Between the Mine and the Stream

Smith_1Justin E H Smith at Cabinet Magazine:

Hoover’s philosophy is continuous with a long American tradition, born in England, of engaging with nature, both for the wonder of the thing itself and for the more practical empiricist aim, typified already in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon, of discovering better ways to dominate it and to put it to use for us. The idea that philosophy might be practical in this way has been almost completely erased from our consciousness today, above all in the professionalized bubble of academic philosophy. Yet, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the period from which Hoover drew the most, common usage of the term makes perfectly clear that what a “philosopher” does primarily is to inquire—as Socrates was, wrongly, accused of doing—into what goes on in the heavens above and the earth below (and everywhere between as well). In a characteristic usage of the term, John Evelyn, in his 1661 workFumifugium; Or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated, speaks of “these unwholsome vapours, that distempered the Aer, to the very raising of Storms and tempests; upon which a Philosopher might amply discourse.”2 Or, as Agricola himself explains, “there are many arts and sciences of which a miner should not be ignorant. First there is Philosophy, that he may discern the origin, cause, and nature of subterranean things.”3

Thomas Jefferson would amply discourse on the floral and faunal diversity of the New World, not least with his contemporary, the French natural historian Buffon, and also participate in ethnolinguistic surveys of the Native American groups of the Northeast. This sort of practical undertaking was one of the principal tasks of philosophy as commonly understood into the eighteenth century, and particularly so in the United States, where it was the only conception of philosophy that seemed appropriate for the nascent nation.

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