The Chronicle Review

America's Hands-On Hegelian

Meet Henry Clay Brockmeyer, the polymath frontiersman

Enrique Moreiro for The Chronicle Review

March 20, 2016

W hen the Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said that his country needed more welders and fewer philosophers, most listeners took him to be taking an anti-intellectual jab at academe, at the cultural and economic viability of high theory. Many of my philosophy colleagues came to the defense of our discipline, supplying statistics that demonstrated the economic payoff from pursuing the love of wisdom.

That response, however, sidesteps what might be most disturbing about Rubio’s comment: the suggestion that welders cannot be philosophers and philosophers cannot be welders. Theoreticians have always been mocked for being only loosely tethered to the world of human affairs (think of Aristophanes’ characterization, in The Clouds, of Socrates as hopelessly detached, flying solo in his balloon). And many philosophers, like Plato, have returned the favor by dismissing the rest of the world as cave dwellers. The advent of philosophy as an academic discipline in the 20th century has done nothing to ease this tension, and we have returned, once again, to the disturbing point where statesmen call for the end of theorizing.

It hasn’t always been this way. It is possible to look back, especially in America, to a time when high theory was integrated into the workings of culture, to a time when meaningful philosophy wasn’t just done by "philosophers." American philosophy, an intellectual movement initiated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller in the first decades of the 19th century, held that individuals working through the business of living could, and often do, think and read deeply about the human condition. Theirs was a philosophy of "experience," to use the Emersonian watchword, a way of thinking that was judged on its ability to "improve the nick of time," as Henry David Thoreau put it. Attending to practical affairs did not involve watering down their ideals or theories, but allowed them, in all their complexity, to imbue life with meaning.

This tradition inspired a cast of Transcendentalist and pragmatic writers, many of whom set the groundwork for American intellectual life: Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Dewey. But it could also be seen in the lives and works of people working in a variety of practical disciplines, people who haven’t fit into an overly narrow conception of "the philosopher." Among these are Mary Parker Follett, Ella Lyman Cabot, Richard Cabot, Jane Addams, and Henry Bugbee. Of course, we don’t hear much about these unsung heroes of philosophy — they were usually too busy living and teaching to leave behind extensive philosophical corpora. But they were philosophers. And at a time when welders are pitted against philosophers, it is good to remind ourselves that those can be, and occasionally are, one and the same.

Consider another case, a magnificent one — that of Henry Clay Brockmeyer.

Brockmeyer didn’t set out to be a philosopher. He was, first and foremost, a mechanic. Born in Prussia in 1826, he lived at a strange moment in intellectual history, at a time when philosophy was read widely and had a hand in determining the social and political destiny of Europe. In the early 19th century — in the wake of an age of revolutionary idealism — philosophy had not given up its intimate relations with politics and culture. It was still written by humans, for humans, like a young Brockmeyer. And it wasn’t read for the sole purpose of becoming a professional thinker but in the hopes of becoming a better or at least a different person. This was a task that Henry undertook passionately.

On the edge of the American frontier, Brockmeyer found a proper home for the rugged idealism of Thoreau.
When Henry was 16, his mother, a thoroughgoing pietist, burned her son’s copy of Goethe’s poems. Henry did what any self-respecting Romantic would do: He disowned her and ran away from home, all the way to the United States. This sort of gumption strikes most people as equal parts foolhardy and frightening. And it probably was, but Brockmeyer had been brought up in Prussia at a time when anything still seemed possible.

Starting in the 1780s, Immanuel Kant had begun to articulate the fundamental importance of human autonomy, the uniquely human capacity to set and pursue ends for oneself. All we needed to do, according to Kant, was to act in accord with reason, and freedom would be ours. The Romantics, led by the likes of Goethe, Johann Herder, and Friedrich Schiller, claimed that Kant hadn’t gone far enough in his treatment of human freedom and suggested that it shouldn’t be confined by the strictures of reason and duty. Freedom, real freedom, is dramatic, spontaneous, affective, and effective.

But there’s a problem with Romantic freedom. It’s terrifying, directionless, marauding, the stuff of Sturm und Drang — storm and stress — a phrase with all too literal meaning among passengers, like Brockmeyer, on the lengthy disease- and stench-ridden ocean voyage between Prussia and New York. Kantian freedom might be too constraining, but Romantic independence — the principal inspiration for American Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau — was too loose and contingent.

Brockmeyer sought a philosophical middle way between cold rationality and impulsive Romanticism as he worked tannery and other jobs in New York, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and then St. Louis. There he worked as a welder and became obsessed with a titan of German philosophy named Georg Wilhelm Hegel. Hegel, through his writings, would become Brockmeyer’s life guide, and Brockmeyer, in turn, would become Hegel’s American proponent.

H egel was an idealist, not in the narrow sense of thinking the world would, could, or should approach some panacea, but in the more fundamental sense that he wasn’t a materialist. He didn’t believe that the universe operated by way of mechanical necessity or consisted exclusively of material realities. Following Plato, he held that ideas were real and objective, indeed, more real and more objective than the tangible but unmistakably fleeting objects of the material world.

He focused on the movement and order of history. The point of philosophy, for Hegel, was neither to indulge our Romantic sentiments nor to achieve and defend a static, ostensibly objective "view from nowhere." To entertain unbridled impulse was obviously dangerous, but to claim and defend a perfectly reasonable view from nowhere seemed untenable and impractical. Objective knowledge — if there was such a thing — was historically and culturally conditioned. The aim of philosophy was to articulate and enrich the flow of experience. Hegel knew that often experience doesn’t flow in the typical sense of the word; it flows and idles and reverses and whips along unexpectedly. Under this seeming chaos, Hegel attempted to identify a particular logic, what he called "the dialectic," in which one event leads to its own inevitable destruction, and this destruction, in turn, initiates, phoenixlike, another event.

For Brockmeyer, the dialectic wasn’t an abstract theory but a way of life. As a teenager, he’d reached New York broke and scared. But his lack of means led him to a series of scattered jobs that, unlike studying philosophy, made him a bit of money. He worked as a tanner in New York and, when that venture had run its course, operated his own tannery in Mississippi. Eventually, making money — a lot of it — led Brockmeyer to realize that making money is not what it’s cracked up to be. So he returned to the life of the mind, first at Georgetown College in Kentucky and then at Brown University under the watchful and ultimately disapproving eye of its president, Francis Wayland.

Wayland was a Baptist, a disciplinarian, and just enough like Brockmeyer’s mother to really get under the young philosopher’s skin. He was, in short, Brockmeyer’s antithesis. When he and Wayland, the university’s most reputable scholar, disputed the nature of the "Higher Laws" of God, Brockmeyer lost. Unable to find a permanent place at Brown, he headed west again, arriving in Warren County, Mo., in 1854, but not before meeting the minister and Transcendentalist Frederic Hedge, reading Hedge’s The Prose Writers of Germany in detail, and forming close friendships with other Transcendentalists including Sarah Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

In his move to an abandoned cabin in the wilderness of Warren County, Brockmeyer transplanted the Transcendentalist ideals of freedom, individuality, self-reliance, and reverence of nature. Indeed, on the edge of the American frontier, Brockmeyer sought and eventually found a proper home for the rugged idealism of Thoreau. Brockmeyer had read Walden on his way west and looked for a life in Missouri that was genuinely self-reliant.

He found it in a run-down hut 14 miles from the outskirts of St. Louis. Thoreau has been roundly criticized for not actually living up to his ideals on the banks of Walden Pond — he walked to Concord easily for meals and to do his washing. Brockmeyer avoided this sort of criticism by largely disappearing, but he also, therefore, never enjoyed the fame that Thoreau not so secretly craved. In the words of the intellectual historian Henry Pochmann, "Thoreau’s famed flight to his shanty on Walden Pond was an inconsequential lark compared with Brockmeyer’s life in the primeval forest." Unlike Thoreau, Brockmeyer’s was not an experiment in simple living. It was simply life. Brockmeyer’s diary from the time, published posthumously as A Mechanic’s Diary, outlines, simultaneously, the day-to-day trials of frontier life and the way that Brockmeyer negotiated them with the help of Hegelian philosophy.

The diary begins on May 1, 1856: "Today I bought this book, in which I intend to note down from time to time, such happenings as may seem to have some meaning for the future." May was a busy month. Brockmeyer found work at the local foundry as an iron worker. He recounted adjourning with his new friends to a "neighbouring beer house [where] I learned that with five dollars to spend for liquor any man can be a hero, for at least some hours." But Brockmeyer, like his beloved Faust from Goethe’s famed drama, was not content with beer-hall festivities, remarking that such a night is not "unpleasant while it lasts — the only trouble is that it doesn’t." So he immersed himself in his work, and it was here that his Hegelian thinking came to maturation. On May 6, he reflects on the relationship between thinking and working, a relationship that he believes holds the key to salvation:

What a strange misconception of man’s existence there is involved in that picture of idleness called Paradise — a loafer’s retreat. Labor a curse! Labor, physical exertion, guided by intelligence, the incarnation of thought into matter, that imbues the world of physical necessity with the rational purposes of freedom; that distinguishes man from brute, by rendering himself independent, instead of a slave to obdurate, dumb necessity.

Unlike Thoreau, Brockmeyer's was not an experiment in simple living. It was simply life.
This was a very bright ironworker. The thought that Brockmeyer expressed drove to the heart of 19th-century intellectual culture, to the longstanding debate between advocates of determinism and those who still believed in free will. Emerson and Thoreau had spent the early decades of the century justifying the belief that individuals were ultimately free, that their actions were, in an important sense, their own. Thoreau, in particular, argued that this freedom could be realized in the mundane practices of a simple life. "Simplify, simplify," he instructs, eschewing the cultural scripts of small-town New England and erecting his cabin on the shores of Walden Pond.

Thoreau’s was a holiday retreat compared to Brockmeyer’s in St. Louis. Thoreau’s greatest adversaries were the woodchucks that threatened to eat his garden, but Brockmeyer faced the real toils of manual labor. From May 7, just a single entry: "My hands are very sore tonight. I cannot hold a pen." Indeed, the diary is kept for just 10 months in no small part due to the dangers of frontier-factory living. On November 8, in the process of pouring molten iron into a mold, a spoonful of the liquid splashed into Brockmeyer’s shoe, crippling him for several years. The pain of the injury was so great that he explained in his last entries that he could not concentrate enough to keep his diary. Of course, that didn’t stop him from working and hunting. Thoreau never had to endure such searing pain, pain that kept Brockmeyer from subsequently romanticizing the toils of labor.

T he harsh realities of living in the West led Brockmeyer to a philosopher who tempered the madness of Romantic individualism and developed a superstructure that made sense of the reversals, contradictions, and apparent tragedies of life. In short, he was led to a particular interpretation of Hegel. In late fall of 1856, Brockmeyer undertook the first English translation of Hegel’s Science of Logic, a task he would continue for the next 30 years.

Logic is a strange book, one that attempts to sum up hundreds of years of idealist philosophy into a single compelling argument. Hegel thought the key insight of German philosophy was that reality is structured by and through the mind. More radically, but more accurately: Reality is mind. The deficiency of German thought, however, according to Hegel, was that it had hitherto failed to describe the nature of this reality-mind. That description is what Hegel undertook.

Hegelian dialectic is often conceived as a three-part process: First, a thesis presents itself; second, an antithesis contradicts the thesis; and finally, some magical mediation occurs whereby the thesis and antithesis are unified in some overarching synthesis. This sounds great, but unfortunately it entirely misses Hegel’s point. That, for Hegel, was not to show how opposing forces could be reconciled — that was the easy part. Rather it was to show how any force, any event, any life, eventually leads to its own negation, its own demise, and then, even more miraculously, can give rise to a higher unity. He was interested not in reconciliation but in overcoming, self-overcoming. Hegel believed that the spirit of self-overcoming was the undercurrent, the Spirit (Geist), of the world at large.

Brockmeyer — the wayward son turned polymath frontiersman — adopted every part of this philosophical story and believed that it was, in fact, the grand narrative of the United States. He was on to something. Walt Whitman famously claimed that "only Hegel is fit for America — is large enough and free enough." In the 1850s, the American Midwest was a borderland, the place where the United States as a functioning nation state reached its limits. And it was the place where, according to Hegel and his St. Louis acolytes, civilization was to be born again.

Today, the sprawl of St. Louis is a sad wasteland, but for much of the 19th century, the city was a cosmopolitan center with a German-American core. Through the 1830s a growing number of German immigrants made their way to middle America to find refuge from the political turmoil of Prussia. And they, like the Germans who remained in the Old World, longed for a national spirit that would overcome the provincial differences that divided their nation.

As St. Louis grew, so too did the Hegelian fervor. In 1858, Brockmeyer met a young William Torrey Harris at the Mercantile Library in St. Louis. Harris, who had come west after leaving the philosophy department at Yale, was immediately fascinated by Brockmeyer’s idealism, in that Hegelian sense of interpretation of reality, particularly Brockmeyer’s ideas about developmental teleology, or purposes of development, as derived from Hegel. Harris begged Brockmeyer to conduct a series of reading groups on Hegel.

At the time, Brockmeyer had little interest in acquiring disciples. He was happy enough working on his farm, studying by himself at night. It was a simple life, and happily so. Like Thoreau, he prided himself on not being part of the academic posturing of any particular university.

But Harris persisted. As the intellectual historian James Good details in his wonderful book, A Search for Unity in Diversity, Harris visited the Brockmeyer farm one evening only to find his mentor next to death with bilious fever — isolation has its dangers. After Harris saved his life, Brockmeyer eventually acquiesced to begin a reading group for an enthusiastic group of young intellectuals, with Harris as spokesman and benefactor. And so the St. Louis Hegelians began to hold their weekly meetings, not in the somber lecture rooms of an established university, but at an apartment at Seventh and Plum Streets, the remains of which today lie under home plate at Busch Stadium in the heart of the city.

W hat started as a queer coterie of intellectuals became, with astonishing speed, a national movement. Harris was for Brockmeyer what Paul was for Jesus. Immediately after meeting his philosophical savior, Harris wrote in his diary "that perhaps the most important and pressing mission in America at the time was to make Hegel talk English." And talk he did. Harris reached out to New England Transcendentalists, such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, and invited them into the conversations in St. Louis, in no small part to see how they would hold up under Hegelian critique. Harris believed that Hegelian philosophy, despite its notorious complexity, conveyed a relatively simple message: Thoughts matter — there is no strict divide between high theory and mundane practice, no inseparable gulf between philosophy and welding.

By most accounts, when Alcott faced off against Brockmeyer in the fall of 1859, the Northerner did not fare particularly well. Alcott and Brockmeyer had little in common. The aging Transcendentalist had grown up in a supportive family of intellectuals and knew painfully little, compared with Brockmeyer, about manual labor. Alcott espoused an idealism, but one that came from a distant generation of thinkers — from Plato and his neo-Platonic follower, Plotinus. It was an idealism that had yet to be wed to reality, according to Brockmeyer. In other words, it wasn’t Hegelian enough.

Harris urged Brockmeyer to attend Alcott’s lecture, and his mentor agreed after some prodding, writing in his Mechanic’s Diary: "It will remind me of the days [at Brown and in Boston] when I lived in a world of froth and fiction, and thought it a heaven on earth, wholly oblivious of the fact that it was created out of mist." Alcott, a man who often refused to work for money, meandered in the mist of high thinking. To Brockmeyer, the idealism that had taken hold of Concord and Boston had sacrificed realism for the sake of unity — it lacked variation, tragedy, and substance.

Harris listened as his teacher dissected Alcott’s lecture, criticizing this "squirt gun theory" and explaining the real-world benefits of Hegelian idealism. New England Transcendentalism was the type of idealism, Brockmeyer professed, that had no practical efficacy — it was a toy idealism that could do little to improve or unify the real world. Unity — the unity of thought, the unity of a country — could be achieved, but only in the process of working through the practical differences of the world in thoughtful and strenuous ways.

Harris paid close attention and disseminated Brockmeyer’s message far and wide. He would spend much of his life advocating on behalf of his mentor, trying to persuade well-established philosophers of the Northeast to pay their respects to an unknown idealist from the backwater. Harris would become the editor at the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, the first periodical in America dedicated to the love of wisdom and the principal mouthpiece for up-and-coming American philosophers such as William James, John Dewey, Josiah Royce, and C.S. Peirce. The American pragmatists would have to satisfy Harris, a disciplinary gatekeeper with deep Hegelian commitments, if they wanted to publish there. After much complaining, they conceded to learn enough about idealism to pacify the editor.

There is something beneath the exaggeration -- the sense of a man still in pursuit of freedom in the most concrete terms.
Interestingly, in their later years, all four of these thinkers — James and Peirce especially — showed a renewed interest in Hegel’s Logic, particularly its understanding of how unity could be realized in diversity. They came to agree with Brockmeyer — contra some Transcendentalists — that unity had to be embodied in the process of integration, where differences were real, but so too were the relations between individuals. By 1881, Harris moved to Cambridge, Mass., and began his own reading group on Logic, employing a manuscript draft of Brockmeyer’s translation, a document that failed to reach the present in one piece; only the second book of the translation exists, buried in the stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library. In the late 1880s, Harris took this translation to the Concord School of Philosophy, organized by Alcott and his associates each summer, and led public lectures on the work’s social and political implications.

Harris’s impact on disciplinary philosophy was surpassed by the practical changes that he made to secondary education. He served as superintendent of schools in St. Louis, and later the head of the U.S. Office of Education, translating Hegelian notions of growth and development into practical educational reforms.

For example, it is Harris and his colleague, Susan Blow, both under the influence of Hegelian logic, who initiated kindergarten education in the United States and instituted the idea that American schools be divided by aged-based grades. In effect, Harris drew Brockmeyer out of his philosophical shell, suggesting that Thoreauvian hermitage might not be consonant with the political and social implications of Hegel’s philosophy. The true Hegelian thinker was necessarily a worldly one, one that put his idealism to work in concrete ways.

And for a time Brockmeyer agreed. As political turmoil engulfed middle America, he asserted that Hegel’s vision of self-overcoming was taking shape in the abolitionism of the mid-19th century and in the impending Civil War that would first divide, but ultimately unify, the United States.

A s Harris took Brockmeyer’s version of Hegel into the upper rooms of the ivory tower, the welder went to work forging America.

During the Civil War, Brockmeyer became, with only a few notable exceptions, the most political of American philosophers. He had employed African-Americans in the 1850s during a brief but very lucrative venture in the shoe business. Even at the time, however, he admitted that his money was made on the backs of exploited workers. As the Civil War approached, he was elected to the Missouri State legislature as a War Democrat, who supported the Lincoln administration by taking up arms against the Confederacy. He headed a militia, and then a regiment, and then was appointed lieutenant governor. After the war, Brockmeyer was elected to the State Senate, and served as acting governor when Gov. John Phelps fell ill in 1876. Brockmeyer had great hopes to make St. Louis into an "American Athens" — a cultural, economic, and intellectual center that would defend freedom and reason against all comers. This personal history would have pleased any Hegelian — triumph through adversity, the steady process of self-realization over time, freedom in the service of destiny. But then Brockmeyer ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1877, and St. Louis failed to become an Athens.

B rockmeyer’s brief foray into American politics reflected something important about his Hegelian background, namely that philosophy was not a matter of thinking, but of living. But living in society, one with a growing number of political and economic constraints, was beginning to rub this American Hegelian the wrong way.

"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life," Thoreau informs us, "are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." These were words that a middle-aged Brockmeyer took seriously after his unsuccessful bid for public office. The comfort of urban life was stultifying, premised on a legalistic bureaucracy that could drive any thinking person crazy. When Thoreau pushed the boundaries and climbed the austere sublimity of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine — a world away from the bucolic surroundings of Walden — he was absolutely terrified. Brockmeyer wasn’t afraid: He would go west.

When Brockmeyer attended Georgetown College in Kentucky in the 1840s he’d met a classmate named McIntosh. "He is a Creek Indian," Brockmeyer explained, "a mixed blood grandson of the present chief." In the history of the Creek, McIntosh is a famous — nay, infamous — last name. After the War of 1812, William McIntosh had signed away the Creek land to the state of Georgia, a decision that precipitated his violent death at the hands of an Upper Creek mob and the tribe’s forced removal to designated Indian Territories in Oklahoma — 400 miles southwest of St. Louis. The younger McIntosh repeatedly invited Brockmeyer to hunt in the western territory through the 1850s and 1860s, but the draw of social and political life kept Brockmeyer from accepting.

At the age of 50, he finally made the trip. And he stayed. For the next decade, Brockmeyer would live outside of Muskogee, Okla., spending most of his time hunting and trapping with the Creek. In the late 1880s, the St. Louis Hegelians held a gathering in Cincinnati — what most contemporary academics would recognize as a philosophical conference. Brockmeyer was invited as a distinguished guest, but his half-wild appearance and rough manners stood in marked and uncomfortable contrast to the soft hands and refinement of a growing number of "true" philosophers. So he took his translation of Hegel and headed back to the frontier.

Friends in St. Louis would occasionally receive signs of Brockmeyer’s distant existence — packages in the mail, perfectly carved walking sticks made of western mahogany and rosewood, small reminders that people could get from here to there on their own two feet. What remains of Brockmeyer’s time on the frontier is a patchwork of American mythology and obvious embellishment, but there is something beneath the exaggeration — the sense of a man still in pursuit of freedom in the most concrete terms. Brockmeyer’s friend, and member of the St. Louis Hegelians, Denton Snider, said that he "had the quick, almost wild eye, of the hunter," and the Mechanic’s Diary corroborates Brockmeyer’s skill in living off the land. The Creeks admired their visitor’s hunting and tracking abilities and — this is the stuff of legend — offered him his choice of the fairest women of the tribe. Brockmeyer — also according to legend — demurred. He was supposedly called the Great White Father among the Creek.

When Brockmeyer went west, he brought with him a number of well-entrenched beliefs: that liberty is to be tempered by reason; that reason is at root practical; that there is no hard and fast divide between philosophy and welding and wilderness.

How do I know this? Because as disciplinary philosophy grew in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, Brockmeyer spent his evenings with his native companions on the plains, teaching them to read — from Hegel’s Logic.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His book American Philosophy — A Love Story will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October.