Patterns in American Intellectual Frontiers

by Carl H. Builder

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This Note examines the notion that a pattern exists in the ideas that have captured and dominated American society. Specifically, over the past 200 years, four such ideas have arisen and have been widely perceived as the most exciting way to shape the American future, persisting for about 50 years and then giving way to the next idea. Based on that pattern, five earlier ideas can be recognized, going back to the sixteenth century. Having defined a pattern of nine ideas extending over nearly half a millennium, the author suggests three more ideas that might fulfill the pattern for the next hundred years. Looking backward and then forward based on ideas rather than events provides a different kind of projection into the future. Specifically, the events of the past take on a different shading in the context of the ebb and flow of ideas; moreover, the trends may now appear to be in decline or ascendancy. Although understanding the intellectual patterns of the past may not tell us the answer to what is next, it does provide a clearer sense of the domains where new developments should be expected.

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