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By Carol M. Bensick
The nineteenth century has been prolific of candidates for discovery as women philosophers. Ednah Dow Cheney, Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, Marietta Kies, Susan Blow, Anna Brackett, Grace Bibb, Ellen Mitchell, Lucia Ames Mead, Eliza Sunderland, Ella Lyman Cabot, Emma Lazarus, Zitkala-Sa, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Whiton Calkins, Julia Gulliver, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Ella Lyman Cabot, Catherine Beecher, are just some of the figures whom scholars have brought back to academic attention since the feminist movement arrived in philosophy. One thing about the list is notable, however, one place where its conscientious inclusiveness seems to fall short. With the exception of Anna Julia Cooper, it lacks “voices from the South.” Yet surely it would be most desirable, if only to refute accusations or prevent suspicions of Northern bias, to be able to add more Southern female philosophical voices, if we could find them.
Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a nineteenth-century resident of Mississippi and Louisiana, eminently deserves the attention of a Society for the Study of Women Philosophers. As of l875, Dorsey was a corresponding member of the New Orleans Academy of Sciences. Lectures by her on “The Philosophy of the University of France,” “The Aryan Philosophy,” and “The Present Condition of the Conversation on the Origin of Species” were among the first, if not the first, invited lectures on philosophy given by a women in the United States to a learned society in a major city. Only Julia Ward Howe and perhaps Amalie Hathaway had done this earlier. The first two lectures were printed as pamphlets by the Academy while the second was published in the New Orleans Monthly Review in l876. The pamphlets were listed as Books Received in, among others, the St. Louis-edited Journal of Speculative Philosophy, in 1877, and the “Proceedings” of other learned societies. They were also acquired by a surprisingly large number of national libraries. There are no published reviews, but the delivery of at least one of the lectures is noted in some several nineteenth century, regional and national, biographical volumes in which Dorsey is included.
Our present concern is Dorsey’s first l874 lecture, called “The Philosophy of the University of France.” The core of the lecture is a translation of historian of philosophy Paul Janet’s article “Ravaisson, Lachelier, and Fouillee: or, the recent spiritual philosophy of France.” We may perhaps do well to pause here to take account of a worry. Chances are Ravaisson, Lachelier, Fouillee, and Janet are strange names for most of us. This may make us hesitate to grant that they are anything but minor figures, and that therefore Dorsey’s paper is insignificant. One way to test this fear is to see if by any chance William James–Dorsey’s ten-years younger contemporary– read any of the philosophers of the University of France that Dorsey discusses. One quickly finds that they surprisingly are. Jules Lachelier in particular is often linked with James. For example, in Pascal’s Wager, a 2006 volume by Jordan, there is a reference to “the pragmatic argument found in… William James and Jules Lachelier.” An earlier Pascal’s Wager (1986) by Rescher, also linked the two, also as opposed to Pascal. One also finds James writing to Charles Renouvier concerning Alfred Fouillee. James also cites Fouillee in the second volume of Principles of Psychology and in “The Dilemma of Determinism.” G. Nell in Basic Income and the Free Market (2013) cites Charles Sanders Peirce along with James as respectful of Fouillee. James cites Felix Ravaisson in an 1868 notebook. James also quotes Paul Janet in volume one of the Psychology and in Some Problems of Philosophy. In short, James was interested in all the authors that Dorsey gave her lecture on. Finally and most importantly, Eugene Taylor, in William James on Consciousness (1996), says, “William James was… known to the French as a Frenchman from the beginning of his career..” (quoted in Grossman, WJ in Russia, 94). Thus Sarah Dorsey’s studies of French philosophers, far from taking her away from American philosophy, were leading her into its very heart.
Quickly, then, who was this Sarah Dorsey who stood in l874 before the public under the auspices of the New Orleans Academy of Sciences? According to contemporary newspapers, in l866, at age 37, she was already known as “a thorough scholar and very accomplished writer,” who was “well-known in literature” . By l870, she was known, further, as “ one of our most accomplished scholars,” a “gifted translator” (of two plays from the German of Karl Gutzkow, a figure associated, notably, with the so-called Young Hegelian movement in Germany); later she would publish a translation from the French in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy) : a “talented Southern authoress,” “the author of The  Life of Governor [Confederate General Henry Watkins] Allen”. Nor was her fame only local; she was “the center of “a brilliant coterie… of all sections of the country.” In the l860s Dorsey published reports in the New York Episcopalian Churchman newspaper on her efforts running a school for slave children and an Episcopal chapel for slaves. She published a translation of George Galesio’s l811 Traite du Citrus in the New Orleans Our Home Journal in l875. She also contributed newspaper articles on state politics, urging Democratic readers of the New Orleans Times in l872 to join a coalition with Louisiana’s Governor Henry Warnoth. These letters were copied as far as Georgia. Dorsey serialized a novel, Agnes, in the Southern Literary Messenger in l863-4 (it was later published in l869 as Agnes Graham); and two additional novels, Lucia Dare in l867 and Athalie in l872. According to various issues of the New Orleans Republican, Dorsey was “well known to the literati of our society,” “distinguished,” and “one of the most learned ladies of the South.” She was acknowledged as “carefully educated,” a “close student all her life,” “an accomplished linguist,” and “brilliant and cultured”. Prior to her lectures, a London journal called the Parochial Critic cited her novels in an article on Southern literature, observing that she “wrote with that consciousness of power which they alone possess whose minds securely grasp every phase and development of the themes they handle.” In a notice of her Allen in the British Continental Review in l868, J. C. Robertson, professor of ecclesiastical history at Kings College, London, said she was “evidently a lady of unusual learning” who could be expected to be “able to hold her own against the most illuminated and eloquent ladies of the Bostonian coteries.” According to the press, on the occasion of the reading of her first lecture ”before the savans of the academy,” she attracted “a large number of intellectual ladies and gentlemen.” Her lecture was judged as “an original essay” and “an able review,” which “evidence[d] … much reading in all respects.” The New Orleans Times called her “learning and literary industry… unquestionable.” The Times Picayune hailed her “breadth of learning, forcible powers of reasoning, and eloquence of expression.” claiming that her “fame for depth of erudition and eloquence as a lecturer” was spread throughout the Southern states.” A blurb for her l877 novel Panola by the literary editor of the Philadelphia Press (Robert Shelton Mackenzie, LLD) called her a “talented and highly educated lady”. In l875, she published an obscure volume of poems, “Stray Leaves”. Virtually on her deathbed in 1879 she sent a letter published in the New York Herald to the Louisiana State Convention urging members to to add women’s suffrage to the state constitution. This action led to her becoming included in third Volume of the 1886 Stanton-Anthony-Gage History of Women’s Suffrage, which credited to her “able articles on abstruse questions,” especially the “exceptionally able and interesting” article on the problem of the origin of species, exhibiting “extensive reading on scientific questions,” and called her the most “remarkable “ woman Mississippi ever produced.
Finally, three decades after her death and though she had never lived there, Dorsey was still remembered in New Orleans; an 1913 article in the Times Picayune on the anniversary of the defunct Academy of Sciences not only recalls Dorsey’s “University of France” lecture but even quotes from it. In 1954, scholar Marcus Cunliffe published selected “Notes” in the Bulletin of the Rylands [England] Library at the University of Manchester (where it is held) on a intellectual correspondence she conducted in 1871-1873 with an English aristocrat and education reformer, Lyulph Stanley. As mentioned previously, Dorsey appears in several nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reference volumes. In the twentieth century, she was the subject of two unpublished theses and played, moreover, a central role in several volumes as well as an online paper by historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown on her ancestral family the Percys. She maintains a high reputation in the field of Southern and women’s literature for her novels and is relied on for her life of Allen in Southern historiography.
Dorsey incorporates philosophy in all of her novels, particularly one before and one after her lectures in New Orleans. Dorsey’s manner of method of infusing philosophy into her fiction is dramatic. She does not make her narrator a mouthpiece. She distributes her philosophical learning to characters–notably, not only to male characters, either. She provides “ficelles” to draw out her philosopher-character’s beliefs, so that it does not seem mechanical. One is not surprised to learn that Dorsey had published translations of dramatists, specifically Gutzkow.
Dorsey’s philosophical reading can be seen to inform her fiction almost from the beginning. In her first novel, Agnes (serialized 1863-64), quoted from the published version Agnes Graham (1869) it begins to peek out openly. The narrator makes three references to Kant, three to Burke, one to Pythagoras, four to Plato, one to [David] Strauss, one to Lucretius, and also mentions the philosophical words and phrases “positivism,” “Epicurean”, “metaphysicians,” “rationalist” and “a priori”. To our concern with American philosophy, she refers to Emerson, whom she says in parentheses (as if admitting the average reader will not be interested in this) “is certainly a great thinker.”
Dorsey’s next project and first book is the life of Gen. Henry Watkins Allen, Governor of Louisiana, which he himself had commissioned, published in 1866. Prima facie one is tempted to skip examining this text for philosophical content, hardly seeing how it could be justified. But in fact there is more philosophy in the Allen than there was in Agnes. This is made possible because of the real friendship that existed between Dorsey and Allen. It is plausible that there would be conversations between them and their mutual friends. Dorsey incorporates a suppositious dialogue on the basis that “The conversation impressed me, so I write it down.” It includes Henry Bolingbroke, Aristotle, “the conditioned,” “the enthymeme,” Platonism, Schiller, Boethius, Seneca, the Stoics, Montesquieu, Renan, Lessing, Strauss, Colenso, Plato, and significantly for us, Emerson–”my favorite Emerson.” There is also a remark that will recur in gist in her paper on “The Aryan Philosophy,” as well as in her next novel. The philosophy continues in that next novel, Lucia Dare (1867). Lucia Dare contains references to Bacon, [Jean] Bodin, and to Plato, the latter not just in general but specifically “Plato’s Republic” and “The Statesman,” which a character is said to read aloud “in Greek.” Dorsey also references Averroes and Epicurus, as well as and the “Hindoo” culture. In context, this does not come across as name-dropping. We feel conscious of a novelist thinking how to convey her knowledge through her fiction, to introduce the reader to unfamiliar names and inculcate the reader with insights without puzzling or annoying him or her. In Lucia Dare there is a paragraph (p 69) that will virtually reappear in the Academy of Sciences talk on “The Aryan Philosophy,” a circumstance which sanctions going back and rereading the character Annie Laurie as a self-portrait.
In 1870-71, the Dorsey couple travelled to Europe, where Dorsey made several intellectual friends. It is claimed that she corresponded with Carlyle, Spencer, and Arthur Stanley, dean of Westminster cathedral, though no letters survive. One letter from Christina Rossetti has been found. A correspondence survives with Edward Lyulph Stanley, as stated above. Upon returning to the states, Dorsey published a third novel, an intentionally light-hearted one called Athalie: A Southern Villeggiatura,” subtitled “A Winter’s Tale”. Even this novel refers to Kant and Spencer, as well as incorporating such dialogue as “You have no Aryan in you, mignonne,” and ”I am not a Hindoo.”
At this point, we may turn to Dorsey’s lecture, “On the Philosophy of the University of France.”
The lecture has a somewhat complicated structure. It begins with a Preface, of less than one page, followed by two greetings: one to the general public and one to the members of the Academy, together amounting to one single spaced page. There follow two pages of introduction and then Dorsey ostensibly retires to the role of translator/transcriber for 20 pp.. The core of the lecture is a translation of historian of philosophy Paul Janet’s article “Ravaisson, Lachelier, and Fouillee: or, the recent spiritual philosophy of France,” in the French Revue des Deux Mondes. This occupies 14 pages. The following 4 pages consist of Dorsey’s account of what she calls Janet’s “recent great book” “upon The Moral, and Free Thought.” Then follow two pages drawn from Albert Fouillee, and then Dorsey comes back out from behind her authors to suggest her own half-page conclusion. Of 29 pages, then, five represent Dorsey’s own thought.
The core of the lecture is a translation of historian of philosophy Paul Janet’s article “Ravaisson, Lachelier, and Fouillee: or, the recent spiritual philosophy of France,” We may perhaps do well to pause here to take account of a worry. Chances are Ravaisson, Lachelier, Fouillee, and Janet these are strange names for most of us. This may make us hesitate to grant that they are anything but minor figures, and that therefore Dorsey’s paper is insignificant. One way to test this fear is to see if by any chance William James–Dorsey’s ten-years younger contemporary– read any of the philosophers of the University of France that Dorsey discusses. One quickly finds that they surprisingly are. Jules Lachelier in particular is often linked with James. For example, in Pascal’s Wager, a 2006 volume by Jordan, there is a reference to “the pragmatic argument found in… William James and Jules Lachelier.” An earlier Pascal’s Wager (1986) by Rescher, also linked the two, also as opposed to Pascal. One also finds James writing to Charles Renouvier concerning Alfred Fouillee. James also cites Fouillee in the second volume of Principles of Psychology and in “The Dilemma of Determinism.” G. Nell in Basic Income and the Free Market (2013) cites Charles Sanders Peirce along with James as respectful of Fouillee. James cites Felix Ravaisson in an 1868 notebook. James also quotes Paul Janet in volume one of the Psychology and in Some Problems of Philosophy. In short, James was interested in all the authors that Dorsey gave her lecture on. Finally and most importantly, Eugene Taylor, in William James on Consciousness (1996), says, “William James was… known to the French as a Frenchman from the beginning of his career..” (quoted in Grossman, WJ in Russia, 94). Thus Sarah Dorsey’s studies of French philosophers, far from taking her away from American philosophy, were leading her into its very heart.
If the evidence of James’s interest is not sufficient to justify a study of Dorsey’s paper, we may look deeper into the scholarship touched on above. Jules Lachelier appears, as mentioned above, in Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments for the Belief in God (2006); Rescher, “Pascal’s Wager: A study of Practical Reasoning in Philosophical Thought,” in Philosophical Theology (1986), an article noticed by Cornel West in Prophetic Fragments (1993). In The New Century: Bergsonism… (2014), edited by Ansell-Pearson, Lachelier’s thought is identified as “a late evolution of spiritualism,” Ravaisson, his teacher, a proponent of Schelling as opposed to Hegel, and ignoring Cousin to return to Maine de Biran. Lachelier, himself, is quoted in Ansell-Pearson as claiming a “unity of the philosophical movement of the last 20 years” and it residing identifying being with will. In Laberthonniere in 1942, Lachelier’s thought is described as “neo-criticism” (where criticism refers to Kantianism.”. In French Philosophy of the 20th Century (2001), Gutting discusses Lachelier under the heading “Idealism” but points out that spiritualism need not be idealistic (14). He points out that Lachelier’s was the “first important reception” of Kant in France. Gutting also points out that it was Alfred Fouillee who coined the term “la psychologie nouvelle.” Hayward, in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, l963, refers to the “reformist sociology of Fouillee.” Most recently, Sofroniou names Lachelier as the “co-founder of French spiritualism.” Etienne Gilson in his history of philosophy makers reference to “Lachelier’s idealistic materialism” (2005). The 1917 New International Encyclopedia edited by Colby states in Vol. 18 “Lachelier attempted a combination of Kantianism and spiritualism.” The point is that the figures that Dorsey includes in her lectures are central to the history of the philosophy. It is for us to see how her interpretations of them in l874 stack up to those–not always in agreement– of professional scholars in the 20th and 21st century.
To return to Dorsey’s text, then. The paper avows several purposes. On the one hand, to “call the attention “ of the Academy to this school of philosophy. These are “grand wrestlers for Truth and freedom of Debate,” fitting the image of [Thomas] Carlyle’s “the torch bearers of intellect.” On the other hand, to share with the “thinking men” of the Academy “something of the thoughts of Women.” Obviously women have always known something of the thoughts of men; now men should also know of the thoughts of women.
This is an odd introduction, since the lion’s share of the paper is a transcription of texts by three men. Yet it is not impossible to locate the thoughts of Sarah. One can, for starters, consider her range of reference. The French philosophers are not her only references. She mentions, for example, “the celebrated Rev. Meigs, of Philadelphia.” Dr. Charles Meigs was a professor of what we’d call obstetrics and gynecology in the Jefferson School of Medicine. Dorsey had attended a French school in Philadelphia as a girl. The quote is drawn from his published classroom lectures. Second, in her run-up, she quotes Thomas Carlyle and [Michael] Faraday and commends an article by “the Hon.” Roden Noel, a contemporary contributor to the British Contemporary Review, on “Causality in will and motion.” She is seemingly giving her credentials to give the Academicians reasons to trust her.
Dorsey sets the stage with a brisk history. “Formerly in the Schools of the United States, the Scotch metaphysics were taught. Reid and Stuart (sic) and Brown and later Hamilton. In the University of Virginia, which has a wider curricula than any of the other colleges, they united to these, the French school of Victor Cousin and Theodore Jouffroy. Now, nothing is read or talked of but the Insular School of Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Herbert Spencer.” Spencer’s acknowledgment of “the probability of a First principle of things” “separates him positively from Comte, and the French and English materialists”; “All the rest of the English savans, …are nearly all materialistic in their teachings.”
She now moves on to Janet’s own book, La Morale et La Pensee Libre, which, she states, “goes a step farther than Ravaisson, Lachelier, or Fouillee has gone as yet.” This book, she reveals, “has made a profound impression upon the world of philosophers.” Janet “reaches,” she states, “the ultimate facts which are the foundation of our [Christian] religion and which seem to necessitate the Christian faith.” It is, she says, “a remarkable book.” First, she relates, Janet repudiates the “ordinary and vulgar acceptation” of the words “Free Thinker and Free thought.” She quotes: “There are incredulous men, who far from thinking freely, do not think at all, but accept objections as servilely as other men do dogmas: There are believers on the other hand who have a custom of the boldest, freest thinking.“ Janet ends aphoristically: “ It is not the thing thought which constitutes freedom, it is the manner in which the thing is thought.”
To continue, Dorsey reveals that Janet “abandons … the ordinary substratum laid down by Kant and Fichte, and other writers, of an independent morality.” According to Janet, “Kant is right …when he establishes so powerfully the obligatory character of the moral Law: but he is wrong, a thousand times wrong, when he makes of this Law a sort of abstract Tyrant, …which we find in ourselves, but which does not represent to us anything living… no reality superior to ourselves.” Kant’s problem, Janet claims, is that he was “always possessed by the thought that we were not able to go outside of ourselves.” But, he goes on, “a profounder psychology, proves on the contrary that we cannot regard ourselves without going above and beyond ourselves.” With a gesture at Francois Fenelon, the popular seventeenth-century preacher, Dorsey concludes, “We must break loose the fetters of Kant, then, and substitute to the idea of an abstract law, the idea of a living law.” We must, she says, “put in the place sic volo sic jubeo”—a saying from the Roman satirist Juvenal quoted by Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason and translated as “Thus I will, Thus I command; my will stands for a reason”– “the sublime and beneficent end which we are commanded to grow towards.” And what, Dorsey asks, “are the benefits in which are born for us both duty and virtue?” That end, according to Janet, is “Perfection.”
Dorsey concedes that “In a certain sense this has been declared by all philosophers from Aristotle to Leibnitz.” But –striking a new note as specific to Janet –she maintains that “Janet made it his own in fully expressing the joy which this view of the moral law causes to enter the heart of men.” Unlike Utilitarianism or what she calls “the abstract legislation as imposed by Kant,” she proceeds, “those to whom “the destiny of man“ unfolds itself, from progress to progress, from perfection to perfection, who believe they can acquire a personality even higher, richer, more radiant,… [these] become participants in the immortal good. “ For them “ happiness and virtue are one and the same thing.”
According to Dorsey, Janet claims that “if one believes that no particular man has possibly realized [the] ideal, we come to the conclusion that we have an ideal of a man in himself distinct from all individual men, and from or toward which, every man may go or approach.” And “the qualities which compose the conception of this man it-self, are drawn from the exhibition we have had of the several qualities as they have been exhibited in man.” Dorsey quotes: “It is this double necessity of having a type or a model superior to every particular man and, which nevertheless should not be an empty abstract [,] which has given birth to the grand Christian conception of a man-God”. At this point Dorsey cannot help but set down Janet’s text and speak on her own, expressing what is clearly the thing which impressed her in Janet’s text and which compelled her to share it with the Academy and also “American readers”: “We can only say that the essence of religion is here in this philosophy, and the phase of it which responds best to these human needs will live so long as humanity remains in its present condition.”
Deeper in the lecture, Dorsey turns to Alfred Fouillee. According to her, In his Free Will and Determinism Fouillee states that there are “three great schools” of philosophy” “during our day”: “of Kant in Germany, Maine de Biran in France, and of Hume in England.” Fouillee evokes a “one vast edifice” of which these schools comprise three foundations. The first foundation is “made of all that materialism contained of positive truth…the mechanical liaison of phenomena.” The second foundation “responds to the harmonic liaison of creatures in their finality,” As Dorsey continues to quote: ”Antiquity knew only these two first regions in a philosophic consciousness”; “She (sic) never assigned to morality a sphere absolutely her own.” “True liberty and with it true morality was… divined by Plato and the Alexandrians,” Fouillee continues. But “…better understood in India, in Persia, and in Judea,” this was “elevated with Christianity into the rank of a new and renovating principle.” This principle, Fouillee claims,–that morality had a sphere of its own, liberty and morality–”was lost in Rome.” But–and this is clearly the claim Dorsey celebrates in Fouillee–”it was and is reestablished “in France,” ”[p]roposed to the world under the names of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Specifically, it was “Maine de Biran …[who] re-established in man and Nature” what had appeared before in Rene Descartes and afterward in Victor Cousin, “the dynamism of life.”
As Dorsey paraphrases Fouillee, “the directing idea of the English philosophy … is Utility.” But “the directing idea of the philosophy of France is this idea of “liberty” and its entailment “fraternity.” Dorsey paraphrases: “For France liberty is not a means in view of Universal life as the Germans conceive to-day; it is not a means in view of individual Utility as the English conceive it; it is not simply a means in view of the life to come and the interests of salvation as many Christians conceive it: it is by itself and in itself and for itself a good and End, a Law.”” Thus “the directing idea of France,“ the French nation–”is the directing idea of Humanity itself. “
Proceeding, Dorsey writes, “In the present life, [the directing idea] begins the Kingdom of God, by the realization of Law and human solidarity.” In sum, “Antiquity seeking to explain mind by Nature figured it only as a chance of Destiny, that is to say necessity. After thus being chained to Nature, intelligence has delivered itself in conceiving a free morality as the only force capable of realising a Universal Love.”
And after so much buildup, so many pages quoting, Dorsey now feels she can speak for herself: “We may say of ourselves” . In her own view, informed by Janet and Fouillee and the rest, what “this modern spiritualistic philosophy” has done, “ is to have “restored to the world, the thoughts of God, the soul, immortality”–moreover, this “ not through supernatural revelation,” which the Academy of Sciences would reject, but “through inflexible laws of logic and strict philosophy.”
“The Philosophers of France have,” then, she says, ”placed all thoughtful earnest and doubting minds” “under “immense obligation.” They have given “back to the world in clearly illuminated text the grand words uttered by the unconscious lips of the Earth from her infancy, proclaimed alive by the sages of India, the Priests of Egypt, the Philosophers of Greece, the singers and prophets of Israel.” According to Dorsey, “the present philosophy of the University of France” has accomplished the task of giving back to the world “the Key to all Existences,” that “all is filled with God, is full of spirit.” “The Philosophers of the University of Frances reassure “us,” Americans, that “we live not in the midst of Death,” not “in a dead….Universe.” as materialist philosophy teaches. Dorsey pleads, “if …we would pause for a second to listen… We would hear the deep, intense pulsations of living force which are the heart-beats of the Life of God.” If Thoreauvian, this would be no anomaly, as Dorsey praised Thoreau as well as Emerson to Lyulph Stanley. In any case, “To put it less poetically” she states that “Science [,] which is unjustly charged with Irreligion[,] is really its humble handmaiden,” and adds, “ It is much to add to positive science the certainty of the existence of Spirit.” And as she cannot refrain from exuberantly exclaiming: “C’est le dernier pas qui coute!”
It may be worth noting that a translation of Janet’s “Ravaisson” article (by a distinguished doctor of divinity, and professor of New York’s Hamilton College, John W. Mears, later to organize a successful symposium in celebration of the centenary of The Critique of Pure Reason ) was published independently from Dorsey’s, in the same year as she, in the Presbyterian and Princeton Review. A translation of Taillandier’s review of Janet’s La Morale was also published in the same journal. To wit: Dorsey was entirely up to date with the the academic philosophical community of New England/New York–up to date and apparently not in disharmony with orthodox (Presbyterian) theology.
As it turns out, Dorsey’s observation that “there is springing up up recently a strong school in England, in sympathy with the philosophy of the University of France,” perception was not eccentric. In the 2011 Edinburgh Critical History of Nineteenth Century Philosophy edited by Alison Stone, in the chapter “idealism and naturalism” by Sebastian Gardner, the group of successors to Maine de Biran and Cousin to which Dorsey called attention to in l874 is claimed to constitute the “roots of the school known as Personalism”; even more to the point, it is claimed that “understanding Anglo-American idealism after Bradley” is virtually impossible without them.”
Dorsey discloses in passing that she herself has made or is making translations into English of works of Jules Lachelier and Albert Fouillee and contemplates translating work of Janet and Ravaisson. Giving more evidence of her ongoing commitment to philosophical research–proving, to be blunt, that she is no dilettante– Dorsey laments that she cannot take space in this lecture to treat Janet’s further arguments but can only and “commend” them as “worthy of careful study.” Meanwhile, she assures, she will be “watching” the ongoing work of the French philosophers “with interest.”
After this Dorsey gave a paper called “The Aryan Philosophy.” This paper cites David Strauss, Spinoza, F. von Schlegel, Spencer, Plotinus, Schelling, Socrates, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Swedenborg, Plato (Phaedon, Phaedrus, Timaeus), Anaxagoras, Lachelier, Lucretius, Confucius, Leibnitz, Laotze, Berkeley, Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Kapila and other Hindu philosophers, Ravaisson, and other scholars in other fields. Her stated purpose is “to remind [the Academy of the Sciences] of the spiritual debts that all philosophies of modern time…owe, to much more ancient teachers” than those of the University of France, “unto those of India.” Dorsey’s last lecture, “A Study of the Present Condition of the Question of the Origin of Species,” begins with a quotation from Fouillee: “Science is like a ship upon the wave of the sea… it ever advances, through a ceaseless struggle…towards its haven.” Besides Darwin, most of the authors mentioned in the lecture are scientists like Huxley and Tyndall, but among philosophers she considers Aristotle, Spencer, Schopenhauer, Strauss, the Hindoo philosopher Kapila, Lucretius, and George Henry Lewes, partner of George Eliot.
Two years after delivering her New Orleans lectures, in 1877, Dorsey brought out her last novel, Panola. Panola adds more to the picture of Dorsey’s learning than the lectures showed. It is beyond doubt the novel the most heavily freighted with Dorsey’s reading. She manages this by including not one but two philosopher-characters, the character of a French doctor and of a studious youth. Her artistic problem is to explain and justify including names and passages of French philosophers in an American novel, set in America. She solves the problem by attributing them to a native Frenchman. Notably, she makes no effort to conceal or even minimize the philosophical material. Two chapters have “philosophy” in the title: “A Sage’s Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Love.” Most of the references are due to the Doctor. He references Swedenborg, Descartes, Kant, Comte, Plato, Spencer, and the Bhagavat Gita. Characters debate on whether French is “Aryan”. The Hindoo are again referenced. The youth cites “[Karl] Krause,” a student of Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling and teacher of Schopenhauer. Dorsey has him correct the doctor that someone is not a “pantheist” but a “pan-entheist”. This shows that Dorsey is up to date with professional scholarly controversies and current jargon, not just a relisher of cultural masterpieces. To convey this to the reader she has to include a character who is an academic. It is clear that the story is partly a pretext for the philosophical debates. As by including a chapter with the title “Was She A Pedant?” regarding Annie Laurie in Lucia Dare, Dorsey disarms the reader by having a secondary character complain that the philosopher-character is “preaching.”
There is another thing to remark in Panola before leaving the subject of Dorsey’s novels. Dorsey has the French doctor go out of his way to criticize the two recent novelists, George Sand and George Eliot. (English readers would hardly have linked these two.) Through the French doctor Dorsey finds fault with both these women novelists. This puts Dorsey at odds with the Anglo-American literary community. Surprisingly, however, it connects her with William James. James became exasperated with how women in his life apparently viewed Eliot as a god. He wrote in a letter and finally broke out in a summer class at Radcliffe that Eliot was too enamored with, and therefore showed off, her own skill in practicing ethics. In her place, he directed his students to Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. James’s and indeed other pragmatists’ historical relations with women philosophical colleagues and students is unknown territory but clearly territory that it would be of interest to map.
Carol Bensick has a Cornell Ph.D. in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literary/Intellectual History. As a Research Affiliate of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, she now works to restore overlooked women philosophers to nineteenth-century American history.