Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.
Part III: Professional Philosophy, 1912-2000
11. Professional Realism
12. Europe’s Impact on the United States
13. Harvard and Oxford
14. The Tribulations of Professional Philosophy
Methods, Sources, Notes
Finally, we get to something interesting, professional realism (chapter 11). Yet another generational rebellion occurred, this time against idealism. While Kuklick claims that “the two generations of thinkers who formulated these views did not match their mentors in talent or creativity” (201), I think what is more important, were this even true, is to match or exceed one’s mentors in proceeding down the right track and coming up with a sounder philosophical basis. James looked down upon them as dry academic drones, to which I say, consider the source.
In the beginning, there was a rebellion against Royce, who claimed that no first-rate thinker was a realist. He was attacked by William Pepperell Montague and Ralph Barton Perry. Further provoked by James’s radical empiricism, they elaborated a New Realism (a.k.a. Neo-Realism, 1902-1914) and were joined by four others. One was Edwin Bissell Holt. The text does not clarify who the other three were.
Perry and James were nonetheless highly sympathetic to one another. Perry targeted the egocentric predicament, the notion that all we know is our experience, our sense impressions, and thus we can’t legitimately posit an independent material reality. Perry agreed with Royce on the non-viability of representational realism, counterposing his own “epistemological monism.” Consciousness is a subset of existing entities selected by the body’s nervous system. Holt then had to account for sensory error. Montague objected to Holt’s and Perry’s epistemology. The infighting among the New Realists inhibited the New Realists from developing a program that would survive them. (203-7)
Enter Critical Realism (1916-1930).
George Santayana eventually went down the road of the New Realists, but only temporarily. Eventually he posited a relationship between the flux (nature, the objective world) and ideal scientific objects. Consciousness was epiphenomenal. (208)
A watershed in the development of this tendency was the volume Essays in Critical Realism (1920). The other contributors were James B. Pratt, C. A. Strong, Arthur O. Lovejoy, Durant Drake, Arthur Kenyon Rogers, and Roy Wood Sellars. Santayana contributed the key notion of essence, which enabled the Critical Realists to distinguish themselves from representational realist and the New Realists. (209) Although this group did not carry out a cooperative program, they were more influential than the New Realists. (210)
Arthur O. Lovejoy is most famous for his work in the history of ideas. At one point he attacked Perry, but did not put forth his own philosophical position until 1930, in The Revolt Against Dualism, in which he also opposed absolute idealism, pragmatism, and neo-realism. According to his own view of “temporalistic realism,” he vindicated the reality of ideas and images as mental entities, products of time and “distance” from the world of extension. (211) According to Kuklick, Lovejoy’s positive views can only be understood by extrapolating from his criticisms of others.
Now we come to my favorite of classic American philosophers, Roy Wood Sellars. (By “classic” I refer to American philosophy prior to the immigration of European exiles in the 1930s.) Sellars gets high praise from Kuklick. Sellars initiated the term and developed his own comprehensive philosophy beginning with Critical Realism in 1916. While the New Realists had limited themselves to epistemology, Sellars developed an ontology, with an evolutionary view of both entities and knowledge, positing materialism as a necessary condition of realist epistemology. (211-2) Sellars logically separated intuition from knowledge. The physical world cannot be logically constructed from intuitions, because the material world causally and logically precedes intuitions. Sellar constructed what is essentially an emergent materialism (the term is not used in Kuklick’s summary.) (212-3) Note that Sellars harshly criticized the pragmatists; Dewey and the others could not escape from idealism, or from religion. (213-4) Kuklick mentions at the end Sellars’ adherence to a humanistic socialism.
I will come back to Sellars in a succeeding installment, as I consider his contribution far and above what American philosophy contributed to this point. It is important to note also that Sellars was the principal author of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, and that he, in collaboration with Marvin Farber, V. J. McGill, and others, was a conduit for the development of materialism in the United States, whose influence was curbed by the anti-communist repression of the late-1940s and 1950s. Sellars as well as others found a place for Marxism in American philosophy that was otherwise closed off after Sidney Hook turned against Marxism after 1938. Sellars’ philosophy has some affinity to dialectical materialism, which Sellars discussed as well.
C. I. Lewis is claimed to be the most influential thinker of the interwar period. His special area of competence was symbolic logic. He expounded his neo-pragmatism in his landmark work Mind and the World-Order (1929). His leading idea, inspired by Royce, was the “pragmatic a priori,” relating to our modes of interpreting given sense-data. Knowledge is where the a priori intersects the empirical. The conceptual and the empirical were kept distinct, avoiding both metaphysics and mysticism. “Conceptual pragmatism” avoids endorsing either realism or idealism. A concept, embedded in a categorical framework, was a plan for action. Knowledge was empirical and predictive. (215-7) Lewis was not opposed to idealism, only to dogmatic idealism. Kuklick proceeds to clarify. (218-220) Sellars objected to Lewis as he did to Dewey. And so do I. Still, there seems to be something interesting here.
Lewis’s position seemed to be definitive, but Wilfrid Sellars, son of Roy, attacked it, famously as “The Myth of the Given.” Wilfrid claimed to follow in Roy’s footsteps, but he was an original thinker in his own right. (Wilfrid is characterized as a “second-generation atheist.”) His style was less accessible than Roy’s. Wilfrid argued that sensory input could not be the basis of conceptual knowledge. Our discursive capability, which is where knowledge finds its place, has an evolutionary history as does sensory experience. (221-2) He became dissatisfied with his own account of the evolution of conceptual / linguistic capability, and in his 1960 lecture series “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” argued for the irreducible difference between humans and other animals, and for mind as radically emergent from the natural. Thus he retained the quandary that perplexed others: the exact placing of mind in the material world. (223)
So, prior to the influx of European refugees we will see in the succeeding chapter, both Sellars for me represent the best of what classic American philosophy was capable of. What a struggle to climb out of American backwardness.
There are several pieces by Roy Wood Sellars (and his colleagues) on my web site and external links to documents by and about Sellars. See my web pages: