Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875

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Wright graduated from Harvard in 1852 and taught physics at Harvard.

From the description of Papers of Chauncey Wright, ca. 1852. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76972942

Epithet: American mathematician

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000507.0x000142

Chauncey Wright was a naturalist and philosopher. He taught at Harvard as professor of psychology in 1870 and as instructor in mathematical physics in 1874.

From the description of Papers, [ca. 1850s-1870s]. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122380121

A philosopher, metaphysician, mathematician, and Darwinian stalwart, Chauncey Wright was born in Northampton, Mass., on September 20, 1830. The son of Ansel Wright, a grocer and constable, and Elizabeth Boleyn, Wright was an able student with a particular aptitude for the quantitative sciences, and his reputation for scholarship earned him the largesse of a local philanthropist that enabled him to attend Harvard as an undergraduate. After his graduation in 1852, he benefited further from the influence of friends, most notably William James, who helped secure him a lectureship at the College. A standard academic position, however, was not immeidately in the cards, however. For all his intellectual talents, his affability and sociability, he proved to be a miserable teacher, dull and often incomprehensible from a student's pespective, and as a result, he failed to flourish in the academy.

In 1852, Wright therefore took an appointment as a "computer" with the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a position that provided him with sufficient financial support and, more importantly, sufficient time to devote himself to intellectual cultivation and collegiality. His home in Cambridge became a modern day salon beginning in the later 1850s, attracting colleagues from Harvard and the Almanac . By 1872, this lifelong bachelor had become one of the elders of the proto-pragmatist Metaphysical Club, a veritable "boxing-master" for his junior colleagues C. S. Peirce, William James, and the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes, renowned for his prowess in intellectual jousts. Although they never eventuated into an ongoing appointment, his connections to Harvard circles earned him a one year lectureship in psychology in 1870-1871,and he subsequently taught mathematical physics there to an small, but indifferent crowd of students.

Publishing principally, though too seldom, in the North American Review and The Nation, Wright established himself during the 1860s as an important American philosopher. He was best known, perhaps, as one of the early and most adept proponents of Darwinian thought in America, and he was an ardent defender of natural selection against the plethora of alternative evolutionary mechanisms. His support for Darwin and his attack on Saint George Mivart in the North American Review, brought Wright to Darwin's personal attention and earned him the naturalist's regard and sincere appreciation. During a visit to England in 1872, his only trip abroad, Wright garnered a special invitation to visit Darwin at Down House, an incident he later recalled as one of the highlights of his life.

As a philosopher, Wright grew away from an early allegiance to the Common Sense writings of Thomas Reid and his student William Hamilton to take up a radical version of the new British empiricism. The catalyst to this transformation was Wright's reading of John Stuart Mill, and particularly Mill's devastating critique of Hamilton, although Wright subsequently modified Mill. In turn, Wright's radical empiricism influenced the rising generation of pragmatist philosophers, most notably his Metaphysical colleagues Holmes, James, and Peirce. Insisting on the primacy of empirically-deteremined "facts" over a priori elements, Wright sketched a theory of knowledge based larged opn empiricist contingency rather than a priori certainty. His insistence that science remain free of metaphysical or theological assumptions has remained influential in scientific epistemology led him to reject the writings of Herbert Spencer, whose allegiance to empiricism and evolutionism might otherwise appear palatable. Spencer's insistence upon "law" and invariability and his inveterate teleology, however, led Wright to dismiss his writings as mere metaphysical speculation. Wright was also became known for his efforts to apply natural selective theory to human psychological development, prefiguring modern evolutionary epistemology.

Never a hale figure, Wright's health declined in the late 1860s and 1870s. He suffered from a bout of whooping cough in 1869 and years of too little sleep and too much drinking and smoking took their toll. Late at night on September 11, 1875, Wright suffered a stroke while sitting at his desk, and while he was discovered alive on the following morning, a second led to his death.

From the guide to the Chauncey Wright Papers, 1850-1875, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn North American Review, papers, ca.1842-1868. Houghton Library
referencedIn Lesley, J. Peter, 1819-1903. Papers, 1826-1898 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875. Papers, 1850-1875 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Loomis family. Loomis-Wilder family papers, 1790-1912 (inclusive). Yale University Library
creatorOf Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875. Papers, 1850-1875 American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Loomis family. Loomis-Wilder family papers, 1790-1912 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn The Christian Socialists [photograph], [ca. 1860]. Massachusetts Historical Society
referencedIn Vol. III, ff. 353, P-Z.includes:f. 1 Frederick W. Pailthorpe, illustrator to C Dickens: Letter to W. Miller: 1903. f. 2 Francis Turner Palgrave, poet and anthologist: Letter to -: 1862. f. 3 Edward Henry Palmer, orientalist: Letter to S. 0. Grey: 187... British Library
creatorOf North American Review. North American Review papers, ca. 1842-1868 (inclusive), 1864-1868 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Wright, Ansel. Letter of Ansel Wright, Jr., to Chauncey Wright, 1849 Oct. 14. Historic Northampton Museum & Education Center
referencedIn Smithsonian Institution. Office of the Secretary. Correspondence, 1863-1879 Smithsonian Institution Archives
referencedIn General information about gifts to Harvard from Chauncey Wright. Harvard University, Archives
referencedIn Loomis-Wilder Family papers, 1790-1912 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Correspondence and journals of Henry James Jr, 1855-1916 . Houghton Library
creatorOf Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875. Papers, 1850-1875 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875. Papers of Chauncey Wright, ca. 1852. Harvard University, Archives
referencedIn Norton family. Letters received by the Norton family, 1830-1920 Houghton Library
referencedIn Ralph Waldo Emerson letters from various correspondents, ca. 1814-1882. Houghton Library
referencedIn Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908. Papers, ca.1845-1908 Houghton Library
referencedIn Lesley, J. Peter, 1819-1903. Papers, 1826-1898 American Philosophical Society
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associatedWith Wright, Chauncey, 1830-1875 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
Card tricks
Mathematical physics


Birth 1830-09-10

Death 1875-09-12




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