Stoics and Calvinist presbyterians will attach different meaning to the word happiness while reading Hutcheson on the intention of moral philosophy:
'The intention of moral philosophy is to direct men to that course of action which tends most effectually to promote their greatest happiness.'
Whatever Thomas Reid meant by common sense became secondary to the strategic purpose it served in America. Taken together Hutcheson's moral philosophy and Reid's common sense became the ideal vehicle for Witherspoon's Calvinist democratization project.

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