Johnson's forthcoming book, "Three American Hegels," will trace the influence translations of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel's work had on American thought and scholarship in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ryan Johnson is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend grant, which he will use to further his research for a book about three influential American philosophers largely overlooked in their contribution to national thought.
“Three American Hegels” will trace the influence of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel on American philosophers Henry C. Brokmeyer, Horace Williams and John Williams Miller, examining how they employed translations of Hegel’s work in their own lives.
Fewer than 10 percent of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual grant applications are awarded following a peer-review process determining which projects are most deserving of federal support. Johnson will use the $6,000 grant to fund travel and research.
Johnson believes Brokmeyer, Williams and Miller contributed to a uniquely American philosophy that stemmed from their interpretation of Hegel’s ideas. His research will explore their letters and lectures for ways they transferred Hegel’s concepts to American life.
“I will unearth this formative yet forgotten narrative of American philosophy and thus enhance the understanding of our national intellectual identity as we approach the 250th anniversary of American independence,” Johnson wrote in the application.
Johnson began work on the project last spring and summer at the Missouri Historical Society’s Library and Research Center in St. Louis, unearthing Brokmeyer’s first English translation of Hegel’s “The Science of Logic.” Though it was never published, it influenced American thought in the mid- to late 19th Century.
“Brokmeyer worked on the translation for 40 years,” Johnson said. “This document was the foundation for Hegel in America, but no one has seen it since then.”
Brokmeyer, Williams and Miller used Hegel’s philosophy as a guide to life as much as — or more than — they wrote about his work, which is part of the reason the story of their relationships to the German philosopher’s work have been obscured, Johnson said.
Colleagues in the Philosophy Department praised Johnson’s teaching and scholarship as exemplary in the field.
“This intellectual history of the Hegelian influences on American pragmatism will draw crucial connections among different schools of philosophical thought that are almost always considered to be entirely separate traditions. Ryan has already made crucial discoveries along these lines, and the archival research that he will undertake has the potential to transform scholarly understandings of pragmatism and its origins,” said Professor of Philosophy Ann Cahill.
Cahill, who applied for and received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the past, assisted Johnson with the application. Cahill just began her tenure as faculty director of Elon’s National and International Fellowships Office, and will assist undergraduates in pursuing grants to further their studies.
“You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows Ryan and his work who is surprised by this achievement. His scholarly record is simply remarkable on many fronts,” Cahill said. “It’s his insight, his care, his curiosity and his wonder, that inflect his research with such import.”
Stephen Bloch-Schulman, professor of philosophy and department chair, echoed Cahill’s accolades and hopes for Johnson’s research. Johnson has also used his research of Hegel’s American influence and English translations for innovative undergraduate teaching and seminars, he said.
“I’m not even sure graduate schools are offering the kind of experience students get when they take a course with Ryan,” Bloch-Schulman said. “It’s a mix of very high-end, tight-rope walking across new scholarship no one is really doing apart from Ryan, and it leads to high-reward, transformative thinking.”
Johnson also received an Archie K. Davis Fellowship through the North Caroliniana Society, awarded to further understanding of state history and culture, to pursue his research. Henry Horace Williams was an influential philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1890 until his death in 1940. He taught a number of state leaders and politicians and is the basis for a character in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.”
The grant funds will allow him to finish research into Brokmeyer’s life and writings this summer and Williams’ and Millers’ works in 2021 and 2022 using archives at UNC and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Johnson hopes the book will be published by 2023.
In addition to the NEH-funded project, Johnson published two books this spring. He edited, co-wrote the introduction and contributed a chapter to “Nietzsche and Epicurus: Nature, Health and Ethics,” available through Bloomsbury Collections.
The second, “Deleuze, A Stoic,” was published by the University of Edinburgh Press and “shows how Deleuze’s engagement with Stoicism produced many of his most singular and powerful ideas.”