Description: a critical history of thought in North America, tracing its gradual transformation from 17th-century Puritanism to 20th-century pragmatism

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Winter/Spring 2013

Philosophy 303: Section 01

American Philosophy
MWF 11:00am-11:50am

Wister 202


A critical history of thought in North America, tracing its gradual transformation from 17th-century Puritanism to 20th-century pragmatism.


Welcome to Philosophy 303, "American Philosophy."

America has unique origins: religious discontents seeking freedom to worship combined with Enlightenment thinkers seeking to craft a new politics. As early Americans attempted to break free of Old Europe's historic monarchies, cultural traditions, and state churches, they undertook the task of building a new nation.

This course seeks to understand America's intellectual history: the forces, events, and patterns of thought that shape how Americans think about ourselves, our national identity, our citizenship, and our place in the world. The focus will be upon reading and understanding primary texts from the 17th century Puritans up to the middle of the 20th century. The selected readings all, in some way or another, are ones that have helped shape American thought and identity.

Required Texts:

The following texts will be required for this course:
Nancy A. Stanlick and Bruce S. Silver

Philosophy in America: Primary Readings – Volume I
Edition: 2004
Publisher: Pearson Education
ISBN-10: 0130950378
ISBN-13: 978-0130950376
Retail Price: $88.80

The Campus Store offers the book, though they unfortunately sometimes run short on copies.


This course is designed to familiarize you with the broad scope of American intellectual thought.

Part of the goal here is academic. In particular, as with all philosophy courses, this course will challenge you to think critically, to connect the present to the past, and to attempt to understand the diversity of human thought. More generally, you will hone your reading, communication, and writing skills.

Part of the goal is also personal. The issues that American philosophy raises are important to understanding what kind of nation America is, how we are influenced to think and act as Americans, and how our present is profoundly shaped by our past. Through an examination of key texts, we can better understand ourselves and the world around us.


This class will only be a genuine learning experience, by which you are challenged and grow, if you contribute substantially. This requires your attention to several areas:

Attendance: You need to come to class regularly and on time. While I’m more concerned about ongoing patterns of attendance, any absence is significant. Failure to attend or regular lateness will affect your grade negatively, including of possibility of receiving a "0" for Attendance/Participation. Arrange excused absences beforehand if possible. You are responsible to find out about and make up all missed work.

Participation: I expect everyone to contribute through active class discussion, raising questions, involvement in any group activities, and completion of all assigned readings and coursework. Participation is an important part of your grade. Sleeping, texting during class, distracting conversations, and so forth all constitute a failure to participate and will reduce your grade.

Readings: There will be about 25 pages per week of reading assigned, depending upon content and difficulty. You are responsible to read carefully and understand the material to the best of your ability prior to the class in which we will discuss it. See the timetable of readings below.
Study Questions: At the end of each section of the text, there is a set of Study Questions. You do not have to answer those questions as homework. You will, however, be responsible for being able to answer any questions pertaining to the assigned readings, as they will form the basis for Quizzes.
Quizzes:  I will be giving you a short quiz at least once a week, unannounced, using a random question from the Study Questions relevant to the readings for that week. The quiz should take about 5-10 minutes and will consist in about a single page of a blue book. You will use the same blue book throughout the semester, which I will hand out and collect.
While you will know what readings you are required to read for any particular class, you will not know which reading or which study question you'll be required to answer for a quiz. This should keep you engaged with the texts and make class discussion more profitable.

These quizzes will take the place of a mid-term exam and a final exam. Your lowest quiz grade will be dropped. Quizzes will be graded on the basis of whether or not they convince me you did the reading and how carefully and thoughtfully you read. Assessment will take the following form:




No evidence of reading
Evidence of reading, but with little understanding
Evidence of reading and understanding
Evidence of reading, understanding, and insight

Group Discussion Papers: The class will break into five smaller groups of about 7 students each. Once a week, typically Fridays, you will break into these groups to discuss a reading during the first 20-30 minutes of class.

Each week a different member of the discussion group will be responsible for leading the discussion, using prepared, printed notes (approximately 2 pages) that will be turned in at the end of the session. The discussion prompt should achieve at least some the following:

  • Summarize a text or relevant part of a text

  • Provide a bit of context for the text

  • Raise some questions about the text:

    • Asking for clarification or interpretation

    • Questioning the purpose or intent

    • Inquiring about connections with other texts

    • Encourage connections with other events or issues

Every member of the discussion group will have the opportunity to provide a discussion prompt twice during the semester. We will set up groups and a schedule during the first week of class.

I will rotate among these groups to observe and contribute. Participation in group discussion will count toward your participation grade.

Final Essay: You will be completing one longer essay for this class, building upon the lectures and recitation discussions. This paper should be approximately 7-8 pages. I will provide a description, requirements, and topics for this essay in a separate document.

Office hours: I am available during my office hours around eight hours each week and by appointment. I am always more than happy to talk to you about any aspect of your experience here at La Salle and in connection with this class. I will readily discuss readings, work on topics, help with presentations, go over drafts, and so on. Please make use of this opportunity, as it will benefit us both greatly.

Plagiarism is unacceptable. All information, paraphrases, and quotations from sources must be documented using some accepted system of citation (MLA, APA, etc.), whether that source is in print or online. Failure to do so results in at least a zero for that assignment and possibly failing the course. Plagiarism on the final paper results in the failing the course. Please review La Salle's Academic Integrity Policy for further details.


The following is a breakdown of how your various grades will be weighed:

Discussion Prompts
Final Essay


Schedule of Readings:

Week One:

Monday, 14 January – Introduction (syllabus, schedule, the notion of “intellectual history”)

Wednesday, 16 January – Puritan Origins (Puritan settlement of New England, First Great Awakening)

Friday, 18 January – Jonathan Edwards (“A Divine and Supernatural Light”, 2-8)
Week Two:

Monday, 21 JanuaryNo Class – MLK Holiday

Wednesday, 23 January – Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, 9-14)

Friday, 25 January – Jonathan Edwards (“Freedom of the Will”, 14-27)
Week Three:

Monday, 28 January – Cotton Mather (excerpts from Bonifacius, electronic document)

Wednesday, 30 January – Benjamin Franklin (“The Autobiography”, 32-38)

Friday, 1 February – Thomas Paine (“The Age of Reason, Part I”, 39-48)
Week Four:

Monday, 4 February – Thomas Paine (“Common Sense”, 219-222; “The Rights of Man”, 256-263)

Wednesday, 6 February – Resistance to Government & Mixed Constitutions

Friday, 8 February – “Declaration of Independence” (222-225)
Week Four:

Monday, 11 February – “US Constitution” (225-246)

Wednesday, 13 February – Federalist Papers (246-255)

Friday, 15 February – John Adams (“A Defence of the Constitutions…”, 263-268)
Week Six:

Monday, 18 February – Thomas Jefferson (“Notes on the State of Virginia”, 269-270, 276-279)

Wednesday, 20 February – The Second Great Awakening

Friday, 22 February – Unitarianism & Transcendentalism
Week Seven:

Monday, 25 February – Ralph Waldo Emerson (“The American Scholar”, 54-59)

Wednesday, 27 February – Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Divinity School Address”, 60-64)

Friday, 1 March – Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Politics”, 339-345)

Week Eight:

Monday, 4 March – Friday, 8 MarchNo ClassSpring Break Holidays
Week Nine:

Monday, 11 March – Henry David Thoreau (“Walden”, 70-76)

Wednesday, 13 March – Henry David Thoreau (“Civil Disobedience”, 346-353)

Friday, 15 March – William Lloyd Garrison (“Declaration of Sentiments…”, 279-282)
Week Ten:

Monday, 18 March – Frederick Douglass (“What to the Slave if the 4th of July?”, 296-299)

Wednesday, 20 March – Sarah and Angelina Grimke (“Appeal…”, 283-88; “Letters…”, 288-291)

Friday, 22 March – Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“The First Convention…”, 292-296)
Week Eleven:

Monday, 25 March – Chauncey Wright (“Natural Theology as a Positive Science”, 79-83)

Wednesday, 27 March – Chauncey Wright (“Evolution of Self-Consciousness”, 83-87)

Friday, 29 MarchNo Class – Good Friday Holiday
Week Twelve:

Monday, 1 April No Class – Easter Monday Holiday

Wednesday, 3 April – C.S. Peirce (“The Fixation of Belief”, 92-100)

Friday, 5 April – C.S. Peirce (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, 100-108; “Pragmatism…”, 108-110)
Week Thirteen:

Monday, 8 April – William James (“What Pragamatism Means”, 111-117)

Wednesday, 10 April – William James (“The Will to Believe”, 117-124)

Friday, 12 April – John Dewey (“The Influence of Darwinism…”, 132-138; “Nature, Life…”, 138-139)
Week Fourteen:

Monday, 15 April – John Dewey (“The Quest for Certainty”, 139-152)

Wednesday, 17 April – John Dewey (“The Search for the Great Community”, 359-370)

Friday, 19 April – Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, 310-316)
Week Fifteen:

Monday, 22 April – 20th Century

Wednesday, 24 April – W.V.O. Quine (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, 199-204)

Friday, 26 April – Richard Rorty (“19th Century Idealism & 20th Century Textualism”, 204-215)
Week Sixteen:

Monday, 29 April – John Rawls (“Justice as Fairness”, 371-379)

Wednesday, 1 May – Robert Nozick (“Distributive Justice…”, 380-387)

Friday, 3 May – Michael Sandel (“The Procedural Republic…” 388-400)

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