Portland State University. Department of Political Science
Jerry W. Lansdowne
Term of Graduation
Date of Publication
Master of Arts (M.A.) in Political Science
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Experience
1 online resource (185 pages)
A number of basic themes suggest themselves as focal points for a study of the thought of Jonathan Edwards. The dissertation is an attempt to argue that experience is one of them, and that an attentive eye to the doctrine of experience will reveal it as the unifying theme of his philosophy. Specifically, at the center of Edwards' aesthetic and religious vision there lies a rich and profound sense of experience, and of the relation of all things to some form of perception.
The evidence is to be found in Edwards' extensive published and unpublished writings. Among the several editions of his collected works, the 1808 Worcester edition and the 1829 Dwight edition are the most complete and most reliable. Another especially valuable source is the "Miscellaneous Observations," a notebook of random thoughts Edwards kept throughout his life. Parts of this journal are published, but a great deal remains unpublished in the Yale University Library, and contains a wealth of insights into the mind of Edwards.
It is important to note the doctrinal influences of covenant theology. There had always been a disposition among the Puritans to emphasize real assent in religious matters. Their gradual acceptance of experience as a guide to doctrine can be attributed to the influence of medieval Neo-Platonism as well as to their own historical situation.
Three elements form the center of Edwards' doctrine of experience. They are the idea of beauty, the sense of the heart, and the theological concept of grace. An explanation of each of these components in themselves and in their interrelations reveals the full meaning of experience.
A sense of beauty suffused his own personal experiences and allowed him to see the world in relation to the universal consciousness of God. Man perceives the presence of divine consciousness throughout reality with a sense of the heart. The seat of man's cognitive life is his heart, which includes the understanding as well as the will. By defining grace as a "new simple idea," Edwards proposes that it is a new principle of nature within man, and that it is a taste for moral excellency which is specifically designated as love.
As a metaphysical principle, the consent to being is an attempt to rethink the category of substance in terms of relation. The truly significant fact of the doctrine resides in an implicit theory of value-response—that value is objectively rooted in God, and that everything gives consent to it through man.
Edwards' theology is an effort to place Newtonian physics into a wider frame of reference. He adapts the concepts of atoms, space, and gravity to an organic metaphysics of consent. Divine creation is a diffusive process of communication, and natural objects and events are called "images or shadows" because they bear an intrinsic relation to God's communicative nature. The specific agency of creation is to be found in the Incarnation, which is the capstone of his whole system of thought.
Experience has held a position of preeminence among the major themes of American philosophy. The conclusion of this paper is that Edwards' philosophy can be viewed as the systematic explication of his doctrine of experience, and that it is possible to consider him an early exponent of the American tradition which gives experience a position of primacy in relation to thought.
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Trachtenberg, Joseph S., "The Doctrine of Experience in the Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards, Puritan Divine" (1973). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 1681.