The Origins of the American Contribution

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            In the first chapter of this inquiry mention was made of the fact that there is something literally unique, distinguishingly peculiar, about the character of the American cultural development.  As a consequence of this peculiarity, American analyses of political-economy have taken a divergent form from that of the Western world generally.  The function of this chapter is to explain briefly the character, meaning, and significance of this peculiarly American experience.  In so doing, some insight and explanation of why American Institutionalism and American Instrumentalism should have developed into their present form will be obtained.

            No body of theoretical explanation emerges from a social or cultural vacuum.  Nor did what is here identified as the American contribution emerge from a spontaneous flash of insight on the part of its developers.  It is a part of the social process as that process has been carried on in the half-continent of the United States during the last 450 years.

            What are the cultural origins of American heterodox social thought?  How can we account for the development and unique character of American heterodoxy?  What are the unifying ideas of the American civilization of which the American contribution is an expression?  These are the kinds of questions which require answers at this juncture of the present study.



            While the effort to explain that which is unique about the American culture has taken a variety of forms, there is remarkable agreement among the contemporary interpreters of this experience regarding the general substance and significance of this American development.

            Henry Bamford Parkes sees the “freedom enjoyed by individual members” as the distinguishing attribute of the American experience.  This freedom has been obtained, says Parkes, through an early and consistent effort (until the 20th century) to realize “agrarian democracy” as the unifying principle of American social organization.”[325]

            For Ralph Barton Perry the development of the American culture in its literally peculiar character is best identified by the idea of “individualism.”


            If one were limited to a single word with which to characterize America, one

            would choose the word “individualism”--used, however, with reservations.

            If individualism is taken to mean the cult of solitude, or the prizing of

            those personal traits which set one man apart from his fellows, or are the

            effect of retreat from the world, then no word could be less appropriate. 

            American individuality is the very opposite of singularity.  The people of the

            United States are highly gregarious and sociable.  The individual who holds

            himself apart, who will not “join,” who does not “belong,” who will not “get

            together” and “play the game,” who does not “row his weight in the boat,” is

            viewed with suspicion.  Americans find silence hard to endure, and if they

            develop an oddity they make a fad of it so that they may dwell among

            similar oddities.  Their individualism is a collective individualism--not the

            isolation of one human being, but the intercourse and cooperation of many.[326]


            The capacity of the American to alter his inherited ways of behaving is the major content of the “American Character” according to Denis W. Brogan.  “Adaptation ... was the key.”


            A family or an individual had to have what it took to survive--and it took adapt-

            ability, toughness, perhaps a not-too-sensitive moral or social outlook.  The

            would-be profit-drawers in England simply contributed capital on which no     

            return was or could be made.  The would-be gentry unlearned the idle les-

            sons of gentility or sank into poverty or returned to the easier world they had

            left.  From the beginning it was “root, hog, or die.”  and the American razor-

            back hog that the forest bred, with little meat and much muscle, was a symbol

            as well as a product of adaptation.[327]


            Confidence in “the ability of human nature to respond to a fair chance” constitutes an essential part of The Promise of American Life says Herbert Croly.


            The theory of the American democracy and its practice was proclaimed to

            be the antithesis of ... European theory and practice.  The people were to be

            trusted rather than suspected and disciplined.  They must be tied to their

            country by the strong bond of self-interest.  Give them a fair chance, and the

            natural goodness of human nature would do the rest.  Individual and public

            interest will, on the whole, coincide, provided no individuals are allowed to

            have special privileges.  Thus the American system will be predestined to

            success by its own adequacy, and its success will constitute an enormous

            stride towards human amelioration.  Just because our system is at bottom

            a thorough test of the ability of human nature to respond admirably to a fair

            chance, the issue of the experiment is bound to be of more than national

            importance.  The American system stands for the highest hope of an excel-

            lent worldly life that mankind has yet ventured, the hope that men can be

            improved without being fettered, that they can be saved without even

            vicariously being nailed to the cross.[328]


            “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development,” says Frederick Jackson Turner.  This, the “Turner Thesis” regarding the role of the frontier in American history, finds the peculiarity of American culture in the requirements of successive adjustment of institutional structure.


            The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been com-

            pelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people--to the

            changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in

            developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and

            political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.  Said Calhoun

            in 1817, “We are great, and rapidly--I was about to say fearfully--growing!”  So

            saying, he touched the distinguishing feature of American life.[329]


            Henry Steele Commager finds that as a consequence of the material character of his culture, the American has a “quantitative cast to his thinking” and is “inclined to place a quantitative valuation upon almost everything.”[330]   The “quantitative cast” of mind provides the American with something of a unique habitual mode of making judgments; the American is a “practical” man.  Says Commager:


            This quantitative cast of American thought was an indication of an intense

            practicality which extended to most, though by no means all, matters.  Often

            romantic about business, the American was practical about politics, religion,

            culture, and science.  He was endlessly ingenious and resourceful, always

            ready to improvise new tools or techniques to meet new conditions.  “A

            plaine souldier that can use a pick-axe and a spade,” Captain John Smith

            had discovered, “is better than five knights,” and on every successive frontier

            that discovery was the price of survival.  The American borrowed readily from

            Indian or immigrant and naturalized what he borrowed; he improvised

            jauntily, had little respect for custom, and was willing to try anything.  His

            reaction to most situations was a practical one, and he was happiest when

            he could find a mechanical solution to problems: the cotton gin, the steam

            boat, the harvester, the six-shooter, the sewing machine, vulcanized  rubber,

            the telegraph and telephone, barbed-wire fencing, the typewriter, and a

            thousand other inventions anticipated the day when the American was to be

            notorious for his passion for gadgets.  He was among the first to concede

            to technology a place in higher education ...[331]


            When the essential content is abstracted from the statements and quotations above, there emerges a triad of ideas in terms of which that which is most unique about the American experience can be expressed.  These three ideas are: 1) the idea of social fluidity, of adjustment of institutions in response to new problems; 2) the idea of democracy, of a society in which ungraded men have control over social policy and institutional modification; and 3) the idea of “practical” judgments, of judgments seeking to apply what has been learned regarding new instruments and techniques to the problems at hand.

            The significance of the “practical” judgment in the developing American experience is illustrated in the following passage.  A failure to apply such matter-of-fact judgments was frequently catastrophic.


            Adaptation ... was the key.  How many early settlements ... withered away or

            were swept away by famine and disease!  To pick the wrong, malarial,

            snake-infested, swampy site for the settlement, that was a mistake paid

            for by the loss of the meager capital resources so painfully accumulated--

            and often by the forfeit of life as well.  To fail to plant the right crops at the

            right time was mistake as deadly.  The early settlers of New England bore

            in their memories the duty of gratitude to the Indians who taught them the

            completely novel technique of planting Indian corn (maize), the making of

            the little mound like a golf-tee, the use of fish as a fertilizer--ways so new

            to wheat-growers, to users of plows and breeders of cattle.  The timing of

            your arrival on the American coast ... might mean death for all or most of

            the party before the first crops could be harvested.[332]


            That this literally peculiar character of American experience was a product of the interplay of inheritance and environment, of the Old World and the New World, is commonly acknowledged.  The development of any new culture is necessarily of this character.  But to explain why this interplay should have produced a culture characterized by the triad of ideas mentioned above requires further analysis.



            Perhaps the most obvious fact to be kept in mind regarding the early history of America is that what is now the United States was settled during the course of 450 years by the largest mass migration of people in recent human history.  Somewhere between fifty and sixty million people “pulled up stakes” in Europe and migrated to the two Americas.  They brought European ideas, European techniques, and European physical habits.  They settled in the course of the last 300 years an area of some three million square miles inhabited by some few thousand nomadic Indians.  They found the country rich in natural resources as defined by the then-current state of the industrial arts.  Moreover, and perhaps most important of all, they found no well-organized, highly structured society already in occupation.  For example, not one acre of the new land was privately owned when the Europeans arrived.

            This conjuncture of circumstance provided the European settlers with an unparalleled opportunity and, concurrently, with perhaps unparalleled problems of social and technological innovation.  Says Brogan:


            They have brought these [European ideas and techniques] to an empty

            continent and it has taken them centuries not merely to fill that continent,

            but to create ways of life adapted to a different climate, to a different set  of

            economic possibilities, and to a society held together at its beginnings by

            imported political and social habits, and only slowly and with repeated crises

            creating American political and social habits to replace the European

            importations that, with each decade, wore thinner and thinner like an old

            carpet.  In this process the modern American has been created ...[333]


By virtue of the character of the problems encountered as well as the attitudes of mind which occasioned the migrations, the American settlers produced a society different in kind from that from which they had come.

            It is commonly acknowledge that America was settled by heretics and dissenters of all kinds.[334]   Some were persons seeking to pursue unpopular religious beliefs; some were seeking more effective participation in the economic process; some were political refugees from the machinations of their respective European communities.  That is to say, the mass migration to the American continent was fundamentally motivated by a desire to exercise discretion in areas where such discretion was not tolerable to the established power-systems in the cultures of Europe.  The character of the divergency between the European order and that developed in America has been perhaps nowhere better stated than in the following statement:


            The European mind had been dominated by a hierarchical sense of order.

            This sense was embodied most completely in the philosophical and poli-

            tical theory of the Middle Ages; but even after the breakdown of feudalism

            and the repudiation of the scholastic philosophy, it continued, in one form

            or another, to permeate the consciousness of most Europeans.[335]   Human

            society was regarded as the reflection of an ideal order derived from the

            will of God and fully embodied in the cosmos.  And the life of  the individual

            acquired meaning and value insofar as he conformed with the order of the

            society to which he belonged ...[336]


            The fate of these ideas when they were imported into America was as follows, continues Parkes:


            The first immigrants to America brought with them this sense of order,

            but in the American world it gradually grew weaker; it did not remain a

            permanent part of the American consciousness.  Coming to a country

             where there was no elaborate social organization, and where the

            individual must constantly do battle with the forces of nature, the American

            came to see life not as an attempt to realize an ideal order, but as a struggle

            between the human will and the environment ...

                 The most obvious result of this American attitude was the fostering of an

            extraordinary energy and confidence of will.  The American came to believe

            that nothing was beyond his power to accomplish, provided that he could

            muster the necessary moral and material resources, and that any obstacle

            could be mastered by means of the appropriate methods and technology.

            A failure was the result either of weakness or on an incorrect technique ...[337]


            “Rejecting both the belief in a fixed social order and the belief in the depravity of human beings,” concludes Parkes,


            the American created a society whose special characteristic was the

            freedom enjoyed by its individual menders.  Respect for the freedom

            of every individual and confidence that he would use his freedom wisely

            and constructively became the formative principles of the new American

            nationality.  By crossing the Atlantic, the American had asserted a demand

            to be himself; he had repudiated the disciplines of the class hierarchy, of

            long-established tradition, and of authoritarian religion.  And in the society

            that took shape in the New World it was by his natural and inherent quality

            that the individual was measured, rather than by rank or status or conformity

            to convention.  To a much greater degree than elsewhere, society in America

            was based on the natural man rather than on man as molded by social

            rituals and restraints.  The mores of America were less rigid and less

            formalized than those of any earlier community, and the individual was less

            inhibited.  The American did not believe that men needed to be coerced,

            intimidated, or indoctrinated into good behavior.[338]


            Despite the Rousseauian flavor of the idea of “natural man” inhibited by social restraints, the content of Professor Parkes’ remarks is essentially correct.  In America there developed a society of essentially ungraded men--a society in which the important questions are “what do you know,” and “what can you do;” not “who is your father,” or “why did you deviate?”

            Americans have confidence in the constructive potentialities of human nature because they very early developed experiential evidence that such confidence was rewarded with effective social participation.  Americans understand that the release of human energies in response to a never-ending array of crucial social problems provides effective means for the resolution of such problems.

            It thus becomes apparent that whatever is literally unique about the American culture is primarily a consequence of the character of the American experience.  The ideas of social fluidity, of democracy, and of “practical” judgments emerge as a consequence of the American experience with a 300 year physical frontier.  These three ideas emerge from the frontier in a causal sense and are best illustrated perhaps by this frontier experience.



            The phrase “root, hog, or die” aptly suggests the essential content of frontier existence.  Modification of European habits of social organization and technique had to occur if the mere continuity of life  was to be maintained on the frontier.  The crucial judgments on a frontier must be made in view of and in terms of the physical and social determinants of the problems confronted.  To judge otherwise was to invite literal disaster.  And disaster was the eventuation for those who insisted on the maintenance of previously conditioned mores and techniques in the face of evidence of their demonstrated inapplicability and, therefore, of their obvious unfitness for the problems at hand.  A failure to comprehend was an invitation to defeat.  Defeat was frequent but the community profited in a comprehension sense from the mistakes of its members.  Further modification and adjustment followed incorporation of such enhanced comprehension.  Error was corrected.  And the problems of survival encountered on the frontier responded to the application of the “practical” judgment.

            The literature regarding the frontier is replete with instances in which the accepted canons of “proper” conduct were necessarily set aside to permit the application of know-how and techniques which “fitted” in a demonstrable sense.[339]   Military rank frequently became subservient to the frontier scout’s knowledge of the nature of the terrain and of the predictable behavior of the Indian tribes.  Canons of decency regarding the aversion to animal waste were set aside in the Platte Valley when wagon trains to Oregon required fuel to prepare the necessary meals enroute.  In the absence of adequate wood supplies, buffalo “chips” were used for fuel.  Comprehension of applicable technique was the condition of survival.  Says Walter Prescott Webb,


            To the white man, with his forest culture, the Plains presented themselves as

            an obstacle, one which served to exercise and often defeat his ingenuity, to

            upset his calculations, to hinder his settlement, and to alter his weapons,

            tools, institutions, and social attitudes; in short, to throw his whole way of life

            out of gear.  The history of the white man in the Great Plains is the history of

            adjustments and modifications, of giving up old things that would no longer

            function for new things that would, of giving up an old way of life for a new way

            in order that there might be a way ...[340]


            Among the innovations analyzed by Webb in his discussion of the character of the settlement of the Great Plains are the following: 1) the abandonment of river travel for transport by horse and caravan; 2) the invention and use of the six-shooter as an instrument of war for the mounted plainsman; 3) the innovation of handling cattle on horseback; 4) the development and use of barbed wire as a fencing material in place of the split wooden rail; 5) the introduction of the windmill in providing water in semi-arid regions; 6) the adaptation of irrigation techniques which required modification in the English Common Law regarding water rights; 7) the development of dry farming techniques with the concomitant requirement of modification of traditional attitudes regarding land unit size; and 8) political innovation, expressing itself in such vagaries as populism, agrarian crusades, and farm relief.

            In frontier communities, it was soon discovered that such comprehension was shared by all in some degree.  That the collective judgment of persons who had themselves encountered and solved frontier problems was apt to be superior to that of an individual was an increasingly recognized principle.  Thus the frontier was a democratizing influence.  Considerations of prestige, rank, status, and family background were irrelevant to the problems of survival.  The pertinent questions were: What can you do?  What skills do you have?  What do you know about military defense against Indians, fording a stream with a Conestoga wagon and a team of oxen, erecting a sod shelter where wood is not plentiful enough for log cabins, educating children in the elements of literacy, aiding as a midwife at the birth of children, and leading men not on the basis of autocratic discipline but in such fashion so as to permit the maximal effective contribution of each member of the group?

            Professor Perry has identified the concept of democracy as follows: “The basic ideal which gives to the word ‘democracy’ its original and latent meaning is the idea of a social group organized and directed by all of its members for the benefit of all of its members.”[341]   The frontier imposed conditions which made survival contingent on some significant approximation of this idea of democracy.

            Among the leading and original exponents of the democratizing impact of the frontier on human organization was Federick Jackson Turner.


            Turner’s explanation for the uniqueness of American democracy was the

            existence of the frontier.  For this young adventurer in history, the frontier was

            neither a place nor a state of mind.  It was an evolution.  From the first 17th

            century settlements to near the end of the 19th century American society had

            always been starting afresh in new wilderness areas, and in each new place

            had developed swiftly from simplicity to complexity.  “What the Mediterran-

            ean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new

            experiences, calling out new institutions and activities,” said Turner in 1891,

            “that the ever-retreating Great West has been to the eastern United States

            directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely.” “The most important

            effect of the frontier,” said Turner in his famous paper at Chicago in 1893,

            “has been the promotion of democracy here and in Europe.”  “American

            democracy,” he reiterated in 1914 in much quoted phrases, “was born of no

            theorist’s dream: it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia nor in

            the Mayflower to Plymouth.  It came out of the American forest, and it gained

            strength each time it touched a new frontier.”  Democracy, therefore, had a

            unique origin in America.[342]


            The nondiscriminatory aspects of frontier life, the compulsions under such circumstances to an equalitarian treatment of individuals, has been ably set forth by Professor Paxon:


            Youth, poverty, and hope in an environment of grinding labor were the con-

            stituents of the frontier mind; and there have been few situations in which

            more has depended upon the physical and individual stamina of the man,

            and less upon the accidents of his possessions.  Birth had very little to do

            with success upon the border.  It did not make the axe more sharp or the

            sod less tough.  Education had little to do with it.  Persistent physical labor

            was the lot of the able-bodied man or woman.  There were few moments

            for intellectual relaxation; and although the wise and prudent lived longer

            than the foolish, the processes of establishment were the same for all. 

            Wealth had less to do with success than in most society, for there were

            few stores in which to buy; few things to sell; and almost no labour to be

            hired.  There were few uses for money that gave an advantage to the man

            who had it, where every man was working for himself, and where the labours

            of the pioneer filled every hour of daylight.

                 In a world of unusual equalities there developed readily an equalitar-

            ianism of thought.  Upon the border there was a democracy of fact ....  By

            observation the frontiersman saw that his neighbour was no better than

            himself; and he resented keenly the assumption by another of superiority.

            His democracy of fact made him resent the emergence of any privileged

            class, and made him restive under the thumb of any party, or local govern-

            ment, or nation that sought to impress itself upon his life without his full



            While the frontier experience has long been eulogized as the seedbed of “rugged individualism,” such eulogies frequently misconceive the character of the individualism on the frontier.  It was not a circumstance in which men found themselves unrestrained and uninhibited by any social restraints or controls.  It was a circumstance in which the establishment of such controls could be tailored in such fashion as to permit the exercise of “practical” judgments in carrying on the necessary economic and social functions.  And this job of cutting the institutional “cloth” to fit the actual problems encountered could best be accomplished when those involved in the problem had a voice in the shaping of the proposed adjustment.  Self-reliance was not an atomistic phenomenon; it was a consequence of the recognition that shared judgment and mutual determination permitted all to do what was otherwise impossible on a strictly individual basis.


            American self-reliance is a plural, collective, self-reliance--not ”I can,” but

            “we can.”  But it is still individualistic--a togetherness of several and not

            the isolation of one, or the absorption of all into a higher unity.  The appro-

            priate term is not “organism” but “organization;” ad hoc organization, extem-

            porized to meet emergencies, and multiple organization in which the same

            individuals join many and surrender themselves to none.  Americans do not

            take naturally to mechanized discipline.  They remain an aggregate of

            spontaneities.  Such organization develops and uses temporary leaders--

            “natural” leaders, and leaders for the business in hand, rather than

            established authorities.[344]


            Thus we see that the triad of ideas which have here been described as those which are most characteristically American are in fact closely interrelated and interdependent.  The idea of democracy means that the persons who receive the incidence of social policy are themselves the ones who have discretion over the determination and administration of that policy.  Progressive modification of social policy means progressive adjustment of institutional structure, social fluidity.  And where the community-at-large has such discretion it will most frequently act in terms of its maturest comprehension of the nature of the determinants of the existent problems, it will apply its collective “practical” judgment.  The fact that America experienced a physical frontier for such a large portion of its historical development means that these ideas found continuous, developmental application and were a source of irritation to the defenders of the status quo at all stages in American history.  From the frontiers, these ideas permeated the remainer of the culture, altering modifying, condition, and prescribing the course of its development. 

            These ideas have not found universal acceptance even in America.  Contrary tendencies have developed and will continue to develop.  But the fact remains that the American culture, more than any other culture in human history, has been the living embodiment of the essence of these ideas.  For most of the period of the American development, these ideas were largely inarticulate.  But articulate or not, their significance cannot be ignored.  There is something unique in a literal sense about the American experience.  Note the following selection:


            Americanism is not a static thing, crystallized by habit, custom, authority, and

            dogma, but a broad and flexible purpose which is adaptable to altered con-

            ditions, and which moves to new frontiers when old frontiers have been left

            behind.  The belief, the will, the faith which is American is no worship of the

            past, no assurance that all is perfect in the eternal constitution of things, or in

            another world, but a conditional faith: we can if we try, and put our minds and

            our hand to it, and unite our action.  It is not an easy optimism--a faith that

            moves mountains by simply wishing and believing, or by invoking super-

            natural agencies, but an inventive optimism, which moves mountains by

            learning how and applying the necessary leverage.  It is utopian in its dreams,

            but does not confuse dreams with the actual state of affairs, and is prepared

            to earn rewards and not have them handed out.

                 This faith is justified to Americans by the fact that mountains have been

            moved.  This faith, like all faith, exceeds the limits of past experience, but only

            because past experience itself has proved the immense resources of the

            implemented human will.  It is a faith which does not easily accept impos-

            sibilities because so many impossibilities have proved to be possible.  It is

            a faith, therefore, which is peculiarly suited to change: welcoming change both

            as affording an opportunity of advance, and as requiring new moves with

            which to meet those of the evil adversary.  Americanism is not dismayed by

            the uncertainty of the future, or by the surprises of the perpetually unfolding



            This quotation means that the idea of “faith” has a uniquely American connotation.  It is a “faith” in the capacities of the human intellect to resolve human problems when that intellect is encouraged to develop to its most complete level.



            The social scientists’ effort to articulate the essentially unique quality of the American experience has been a long and frequently tortuous effort.  But the function of explaining to a culture the character of its experiences and the meaning of such experience has always been the task of the more literate members of the community.  And the fact that for a considerable number of decades the explanations of the American experience frequently missed the mark of accounting for the unique character of that experience increased the necessity for continuous efforts in that direction.

            The American culture has been described frequently as a community that talks one way and acts another.  In some fashion or other, the proffered explanations of the development of the American in terms of “manifest destiny,” and “the pursuit of happiness” did not quite ring true.  There was a disjunction between behavioral traits and judgments on the one hand, and the idea systems in terms of which behavior and judgments were analyzed and explained on the other.  The fact of the disjunction lends credence to the assertion of a literally unique quality about the American experience.  Such experience did not fit the traditional explanations of social development.  What is here captioned the American contribution is the most inclusive and scientific explanations purporting to bring the theory of American development into greater correspondence with the run of the evidences of that development.

            Just as the peculiar character of the American experience is a product of a European culture transplanted and severely modified by the exigencies of a 300 year physical frontier, so also is the development of articulate American social theorizing a product of the inherited and imported thought systems and the indigenous contributions of American scholars.  The latter product is generically, historically, and intellectually related to the former product.  And the latter product is, in its own way, as literally unique as is the former product.  It is the function of the remainder of this chapter to elucidate the particular cultural and intellectual origins from which the writings of Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and Clarence Ayres emerge.



            The cultural context out of which emerge the heterodox theories of these American scholars is, of course, that of the post-Civil War America.  With the close of that conflict, the way was opened for the advent of industrial capitalism.  Nowhere in the world, perhaps, were the institutions of capitalism to be given a comparably consistent trial-run.  The defeat of the Southern aristocracy and the rise to power of the Republican party constituted a shift in the locus of political power.  Within the next thirty years, after 1865, the remaining frontier was brought within the confines of an integrated economy.  The battles over agrarianism continued well into the 20th century, but the shift in political power, and therefore economic power, at the close of the Civil War gave forewarning of the character of the eventual outcome.

            Barbed wire, the windmill, and the six-shooter had facilitated the settlement of the last frontier, the Great Plains.  Iron rails rapidly bound the agrarian economy of the West with that of the industrial East.  The Bessemer process transformed an age of iron into an age of steel.  And the application of scientific insight kept apace in the development of mechanized agricultural techniques.  Exploitation of resources through competent techniques became the accepted behavioral trait.  It was the period of “The Great Barbecue,” as Parrington captioned this portion of the Gilded Age.


            This bustling America of 1870 accounted itself a democratic world.  A free

            people had put away all aristocratic privileges and conscious of  its power

            went forth to possess the last frontier.  Its social philosophy, which it found

            adequate to its needs, was summed up in three words--preemption, exploita-

            tion, progress.  Its immediate and pressing business was to dispossess the

            government of its rich holdings.  Lands in the possession of the government

            were so much idle waste, untaxed and profitless; in private hands they would

            be developed.  They would provide work, pay taxes, support schools, enrich

            the community.  Preemption meant exploitation and exploitation meant



            Before the age of industrialism in America was a quarter of a century old, rumblings of dissent began to be heard.  Unlovely manifestations of the effort to apply capitalistic theory to the problems of the economy began early to make themselves apparent.  The farmers’ Granger movement of the 1870s was a response to the predatory behavior of the railroad barons.  The rumbling of dissent were also manifest in the early, if abortive, efforts to organize the Knights of Labor as a significant labor movement.  Much of the agitation for social reform in terms of “easy money policies,” “anti-monopoly proposals,” and the like were embodied in third party movements.  The Populist Party reached the height of its power just before the turn of the century.  The cultural matrix of the development of American heterodoxy constituted the forcing bed for the articulation of explanations of the nature of the American experiment in social problem-solving.



            Post-Civil War America also provided a modified intellectual matrix from which emerged social heterodox thought.  Says Parrington:


            The enthronement of the machine was only the outward and visible sign of

            the revolution in thought that came with the rise of science.  As a new cosmos

            unfolded before the inquisitive eyes of scientists, the old metaphysical

            speculations became as obsolete as the old household economy.  A new

            spirit of realism was abroad, probing and questioning the material world,

            pushing the realm of exact knowledge into the earlier regions of faith.  The

            conquest of nature was the great business of the day, and as that conquest

            went forward triumphantly the solid fruits of the new mastery were gathered

            by industrialism.  Science and the machine were the twin instruments for

            creating a new civilization, of which the technologist and the industrialist

            were the high priests.  The transcendental theologian was soon to be as

            extinct as the passenger pigeon.[347]


            The “revolution in thought” which occurred was causally influenced and perhaps best illustrated by the publication in America in 1860 of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.  This book was an appropriate symbol of the character of the forthcoming modifications in social analysis.[348]

            The impact of Darwin’s work on the natural and social sciences, as well as upon theological beliefs, was admittedly enormous.  It was a fundamental shift in attitudes of mind regarding the inquiry process.  Says John Dewey:


            That the publication of the “Origin of Species” marked an epoch in the dev-

            elopment of the natural sciences is well known to the layman.  That the

            combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellect-

            ual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by

            the expert.  The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature

            and knowledge for 2000 years, the conceptions that had become the familiar

            furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed

            and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and

            unreality.  In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in

            treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as

            originating and passing away, the “Origin of Species” introduced a mode of

            thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and

            hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.[349]


And while the Darwinian controversy was customarily viewed as the encroachment of science on theology, its more significant impact was the transformation of the nature of scientific inquiry.  The effect on science was to transform such inquiry from a search for reality behind and beyond the processes of nature to a search for reality within the processes of nature.  As Dewey puts it:


            There are, indeed, but two alternative courses.  We must either find the

            appropriate objects and organs of knowledge in the mutual interactions of

            changing things; or else, to escape the infection of change, we must seek

            them in some transcendent and supernal region.  The human mind, delib-

            erately as it were, exhausted the logic of the changeless, the final, and the

            transcendent, before it assayed adventure on the pathless wastes of gen-

            eration and transformation.[350]


            And there is, perhaps, no better summarization of the impact of Darwinian ideas than a further statement by Dewey:


            The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the

            phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new

            logic for application to mind and morals and life.  When he said of species

            what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se muove, he emancipated, once

            and for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking quest-

            ions and looking for explanations.[351]


            It was, of course, Herbert Spencer who first popularized the evolutionary outlook among social scientists in the United States and England.  And while persons like Dewey and Veblen objected to the particular analysis of Spencer regarding the social significance of Darwinism, both accepted the evolutionary point of view.

            The impact of Darwinism stirred the intellectual temper of the times.  But there were other philosophical influences in the last quarter of the 19th century which contributed to the development of heterodoxy in social analysis.

            Both Dewey and Veblen were strongly influenced in their formal educational training by German philosophy.  Indeed, the importation of Hegelian Idealism and Kantianism was viewed as a threat to the orthodoxy of British Empiricism and the Scottish common-sense philosophy.  Hegel’s concept of “becoming” had been offered as a partial refutation of the Newtonian concept of “being.”  And this placed hegelianism in conflict with the British Empirical school, especially the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.  Hegelianism was process or evolutionary analysis.  Marx had adopted the Hegelian dialectic, with important modifications, and Marxian ideas circulated widely in America and England during this period.

            Dewey has acknowledged the important impact that Hegelianism had upon the formative years of his intellectual development.  It left a “permanent deposit” in Dewey’s thinking.  The nature of the deposit is revealed in the following selection:


            Hegel’ idea of cultural institutions as an “objective mind” upon which indi-

            viduals were dependent in the formation of their mental life fell in with the

            influence of Comte and of Condorcet and Bacon.  The metaphysical idea

            that an absolute mind is manifested in social institutions dropped out; the

            idea, upon an empirical basis, of the power exercised by cultural environ-

            ment in shaping the ideas, beliefs, and intellectual attitudes of individuals

            remained.  It was a factor in producing my belief that the not uncommon

            assumption in both psychology and philosophy of a ready-made mind over

            against a physical world as an object has no empirical support.  It was a

            factor in producing my belief that the only possible psychology, as distinct

            from a biological account of behavior, is a social psychology.  With respect

            to more technically philosophical matters, the Hegelian emphasis upon

            continuity and the function of conflict persisted on empirical grounds after

            my earlier confidence in dialectic had given way to skepticism.  There was

            a period extending into my earlier years at Chicago when, in connection

            with a seminar in Hegel’s logic I tried reinterpreting his categories in terms

            of “readjustment” and “reconstruction.”  Gradually I came to realize that what

            the principles actually stood for could be better understood and stated when

            completely emancipated from Hegelian garb.[352]


Much of the Hegelian influence upon Dewey’s thought was a consequence of his long and intimate association with George Sylverster Morris.

            Veblen’s interests were directed to the works of Kant.  At Yale, Veblen did research in Kantian philosophy.  Noah Porter at Yale was Veblen’s major instructor in philosophy and was also his intellectual confidant.  Veblen’s doctoral dissertation, “Ethical Grounds of a Doctrine of Retribution,” involved a thorough-going treatment of both Spencer and Kant.[353]


            Porter represented substantially the common-sense philosophy, with its

            utilitarian ethics and its apotheosis of the rights of property.  Porter, Sumner,

            and Spencer were essentially of the same school ....  But Veblen specialized

            in Kant and the post-Kantians.

                 Kant was of a different mould.  His ethics was not hedonistic.[354]


Kant’s “categorical imperative” was a moral imperative which “recognizes that man is an end in himself, not a means, but it is not therefore utilitarian, for utilitarianism is not moral.”[355]

            Veblen took from Kant the idea of the significance of the power of inductive reasoning as an indispensable component of morality.  Indeed, Veblen published an article on Kant’s Critique of Judgment.[356]   He held that The Critique of Judgment was “an attempt to mediate between the outcome of the Critique of Pure Reason, ‘which is the notion of strict determinism, according to natural law, in the world,’ and the Critique of Practical Reason, ‘which is the notion of freedom in the person ...[357]

            From Kant, Veblen apparently obtained a refinement of his theory of knowledge--a refinement in the nature and significance of inductive reasoning.  Moreover, it was an insight into the fact that intuitive and revealed theories of knowledge were not applicable to real problems.  Kant supplied Veblen with ideas which helped him formulate a non-absolute, non-final, non-teleological explanation of the nature of knowledge.


            But though this question of teleology is of extreme importance, yet a know-

            ledge of the teleological end of a given thing, or the purpose of an action or

            event as considered from the standpoint of the economy of the universe, is

            not  absolutely necessary in order to human life, nor even in order to a high

            degree of development in moral life.  In truth, a knowledge of ultimate

            particular ends and purposes is of no use whatever in the affairs of everyday

            life; and, therefore, the principle of teleology, as being the principle of con-

            scious purpose in the world, is not indispensable in order to such know-

            ledge of things as is required by the exigencies of life.  The knowledge

            we need and use can be got, and got in sufficient completeness for all

            purposes of utility, without any appeal to, or any aid from the developed

            principle of finality; and, if the exercise of the reflective judgment, in its

            logical application, consisted in the decision of teleological questions

            alone, its value would be small enough.  Such, however, is not the case.[358] 


            Not only were Dewey and Veblen influenced by the consideration of Germanic philosophy, they were markedly attracted to the thinking of an obscure logician at Johns Hopkins by the name of Charles Saunders Peirce.  Professor Dorfman records Veblen’s contact with Peirce in the following passage:


            Veblen became interest in the lectures on “Elementary Logic” given by a

            man who was later to be recognised as a creative intellectual force.  This

            was Charles Peirce, a temporary lecturer.  Peirce had already published a

            series of papers on “The Logic of Science,” emphasizing that “the whole

            function of thought is to produce habits of action,” that the “guiding principles”

            of inquiry are “habits of mind,” that “thought is an action” leading in turn to

            further thought.  He marked a radical departure from the “method of authority”

            of common sense.  He described Mill’s classic Logic as embodying the

            “philosophy of ordinary mankind,” but declared that most of the examples of

            scientific induction in the first edition of the Logic had since been proven to

            be bad inductions.[359]


            Stanley M. Daugert has suggested an integration of the influence of Kant and Peirce on the development of Veblen’s theory of knowledge.  says Daugert:


            ... in these four points of interpretation of Kant’s epistemology lie the source

            of much that is distinctive and characteristic in Veblen’s later economic

            philosophy.  These points are as follows:  Veblen 1) identified Kant’s faculty

            of the pure reflective judgment with inductive reasoning; 2) sought to extend

            the reflective judgment as inductive reasoning beyond the domain of merely

            moral judgments by stressing inductive reasoning as true science, appli-

            cable everywhere in “practical life”; 3) dismissed as unimportant in the “affairs

            of everyday life” the question of final causes, universal teleology; and 4)

            introduced Charles Saunders Peirce’s concept of the “guiding principle” into

            his discussion by claiming that the principle of adaptation was the guiding

            principle of the reflective judgment (inductive reasoning).[360]


            Dewey himself has acknowledge that Charles Saunders Peirce was the founder of the American development of Pragmatism and Instrumentalism.[361]   And throughout the works of Dewey frequent mention is made of the indebtedness Dewey felt toward Peirce for his original contributions to the development of a scientific and experimental logic.[362]   Says Dewey:


            C.S. Peirce, after noting that our scientific propositions are subject to being

            brought in doubt by the results of further inquiries, adds, “We ought to construct

            our theories so as to provide for such [later[ discoveries ... by leaving room for

            the modifications that cannot be foreseen but which are pretty sure to prove

            needful.” (Collected Papers, Vol.V:376 note)  The readers who are acquainted

            with the logical writing of Peirce will note my great indebtedness to him in the

            general position taken.  As far as I am aware, he was the first writer on logic

            to make inquiry and its methods the primary and ultimate source of logical



The seeds of what will be developed below in this study as Dewey's “instrumental logic” are to be found in the writings of Charles Saunders Peirce.

            A further intellectual influence on Veblen as reflected in the character of the ideas which he produced is that of cultural anthropology.  Veblen early took an interest in the work of the anthropologists and sociologists.  And while much of the early literature of the scholars in this field reflected the Spencerian application of Darwinism to social analysis, Veblen avoided, for the most part, this “survival of the fittest” point of view.[364]

            Veblen’s interest in anthropological inquiry stemmed from his concern to explain the evolutionary development of human institutions, and especially economic institutions.  When Veblen was at the University of Chicago, a friend--W.I. Thomas of the sociology department--was expressing skepticism of the Spencerian approach to an explanation of culture.  Dorfman quotes Thomas as follows:


            “[Anthropology] ... has undergone a change well illustrated by the difference

            between the biological botany of today, and the ‘herbarium’ botany of the past.”

            Today the primary interest is in “the laws of growth,” the laws of development

            within a culture, not in classification.  Thomas worked in terms of Loeb’s

            tropisms, but interpreted them in a manner more akin to Morgan’s and

            Dewey’s psychology and philosophy than to Loeb’s metaphysics of sensation.[365]


It is to be presumed that Thomas provided Veblen with many of his more important anthropological insights and illustrative data.

            Veblen’s sense of the significance of anthropological inquiry may be further indicated by the following statement written by Veblen to one of his students.


            As for the anthropological reading, which I have inveigled you into, I do not

            know that it will be of much direct use, but it should be of some use in the

            sense of an acquaintance with mankind.  Not that man as viewed by the

            anthropologist is any more--perhaps he is less--human than man as we

            see him in everyday life and in commercial life; but the anthropological

            survey should give a view of man in perspective and more in the generic

            than is ordinarily attained by the classical economists, and should give

            added breadth and sobriety to the concept of “the economic man.”[366] 


            A further major influence on the development of Dewey’s thought was that of the writings of William James.  Perhaps more than any other factor, the “objective, biological approach of Jamesian psychology” accounted for the shift of Dewey away from the Germanic Hegelianism of George Sylvester Morris to Pragmatism.  Says Dewey’s biographer: “William James’s Principles of Psychology was much the greatest single influence in changing the direction of Dewey’s philosophical thinking.”


            James’s influence on Dewey’s theory of knowledge was exercised not by

            the Pragmatism, which appeared after Dewey’s theory had been formed,

            but by chapters in the Principles of Psychology dealing with conception,

            discrimination and comparison, and reasoning ...[367]


            Dewey himself comments on the character of the influence of James in an autobiographical article published in 1930.


            ... there are ... two unreconciled strains in the Psychology [of William James].

            One is found in the adoption of the subjective tenor of prior psychological

            tradition.  ....  The other strain is objective, having its roots in a return to the

            earlier biological conception of the psyche, but a return possessed of a new

            force and value due to the immense progress made in biology since the time

            of Aristotle. [the latter strain] worked its way more and more into all my

            ideas and acted as a ferment to transform old beliefs.[368]


            At the hands of James, the development of the pragmatic point of view moved from the determination of the meaning of words and the vital importance of philosophic beliefs to an analysis of the nature of truth.


            James showed, among other things, that in certain philosophic conceptions,

            the affirmation of certain beliefs could be justified by means of the nature of

            their consequences, or by the differences which these beliefs make in

            existence ...


            From a general point of view, the pragmatic attitude consists in “looking away

            from first things, principle, “categories,” supposed necessities; and of looking

            towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts ...


            It is ... in submitting conceptions to the control of experience, in the process

            of verifying them, that one finds examples of what is called truth.[369]


            The development of Instrumentalism may be thought of as having emerged from  three primary intellectual sources: 1) British Empiricism (the idea of experimental verification in James and Peirce); 2) a critique of Germanic idealism regarding the theory of knowledge and logic; and 3) an evolutionary, biological psychology (the Darwinian impact on psychological theory).

            Dewey has identified the nature and purpose of Instrumentalism in the following passage:


            Instrumentalism is an attempt to establish a precise logical theory of

            concepts, of judgments and inferences in their various forms, by con-

            sidering primarily how thought functions in the experimental determinations

            of future consequences.  That is to say, it attempts to establish universally

            recognized distinctions and rules of logic by deriving them from the recon-     

            structive or mediative function ascribed to reason.  It aims to constitute a

            theory of the general forms of conception and reasoning, and not of this or

            that particular judgment of concept related to its own content, or to its

            particular implications.[370]


            The social significance of Instrumentalism and its relation to American experience is suggested in the following remarks of Dewey:


            Instrumentalism maintains in opposition to many contrary tendencies in

            the American environment, that action should be intelligent and reflective,

            and that thought should occupy a central position in life.  ... what we insist

            upon above all else is that intelligence be regarded as the only source and

            sole guarantee of a desirable and happy future.  It is beyond doubt that the

            progressive and unstable character of American life and civilization has

            facilitated the birth of a philosophy which regards the world as being  in

            continuous formation, where there is still place for indeterminism, for the

            new, and for a real future ...[371]


            Upon reflection, it will be recognized that what has been developed in the last portion of this chapter as the intellectual heritage of American heterodoxy in social analysis is but a refinement and extension of the character of American experience considered in the fore part of the chapter.  While the more precise analysis of the content of the American contribution appears below, it should be apparent that there is a close and causal relationship between American experience and American heterodox thought.

            For example, the following statement may be fruitfully compared with the views of Professor Parry (supra, pp.61 and 77) regarding the role of American philosophy (and social thought generally) in explaining the character of American experience.


            ... American philosophy [Pragmatism and Instrumentalism] ... has given to

            the subject, to the individual mind, a practical rather than an epistemological

            function.  The individual mind is important because only the individual mind

            is the organ of modifications in traditions and institutions, the vehicle of

            experimental creation.  One-sided and egoistic individualism in American

            life has left its imprint on our practices.  For better or for worse, depending

            on the point of view, it has transformed the esthetic and fixed individualism

            of the old European culture into an active individualism.  But the idea of a

            society of individuals is not foreign to American thought; it penetrates even

            our current individualism which is unreflective and brutal.  And the individual

            which American thought idealized is not an individual per se, an individual

            fixed in isolation and set up for himself, but an individual who evolves and

            develops in a natural and human environment, an individual who can be



            It will be noted that no consideration has been given thus far to the intellectual origins of the ideas of Clarence Ayres.  This exclusion is explained in view of the fact that the works of Ayres are perhaps the most definitive and original combination of the ideas of Dewey and Veblen.  And since the Ayresian portion of what is here captioned the American contribution is of comparatively recent origin, it will suffice to say that his work is a later product of the accelerating intellectual and cultural forces previously considered.  As in the writing of his dissertation at Chicago on the relationship between ethics and economics, Ayres has blended the works of Dewey and Veblen and produced original ideas consistent with and, more significantly, in an extension of his intellectual parental sources.  The contributions of Ayres to the American heterodox analysis are explained below.


[325] Henry Bamford Parkes, The American Experience (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947):xii & 9.

[326] Ralph Barton Perry, Characteristically American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):8-9.

[327] Denis W. Brogan, The American Character (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944):6-7.

[328] Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911):12-13.

[329] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History.  Quoted in The Turner Thesis, editor

George Rogers Taylor (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1949):1.

[330] Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950):7.

[331] Ibid., p.8.

[332] Brogan, op.cit. p.7.

[333] Ibid, pp.3-4.

[334] For a modern statement of the social role of such persons, see Eric Hoffer, “ The Role of the Undesirables,” Harpers Magazine, CCV(December, 1952):79ff.

[335] Vide Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers) New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932).

[336] Parkes, op.cit., pp.8-9.

[337] Ibid., pp.9-10.

[338] Ibid., pp.9-10.

[339] E.g., A.B. Guthrie, Jr., The Way West (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949); and Guthrie, The Big Sky (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1947).  See also Bernard Augustine DeVoto, Across the Wide Missouri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1947).

[340] Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1931):507-8.

[341] Perry, op.cit., p127.

[342] Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1940):256-7.

[343] Frederic L. Paxon, When the West is Gone.  Quoted in Taylor, op.cit., pp.36-7.

[344] Perry, op.cit., p13.

[345] Ibid., pp.32-3.

[346] Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927, 1930)III:9.

[347] Ibid., III:4.

[348] Vide Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945) chapter 1.

[349] John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910):1-2.

[350] Ibid., p.7.

[351] Ibid., p.9.

[352] Jane M. Dewey (ed.), “Biography of John Dewey,” The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. by Paul Arthur Schilpp (Chicago: Northwestern University, 1939):17-8.

[353] Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America (New York: The Viking Press, 1934):46.

[354] Ibid., p.49.

[355] Ibid.

[356] Thorstein Veblen, “Kant’s Critique of Judgment,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, XVIII (July 1884).

[357] Dorfman, op.cit., p.51.

[358] Thorstein Veblen, “Kant’s critique of Judgment,” Essays in Our Changing Order (New York: The Viking Press, 1934):187.

[359] Dorfman, op.cit., p.41.

[360] Stanley Matthew Daugert, The Philosophy of Thorstein Veblen (New York: Kings’ Crown Press, 1950):15-16.

[361] John Dewey, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” Philosophy and Civilization (New York: Minton, Balch and Company, 1931):13ff.

[362] e.g. John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938):9ff and 468ff.  Also Philosophy and Civilization, op.cit., 13ff and 149.

[363] Dewey, Logic, op.cit. p,9.

[364] The possible exception to this is in Veblen's essays regarding “the dolicho-blond race.”  Vide Essays in Our Changing Order, op.cit.

[365] Dorfman, op.cit., p.125.

[366] Quoted in Dorfman, op.cit., pp.132-3.

[367] Jane M. Dewey, op.cit., p.23.

[368] John Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Contemporary American Philosophy, Vol.II, ed. by G.P. Adams and William P. Montague (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930):23-4.

[369] Dewey, Philosophy and Civilization, op. cit., pp.22-3.

[370] Ibid., p.26.

[371] Ibid.,  p.33.

[372] Ibid., p.34.