Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: American Intellectual History

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

This course aims to give an understanding of American intellectual history though its philosophy and literature. The American psyche was forged through republicanism, revolution, religion and the unique impact of the American wilderness. European ideas met the challenge of a new context and were reshaped by that context. We travel from the Colonial period, through the Enlightenment/Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, to the Pragmatists and end with a selection of contemporary theorists. We will also consider the transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau; the humanism of Beecher, Stowe and Whitman; Melville’s vast political commentary in Moby Dick; the Pragmatists James and Dewey; and the liberalism, neo liberalism and anti-liberalism of contemporary American philosophy.


This course aims to:

  • provide an overview of the origins and complexities of American intellectual history. We will cover the development of American thought to the present
  • show the important role played by the Republican philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) on the Republicanism of today
  • give participants an understanding of the interconnection influences of religion and capitalism in the development of the American system
  • show the contribution made by the poets and novelists to the “idea” of America. Novelists such as Herman Melville’s (Moby Dick) become part of the construction of the mythology which underpins the American dream
  • give the ramifications of American history for the contemporary political situation.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the main philosophers of American history and their contribution to American thought
  • discuss how the Pragmatists: William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey (1859-1952) set the agenda for many later developments in American ideology. Pragmatism is a quintessential American tenor of thought; it is individualistic, success-orientated and materialistic
  • identify the different religions which characterised the American story; the Quakers and Puritans being two of the main players
  • discuss the impact of European philosophers on the post- Second World War America system
  • discuss the various types of Liberalism which characterise contemporary American politics
  • discuss the splintering of Liberalism into a proliferation of positions, some of which became paradoxically ‘anti liberal’.



We will begin by looking at the reasons why the first colonists came to settle in America and how their ideas of religious and political freedom influenced the formation of American society and its institutions.

Republicanism and revolution

This period is called the American Age of Reason. We will consider the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) who wrote the influential: Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.

The transcendentalists

America’s most significant early philosophers operated outside the academic system; they were eccentric thinkers, philosophers, poets and mystics who believed that truth is attainable through subjective intuition. We will discuss the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896).

The romance of nature

Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) philosophy is based on a symbolic identification of regeneration in nature with the deathless self. He was a “poet of the body and a poet of the soul”.

Herman Melville and the politics of Moby Dick

We will also look at the artist Frederic Church (1826-1900), who also looked to nature as a way of understanding the human condition and its place in the universe.


The Harvard philosophy of William James (1842-1910) set the agenda for many later developments in American ideology. Pragmatism is a quintessential American tenor of thought; it is individualistic, success-orientated, and materialistic.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Born in the year that Darwin published The Origin of the Species, Dewey took seriously Darwin’s incorporation of human life into nature and tried to work out the consequences of that theory for ethics and social reality.

The impact of European philosophers

Those who crossed the Atlantic to escape Nazism had a deep impact on American thought. The existentialists and phenomenologists were particularly important. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was the first to apply the phenomenological method to Armenian politics.

The contemporary scene

Classic American Liberalism.

Contemporary reactionism

Liberalism splintered into a proliferation of positions, some of which became paradoxically anti liberal.

Delivery style


Recommended reading

To be provided in class.


To be provided in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

We acknowledge the tradition of custodianship and law of the Country on which the University of Sydney campuses stand. We pay our respects to those who have cared and continue to care for the Country.