Last week I picked up a copy of William Graham Sumner’s classic Folkways with an amusing introduction by Sumner’s Yale colleague (and before that, student) William Lyon Phelps. One episode Phelps relates, however, he had me wondering whether Sumner wasn’t more of a philistine than I had thought. At a faculty meeting discussing the appointment of a professor of philosophy, Sumner expressed an extreme distaste for the entire field:

Philosophy is in every way as bad as astrology. It is a complete fake. Yale has a great opportunity now to announce that she will take the lead and banish the study of philosophy from the curriculum on the ground that is is unworthy of serious consideration. It is an anachronism. We might just as well have professors of alchemy or fortune-telling or palmistry.

No one who’s read any Sumner would think him an admirer of metaphysics, but this had me wondering whether Sumner would dismiss every philosopher from Aristotle to Hume. That seemed hard to believe; so what could this outburst have meant?

I found the answer after another trip to the bookstore, waiting for me in the pages of Perry Miller’s introduction to American Thought: Civil War to World War I, which reminds me that the particular form of philosophy that dominated the late 19th-century American university was one Sumner would have found especially galling: German Idealism. Miller writes:

The support which a righteous America had formerly received from Scottish Realism was now promised in a much more invincible form by this massive Idealism—even though, in order to appropriate it, the American mind had to master a more precise and infinitely subtler kind of reasoning than any for which it had hitherto (except possibly among Puritan theologians) shown the slightest aptitude.

… Idealists disagreed passionately among themselves, staged heroic disputations, and contradicted each other’s publications. Still, on the large outlines they were at one in holding that the structure of the human mind so corresponds with the objective fact of the universe that the true constitution of reality is mental. As [George Sylvester] Morris put it, “Knowledge and being are correlative terms.” Standing firm, though in various fashions, upon this solution of the epistemological doubt, they celebrated the enduring verities of religion and morality.

… to hundreds [Josiah] Royce appeared the philosopher, the only one who established the principles of morality,immortality, loyalty, and reverence upon foundations which no scientific heresy could shake. Neither biology nor physics could, so it seemed, render obsolete his restatement of the great tradition of Western Christendom. And he had the large advantage that he scored this victory without resorting to any authoritative revelation, even while making copious use of the Bible. He seemed to demonstrate the inadequacy of any and every Naturalism to cope with the human predicament, yet to find in the predicament itself a resolution for anguish and doubt.

These idealists had utterly routed the Scottish Enlightenment realists—of the sort heralded by John Withrop Witherspoon at Princeton—who had earlier set the tenor of the American university. Those realists had not had much use for the likes of Hume either, by the way, as Miller notes:

Scottish Realism was a philosophy of “common sense”—forthright, down-to-earth, rational, and yet pious. It supported orthodoxy in theology, raised no dangerous question, invited no intellectual adventures. It was enlightened, and yet conservative. It was a restatement of Locke against David Hume, and it contradicted Hume’s scepticism by a blanket assertion that idea and object correspond so faithfully that Americans, intent upon their business, need never give a second thought to so unprofitable a thought.

Miller is speaking rather broadly there, but it’s true enough that in the context of early 19th-century America, Scottish realism—which “had become virtually synonymous with Protestantism”—wasn’t especially dangerous or adventurous. And it had certainly grown complacent enough toward the end of the century to be vulnerable to Darwinian naturalism and the idealisms of Hegel and Kant. The idealists got their moment in the sun—but their doctrines too failed to quell Darwinian doubts:

They were compelled, as Santayana said at the time, to protect a vested interest: “they know they are defending prisoners suspected by the world, and perhaps by their own good sense, of falsification.” Hence many of their students rebelled against the enchantment, coming to suspect that Idealist professors did not covet truth but only victory. Some, like Dewey (who started as a disciple of Morris), were obliged to ask whether it was after all a proper use of philosophy to make it a substitute for theology, whether this was the reason why philosophy in America was acquiring an unction, was “rarely without a tone of edification, as if feeling itself the patron of man’s spiritual interests in contrast to the supposed crudeness and insensitiveness of naturalism and empiricism.” Certain temperaments—Sumner and [Oliver Wendell] Holmes are cases in point—became so disgusted with this uplifting exhortation that they turned with vehement relief to Darwin, stoically preferring, as they felt, to face the grimmest of reality rather than to drape it with resounding verbiage.

They couldn’t have known what the “grimmest of reality” would mean in the two world wars that followed. Evolution itself was never necessarily a progressive doctrine—a Tyrannosaurus Rex is neither more nor less fit for survival than a chicken, in absolute terms; each is fitted to the environment of its time—but the sense of disorder that arose with modernism tended to put the lie to all systems and metanarratives, even those that fancied themselves most stoic.

Today many Americans cling to the blasted ruins of these older fashions of thought: there’s a camp of libertarians which blames Hegelian idealism for the growth of government centralism in the 19th century; certain religious conservatives have a fondness for Scottish realism and the unity of religion, society, and mind that it seemed to produce; and while bona fide idealists are rather rare, some theists find in the work of figures like Thomas Nagel a similarly useful prop for morality and the docrine of the soul. There’s an abundance of neo-Darwinisms, of course, social and otherwise.

I doubt that the political implications of any of these ideas are really so straightforward, but the intellectual history here does provide some insight not only into contemporary controversies but also into the curiously unphilosophical character of “Old Right” figures like Sumner or, say, Albert Jay Nock. Both of them had been ministers—both abandoned the calling—and if they’d wanted theology, they would have stuck to the real thing, rather than turning to philosophy as a substitute. A worldlier philosophy would not have been available in the contemporary academy.

“Today we are annoyed with philosophies which tell us, at the end, that God is in His heaven and all is well with the world—even though we desperately seek such assurance,” Miller writes, and Sumner came earlier than most to that annoyance.

Sumner was a brilliant and rather odd man who cherished his independence, as can be seen from another Phelps anecdote:

One day I was at a railway restaurant and took a seat directly behind him. He was unaware of my presence. He was eating a large wedge of mince pie, growling over it like a fierce dog. Suddenly he stopped eating, and soliloquised aloud, “The less I eat of that pie the better I shall feel!” I laughed; he whirled around and asked, “What, you there?” To change the subject, I remarked that I had seen in the papers his name mentioned as a candidate for the Presidency of Yale. “Nothing in it; nothing at all.” “Aren’t you in the hands of your friends?” “I should say not! Nothing on earth would induce me to give up the freedom of a professorship for such a job as college president.”

Sumner had a notable clash—over the use of Herbert Spencer texts in class—with an idealist who happened to be president of Yale, Noah Porter. This excerpt, from George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, tells that tale.