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7 Influential New York City Philosophers
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7 Influential New York City Philosophers

Picture of Alex Sinclair Lack
Updated: 2 November 2016
Philosophers and New York City have a longstanding symbiotic relationship. Just as new philosophies and attitudes shape the city, philosophers have long drawn inspiration from the city into their writings. Radical philosophers from all areas of the political spectrum are drawn to NYC’s reputation for free thought and bright ideas. These philosophers have produced powerful and influential works in feminism, religion, theory of knowledge, law, and ethics.
New York Public Library | © Jiahui Huang/Flickr
New York Public Library | © Jiahui Huang/Flickr

William James, 1842-1910

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Born in Astor House to a wealthy family, William James is the most influential philosopher to have lived in NYC. James excelled in psychology and lectured at Harvard for 35 years. By the mid-1880s, he had refocused his passions to philosophy where his impact was just as significant. He wrote extensively on the immortality of the soul and the incompatibility of free will and determinism. In his most revered work Varieties of Religious Experience, he scientifically examined miracle claims and other religious experiences. He concluded that even though religious experiences are not proof of God’s existence, they do appear to expand consciousness into a realm beyond which our cognitive senses normally access.

John Dewey, 1859-1952

“The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better.”

In the beginning of the 20th century the northeastern universities were the hub of American philosophy. It was at Columbia University that John Dewey thrived as a lecturer. His connection to intellectual philosophers that pioneered their respected fields of interest enriched his work. Inspired by William James, Dewey took a practical approach to his own field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). He rejected dualism and metaphysics in exchange for a down-to-earth pragmatist philosophy. Rather than viewing humans as passive observers of reality, he viewed knowledge as naturally arising from a human adapting to its environment. He expanded this attitude into many philosophical fields and became a leading humanist, activist, and educational theorist. After living a rich and fascinating life he died in NYC at the age of 92.

Ayn Rand, 1905-1982

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of manmade made visible. What other religion do we need?”

A figure as controversial as she was influential, Ayn Rand was a philosopher and novelist who championed realism, reason and individualism. Denouncing altruism, Rand fiercely argued that there is no other good than that which benefits the self. She shocked the world with her vehement calls for shameless self-interest and has since become an icon for a particularly unforgiving branch of right-wing economics. When she first arrived in NYC she was said to have cried ‘tears of splendor.’ She admired the city as the pinnacle of human achievement and it inspired her most acclaimed work, Atlas Shrugged.

Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971

“Man’s tendency to justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Reinhold Niebuhr was a Protestant theologian who was once dubbed ‘the greatest living political philosopher of America.’ Niebuhr was renowned for his realist approach to theology. He recognized that egoism, pride and hypocrisy were rife throughout human achievement and argued that this must be accepted before it can be tackled. Upon the rise of Hitler, Niebuhr abandoned his socialist non-interventionist background and encouraged fellow Christians to forgo their pacifism and rise to fight the evils of Nazism. Niebuhr remained a Marxist but heavily praised the US resistance to the spread of absolutist communism. He also directed his criticism towards the US government, specifically certain military interventions which he deemed to be ‘self-righteous crusades.’ There is a stretch of 120th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive named Reinhold Niebuhr Place in his honor.

Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975

“Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses must be won with propaganda.”

In 1941, Arendt, a German-born Jew fled France and arrived in New York. Although she personally rejected the label ‘philosopher,’ Arendt dealt with many aspects of political philosophy. She was an unconventional figure who wrote on topics from The Origins of Totalitarianism to The Human Condition. Her focus was primarily on power and authority. Working for The New Yorker, she reported on the trial of SS officer Adolph Eichmann. In a book-length account of his trial, she describes how she was struck by his terrifying normality. She famously said that ‘The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ Her life has inspired several highly regarded biographical books and movies.

Emma Goldman, 1869-1940

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

After moving from Russia to the US, Emma Goldman became a radical youth who condoned violence as a tool of revolutionary upheaval. Seen as the founding mother of anarchist-feminism she was repeatedly labeled ‘the most dangerous woman in America.’ Like Ayn Rand, Goldman despised organized religion and big government. She viewed both as a tool of control and manipulation. Unlike Rand she was a fierce anti-capitalist with a passion for self-expression. Capitalism, she claimed, is incompatible with human liberty: ‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’ She became a prominent supporter of the misunderstood ideology of anarchism which she defined as ‘a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life.’

Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892

“All truths wait in all things,

They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.”

In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James drew a distinction between the religion of the healthy minded who appreciate the richness of life and those with sick souls who do not. As an example of the former he repeatedly referred to Walt Whitman. Whitman is often praised for being a poet, an essayist and a journalist and is rarely given credit as a philosopher. First and foremost though, he was a humanist. As a religious skeptic, Whitman accepted all churches yet believed in none. His philosophical poetry, like much great philosophy, brought together the real and the transcendental. Of New York City he once wrote: ‘There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.’

By Alex Sinclair-Lack

Alex Sinclair-Lack is a young writer from England with a philosophy BA. He has a penchant for travel and adventure. He is currently exploring the US whilst working on a top-secret travel project.