History of Philosophy in the USA


The online Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines philosophy as “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”. Every nation has its own national philosophy, which is derived in parts, from the works of great philosophers. The US constitution and the body of law too were inspired by many such influences. The works of John Stuart Mills, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke have had a profound influence on the founding fathers of this country. The inspiration, in part, was also derived from the example of the French Revolution and its ideals. Today, the liberty that we take for granted has in some ways been the result of the philosophical efforts of the eminent persons mentioned.

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However, what would have happened had our leaders been influenced by philosophies of different kinds? There have been cases in the history of nations, where the national philosophies were changed, altered, or completely replaced with new thoughts to suit the beliefs or requirements of their leaders. Germany is a typical example where the old German republic was replaced with Nazi philosophy by Adolf Hitler.

According to a Wikipedia article on the subject, the tenets of Nazi philosophy were in part derived from a misreading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher who propounded the concept of Nihilism. Nietzsche, through his works Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and Man and Superman never intended his words to be taken literally and twisted to produce the evil which the proponents of Nazi philosophy inflicted on the world. What if any of our leaders had been similarly inspired? It may have been possible that we would have had a Nazi USA!

Yet another example based on an anecdotal story tells that Karl Marx, the writer of the Communist Manifesto, had predicted that the US would be the first country to adopt Marxism. His estimation was based on the premise that the precondition of economic prosperity for Marxism to flourish was there only with the US at that time. The US could have been a communist state! These are hypothetical situations, but very much in the realms of possibilities. There are small nations yet unstable around the world that experiment with their national philosophies to find answers for their problems. Venezuela is one example, where the present President, Hugo Chavez has steered the country on a socialist path with not too positive results.

However, to say that the American way of life is without its blemishes and weaknesses would be incorrect. The Works of Hobbes, Mills, and Locke have certain deficiencies which have been debated and argued by philosophers the world over. Both Hobbes and Locke encouraged liberal thinking which is good and emphasized perfect freedom, liberty, and equality. Mills went a step forward by stating his famous principle of utilitarianism in which he defended the right for individuals to engage in the pursuit of happiness as the ultimate aim.

He also stated that in pursuit of this happiness, no man should be limited, except when he could cause ‘harm to others. Such an approach has created a multitude of problems in American society and culture. For the pursuit of his individual happiness, a person may claim to do drugs, engage in prostitution, pornography and any other nefarious things which we see so widespread in America.

So where does the state draw the line and consider when a person is doing “harm to others’ and curb his liberties. These are questions not easily answered and require serious introspection.


Popkin, Richard. H & Stroll Arthur. (1923). Philosophy Made Simple. New York: Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Philosophy. (2008). Oxford Online Dictionary. Web.

Wikipedia (2008). Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Web.

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