Healing Hypotheses


1. Heritage of Early American Philosophy

Early New England thinking has been called "a twig on the Protestant branch of the Augustinian branch of the Mediaeval tree of knowledge."1 In early colonial days this twig was almost the whole tree of American intellectual life.

The religious character of this thought is apparent, to the point of its often being neglected as a part of philosophy. Yet Jonathan Edwards has been judged "America's first real philosopher."2

While God was emphasized in Puritan thought, Nature was not ignored. It was believed that the study of Nature helps to reveal the truth about God, and that "whatever is helpful and brings results must have been intended by God."3 Puritanism contained


1 Walter G. Muelder and Laurence Sears, eds., The Development of American Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940), p. 1.

2 Ibid., p. 2.

3 W. H. Werkmeister, A History of Philosophical Ideas in America (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1949),
pp. 11-12.



Healing Hypotheses

not only the roots of Emerson's "pantheism" but also that basic practicality that contains the seeds of American pragmatism in its most general form."1

After the Puritan period came the period of the Enlightenment, when, incidentally, New England lost its early near monopoly in the field of philosophy.

The period of the Enlightenment coincided with that of the achievement of national independence. "There was no period in our history when the public interests of the people were so intimately linked to philosophic issues."2 The philosophy of that time can be read in public documents.

Deistic, optimistic, this-worldly thinkers of the Enlightenment found much room for natural philosophy. In this a man of particular interest from the standpoint of this study is Benjamin Rush (1745-1813). This Philadelphia physician, medical teacher, and signer of the Declaration of Independence has been called "the father of American psychiatry."3

While his therapeutic approach called for treating mind by way of matter, contrary to the methods of those to whom this study is devoted, Rush's outlook is not entirely inconsistent with the views of those to be considered here.


1 Ibid., p. 12.

2 Herbert W. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), p. 35.

3 Walter Bromberg, The Mind of Man: A History of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 88.

Healing Hypotheses


Rush's philosophical importance lies chiefly in the fact that he made an impressive scientific attempt to demonstrate the underlying unity of man's "excitability" and consequently of man's knowledge; he suggested, though he did not preach, that there was no radical separation possible between body and soul, medicine and morals, natural and social philosophy.1

"As a metaphysician he is at times weak, but as a physician he shows himself cognizant of such difficult discoveries as the cure of mental disorders by suggestion."2 This is not to suggest that he influenced those dealt with here.

2. Nineteenth Century Utopianism

One of the most interesting outbursts of the romantic, youthful United States was a rash of perfectionist thought. All sorts of reforms were advocated.

The abolitionists were clamoring for the end of slavery; temperance societies demanded the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco; the Oneida colony, established by John Noyes the Perfectionist, strove for a practical embodiment of the communist plan of life; and socialism, imported from France through Fourier, was to be based on


1 Schneider, op. cit., pp. 75-76.

2 Woodbridge Riley, American Thought from Puritanism to Pragmatism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915), p. 105.


Healing Hypotheses

"The Principles of a True Organization of Society.1

Perfectionism [was] a movement which marked the extreme expression of the new conscience, the most revolutionary of its aspirations, the apotheosis of ethical radicalism. Its want of literary skill narrowed its appeal and the archaic quality of its enthusiasm lessened its following; yet in spirit it was native to Puritan idealism, and it enlisted the active sympathy of many of the finer souls of New England. How greatly reform was furthered by the movement of perfectionism is not easily determined, but it is clear that its influence permeated much of the revolutionary activity of the times. Scratch an ardent Abolitionist and you were likely to find a potential perfectionist.2

Selecting more or less at random, and without any attempt at completeness, one would have to add Shakerism, Millerism, Mormonism, Spiritualism, and phrenology to the list in order to get an even remotely fair picture of the ferment that was abroad in the land during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Lest an impression of a national comic opera be giv-en, it should be observed that even the strangest of the enthusiasms were expressions of sincere and by no means irrational beliefs, as understood at that time.


1 Bromberg, op. cit., pp. 125-26.

2 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954), 11, 334-35.

Healing Hypotheses


The foundation of this democratic faith was a frank supernaturalism derived from Christianity. The twentieth century student is often astonished at the extent to which supernaturalism permeated American thought of the nineteenth century. The basic postulate of the democratic faith affirmed that God, the creator of man, has also created a moral law for his government and has endowed him with a conscience with which to apprehend it. Underneath and supporting human society, as the basic rock supports the hills, is a moral order which is the abiding place of the eternal principles of truth and righteousness.1

For Christians the moral law was the will of God; for the small company of articulate free thinkers it was the natural law of eighteenth century Deism.2

One scarcely should be surprised by the various, essentially religious, reforms that were advocated in a land where everyone was free to approach perfection in his own way, reading God's law according to his own share of light.

3. Transcendentalism

The most noted intellectual movement that arose in the midst of this ferment was transcendentalism. It has


1 Ralph H. Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1940), p. 14.

2 Ibid., p. 15.


Healing Hypotheses

been traced to European sources1 especially Kant, but it also has been maintained that

this was largely a technical derivation for the American transcendentalists. The real animus of their activities was found in the local scene, where a rebellion took shape against the Unitarian synthesis of rationalism and Scriptural authoritarianism. In its reaction against all forms of evangelical piety, Unitarianism had hardened into a cold and formal creed.... The transcendentalists were Unitarians, mostly clergymen, who rebelled against their own denomination. It was at this point that the romantic movement in America came closest to making an open break with the past.2

Yet the transcendentalists were "Puritans to the core"3 in dedication to "stern, unbending, uncompromising virtue." Transcendentalism was


1 See, for example, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959, originally G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1876), chapters 1-5.

2 Stow Persons, American Minds: A History of Ideas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958), p. 209.

3 Harold Clarke Goddard, Studies in New England Transcendentalism (New York: Hillary House Publishers, Ltd., 1960, originally Columbia University Press, 1908),
p. 188 (in italics in the original).

4 lbid., p. 189.

Healing Hypotheses


the mingling of an old world and a new world element, the blending of an idealistic, Platonistic metaphysics and the Puritan spirit, the fusion--at a high, revolutionary temperature--of a philosophy and a character. The white heat of feeling brought out the noblest outlines of that character and touched into actuality the potential mysticism which that philosophy a hundred times has shown itself to hold.1

Whatever its origins were,

transcendentalism was, . . . first and foremost, a doctrine concerning the mind, its ways of acting and methods of getting knowledge. Upon this doctrine the New England transcendental philosophy as a whole was built.2

Despite some differences of Emerson, Parker, Alcott, and others,

there remains no possible doubt that in its large outlines they all held an identical philosophy. This philosophy teaches the unity of the world in God and the immanence of God in the world. Because of this indwelling of divinity, every part of the world, however small, is a microcosm, comprehending within itself, like Tennyson's flower in the crannied wall, all the laws and meaning of existence. The soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and contains, latently, all which it contains. The normal life of man is a life of continuous


1 Ibid.

2 Ibid., p. 4.


Healing Hypotheses

expansion, the making actual of the potential elements of his being. This may occur in two ways: either directly, in states which vary from the ordinary perception of truth to moments of mystical rapture in which there is a conscious influx of the divine into the human; or indirectly, through the instrumentality of nature. Nature is the embodiment of spirit in the world of sense--it is a great picture to be appreciated; a great book to be read; a great task to be performed. Through the beauty, truth, and goodness incarnate in the natural world, the individual soul comes in contact with and appropriates to itself the spirit and being of God. From these beliefs as a center radiate all those others, which, however differently emphasized and variously blended, are constantly met with among the transcendentalists, as, for example, the doctrine of self-reliance and individualism, the identity of moral and physical laws, the essential unity of all religions, complete tolerance, the negative nature of evil, absolute optimism, a disregard for all "external" authority and for tradition, even, indeed, some conceptions not wholly typical of New England transcendentalism, like Alcott's doctrine of creation by "lapse." But always, beneath the rest, is the fundamental belief in the identity of the individual soul with God, and--at the same time the source and the corollary of this belief--an unshakable faith in the divine authority of the intuitions of the soul. Insight, instinct, impulse, intuition--the trust of the transcendentalists in these was complete, and wherever they employ these words they must be understood not in the ordinary but in a highly technical sense.


1 Ibid., pp. 4-5.

Healing Hypotheses  


[Emerson] makes this inner sense not merely a guide to conduct, but a diviner of spiritual truth.1

Intuition--that is the method of the transcendental philosophy; no truth worth the knowing is susceptible of logical demonstration.2

4. Oriental Thought

In the United States "it was not until about Emerson's time that the Oriental was more than a heathen and his religious literature more than foolishness."3

Emerson and his friends read the Hindus for their idealistic philosophy, a philosophy naturally congenial to the Transcendental mind. But they were also practical Yankees facing the demands of a work-a-day world; so they read Confucius, a sage as shrewd as any Yankee, and found in him effective precepts whereby to regulate their affairs with men. The Mohammedan Sufis provided poetry for their urbane and artistic needs. These three Oriental cultures were eclectically blended, despite their inherent contradictions, into a composite which in miniature is an excellent representation of that larger Transcendentalism composed of


1 Ibid., p. 142.

2 Ibid., p. 5.

3 Arthur Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), p. vii.


Healing Hypotheses

borrowings from Greek, English, French, German and native thought.1

Since this is not a study of transcendentalism, the details of oriental influences on it will not be explored here, where the purpose is simply to show that Oriental thought was to be found in the United States.

The influence of Eastern thought did not cease with the decline of transcendentalism.

In 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded in New York.2

Theosophy is clearly a syncretic system, a blending of Eastern and Western religious and philosophic thought and practice. It brings together elements from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Spiritualism, Egyptian Hermeticism, perhaps something from Jewish Kabbalism, and occultism generally.3

Perhaps the most significant influx of Oriental thought in "the return of the East upon the West" came through the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. "For the first time on such an occasion, Religion . . . had due


1 Ibid., pp. xi-xii.

2 Charles S. Braden, These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), p. 223.

3 lbid., p. 243.

4 Title of Chapter IX of Gaius Glenn Atkins, Modern Religious Cults and Movements (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1923).

Healing Hypotheses


preeminence."1 From September 11 through September 27 the World's Parliament of Religions met there, in the words of some of its objectives:

To bring together in conference, for the first time in history, the leading representatives of the great Historic Religions of the world.

To show to men, in the most impressive way, what and how many important truths the various Religions hold and teach in common.

To promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths, through friendly conference and mutual good understanding, while not seeking to foster indifferentism, and not striving to achieve any formal and outward unity.

To secure from leading scholars, representing the Brahman, Buddhist, Confucian, Parsee, Mohammedan, Jewish and other Faiths, and from representatives of the various Churches of Christendom, full and accurate statements of the spiritual and other effects of the Religions which they hold upon the Literature, Art, Commerce, Government, Domestic and Social life of the peoples among whom these Faiths have prevailed.

To inquire what light each Religion has afforded, or may afford, to the other Religions of the world.

To discover, from competent men, what light Religion has to throw on the great problems of the present age, especially the important questions connected with Temperance, Labor, Education, Wealth and Poverty.


1 John Henry Barrows (ed.), The World's Parliament of Religions (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 1, 3.


Healing Hypotheses

To bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly fellowship, in the hope of securing permanent international peace.1

One of the speakers at the World's Parliament of Religions was Swami Vivekananda.2 After the Parliament, he founded a movement that has placed Vedanta Societies in various cities. "The movement stresses the oneness of all religions, basing its teaching upon the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita."3

Another objective of the Parliament, which met at a world's fair that boasted "the first electric railway in the world,4 and   a   Hall   of Manufactures covering   thirty acres,5 was "to indicate the impregnable foundations of Theism, and the reasons for man's faith in Immortality, and thus to unite and strengthen the forces which are adverse to a materialistic philosophy of the universe."6 Perhaps it was apparent that these forces were in need of greater support.


1 Ibid., I, 18.

2 His opening remarks and paper on Hinduism are in ibid., 102, and II, 968-78, as well as in (no editor listed) The World's Congress of Religions (Boston: Arena Publishing Company, 1893), pp. 43-44 and 187-98.

3 Braden, op. cit., p. 473.

4 Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions (London: and New York: The Studio Publications, 1951), p. 194.

5 Ibid., p. 190.

6 Barrows, op. cit., 1, 18.

Healing Hypotheses  


  5. Naturalism

The most striking fact in the intellectual history of the last third of the nineteenth century was the blow to the historic doctrine of supernaturalism by new developments in the biological and physical sciences.1

About at the end of the approximately two decades' zenith of transcendentalism came Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. This "served as the final bell to summon the defenders of opposing views ... for the battle which was to ensue."2 Although

stifled for a time in the United States because it had neither an organization nor a sufficient number of enthusiastic devotees to further it, naturalism was given new life through the development of evo-lutionary concepts.3

The United States was conquering a continent, and growing in wealth and population. While there were such developments as St. Louis Hegelianism, it scarcely can be denied that

the economic and social transformation of the United States which culminated in the Gilded Age


1 Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (2d ed., New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1951), p. 531.

2 Paul Russell Anderson and Max Harold Fisch, Philosophy in America from the Puritans to James (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1939), p. 327.

3 Ibid., pp. 327-28.


Healing Hypotheses

was accompanied in the intellectual sphere by a new trend towards naturalism and materialism.1

While "at no time did the tenets of naturalism hold uncontested sway over American thinking,"2 the naturalistic movement was something important that had to be dealt with by those to be considered here. Their existence, at least, has been recognized in some observations that will serve to conclude this sketch.

Idealism was driven underground during the latter part of the nineteenth century, to become the peculiar property of clergymen, professors, and women. But it could not be suppressed entirely, and it broke out in bizarre or partially disciplined forms, such as New Thought or Christian Science.3


1 Werkmeister, op. cit., p. 80.

2 Persons, op. cit., p. 217.

3 Ibid., p. 421. Persons continues with several pages devoted to Christian Science and the Emmanuel movement, but does not deal with New Thought beyond this reference to it, although he does treat Quimby briefly.

Back | Contents | Next