John Fiske (1842 - 1901), born Edmund Fisk Green, was an American philosopher, historian and writer who popularized European evolution theory in the United States. He studied law at Harvard but soon turned to writing and a career in public speaking. While at college he became inspired by Herbert Spencer's application of the evolution theory of Charles Darwin. After personally meeting with Darwin, Spencer, and T.H. Huxley in 1874, Fiske published an exposition of evolutionary doctrine, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy.
Both in his books and on the lecture platform, Fiske endeavored to demonstrate that orthodox religious beliefs were compatible with scientific truth. In 1880, Fiske began to write and speak about American history, promoting the concept of the United States as the climax of a historical evolution toward a free democratic republic. From 1885 to 1900, Fiske published a series of popular works, including The Critical Period of American History (1888), on the American colonial and revolutionary periods, written in a lucid, dramatic style that was easy to read. He also published a number of philosophical works such as Myths and Mythmakers, The Idea of God, Origin of Evil, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Darwinism and Other Essays, Excursions of an Evolutionist, The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, and Through Nature to God.
Edmund Fisk Green was born in Hartford, Connecticut on March 30, 1842. When his mother remarried in 1855, he assumed the name of his maternal great-grandfather, John Fiske. He was a precocious child, and his studies of current scientific theories led him to doubt the validity of orthodox Christianity. In 1863, he graduated from Harvard College, and entered Harvard Law School. He passed his bar exam in 1864 and began to practice law, but soon turned to writing as a means of solving his financial difficulties.
In 1860, he had encountered Herbert Spencer's application of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin to the history of philosophy. His was deeply impressed by Spencer's ideas on evolution and incorporated them in his own writing, producing many books and essays on this subject.
In 1869, Fiske obtained a teaching position at Harvard and in 1872 became assistant librarian there. At the same time he began a career as a public lecturer which continued until his death. In 1873-1874, he visited Europe and met personally with Darwin, Spencer, and T.H. Huxley. In a letter from Charles Darwin to John Fiske, dated from 1874, the great naturalist remarked: "I never in my life read so lucid an expositor (and therefore thinker) as you are." In 1874, Fiske published an exposition of evolutionary doctrine, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, that was well received both in the United States and abroad. Fiske attempted to show that religion and scientific knowledge could be reconciled, and early in his career, became a popular lecturer on this topic.
Around 1880, Fiske's interests turned from philosophy to history. In a series of lectures on American history in 1879, he promoted the concept of the United States as the climax of a historical evolution toward a free democratic republic. From 1885 to 1900, Fiske lectured and published numerous works on the American colonial and revolutionary periods. By the 1890s, Fiske had developed a considerable reputation as a public lecturer, regarded by his middle-class audience as a reconciler of science and Christianity. Fiske was broadminded, if not profound, and had a genius for explaining ideas clearly. His reputation as a scholar declined, however, as professional historians criticized the lack of original research in his books. John Fiske died, worn out by overwork, at Gloucester, Massachusetts on July 4, 1901.
Thought and Works
Fiske aimed to show that "in reality there has never been any conflict between religion and science, nor is any reconciliation called for where harmony has always existed." Both on the lecture platform and in his books, he tried to demonstrate how orthodox religious beliefs were compatible with scientific truth.
Fiske wrote on a variety of subjects, including mythology, history, and evolution. His philosophical works included Myths and Mythmakers (1872), Cosmic Philosophy, Darwinism, The Idea of God, Origin of Evil, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874, repr. 1969), Darwinism and Other Essays (1879, repr. 1913), Excursions of an Evolutionist (1884), The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge (1886), and Through Nature to God (1899). Fiske's books and lectures helped to popularize evolutionary theory in America, against the adamant opposition of the churches.
Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874) revealed Fiske's basic philosophical premise that societies evolve in the same way as biological organisms, and that laws to explain their evolution, like the Darwinian laws of biological evolution, can be discovered. Though Fiske never succeeded in formulating any laws of history, he never doubted their existence.
Fiske's interpretation of American history, in such works as The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789 (1888) and The Discovery of America (1892), demonstrated the same belief in inevitable progress through evolutionary change. He regarded the American democratic republic as the climax of historical evolution. The Critical Period of American History (1888), dealing with the period between the end of the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution, was his best-known work. During the following decade, he published several books on American history, including Civil Government of the United States (1890), The American Revolution (two volumes, 1891), The Discovery of America (two volumes, 1892), A United States History for Schools (1895), Old Virginia and her Neighbors (two volumes, 1897), and Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (two volumes, 1899). These books were popular accounts based largely on secondary authorities and written in a lucid, dramatic style that was easy to read.
In addition, Fiske edited, with Gen. James Grant Wilson, Appleton's Cyclopœdia of American Biography (1887).
A nineteenth-century trend in which the size of the brain was used as a simple measure of human performance, championed by some scientists including Darwin's cousin Francis Galton and the French neurologist Paul Broca, led Fiske to believe in the racial superiority of the "Anglo-Saxon race." However, he was not a genuine racist or a social Darwinist. His book "The Destiny of Man" (1884) contained a chapter entitled the "End of the working of natural selection upon man" describing how "the action of natural selection upon Man has … been essentially diminished through the operation of social conditions," and describing man's ascendance over the principle of natural selection as "a fact of unparalleled grandeur."
Works by John Fiske
- Myths and Myth Makers (1872)
- Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874)
- The Unseen World (1876)
- Darwinism and Other Essays (1879; revised and enlarged, 1885)
- Excursions of an Evolutionist (1883)
- The Destiny of Man Viewed in the Light of his Origin (1884)
- The Idea of God as Affected by modern Knowledge (1885)
- Origin of Evil (1899)
- A Century of Science and Other Essays (1899)
- Through Nature to God (1899)
- The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War (1900)
- Life Everlasting (1901)
- American Political Ideas Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History (1885)
- The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789 (1888)
- The Beginnings of New England (1889)
- The War of Independence, a book for young people (1889)
- Civil Government of the United States (1890)
- The American Revolution (two volumes, 1891)
- The Discovery of America (two volumes, 1892)
- A United States History for Schools (1895)
- Old Virginia and her Neighbors (two volumes, 1897)
- Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (two volumes, 1899)
- Essays, Literary and Historical (1902)
- New France and New England (1902)
- A collection of his historical works appeared in 1912 as Historical Works (Popular Edition). It is in eleven volumes.
- Berman, Milton. 1961. John Fiske; the evolution of a popularizer. Harvard historical monographs, 48. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674475518 ISBN 9780674475519
- Clark, John Spencer. 2004. The life and letters of John Fiske. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1417958332 ISBN 9781417958337
- Fiske, John. 1902. The historical writings of John Fiske. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company; Norwood Editions, 2003. ISBN 0848239865 ISBN 9780848239862
- Fiske, John. 1916. The critical period of American history, 1783-1789. Jungle book edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2006. ISBN 1594623740 ISBN 9781594623745
- Pannill, H. B. 1957. The religious faith of John Fiske. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006, Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 1428656413 ISBN 9781428656413
- Winston, George Parsons. 1972. "John Fiske." in Twayne's United States authors series. TUSAS 197. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805702563 ISBN 9780805702569
- This article incorporates text from an edition of the New International Encyclopedia that is in the public domain.
All links retrieved May 16, 2018.