An Evolving Dialectic: Contesting Conceptions of Nature in American Ideas, from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism
This essay explores one way of understanding how concepts of human nature and the natural world evolved during the course of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American philosophical thought. It traces changing conceptions of human nature in relation to the natural world through the respective philosophies of transcendentalism (as represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson), idealism (as represented by Josiah Royce), and pragmatism (as represented by John Dewey), with reference to environmental historian Donald Worster’s discussion of the “arcadian” and “imperial” intellectual traditions in his book Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. It argues that Worster’s thesis regarding the dialectical relationship between these two traditions and the eventual ascendancy of the imperial perspective to predominance in American culture generally is also applicable to certain successive transformations that occurred in American philosophy specifically, as exemplified by Emerson, Royce, and Dewey. However, as Worster also suggests, although American history reflects this dialectical trend, none of its philosophical exemplars conform simplistically to either an arcadian or imperial ideology, and the arcadian-imperial dialectic should be regarded as only one limited — albeit illuminating — view of the intellectual tradition from the early nineteenth century through the progressive era to today, and from which environmental conservation thought has emerged.