The Early Years

The history of Princeton philosophy goes back to the College's earliest years, long before the present departmental structure was instituted in 1904. To be a philosopher in those days was compatible with being a theologian. It virtually always involved lecturing on ethics and political theory. And it often involved being president of the College. President John Witherspoon, for example, listed as Professor of Theology, was famous for his lectures on moral philosophy.

A decade prior to Witherspoon, Princeton had as her president, for only a few weeks, one of the best known philosophers in America: Jonathan Edwards. Never mind the brevity of the period: it is a feather in Princeton's cap that she was able to lure a figure of such prominence even if his contribution was cut short by his premature death from smallpox.

Witherspoon too was a giant presence in the field, but in a different way. Edwards's philosophical ideas were stunningly original, though he used them in defense of Calvinistic doctrines that were rapidly losing favor. While not particularly original, Witherspoon was a man of unusual intellectual power. A disciple of Thomas Reid at Glasgow, he brought to Princeton Reid's ``Common Sense Realism,'' when he became president in 1768. Yet both Witherspoon and Edwards owned slaves, despite the apparent pragmatic contradiction with their ethical and religious views.

James McCosh, who became president exactly one hundred years after Witherspoon, represented the same philosophy. Intellectual histories of the United States use the phrase ``The Princeton School'' to refer to the powerful point of view espoused by these two Scots, Witherspoon and McCosh.

In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, philosophical academia was dominated by the Kantian-Hegelian point of view. Princeton philosophy finally joined in the Germanic chorus, contributing some important voices. Best known internationally was Norman Kemp-Smith, who came to Princeton in 1906. His commentary on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, written while he was at Princeton, was studied wherever philosophy was taught. Archibald Bowman, who joined the department in 1912, lectured on Hegel, as well as Plato. Like Kemp-Smith, he was a Scot; neither could resist the call homeward, Kemp-Smith to Edinburgh in 1919, Bowman to Glasgow in 1926. A third member of this group was Alexander T. Ormond, one of the first Stuart Professors under McCosh, and the department's first chairman from 1904 to 1913. Still another was John Grier Hibben, a popular teacher and the last philosopher to be president of Princeton.

Early in the twentieth century there were numerous signs of revolt from the predominant Kantian-Hegelian point of view. One movement, peculiarly American, was undertaken by six men who jointly published The New Realism in 1912. In various ways, four of the six were associated with Princeton. Two were among the five original ``preceptor guys'' in philosophy, appointed by Woodrow Wilson in 1905: Edward G. Spaulding, who continued his service to Princeton for thirty-five years, and Walter T. Marvin, later dean at Rutgers. The third was Ralph Barton Perry, professor at Harvard, who was a product of Princeton's Class of 1896. The fourth, Edwin B. Holt, a Harvard graduate and professor, was later, for a decade, visiting professor of psychology at Princeton. (Another original ``preceptor guy'' in philosophy, Roger B. C. Johnson, served as departmental chairman from 1926 to 1934.)

The new realism was but one straw in the wind. In America, the pragmatism of James and Dewey; in England, the realism of Moore and Russell; on the Continent, the so-called ``positivism'' of the Vienna Circle; all these were bombarding the Hegelian citadel. The years preceding and immediately following the Second World War were crucial to the future of philosophy departments throughout the country. The bright young men were attracted to the various strands in the revolt. Some departments, where Hegelianism was so entrenched as to resist revolt, tended not to hire these younger men. Other departments, by emphasizing a single strand in the revolt, ran the risk of eventual narrowness in point of view. Fortunately, Princeton followed a middle course in this difficult period of transition, under its chairman from 1934 to 1952, Robert M. Scoon. As a classical scholar he was committed to tradition; his sensitivity to new trends was evident in his admiration of Dewey's pragmatism. The department did not flourish during his chairmanship, but it followed a sensible and even course that paved the way for the future. The key to this period was Scoon's favorite word: ``balance.''

The towering figure through these years was Walter T. Stace, who taught theory of knowledge and metaphysics; many of the best known philosophers in the United States in the 1970s were products of his teaching. Scoon taught Plato and Aristotle, and also Aquinas until the appointment in 1948 of the eminent French philosopher, Jacques Maritain. For forty-three years Ledger Wood upheld the tradition of scholarly competence in the history of modern philosophy. Spaulding kept alive philosophy's contact with the natural sciences. Theodore M. Greene vigorously represented philosophy's contact with the arts and humanities.

Throughout the forties, the appointment of younger men was always made with an eye on balance. One of them, Walter Kaufmann, appointed in 1947 to teach modern European philosophy, achieved worldwide recognition in his field. But the forties brought losses with Spaulding's death in 1940 and Greene's resignation in 1945; and so did the fifties with Maritain's retirement in 1952 and both Scoon's and Stace's in 1955. It was clear that the future of the department depended on a series of major appointments.

In 1955, Carl G. Hempel, one of the most eminent men in philosophy of science and theory of knowledge, was lured from Yale. In the same year, Gregory Vlastos, possibly the leading scholar of classical philosophy in this country, was called from Cornell. In 1963, Stuart Hampshire, one of England's foremost philosophers, came from the University of London. In 1967, Donald Davidson, whose work in ethics and the philosophy of language was becoming proverbial, came from Stanford. And, finally, Dana Scott was brought in 1969 to contribute distinction in the area of logic.

It is little wonder that, by 1969, in a survey conducted by the American Council on Education, Princeton's Philosophy Department was ranked first in the nation in both quality of faculty and effectiveness of doctoral program. The department's continuing distinction has not rested solely on the eminent philosophers just mentioned. For one thing, not all remained. Hampshire left after seven years to become Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. Davidson left after three years to accept a post at Rockefeller University. Scott left after only two years to become a University Professor at Oxford. Much of the strength of any department lies in its younger members, and much of Princeton's strength in philosophy lies not only in the ability of these younger scholars but also in the breadth of their interests.

As of 1977, tenured members of the department, by order of date of first appointment, were as follows: James Ward Smith, Political Philosophy; Walter Kaufmann, History of Philosophy; Arthur Szathmary, Philosophy of Art; George Pitcher, Theory of Knowledge; Paul Benacerraf, Philosophy of Mathematics, Richard Rorty, Metaphysics; Gilbert Harman, Philosophy of Language; Thomas Nagel, Ethics; Thomas Scanlon, Political Philosophy; Margaret Wilson, History of Philosophy; David Lewis, Metaphysics; Richard C. Jeffrey, Philosophy of Science; Michael Frede, Classical Philosophy; Saul Kripke, Logic and Metaphysics.

James Ward Smith
From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, (Princeton University Press, 1978).