Harris, William Torrey
American, b: 10 September 1835, North Killingly, Connecticut, d: 1909, Providence, Rhode Island. Cat: Idealist. Ints: Theory of knowledge; education. Educ: Local schools in Connecticut and then at Yale University, but left after his third year and moved to St Louis. In fls: Hegel. Appts: Became a school teacher in St Louis and eventually superintendent of schools; Henry Brokmeyer used him as a secretary to record his translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology; was a prime mover in the St Louis Hegelian Society which founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, the first regular American philosophy journal; returned to New England in 1880 to work in the Concord Movement, dedicated to developing the heritage of Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne; he remained in Concord for nine years before moving to Washington as US Commissioner for Education, a post he retained until 1906.
Harris saw philosophy as a unifying science which can provide a picture of the whole of reality. It should be based, in a Kantian way, on the search for what is necessary to any possible experience, but it can achieve Hegel’s aim and transcend the merely phenomenal world. This is so because the distinction between what merely seems to be and what reason recognizes as the real can be found within the pattern of developing experience.
Although Harris was thoroughly engaged in Hegel’s entire worldview, and would have said that his only ultimate philosophical interest was in finding out the truth about the world, his actual work is nearly always strongly oriented to the theory of knowledge and this reflects his practical interests in education. He believed that his philosophical method, which concentrated on developing the experience of the partial and transitory into an ever-widening experience which met the criteria of the real, provided the right basis for educational theory. Beyond that he believed it could even guide political practice in showing how the legal and moral come to be unified. He became closely involved with the US federal government as Commissioner for Education. As a founder and editor of the first technical philosophical journal—one to which most major philosophers were later to contribute—and as a public official, Harris exercised a wide influence on American life and philosophy. Lloyd D.Easton, in Hegel’s First American Followers (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1966), and William H.Goetzmann, in The American Hegelians (New York: Knopf, 1973), give him pride of place amongst those who made Hegel an American influence. The secondary literature is not vast and it strongly emphasizes his role as an educator and as a major organizer of philosophical opinion rather than his attempts at original philosophy—though inevitably in trying to make Hegel intelligible to Americans, he gave the Hegelian system a distinct shape, one which made it a tool for education and political reform by emphasizing its function in providing a background for a unified value theory. The Hegelianism of the young John Dewey shows the influence of these ideas.
Sources: WWW(Am); Edwards.
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