Critique of Idealistic Naturalism:
Methodological Pollution in the Main Stream of American Philosophy

Dale Riepe


      IN THAT landed geographical region south of Canada and north of Mexico there have been four main philosophies. They all had three features in common: they were dedicated to individualism rather than to the common good, they all emphasized method, and they were all optimistic. Puritanism dominated American thought from 1600 to 1840. From 1840 to 1878 Transcendentalism was triumphant. With Charles S. Peirce's enunciation of the principle of pragmaticism, Pragmatism was ascendant until the end of the first World War. From that time until 1950 Naturalism prospered. Each of these philosophies concentrated on method: Puritanism on self‑abnegation and hard work; Transcendentalism on inwardness and upwardness; Pragmatism on utility; and, finally, Naturalism on scientific method. Until the closing of the geographical frontiers, Naturalism shared the customary American optimism, which gradually dwindled after the second World War. The euphoria concerning method continued until recently when instead of assuming that the method would find its own goal, philosophers began to ask what the aim of the method was to be. To leave this question undecided was a grievous error as Aristotle claimed. He said "the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued." One art "is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state." [1] And it will ordain the method or methods to be used. [5/6]


Even though none of the philosophies, from Puritanism to Naturalism worked out a systematic or integrated plan toward any particular goal, their emphasis upon movement, action, practice, and utility reached its culmination of sterility in Naturalism. The Naturalist believed that the common surd of his program was "the whole‑hearted acceptance of scientific method as the only reliable way of reading truth about the world, nature, society and man." [2] It is significant that the method here does not have any such goal as changing the world, but the passive one of "reading." As we might expect, John Dewey's statement along this line was more cautious: "The naturalist is one who has respect for the conclusions of natural science." [3] The salvational method was to provide "reading" matter for Hook; for Dewey it provided an object of "respect." On this view many philosophers who would not have called themselves naturalists were so designated, for example Kant or C. S. Peirce. A tighter claim than "respect" for scientific method was that of Y. H. Krikorian who maintained that "For naturalism as a philosophy, the universal applicability of the experimental method is a basic belief." [4] There were and are naturalists who would deny that scientific method is the only reliable way of "reading" truth, including Dewey, Abraham Edel, G. P. Conger, and Thelma Lavine; and there are naturalists who would question the necessity of having as a basic belief universal applicability of the experimental method. As was pointed out by O. K. Bouwsma, the scientific enterprise accepts as more basic the laws of thought which are unverifiable scientifically. Furthermore, be emphasized that "scientific method has never been justified from a purely intellectual point of view." [5] This leaves us with Dewey's less demanding "respect for the conclusions of natural science." "Respect," of course, does not imply whole‑hearted acceptance and this is to the good because we do not know when the conclusions of science are finally ready for unqualified and passionate devotion. Scientists tentatively accept scientific conclusions; sometimes they ignore or question them. If scientists are so cautious, how can philosophers be so intrepid? I believe that one reason for this is [6/7] that the Naturalistic philosophers are not scientists, no more scientists than Henri Bergson, Albert Camus, or Martin Heidegger. Their detachment from the actual operation of the scientific enterprise [of the interlocking scientific trusts] makes them outsiders whose opinions on the worth of scientific conclusions, on the tentativeness, makeshift, probatory, speculative nature of experimentalism is not worth much. The Naturalistic philosopher should do philosophy rather than (1) serve as an unpaid [?] publicity agent for scientific method, and (2) uncritically accept scientific method without analyzing its use in terms of social goals, and (3) assume without scientific evidence that the scientific method is simply inviolable and that by employing it mankind will be led straight to the Holy Grail or Nirvãna.

But some of the Naturalists themselves are not really serious about the scientific method of the scientist. While pretending to praise it, Dewey attacked scientific method by replacing it with what he called "common sense inquiry." This "common sense inquiry" which has its counterpart in the “ordinary language” of linguistic philosophy has been described as "a cognitive counterrevolution." [6] This cognitive twilight of Dewey fortunately ended in sunset. In Dewey's method of inquiry, which purports to be consistent with scientific method, one is not allowed qualitative distinctions, cannot separate object from subject, cannot find the "situation" or "field" about which he makes so much. For if one cannot carve out an object, how does one recognize a field? He recognizes it by the quality and quantity of objects surrounding it or included in it. Otherwise a "field" is like Nagarjuna's non‑ontological Void. Dewey believed that inquiry consisted in discovering "the relationships of facts and conceptions to one another [which] is dependent upon elimination of the qualitative as such and upon reduction to non­qualitative formulations." [7] This implies, as Paul Crosser has shown, “the elimination of any meaningful interpretation, in the sense of the relation of outer forms to a material content” [8] and the elimination of science as known by scientists. But this should surprise no one who knows the works of Dewey beginning with his article "The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism" (1882). [9] Here Dewey attacked whatever [7/8] he thought materialism was because (1) "it assumes the possibility of ontological knowledge," and (2) "it assumes the reality of the causal nexus." In its place we have the immaterialism that Dewey professed for the remainder of his life. Yet, how can Dewey favor the reduction of cognitive concerns to the qualitative when he has neither ontos nor nexus? [10] What, is the quantitative, quantitative of? I can only hypothesize that they must be quantities of mental events in Dewey's central nervous system. Dewey also had trouble finding objects in aesthetics. What are his art objects? They are such mentalistic qualities as "job satisfaction," indeterminable sense reactions, the "colorful drama of change," "fingering of the stretched string," and "tribal customs." [11] Dewey's idealistic nihilism arrives at the same place found by the famous Buddhist nihilist Nagarjuna, yet he mistakenly believed that he was respectful of scientific method. Not all the Naturalists were as idealistic and mentalistic as Dewey, but some of them were not quite sure that there was an independent material world existing apart from any minds contemplating it.


It is in examining the role of Naturalism in American social thought that we discover another weakness closely allied to an infirmity of Pragmatism. Pragmatism was first seriously attacked by social critics during World War I. Randolph Bourne, trained at Columbia University under Dewey, thought that he had put his finger on the greatest weakness of Pragmatism. This weakness is shared by Naturalism. Bourne thought that the infirmity appeared during periods of crisis. “What is significant is that it is the technical side of the war that appeals to them [the Pragmatists], not the interpretative or political side.” [12] "The American," Bourne says, "in living out this [8/9] philosophy, has habitually confused results with product, and been content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether it was the desirable place to get." [13] Furthermore, according to Bourne, “In the application of their philosophy to politics, our pragmatists are sliding over this crucial question of ends.” [14] And in discussing the realm of ends, he notes that "when the emphasis is on technical organization [the scientific method of the Naturalists] rather than organization of ideas [philosophizing] on strategy rather than desires, one begins to suspect that no programme is presented because they have none to present." [15] The Pragmatists were "pitifully unprepared for the interpretation or the idealistic focusing of ends." [16] One might add that they were even less prepared for a materialistic focusing of ends. What was at fault, then, with this evolutionary philosophy was not the unawareness of change and the rationalistic‑idealistic traditions that seemed to prevent them, but heedless that the real end of human thought was politics, a social order that was to be formed by intelligence—not just any intelligence, but an intelligence in favor of the great majority of the people not simply its theater‑filling rulers. [17] Intelligence uses the best tools available unless these are observed to be too dangerous. Dewey used tools that had grown out of Utilitarianism, Free Religion, Transcendentalism, Leibnizianism and Right-wing Hegelianism. [18] By fusing these, he thought perhaps we can build a better society. Yet "social change is to be a matter of individual choice and individual moral change . . . a slow day‑by‑day, almost non‑temporal process." [19] As Dewey says “thus can we be sure that we face our problems in detail one by one as they arise, with all the resources provided by collective intelligence operating in cooperative action.” [20] 20 Piecemeal, partial, pluralistic, [21] non‑visions through the developing present, seen individually and morally in a field of objectless, subjectless non­cognitive unrealizations is the a‑scientific model presented to us by Dewey, the Vermont Zeno.

The constant flux and change, the evolutionary march which Dewey saw was the march of the productive system of capitalism armed with scientific method and control of the forces of production. There were other forces at work also, hangovers from feudalism such as the church, nobility, serfdom, and the apriori and authoritarian methods. From the standpoint of this tradition, both Pragmatism and Naturalism appeared as radical philosophies because they embodied the claims of "progressive" capitalism. At their best both combined mechanical materialism (Dewey's belief that the field must be reduced to quantity) with historical idealism. Even today Naturalism appears radical to religious fundamentalists unless they have been sniffing in the populist gluepot.

Pragmatism collapsed in the disillusionment created by the exposure of nationalism and imperialism during the first World War. Although Dewey rarely made derogatory references to imperialism he had such an unclear notion of what composed it that we must assume that he had never even read Lenin on the subject. But even so, Dewey's doctrine had by that time spread throughout the American educational system and its influences were seen everywhere, especially in Naturalism and to some extent in its European cousins: logical positivism, general semantics, and unity of science. Operationalism was perhaps an offshoot of Peirce's pragmaticism. Pragmatism and Naturalism, however, were not so much inclined towards open espousal of neutralism and objectivism (social neutrality) [22] as the imported philosophies of Austria, Germany, and Central Europe. The neo-positivists relegated politics to the non‑empirical realm along with ethics and aesthetics. Political philosophy was conveniently [10/11] buried under the "Theory of Valuation" by the end of the second World War. Nevertheless, what nearly all the empiricists had in common, whether Pragmatic, Naturalistic or Positivistic was the denial that objective reality may be rationally understood, the espousal of the relativity of truth, and a common hostility to materialism. They refuted materialism on the following grounds: (1) it is dogmatic; (2) it is unscientific; (3) it undermines individual freedom, and (4) it favors authoritarianism. [23]

An analysis of the social function of the "Theory of Valuation" requires a separate paper, but let us at least see what Dewey believed that its function was. He said: "A theory of valuation as theory can only set forth the conditions which a method of formation of desires and interests must observe in concrete situations." [24]

What is a method of formation of desires and interests? Psychological conditioning? Does the theory "set forth the conditions" of psychological conditioning? Do these conditions include a theory of politics? If not, what is the theory of valuation all about?

Let us then turn to the Valuationist, C. I. Lewis, who cunningly failed to state what his position was: Naturalist, neo‑Kantian, or Pragmatist. He asks how can we determine the "social value of an objective existent?" First, we determine a linear series of values (higher and lower), he responds. Second, we count up the satisfactions such as beauty and instrumentality and then decide where in the linear scale the social value belongs. To quote Lewis himself: "The conjunction of two such value‑potentialities in the object give value to it in accordance with the principle that the conjoint value of two satisfactions, A and B, is determined by the place of (A and B both) in our series of immediate values in general, as determined by direct preferring. If having the satisfactions A and B both, is preferable to experiencing satisfaction C, then an object having the [11/12] potentiality for satisfactions A and B both is, on this point, preferable to one affording satisfaction C only, and is in like manner a more valuable object. To be sure, such direct preferring is required to be rational; but so far as is here concerned, to be rational means only to value a satisfaction not presently realized as we should value it if and when experienced." [25] To be rational implies valuing a satisfaction that cannot be felt and hence not a satisfaction. To be irrational then would be to not value a satisfaction as we should value it if and when experienced. Why cannot an individual do both or neither? What has rationality to do with it? This is just another attempt to continue the atomistic tradition of theoryless empiricism. Behaviorism is no substitute for a social theory seeking a common good.

What on earth is Lewis trying to say? I think that we can tell what he is trying to talk about by examining what he says in the light of the Physiocrats. Of them Marx wrote: "Their method of exposition is, of course, necessarily governed by their general view of the nature of value, which to them is not a definite social mode of existence of human activity ( ) but consists of material things—land, nature, and the various modifications of these material things." [26] That is why Lewis writes of "social objects" which can be plopped like commodities onto a supermarket checkout counter and jammed into the grocery box or bag in between two other objects.

If we can get philosophers to cogitate on such apparent trivia there is an excellent chance that they will be too busy publishing glosses on what Lewis and the other valuationists have to say about how to value a social object ever to raise a social question. Again the piecemeal, individualistic, pseudo‑scientific, dust-­raising trash is gravely treated as if it had something to do with our social life. In its favor may I recommend that it be used as a model for establishment attempts to raise the probability that what they do will be done with recondite pseudo-scientific flair.

The semi‑progressivist "reconstructionist" Dewey of the teens and twenties succumbed, like a lady sinking back into the chaise longue with a sigh, to the scientificizing jargon of "verifiability," "valuation," "transaction," and empiricality. From the standpoint of a theory of society or genuine social evaluation commensurate with the needs of [12/13] American life, this amounted to a moratorium on critical social thinking among the academic philosophers extending from Peirce's early essays (1878) and his intuitional proof of God (1896) to the semantic idealism of Charles Morris, the Naturalistic liberalism of Morris Cohen and the other New York Naturalists. It is obvious that the post-Idealist thought imported from Britain, from G. E. Moore to Wittgenstein and Austin, confused rather than clarified social thought and indeed stressed intuitionism and other forms of idealism.

The Naturalists might have laid up a bit of treasure if they had cried out like promethean souls to be released from the trivialities of their profit‑seeking society. If they had turned to Nature, like the eighteenth and nineteenth century romantics, we should have known that they were not writing books for the dead. Their lifeless philosophy looked neither to the past nor the future nor to Nature for inspiration which must account for the undeniable fact that many of the Naturalists actually looked shockingly like half‑living corpses and intoned their banalities as if they were speaking through winding sheets. This description was particularly true of those Naturalists who had studied Protestant theology and given it up out of respect for scientific method. There might also have been economic, social, and professional reasons. Once they had passed on the message that God was dead, they themselves died while their ghosts intoned the canons of scientific method. With the Death of God Naturalism lost its ogre and raison d'être. With nothing in particular to fight, since the whole domain of social philosophy and values was closed to it by the Postulate of Cautious Empiricism, it shrank into self‑defeating non‑prophecies. Naturalism might yet have unmasked the dried out shibboleths of bourgeoisdom or at least called attention to them from the philosophical belfry of the superstructure. Instead it chose to do logic without ontology, evaluation without issues, philosophy of science without objects, and philosophy of history without future reference.

Just as the office of the Attorney General did not ferret out Pragmatists, it also left the Naturalists unscathed. Why should anyone examine a philosophy that slid over controversial social issues, obstructed a clear vision of the economic and political consequences of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, and warned against a radicalism that it associated either with violence or dead European questions? Some Naturalists thought that they were treading on dangerous ground when they forthrightly remarked that "it is not completely outside the realm of possibility that deity may not exist, at [13/14] least not in the sense encouraged by the church as an institution"; or when they bluntly stated that "man, after all, we must admit, is a part of nature." To demonstrate their loyalty to the status quo three well‑known Naturalists included an essay, in their widely‑sold elementary philosophy textbook of readings, written by the “Rationalistic” Naturalist Morris R. Cohen. It was entitled “Why I am Not a Communist.” It is significant that they did not include another essay entitled "Why I am Not a Capitalist Monster." [27]

Pragmatism had seen happiness as capitalism had. Happiness is succeeding, going forward, adjusting [to market conditions], advancing [to new markets]. All this could be epitomized as "education for life," because that is what life turned out to be for Americans. But happiness is not a goal in itself. There is no goal in itself. There is no end. This is to carry out Leibniz's principle of continuity beyond all sense.

Dewey did not pass Pragmatism on to the business community; rather he incorporated the philosophy of business into his own psyche and rewrote it in the style that it deserved. This style Lewis Mumford characterized as "concrete in its object [but] as fuzzy and formless as lint." People of sensibility preferred the style of Bergsonianism as long as they were going to get a message aiming at the same result. Although no one believes that all the statements of Pragmatism can be made completely congruent with the views of capitalism, yet one can affirm the basic rationality of the capitalist order if only it operates with "the method of intelligence" and "scientific method." [28]

The Naturalists, except insofar as they were also Pragmatists, like Dewey, were academically more remote, but they carried out the traditions of methodological transubstantiation by turning social issues into problems of epistemology while frequently lifting the Host of scientific method. Despite this, Naturalism was an improvement [14/15] on Pragmatism. [29] It had fewer hangovers from feudalism such as a sincere interest in the viability of religion, it was scientifically cleaner, had fewer moving parts, and was more knowledgeable. "It expressed," better than Pragmatism, "the essence of advanced American technological society." [30] Naturalism was also somewhat less crassly untheoretical, made some gesture in the direction of trying to unite fact and value and attempted to emphasize the natural content of spiritual values. It failed to unite fact and value because it did not try to unite practice and theory. And the reason that it could not unite practice and theory is that then it would have had to settle questions of social aims, ends. If Naturalism had decided what the social aims were, it would then have been required to go back to make sense of ontology, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. As Harold Stearns stated at the end of the First World War: "Since we literally dared not be critical about the aims of the war, since we literally dared not examine realistically the glowing idealistic vaporings of the President [Wilson], we could be critical only of the method of waging the war." [31] With no recognizable (or only too recognizable) political theory and with an historical view that did not allow extrapolation into the future (in this it was even less optimistic and more cautious than Pragmatism), it confined itself to making the past a guide to understanding the present. Philosophically, this is too late. Value theory must refer to the future to be socially significant.


Not following the biological and organic models so commonly dear to the Naturalists, would the Naturalist historicist wish to say that by studying the past of the horse we may know more about its present, whereas knowing both its past and present we will not know anything at all about its future? Is this true of society too? Will the past society give us some knowledge of our present society, but together they will not give us any clue to future society?

The Naturalist Edward W. Strong claimed: "[I have] taken seriously the attendant claim made by many historians that knowledge about the past contributes to an understanding of the present [15/16] in which we live." [32] Strong also approvingly quoted Seignobos' view that "history enables us to understand the present in so far as it explains the origins of the existing state of things." [33] But what about the future? Strong rejects Allan Nevin's view that historical work “enables communities to grasp their relationship with the past, and to chart on general lines their immediate future course.” [34] The most that Strong, the scientifically entranced Naturalist, can say in favor of learning about the future from the present and past is “summary opinion and more or less shrewd guesswork.” [35] But can guesswork ever be "shrewd"? Just as Dewey occasionally slips into admitting something like class struggle, here Strong fumbles out an admission that there can be something "shrewd" about our guesswork concerning the future. But if we can't really know anything about the future, then no plans or aims for the future make any sense. So why worry about ethical or political questions?

George Boas, another Naturalist historicist, considered it important and perhaps imperative that the history of philosophy be understood in terms of Kerngedanken which dominate a period of philosophical thought. In our time, he said, philosophy of science and aesthetics are uppermost in [his?] philosophical circles. But these are not thoughts, but simply categories under which thoughts may be subsumed. Boas talked about "cosmological" periods, "scientific" periods, and "urban" periods. On a different level he differentiated the "end of a period," because "boredom explains much of what happens to the history of an idea." [36] Not only "boredom" but "conceptual inertia" is also responsible for much that goes on in the history of philosophy. [37] Let us examine boredom and inertia, factors so important in understanding intellectual history.

When students are bored, it may be because the teacher is not giving a full account of the subject. When there is inertia it may be caused by the mass media or education treating germane and relevant topics in a yawning manner in the hope that they will be forgotten. The inertia about social issues of students trained in parochial schools and most public schools as well has long been [16/17] noticed and tenderly induced. One thing we do know, Boas maintained, was that in accounting for how problems arise in philosophy "the answer given by that form of neo‑Hegelianism known as dialectical materialism is more terre à terre: [he talks about Marxism like a Protestant divine about sex in the nineteenth century] but it is so overburdened with metaphysical baggage that it is not worth much more than its source." [38] Here one can reduce both father and son to ashes like the ancient Brahmins of India slaying the materialists. What does Boas propose that we replace the metaphysical baggage with? Well, how about the devastatingly sharp hypotheses of "boredom" and "conceptual inertia"? But where do these two small flight bags come from if not from the pre‑Montesquieu idealistic checkroom?

Boas next asks: "What do we know about the history of philosophy?" At least the following: (1) There is no single subject matter which may be called philosophy and of which the history may be written. [Dewey was unable to find objects in a field or objects of art.] Boas cannot find a philosophical subject matter. (2) "Few philosophers had a system of philosophy in a geometrical sense." [How many had a system in an algebraic sense?] "[U]pon examination every system turns out to be, from the point of view of the subject matter a group of interests dominated by historical accident." [39] [Like Dewey, Boas believes that subject matter has a point of view, and it is a good thing because its organizers in this case scarcely seem to have one.] A philosophy of history or a history of philosophy stuffed with historical accidents is going to be an embarrassment when the host begins to carve. (3) "Philosophical ideas . . . cannot be separated from the total intellectual life of a period." [40] [How about the material life also?] The philosophical idealism of Boas comes out more clearly and with less rending and tearing than that of most other Naturalists.

Another Naturalist, J. H. Randall, Jr., according to Dewey, should be given the credit for unmasking the real struggle that went beyond the historical materialist analysis. It is the "struggle between the active force of scientific knowledge and technical power and the deflecting force of the lag and inertia of institutionalized habits and beliefs." [41] Historical materialists, it would seem, must get off their [17/18] high horse and get down on all fours. But who and what lagged; who created the inertia; and whose habits are responsible for them? Dewey himself pointed out earlier "that the new science [after Francis Bacon] was for a long time to be worked in the interest of old ends of human exploitation." [42] Why didn't he write the obvious next sentence which would have been: "Now, instead of old ends of human exploitation, there are new ends of human exploitation." There were also new methods, one of them being the control of scientific method and technology for the end of profit for a tiny minority. Previous exploitation was developed under feudalism; the new under capitalism. Naturalism and Pragmatism before it, did not really go the whole way into social issues. They only seemed to. They kept whetting the knife and threatening to cut with it.

Why cannot the Naturalists talk about the future? One cannot deal with the future until one knows the present. And to know the present requires some form of transcendence, critique, philosophical criteria that enables one to judge the present from an unenmeshed point of view. Despite the mystical, mythological, and apparently non‑sensible features of the book of Revelation what its writer[s] had was (1) an admitted knowledge that the present was intolerable (ca. 60‑70 A.D.), (2) that a future must be hypothecated to give men hope and a sense of dignity, and (3) that this future would come in a relatively short time.

Under socialism events unfold according to the plans of future-oriented men who know that the present must be structurally changed to bring greater decency to mankind. The apocalyptic view of Revelation is future‑oriented. Events will unfold according to the plans of God. A "faith survives only through active propaganda, unrelenting struggle against the internal and external enemy, the proud profession of the revolutionary standpoint before the heathen judges, and martyrdom, confident in victory." [43]

But in which direction is Naturalism oriented? Back upon itself, back upon the present, in a self‑crippling gesture. Under Naturalism events do not unfold in any particular direction although accident, inertia, boredom, and the inscrutable may be thought of as controls. [18/19]

If the Naturalists do not know what laws brought about the present, they surely will not be able to say anything about the future.

Much Naturalism is not shamefaced materialism, but a form of idealism. [44] We have been so hypnotized by its harping on scientific method that we have scarcely noticed that its metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, history has been intellectual, geometrical, symbolic, logical, transactional, ideational, and mentalistic despite cant about the biological, evolutionary, organic, and quantitative. Scientific method was the Trojan Horse in which the Naturalistic idealists entered the Walls of Constructive Philosophy.


Abraham Edel, of all the Naturalists, has tried hardest to overcome the barrier of fact and value. In addition he has had good things to say about Marxism. Furthermore, he has devoted serious attention to one of the behavioral sciences and has attempted to use it to strengthen his philosophical judgment. And he frequently gives the impression that be would like to see some major changes in the social order. With such strong recommendations, how is it that he retains his Naturalistic position? His misfortunes are perhaps the following: First, he believed that Dewey can serve as a useful guide. For be said, "Dewey's instrumentalist analysis of evaluation falls within a materialist tradition, broadly conceived . . . in approaching ethical problems Dewey definitely recognizes their social basis." [45] I think it would be fair to retort that Plato and F. H. Bradley also recognize the social basis of ethics. What is important is how the social basis is analyzed. Society could [it really couldn’t] be made up of undifferentiated centers of subjectless and objectless experiences and I believe that it is on this that Dewey's alleged materialism is based. Second, like the Naturalistic historians, Edel is extremely cautious about the future. He said, "The Marxists . . . hold monopoly to be an inevitable product of capitalism and see government itself as an instrument utilized by monopoly interests. The question whether there is an ultimate clash of the interests [shall we wait for an atomic holocaust?] of capital and labor rather than merely occasional [19/20] temporary conflicts can thus be answered only in terms of the total economic functioning of a society, and a prediction of its future trend in the light of world developments." [46] To this one can only reply: how much evidence would convince anyone so precisely wedded to immaculate scientific methodology? Third, Edel believes that idealists are other‑worldly, but since we know what they are by their actions as well as by their professions we know that they are this‑worldly. I take it as a postulate that only the dead, if they, are other‑worldly. The idealists are a hardy breed, as Bertrand Russell well demonstrates. It would be a frosty morning that they did not reach the hog troughs at least even with the simple‑minded materialists. As a good Rajput intellectual has stated to me with some bitterness: "Why are the Idealists first in line when the honors, positions, wealth, and praise are to be distributed?" This is an important point and to miss it is to fail to see the true role of idealists in their ruling class orientation. Fourth, Edel gets more remote from questions of praxis from 1946 onwards. By 1968 he has really replaced any thought of major change in the social order with "a receptivity to possibly new qualities, a recognition of emergents in human life [by radiation?], and insistence on clearing the path for creativity." [47] The title of his first important book was The Theory and Practice of Philosophy (1946), of his last Anthropology and Ethics: The Quest for Moral Understanding (1959, 1968). The first was written at the beginning of the Cold War and the second just before the resurgence of practice in philosophy. In 1946 he said that "Sweeping changes must come from the war and the post‑war reconstruction." But he did not foresee any more than anyone else that the reconstruction would be the resurgence of imperialism. Again he wrote in 1949, "On its active side . . . the theory of the role of ideas is the theory of how policies can and best may be formulated and become effective; in short, it is the theory of leadership as well as that of reflection." [48] This mood changes by 1959 to the resignation that about all we can do is to encourage "sensitivity." During the middle of the Joseph McCarthy period be said, "On the whole, while one may not minimize the basic disagreements that may exist in fact between nations and classes in the modern world, there is no ground for [20/21] despair in the task of elaborating a stable moral core‑conception of democracy." [49] I think I agree with Edel that we need not despair about elaborating a core‑conception so much as we need to know whose core‑conception to believe and act upon. It certainly cannot be that of the Naturalists who have not even tried to set forth the social goals towards which all men should strive.

I am not insensitive to the charm, style, and good intentions of the Naturalists who generally make up a group of ingratiating teachers, lecturers, and writers. The psychological and dramatic talent of Boas, the subtle interweaving of analysis and anthropology of Edel, the terse clarity of E. W. Strong, the complicated personal dialectic of W. R. Dennes, the breathless and complicated generalizations of Randall, the wit and clarity of H. T. Costello, and the salty gusto of H. A. Larrabee, who wrote the epitaph, he thought, of American idealism. What he said may just as aptly be applied to Naturalism: "The essential hollowness of the Genteel Tradition and its smug remoteness . . . from the actualities of American living, were suddenly exposed." [50] The genteel Naturalistic tradition has proved to be at most cautious and conciliatory and, at the least, contentless and irrelevant to the social issues of the day. And this avoidance of social issues, politics, and ends reflected back on its flaccid approach to other philosophical concerns. Larrabee goes on to say: "Just as the Civil War killed transcendentalism, so the first World War and its disillusioning aftermath precipitated the down­fall of the feeble Roycean idealism which had succeeded it." [51] He might have added that the first World War made it possible for Pragmatism to cut its own throat and that the aftermath of the second World War provided an opportunity for Naturalism to do so. With Naturalism's demise the optimism that had saluted natural science for one hundred years evaporated. The manufacture and use of the A‑bomb, biological and chemical warfare, the scientific use of human beings and the four pollutions (air, water, earth, and sound) created widespread negative reactions. There appeared to be one thing equally important to natural science and scientific method­ — [21/22] and that was who was to use it and for what. And no matter how these questions are asked, the answers will involve recognition and understanding of the class struggle.

The Naturalists' idealistic tendencies, from the most non‑anti-materialistic (Edel) to the least (Boas, Eliseo Vivas) [52] is found in this notice, a choice that puts it nearly always in practice on the side of the establishment. The ruling class, it will be noticed, has not hunted down either Pragmatists or Naturalists, while keeping a sharp nose in the wind for non‑mechanical materialists, Marxists, and socialists who indicate a belief in the existence of a fairly sharply defined struggle, and who have chosen to emphasize worthy ends and goals for an America up to its ears in scientific method.

This examination of Naturalism with its overemphasis on methodological considerations [53] exemplifies a wider truth than the one immediately apparent ­that failure to consider goals and ends must lead to dangerous blind alleys. A wider truth to emerge from the entangling confusion resulting from focusing on exclusive features in philosophy is that disregard for the claims of ontology, social ethics, (politics) and aesthetics can only lead to warped and partial philosophy. When the special sciences and the whole of mankind are in need of a synoptic view, it is damaging to strum on partiality and speciality. American philosophy must now devote itself to supplying solutions to such a need.


1 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1049, trans. W. D. Ross.

2 Sidney Hook, Naturalism and the Human Spirit, ed. Y. H. Krikorian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944), p. 45.

3 Ibid., p. 2.

4 Ibid., p. 242.

5 Bouwsma, Philosophical Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1969), p. 79.

6 Paul Crosser, The Nihilism of John Dewey (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), Chap. I, ii passim.

7 Dewey, Logic, the Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1938), p. 65.

8 Crosser, op. cit., p. 85.

9 Dewey, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, XVI, pp. 208‑213.

10 George P. Conger says that if Dewey was to be asked: "'Is there a physical world?' the answer is a shaded 'Yes.'" "Pragmatism and the Physical World," Philosophy for the Future, ed. R. W. Sellars, V. J. McGill, Marvin Farber (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), p. 524. Conger, a student of Dewey, believes this, but Arthur Murphy stated that he could not get Dewey to admit to this in conversation.

11 Dewey, Art As Experience (New York: Minton Blach & Co., 1934), pp. 4‑6.

12 The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers by Randolph Bourne, New York: S. A. Russell, 1956), p. 252.

13 The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers by Randolph Bourne, p. 253.

14 Ibid., p. 248.

15 Ibid., p. 249.

16 Ibid., p. 251.

17 It is the view of John Kenneth Galbraith, America's best‑known establishment economist and confidante of former President J. F. Kennedy, that the rulers or decision‑makers of this country would fit handily in a modest sized‑theater.

18 "His implication of a 'social soul,' of a 'community of religious feeling' is indeed not so far from Emerson and Hegel." Waldo Frank, The Re‑Discovery of America (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1929), p. 170.

19 Harry K. Wells, Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism (London: Lawrence Wishart, Ltd., 1954), p. 164.

20 Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), p. 7, my italics.

21 George P. Conger makes this comment: "By its doctrine of truth as satisfaction and the obvious plurality of satisfactions in an individual or a group, pragmatism has tended to pluralism; and pluralism whatever be its proper status as a philosophy, can evade many an issue by saying both Yes and No." "Pragmatism and the Physical World," Philosophy for the Future, The Quest of Modem Materialism, ed. R. W. Sellars, V. J. McGill, and Marvin Farber (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), p. 524.

22 Social "neutralism" by its silence encourages the establishment.

23 Maurice Cornforth, In Defense of Philosophy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1950), p, 242. The so‑called open society desired by K. R. Popper, Bertrand Russell and associates is the society open for the predatory activity of the world jet set enjoying the fruits of socially un­neutral scientific enterprise.

24 Dewey, Theory of Valuation, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science II, 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 57. Dewey's italics are everywhere used as escape hatches. The turgidity of his mind is well brought out here when he emphasizes "theory as theory." How about theory as cigarette‑holder or garbage can or snow plow? Or even cleverer; how about theory as non‑theory? That will take several generations of conjuring! Think of the Ph.D. theses devoted to that.

25 Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (La Salle: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1946), p. 550, my italics.

26 Marx, Theories of Surplus‑Value, Part I (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.), p. 46.

27 I deliberately make this seemingly disparate parallel because to say that one was a communist after 1918 in the United States was tantamount to saying that he was a monster. The comparable term earlier was "atheist." Under capitalism, however, atheism has become philosophically respectable. See Daniel J. Bronstein, Yervant H. Krikorian and Philip P. Wiener, Basic Problems of Philosophy (1947, 1955, 1964).

28 "John Dewey is in no rigid and excluding opposition to the American flux. His matter and method reveal a profound acceptance; indeed the younger generation (myself included) have attacked him on the ground that he accepted too lovingly the chaos of our world to lead us out of it." Waldo Frank, op. cit., p. 168.

29 Although few of the proponents were any improvement on William James.

30 Il Pensiero Americano Contemporaneo, ed. Ferruccio Rossi‑Landi (Milano: Edizioné di Communità, 1958), p. 275, trans. Paul Piccone.

31 Stearns, Liberalism in America (New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1919), p. 94.

32 Naturalism and the Human Spirit, p. 176.

33 Introduction to the Study of  History, ibid., p. 177.

34 Naturalism and the Human Spirit, p. 178.

35 Ibid., p. 179.

36 Naturalism. and the Human Spirit, p. 141.

37 Ibid., p. 139.

38 Ibid., p. 148.

39 Ibid., p. 152, "determined by" my italics.

40 Ibid., p. 153, my italics.

41 Dewey, "Experience, Knowledge and Value," The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. P. A. Schilpp (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1939), p. 522.

42 Dewey, Democracy and Education, reissue (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), p. 283.

43 F. Engels, "On the History of Early Christianity," Marx & Engels: Basic Writings on Politics & Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 192.

44 According to G. P. Conger "Pragmatism is a rear‑guard action, A Battle of the Bulge on behalf of idealism—a thrust of emphasis on human experience or mind, reinterpreted to bring out its dynamic and practical functions." op. cit., p. 539.

45 Edel, The Theory and Practice of Philosophy (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1946), p. 431.

46 Ibid., p. 455.

47 May Edel and Abraham Edel, Anthropology and Ethics, rev. ed. (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968), p. 237.

48 Abraham Edel, "The Theory of Ideas," Philosophy for the Future, p. 450.

49. Abraham Edel, Ethical Judgment: The Use of Science in Ethics (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, Collier‑Macmillan Limited, 1964), p. 327. One notices that the "Free" Press has been swallowed up by the Collier‑Macmillan conglomerate.

50 Naturalism  and the Human Spirit, p. 350.

51 Ibid., p. 351.

52 I have been told that Vivas abrogated Naturalism to join a group of "other-worldly" philosophers.

53 The present discussion of American Naturalism is thus not intended to apply to all types of thought designated "naturalistic," and especially not to types which could equally well be called "materialistic" in a wider sense. Yet I stand guilty with the other idealistic naturalists, having spent too many years trying to clean the American henhouse with a methodological spoon. But from the bowels of decency and reason I exhort other naturalists to re‑examine their positions so that they waste no more time in the futile chant:

"Scientific methodology without End, Amen, Amen."

SOURCE: Riepe, Dale. "Critique of Idealistic Naturalism: Methodological Pollution in the Main Stream of American Philosophy," in Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & John Somerville (St. Louis: W. H. Green, 1971), pp. 5-22.

Note: Footnotes have been converted to endnotes for ease of reference in this format.

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