Chauncey Wright

From New World Encyclopedia

Chauncey Wright (September 10, 1830 - September 12, 1875), American philosopher and mathematician, was an early influence on the American pragmatists Charles S. Peirce and William James. Wright wrote only articles, essays, and letters but, from 1850 until 1875, exerted a powerful influence, through discussions and conversations, over an important circle of academics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A persistent critic of metaphysics and natural theology, Wright did not believe that philosophical arguments starting from natural phenomena, such as motion or the intelligible forms of living things, could be used to prove the existence of a deity. His philosophy of science emphasized sense data as the only means of verifying that something is true.

After reading Darwin's Origin of Species (published in 1859), Wright became a champion of Darwin in the United States, against both scientific critics and religious antagonists. He defended the scientific application of the theory of evolution, and viewed the idea of natural selection as a unifying principle for the study of the biological sciences. He did not, however, believe that evolution could be used to explain human history or civilization, and rejected Herbert Spencer’s interpretation of evolution as a motivating force in history.


Chauncey Wright was born September 10, 1830, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his family had lived since colonial times. His father was a merchant and deputy-sheriff of the county. In 1848, he entered Harvard College, where his education included two years of advanced study in the natural sciences. In 1852, he graduated from Harvard, and went to work for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac. This became his livelihood throughout his entire career; he would concentrate his work into the last three months of each year, devoting the rest of the year to his own studies in logic and metaphysics. He earned a reputation for his contributions on mathematics and physics in the Mathematical Monthly. Soon, however, he turned his attention to metaphysics and psychology, and wrote philosophical essays on the lines of Mill, Darwin and Spencer for the North American Review and later for the Nation.

Wright was first exposed to the ideas of the Scottish realist, Sir William Hamilton, whose works formed the curriculum for Francis Bowen's teaching of philosophy at Harvard. Later he was influenced by John Stuart Mill's criticism of Hamilton, an influence evident in Wright's views on utility in science and ethics. After reading Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, Wright became a champion of Darwin in the United States, both against scientific critics like Harvard's Asa Gray, and against his religious antagonists.

In 1870-1871, he taught psychology, and in 1874-1875, mathematical physics, at Harvard. In 1872, he received an inheritance that allowed him to retire and concentrate full-time on his studies. Wright was a stimulating conversationalist, and participated in a succession of study groups in Cambridge, including one called the Metaphysical Club, where he associated with American philosophers such as Charles S. Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. Dispassionate and logical in public discussions, he had a gentle temperament in private; children liked him and he willingly spent time entertaining them. He became attached to the family of Charles Eliott Norton and corresponded often with Norton’s sisters. He led a sometimes melancholy bachelor’s existence, and suffered two bouts of severe depression from which he was roused by his friends. He was friendly with both Henry and William James. William James once said about him, “Never in a human head was contemplation more separated from desire.” Wright died suddenly of a stroke on September 12, 1875, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 45.

Thought and Works

Wright wrote only articles, essays and letters but, from 1850 until 1875, exerted a powerful influence, through discussions and conversations, over an important circle of academics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which included Charles S. Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..

Wright wrote scientific and philosophical essays, most of which were published in the North American Review. Although he generally adhered to the evolution theory, he was an open-minded thinker. His essay, The Evolution of Self-Consciousness, published in the North American Review, endeavored to explain the most elaborate psychical activities of men as developments of elementary forms of conscious processes present in the animal kingdom as a whole. Two articles published in 1871 on the Genesis of Species defended the theory of natural selection against the attacks of St George Mivart, and appeared in an English edition on the suggestion of Darwin. From 1863 to 1870 he was secretary and recorder to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wright is credited with anticipating twentieth-century philosophical trends, but he was overshadowed by his contemporaries.

His essays were collected and published in two volumes as Philosophical Discussions by CE Norton in 1877, and his Letters were edited and privately printed at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1878 by James Bradley Thayer.


Though he is regarded as one of the founders of pragmatism, Chauncey Wright was above all an empiricist and an original thinker. In the 1860s and 1870s, when religious piety and Transcendentalism were losing their influence in the United States, Wright was a persistent critic of metaphysics and natural theology. Wright did not consider philosophical methods to be appropriate to metaphysics or theology. He did not believe that philosophical arguments starting from natural phenomena, such as motion or the intelligible forms of living things, could be used to prove the existence of a deity. He also did not believe that it was possible to identify genuine “final causes” (self-fulfilling purposes, or natural goals or purposes that are prior to the subordinate causes that ultimately realize them) in nature.

Wright's philosophy of science, based on the concept of empirical “verification” of scientific theory, was a link between early European positivism and the American pragmatism of Peirce and James.

Philosophy of Science

Two fundamental themes appear throughout Wright’s work, both emphasizing the importance of sense perception in the acquisition of knowledge and belief. One was that the evidence provided by sense perception is the only authority acknowledged by all humankind. The second was that only sense experience can produce the conviction and permanence that we believe knowledge should have. Wright used the term “verification” to refer to the objective method of empiricism, the use of sense data and observation to verify that a proposition or statement is true. Verification, for Wright, meant the testing of theories by deducing from them consequences that can be confirmed by direct perception, the “undoubted testimony of the senses.” At different times he applied the concept of verification to scientific method, the philosophical doctrine of induction, and the positivism of Comte.

Wright claimed that the ancients did not make more progress in science because “they did not, or could not, verify their theories.” He also declared that all that really distinguishes modern metaphysics from modern science is that metaphysics lacks method and “well-grounded canons of research and criticism.” When Wright spoke of “verification” he seemed to regard it as something evident, without problems of interpretation, measurement or degree.

Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Wright's understanding of Darwin’s theories was based on his philosophy of science, and influenced by his study of Mill's utilitarianism. Wright believed that the overall structure of the theory of evolution was an illustration of the principle of utility. He placed more importance on the general form of explanation by utility than on the individual examples of natural selection which were advanced to explain particular biological features or structures.

Wright explained evolutionary change in terms of different levels of causative and explanatory principles, such as the laws of chemistry and of genetics, which could all be tied together into a descriptive account under the principle of natural selection. He regarded the principle of natural selection as a template for scientific research that could unify all the biological sciences, research that would discover how scientific laws resulted in the observable features of living things. His own most original contribution was a distinction between those causes which entirely explain their effects, and causes which bring about the appearance of something new.

Wright’s commitment to the empirical verification of principles enabled him to clearly understand the significance of Darwin’s theory and to determine where it could and should be applied appropriately. He fought to keep its meaning clear in scientific terms. Wright believed the principle of natural selection could be legitimately applied to many aspects of human behavior and psychology, and that utilitarian ethics could be used as a model. However, he rejected Herbert Spencer’s application of evolutionary theory to human history and civilization and Spencer’s interpretation of the principle of evolution as a motivating force or operative cause.

Darwin had Wright’s articles on this subject reprinted and published in England in book form, as a refutation of his critics.

Cosmology and Naturalism

Wright regarded skepticism, idealism, and realism as defects of thought, and was very careful about the use of logic and philosophical thought to attempt explanations of things which could never be proven scientifically. Wright did not believe that astronomical data or known scientific law provided any evidence for ascribing purpose or direction to the evolution of the cosmos as a whole. He thought it most likely that the universe is eternal, constituting “an order without beginning and without termination”). Nevertheless, he believed that scientists could apply logic to discover the structures and features of natural things, and to uncover previously unknown entities and laws that govern natural phenomena and the behavior of natural things.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Duggan, Michael F. 2002. Chauncey Wright and forward-looking empiricism. Thesis (Ph. D.). Georgetown University, 2002.
  • Frankel, Charles. 1960. The golden age of American philosophy. New York: G. Braziller.
  • Madden, Edward H. 1963. Chauncey Wright and the foundations of pragmatism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • White, Morton Gabriel. 1972. Science and sentiment in America; philosophical thought from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195015193 ISBN 9780195015195 ISBN 9780195015195 ISBN 0195015193
  • Wright, Chauncey, Frank X. Ryan, and Edward H. Madden. 2000. The evolutionary philosophy of Chauncey Wright. History of American thought. Bristol, Eng: Thoemmes ISBN 1855068494 ISBN 9781855068490 ISBN 9781855068490 ISBN 1855068494

External Links

All links retrieved December 4, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.