Modern Versus Western Thought: Thinking From The Founding

William H. Young

America was founded upon the Western idea—beginning with the ancient Greeks—that man has a common human nature with universal instincts. Henry F. May observes in The Enlightenment in America (1976) that the Founders were “believers in a mixed human nature offering both dangers and opportunities and the necessity of moderation and restraint.” They sought an arrangement framed to fit man’s mixed nature, in which reason and passion, public spirit and lust for power balance each other, to assuage innate avarice, ambition, and corruptibility while encouraging intrinsic traits that lead to positive behavior.[1]

The Founders applied a version of Western thought consistent with that vision that allowed self-determination by the people along with moderation of their natural subjective excesses.

Reason, Common Sense, and Self-Evident Truth

Aristotle first defined the essential terms of philosophy and psychology to which the Enlightenment returned and refined to overturn Middle Age metaphysics as the basis for Western thought. Rene Descartes first described, but dismissed, common sense; he defined reason from innate ideas as the sole route to human knowledge. Francis Bacon accepted common sense, but recognized its susceptibility to innate biases (his idols) and advocated the scientific method as the way to true knowledge. Isaac Newton coupled abstract ideas and mathematics to complete the Scientific Revolution.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) offered the first scientific explanation for the self or the mind, what we today call consciousness. Locke rejected Descartes’ concept of innate ideas and argued that the mind is a tabula rasa, or “blank slate.” He announced that all of man’s knowledge comes only from the experience of the senses (empiricism), from which mediating ideas are formed by use of reason. David Hume argued that such ideas can provide only subjective, not objective, reality—only feelings.

Descartes’ innate ideas, Locke’s empiricism, and Hume’s feelings would properly be rejected by our Founders based on the work of a man of whom most Americans have never even heard: Thomas Reid. With An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), Reid founded the Scottish School of Common Sense philosophy and psychology. He argued that the mind is not a passive receptacle for sensations, nor are ideas mere representations of an external reality, confounding Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Instead, our perception is structured by the constitution of the human mind and allows us to comprehend the objects themselves, not merely the ideas that represented those objects. Furthermore, there are, Reid said, certain first principles of knowledge or “self-evident truths,” which are not themselves subject to proof but rather are the starting point for subsequent reasoning. Reid used the term” common sense” to refer to these self-evident truths or first principles of knowledge and the intellectual powers that verified them.[2] Today, we call such truths “intuitive knowledge.”

Thomas Jefferson accepted Reid’s understanding of the nature of perception and applied his term self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, writing, “we find these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”[3]

Arthur Herman argues, in How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001), that Reid’s Common Sense Man was a necessary adjunct to Madison’s complicated federal system of “countervailing interests,” by which the people themselves might be able to agree on certain “self-evident truths” to arrive at compromise solutions to crises that would inevitably develop.[4] But Reid also considered that common sense was not “the prejudices of unlettered multitudes.”[5]

From Scottish common sense philosophy, Americans of the founding era concluded that even the ordinary individual has the rational capacity to make judgments about the world and his dealings with it based on self-evident truths, gleaned through intellect. To that end, reason meant not only applying the rules of logic in considering facts and evidence, but sober reflection and calm deliberation, an ability to overcome passion and self-interest, and a capacity to consider the larger picture, the public good.[6]

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Founders rejected the classical view that society is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts of a polity, explains Alan Gibson in Interpreting the Founding (2006). Instead of trying to foster common belief among the citizenry and to suppress their passions and interests, the Founders adopted a view which concentrated on “what men do,” and accepted them “as they are.”[7] John McGinnis adds that “the Framers developed a generally accurate theory of the psychology of man…two centuries before modern evolutionary biology largely confirmed that theory. They then deployed this theory to establish a system that would allow man to pursue happiness given his nature.”[8]

The system to which I refer is our commercial republic, a market economy utilizing private property and entrepreneurial capitalism, applying the moral and economic theories of Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith believed that human beings are driven by moral sentiments and their desire to seek and be worthy of the admiration of others. The Founders agreed with Smith that, in the private sphere, self-interest could benefit the overall welfare of society, as individuals would profit by exchanging what they produced through trade. This spirit of commerce would in turn create a union among the people—a union forged by individual enterprise.

This decision, in turn, led the Founders to lower the ends of the political regime to the protection of life, property, and individual rights. Government would act as a neutral umpire protecting the inalienable rights of all citizens and recognizing the equally legitimate ways of life of each. The passions and interests of men could be released in the service of commodious living. Commerce could channel human nature towards individual self-determination and production of goods to provide personal satisfaction while contributing to the public good.[9]

The Founders also recognized that, as John Adams said, “The desire for the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger.” They expected the needed esteem of others to be gained mostly through the pursuit of self-interest and accomplishment in exchange in the private sector, where another trait of human nature—reciprocity or reciprocal altruism, accompanied by natural constraints—would be operative and prevail, properly protected by the rule of law.[10]

Intellect and Knowledge

The Greeks began the standards for knowledge that became, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, those of the West and America: the primacy of intellect; reason and logic; mathematics and science; historical thinking; and the meaning provided by great literature and art—to civilize human nature.

From Renaissance humanism, the British Enlightenment, and Protestantism, our Founders absorbed the importance of education, to improve reason and conscience for the person’s sake, and to provide wisdom for participation in the world of men and affairs.

Moral Sense

Scottish immigrant ministers and professors became the presidents or leading officials in the colonies’ fledgling colleges. They introduced a new curriculum, modeled after the moral philosophy course that Francis Hutcheson had taught at Glasgow, into the American university system. At Princeton, John Witherspoon trained a number of American Founders, including James Madison, in the moral sense philosophy of Hutcheson, who argued that individuals possess a moral sense (what the Stoics had called intuition) or sentiment—a faculty like the other senses—that immediately and involuntarily responds to virtue with approbation and to vice with condemnation which then acts as a principle of sociability and benevolence

From the Scots Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, the Founders learned that all human beings have a moral sense and intuition to discern moral principles and distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice. From the Scots, the Founders also conceived of personal and civic virtue as the restraint of selfish dispositions, leading to the exercise of prudence.[11]


The Founders embraced the principles of the British Enlightenment of Newton and Locke and the Scottish philosophers, “the formulae of balance, order, and rationality,” the compassion of Scottish moral philosophy, and reasonable aspects of Protestant religious belief, including marriage and the Protestant work ethic, to form the moderate American Enlightenment and the core of the American character.[12]

But during the 1790s, after the ratification of the Constitution and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, a split in opinion emerged in America. Thomas Jefferson and some of the emerging Republicans saw Paris, not London, as the “fountain of the enlightenment.” President Adams and the Federalists condemned the French direct democracy ruled by passion. Most enlightened Americans “were still partisans of moderation and inveterate enemies of mass emotion,” and the French excesses (radical subjectivism) doomed their ideals.[13]

Englishman William Godwin proposed that an educated elite’s knowledge of human nature could be developed into a new kind of science—social science—which could create the kind of people needed for a new society by applying a Rousseauian “General Will”--the will of society or the state, replacing individual will—to govern their behavior. Ironically, James Madison explicitly rejected Godwin’s denial of human nature and ideas of the perfectibility of man, which would become the basis for progressive determinism in the early twentieth century, demonstrating the sagacity of our Founders.[14]

In the end, America, as it entered the nineteenth century, would choose Reid’s Scottish common sense philosophy. The most popular spokesman for that philosophy in America was another Scotsman, Dugald Stewart, who had synthesized Reid’s common sense with Smith’s moral realism and created a wholly new political philosophy for America. This would become the basis for the standard curriculum in American colleges for the nineteenth century, which formed the beliefs of our leadership elite and the official philosophy until the end of that century.

The works of Reid and Stewart gave all individuals, including ordinary people, a common humanity and a common fund of moral and social obligations. They helped produce an American “social character”: an independent intellect using an intrinsic common sense, combined with an assertive self-respect and grounded by an innate moral sense as well as an ethic of adult personal responsibility and reciprocity.[15] In the twentieth century, sociologist David Riesman would name that social character “inner-directed,” which we will examine in detail in a later article.

In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville found and confirmed the role of reason instilled in Americans at the founding. Writing in Volume Two of Democracy in America (1840), in Chapter 1, “On the Philosophic Method of the Americans,” he observes:

If I go still further and seek among those diverse features the principal one that can sum up almost all the others, I discover that in most of the operations of the mind, each American calls only on the individual effort of his reason. America is therefore the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.[16]

Tocqueville added that the American social state naturally disposed their minds to the maxims of reason.

The thought of the Founders envisioned and reflected everyday self-determination by the people through interaction with others with limited determinism by government along with emphasis on use of reason and common sense to moderate the subjective excesses of the people. Those priorities would change over the twentieth century to become the different bases for Modern thought.

The next article will address the turn to the unconscious mind and determinism at the outset of the twentieth century.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).




[1] Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 163–64, 89, 97.

[2] Alan Gibson, Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates Over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 40–41. S. A. Grave, “Common Sense,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), 155–57.

[3] Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 9. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 126, 133–34. John E. Schwarz, Illusions of Opportunity: The American Dream in Question (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 22.

[4] Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (New York: Crown Publishing, 2001), 225.

[5] Will and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution, The Story of Civilization: Part X (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939), 765.

[6] Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 27–28.

[7] Gibson, Interpreting the Founding, 19-21.

[8] John O. McGinnis, “The Original Constitution and Our Origins,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol. 19, no. 2, Winter 1996, 251–59.

[9] Gibson, Interpreting the Founding, 19–20.

[10] John O. McGinnis, “The Human Constitution and Constitutive Law: A Prolegomenon, Journal of Contemporary Legal Studies, vol. 8, 1997, 231.

[11] William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 306-08.

[12] Ibid., 25–26.

[13] Cynthia Crossen, “After U. S. Revolution, Country Was Split Over France’s War,” The Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2006. May, Enlightenment in America, 173, 239, 121, 253, 178.

[14] Young, Ordering America, 291-93, 325, 330.

[15] Gibson, Interpreting the Founding, 38–39. Herman, Scots Invented Modern World, 222–23, 229–30. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 170. May, Enlightenment in America, 346. Merle Curti, “Psychological Theories in American Thought,” in Philip P. Wiener, ed., The Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 22–23.

[16] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Harvey C. and Delba Mansfield, eds. and trans., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 403.


Image: Scene at the Signing of The Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy - The Indian Reporter, Public Domain.

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