Is Naturalism Enough?

by Roy Wood Sellars

I take it that general usage favors the proposition that all materialists are naturalists but that not all naturalists are materialists. If such is the case it is important to determine the precise points of difference between naturalism and materialism. In what ways does materialism go beyond naturalism in its assertions?

In an article of an expository sort Professor Hook has undertaken to show that much of the controversy between materialism and idealism was motivated by the recognized conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism. [1] And here, he argues, the key concepts are teleology and probability. Now I would agree, in the main, with his excellent analysis of backgrounds and motivations. Where I differ from him is in what seems to me his rather cavalier treatment of materialism as distinguished from a rather generic sort of naturalism applicable to pragmatism, positivism, panpsychism, and other varieties of a naturalistic outlook. It is as though materialism was to be robbed of its name, pushed to one side with scarcely concealed scorn and witness that name appropriated by naturalism. In short, the thesis seems to be that the only defensible meaning assignable to materialism is that of naturalism.

I am the more confirmed in this impression because of his attack upon materialism in his book, From Hegel to Marx, where he overtly rejects materialism in its traditional ontological associations on the ground that it involves an impossible correspondence theory of truth and the assumption that effects are like their causes. [2]

Now I am not surprised at this position. It is precisely what I should expect from a thinker with Professor Hook's perspective and philosophical affiliations. Yet because I differ from him on important technical points and am more ready that he to believe that materialism is reclaimable and that naturalism is not enough, I take this occasion to invite him to an exploration of the issues involved. Since we have a naturalistic outlook in common and since both of us admire science and its methods, there should be little, if any, emotional tension. I am even ready to grant that Dewey's position almost clicks. But, in drawing the philosophical threads of my thought together, I find that pragmatic naturalism has apparently waved aside many issues, largely from an almost morbid fear of the "subjective." If I am mistaken, I hope that Professor Hook can set me right. In these days it would be a pity to have empirically‑minded naturalists work at cross‑purposes. In what follows, then, let me say in advance that I am not expounding a simple‑minded and clearly outmoded form of materialism involving reductionism, denial of connections and organization, and the treatment of consciousness as an epiphenomenon. It is a critical and philosophical form of materialism with, I believe, maturity in its theses.

Since the primary purpose is that of exploration and the determination of differences—if there are such—the best method would seem to be the presentation of a number of theses which seem to me essential to materialism and also defensible. Having stated these, I shall indicate how they seem to me to differ from those characteristic of pragmatic naturalism and then invite comment. An oldish thinker may be excused if he has systematized his principles and interrelated them. And may I say that I believe in systematic exploration as against merely piecemeal analysis? In the long run it gets one further. At any rate, the theses which I regard as alone sufficient to characterize a philosophical form of materialism fall under four headings: (a) epistemological, (b) psychophysical, (c) ontological, and (d) axiological. . . .


1. Perception is the basic act of cognition and, upon analysis, is discerned to involve a denotative reference to an objective and a sensory symbolization of that objective, plus additional conceptual meanings characterizing it and its relations. [3]

2. Perception is an elementary level of knowing and too much should not be expected of it. Even the concepts used are largely practical in import.

3. Sensations are neither acts of cognition nor, outside of introspective and inspective attention, objectives of cognition. They are taken up into the perceptual response and used therein as symbols, guides, and points of departure for conceptual characterization of external objectives.

4. Since perception expresses a response of the organic self to stimuli, it is not surprising that it is felt to be an act of the percipient. The awareness of the percipient in perception has been too much neglected in studies of perception. The objective of the directed response, the referent, is correlative to the percipient and is assumed to have a similar existential status. This is the basis of realism.

5. The Lockian theory of perception should be rechristened the causal theory of the generation of sensations. It is not a theory of perception at all, since it disregards the directed response of the organic self, reference, and symbolic characterization. This mistake, combined with Cartesian dualism and a false formulation of the correspondence theory of truth, led to all the difficulties which have puzzled epistemologists and to Berkeleian idealism and Humian phenomenalism.

6. We do not first know subjective states of mind and then infer external things but, from the first, in perception are concerned with objectives of organic response. Coghill has shown that motor responses even precede the development of sensory factors. [4]

7. There is no "cognitive relation" between the cognitive act of the percipient and its referent but only a guided pointing. Demonstratives like "this" and "that" are correlated with such pointing. [5]

8.  Cognition never involves a literal apprehension of its objective—as naive realism suggests. It is as though this were the case in perception because sensations are caught up in the directed symbolization and function as surfaces, appearances, and manifestations. [6]

9.  Physical things—including the organic self—are objectives of scientific knowledge, just as they are of perception. There are not two tables ŕ la Eddington. We simply know more about the table in science.

10.  With this approach it is meaningless to talk about things‑in‑themselves or about mental space versus physical space.

11.  While sustained by a complex mechanism, cognition is simply a directed disclosure of denotables through symbols, an achievement which is sui generis. It 'is mythical to talk about spectator theories of cognition.

12. True, as an adjective attached to propositions, means “gives knowledge of the referent," "expresses a fact," which are equivalent. The criteria of trueness are empirical and logical of the sort usually discussed. The correspondence theory of truth should be completely reformulated as the correspondence theory of the conditions of knowledge. Such correspondence is a justified inference from the fact of knowledge and a study of its underlying mechanisms.

13. The pragmatic test of praxis is like a final examination justifying the human claim to achieve knowledge of the environment. If our validated knowledge‑claims left us helpless, we might well be skeptics—if we survived.

I wish now to make a few comments upon the implications of these epistemological theses as related to pragmatism. And here is where the remarks of Professor Hook will be particularly interesting.

With the set‑up indicated, it is obvious that I am not defending a merely passive mirror‑theory of knowledge with an otiose spectator; and yet knowledge is not for me the sort of merely predictive, forward‑looking affair within "experience" that it seems to be for the pragmatist. Of course, I recognize empirical predictions, just as I recognize memories and judgments about the past. But it seems to me an undeniable fact that we claim to know things coexistent with ourselves, the “antecedent" reality of Dewey's critics. Now having, from the beginning, studied James's transitive theory of knowing and Dewey's assumption that a representative realism of any sort was embogged in Cartesian dualism and the above­mentioned epistemological difficulties, I can sympathize with the path taken; and yet I hold that the above analysis escapes all these traditional difficulties and enables us to construct a physical realism. And a physical realism is essential to materialism. So long as Hook adheres to his pragmatic theory of knowledge he can not be a materialist. Here is a watershed. And I find that pragmatists are seldom willing to go over the ground and ask themselves why realists think that the pragmatists have much in common with idealists. . . .

. . . I turn next to psychophysics.


Here, again, I can only be summary and state theses with little enlargement upon them.

1. I take it that the percipient is at least dimly aware of himself as an embodied self over against the things perceived. This awareness is deepened by action, such as walking toward the object, handling it, etc.

2. Again, it is my opinion that self‑awareness is quite analogous to external perception and involves reference, symbolization, and characterization. Such self‑awareness has a spread from awareness of bodily attitudes through kinesthetic sensations, awareness of organic tone through organic sensations, awareness of how the organic self feels through feeling, awareness of desires and purposes through desiderative and purposive experiences. This spread does not conflict with a functional unity, a sense of a reacting embodied self. [7]

3. There is no pure ego nor a disembodied consciousness. These are cultural myths.

4. The chief difference between external perception and self‑awareness is that reflection forces us to regard the experiences symbolic of the self as more concerned with intra‑bodily activities and adjustments. The sensory data used in external perception are more specialized and peripheral in import. It would seem that they were developed to guide external response. We do, of course, perceive our organic selves in this external fashion also.

5. In self‑awareness the experiences we use symbolically are events inseparable from the activities of the organic self. But we regard the organic self as a continuant having capacities which find expression in such activities. This categorial meaning of "being a continuant" develops conjointly in external perception and in self‑awareness.

6. The organic self is as complex and differentiated as the organism for it is the organism. The brain seems to be the organ of cognition in that sensory data arise there and are interpreted in the light of organic responses and operations. But it must not be forgotten that the brain is a specialized organ reflecting and developing the sensorimotor arc. It is the whole organism that knows through the brain.

7. Introspection and retrospection are specialized forms of knowing in which attention is directed to the "total experiencing" of the individual involved in both external perception and self‑awareness. It is a mistake to regard introspection as self-awareness. That is the error to which idealists, such as Parker and Brightman, are prone. [8]

8. What from the first tends, as Stout pointed out, to be considered an embodied self, can now be identified with the functioning organism. This organic self is thus known by each of us in two supplementary ways, from the outside and from the inside. These are integrated in self‑knowledge.

9. But it must be fully realized that the kind of knowledge developed around external perception can never attain “consciousness" and make it an object of acquaintance. But this fact does not make consciousness inaccessible or "subjective" in a mysterious way. A good epistemology enables us to understand the situation.

10. When properly categorized, there is no conflict between external perception, self‑awareness, and knowledge‑by‑acquaintance of consciousness. Consciousness is accessible and can be talked about.

11. Consciousness is as spatial as brain events are for it is intrinsic to them. Cartesianism was a clumsy, dualistic, rationalistic set‑up. It was unevolutionary, had a stereotyped conception of matter, and a substantialistic conception of mind. Hobbes bad a better approach.

12. Hence, though consciousness, or experiencing, is always personal and organism‑centered, it is accessible to knowledge‑by‑acquaintance and public through reports. It is not "subjective" in some hidden and dualistic way. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, in his consciousness, each one is participating in the functioning of his own organism in a way that he can not participate in the functioning of another's. [9]

13. By means of these theses in psychophysics we can clarify further the points in epistemology. For instance, "transcendence"—a terribly equivocal and mystifying term—can now be seen to signify only the fact that cognitions are guided denotative references. Even at the highest level of knowledge‑about, a frame of reference is involved. The objective of such cognition is, intentionally, a thing made a referent. Such a reference involves no mysterious, literal cognitive relation; and the referent is considered coexistent with the percipient organism or concrete knower. It is a case of the organic self pointing to, and characterizing, denotables in the same world with itself. It equally points to itself, for all denotables are public in both a behavioral and a linguistic sense. But this fact signifies that observation is a cognitive term which must be epistemologically analyzed. It is so easy to speak about "observables" without saying what we observe or how we observe. I claim to be a realistic empiricist and hold that the organic self observes both itself and the things around it. Here is where I break with phenomenalistic empiricism. I reject completely the notion, bound up with dualism, that the "mind" in some transcendental fashion gets literally and existentially over to things and to the past and to the future. I don't believe in such a mind—and I suppose the pragmatist does not either. Knowledge is a tested referential disclosure.

14. Materialism depends upon this identification of the self with the organism.

Again I comment upon these theses with respect to the difference between materialism and pragmatic naturalism.

As I see it, pragmatism has tended to reject a consciousness embodied in the organism. While Dewey admits organism-centered enjoyings in his theory of valuation, he is not clear as to their existential status. And, as I understand it, he never developed an epistemology and a psychophysics along the above lines for fear of Cartesian dualism and epistemological quagmires. By a volte face which was encouraged by the traditions of objective idealism, which had the same fears, and by the suggestions contained in James's transitive, or forward‑pointing, theory of knowledge, put in the context of a biological radical empiricism, be developed a peculiar kind of experientialism, supposedly more naive than the naive realism of the new realism, with knowing transformed into a validation of ideas. Am I right in this analysis? . . .

Now it is my ineluctable belief that a pragmatic naturalism which does not have an explicit realistic epistemology and a clear‑cut psychophysics is doomed to all sorts of sophistications in the interpretation of scientific results. What are electrons and molecules? How seriously shall we take the patterns worked out by chemists and the molecular‑thick coatings verified by Langmuir? Shall we take uncertainty‑principles and relativity measurements to be ontological or epistemic? In other words, what kind of an ontology—which is not meta‑physics—can one work out?

Thus I have endeavored to make intelligible as two preliminaries to materialism: (a) physical realism, and (b) an analytic way of thinking the insertion of consciousness in the organic self. Somehow pragmatic naturalism does not seem to me to have the sharp contours and reach that a mature materialism can have.

*     *     *     *     *


I turn now to some ontological theses. It is obvious that a philosopher of any competence will work concurrently downward from the human and upward from the inorganic. There is a floor but no ceiling and only emergent integrations.

1. A positive concept of matter can be constituted in terms of empirically founded categories, such as continuance, existence, causal activity, combined with detailed facts about spatial structure, behavior, and capacities. Such categories are apprehended by intellection working on perception and self‑awareness. He who, like the positivists and Hume, reduces perceiving to sensing can have neither things nor selves.

2. A mature materialism is neither reductive nor atomistically mechanical.

3. The universe is eternal and has no linear direction as a whole. [10]

4. Mind is as much a physical category as a psychical one and concerns the operations and capacities of the organic self at the cerebral level.

5. Material substances or continuants are generated and corrupted within the intrinsic endurance of material being.

6. Consciousness is a qualitative isolate in which we participate in our functioning. Here alone are we on the inside of nature.

7. As I see it, those who say we have no positive conception of matter are either Berkeleians or else desiderate knowledge‑by‑acquaintance directly or by analogy. Much turns upon the conception of the self. Is it identifiable with what is given in consciousness? Or do we have here merely a base for cognitive insight into the conscious activities of the organic self?

I have offered these ontological principles of a philosophical materialism in order to present to Professor Hook samples of what it means. And so I may put my query at this stage in the hypothetical form: If the epistemological and psychophysical hurdles are surmounted, do the above samples seem plausible? And, if so, in what respects does materialism exceed the limits of pragmatic naturalism? It seems to me to be going further in the same general direction and to suggest improvements upon pragmatic experientialism. It removes a certain cloudiness in technical matters. But it is a reformed, or philosophical, materialism. To me, one amusing thing is the fact that the developments in physics seem to me to have largely helped to make a philosophical materialism possible, while physicists are assuring the public that it liquidates materialism. I suppose it is partly a semantic question. What they should mean is the tautological statement that the new physics liquidates the old physics.


For the present purpose the discussion of axiology can be very brief. I believe that the materialist need differ very little from the pragmatic naturalist in these matters. Personal values and valuation express the developed attitudes and sentiments of the individual in his social setting. These can be repeatedly tested and revalued in the light of experience. Presumably the process is not arbitrary but reflects satisfactions and frustrations of the self in its relations. There is no difference, in principle, when it comes to institutional values and norms. There are, of course, no Platonic, transcendental values, no non‑natural values.

As against the positivist, the materialist holds that value-meanings can be developed by the organic self and used in the appraisal of things, events, and possibilities. Such appraisals always have a frame of reference and are not to be regarded as cases of cognition. Valuations and cognitions are not reducible to one another, though knowledge guides valuation. If I am not mistaken, the pragmatic naturalist would also reject the positivist's too simple reductionism of values to emotions and their verbal expression. I wonder, however, whether he has himself done justice to the self as a pretty determinate sort of continuant and has not been too forward‑looking after the pattern set in his transitive theory of knowing. In other words, has he not overused the application of scientific method in a field where the broad outlines of human insight and integrity express the quality of human beings? Such quality is, of course, not static or socially unconditioned. I repeat that there need be no basic conflict between the philosophical materialist and the pragmatic naturalist in the field of values and that all of us owe a great debt to John Dewey. I myself prefer his correlation of values with judgments of valuation as against enjoyings and desirings, as personal experiences. And these judgments can be constantly tested in the light of such enjoyings. But here, again, as shown in his discussion with Professor Rice, it seems to me that Dewey is too afraid of the "subjective." . . . [Personal] consciousness is a basic fact upon which he who has it can make public reports. [11] And he is bound to use his own data in both observational and valuational judgments. It is the reference and the judgment that is communicable. I can not literally transfer my experiencings to another. I can only report upon them verbally and through action.

*     *     *     *     *

This approach makes possible an ontological horizon which seems less natural to pragmatism and more congenial to materialism.


1  JP [Journal of Philosophy], Vol. XXXI (1934), pp. 235 ff. [—> main text]

2  Pp. 283f. Is this not too general? Does not the organism have specialized methods of reproducing patterns and relations? [—> main text]

3  Besides perception we can have the more delicate knowledge‑by‑acquaintance of physical factors. I am inclined to think that all cognition involves symbolization and concepts. But here what is known is also given, while in perception it is not. [—> main text]

4  I have talked over this point with Professor C. Judson Herrick who is editing Coghill's papers. [—> main text]

5  I notice that Professor Gentry has recently come to the conclusion that symbolic reference involves no literal relation to the referent. He will find this thesis in my Principles and Problems (1926). [—> main text]

6  It is no wonder that Professor Moore is puzzled. Here, again. a more inclusive approach would aid limited‑analysis. [—> main text]

7  A large ingredient in our reflective knowledge of the self is knowledge about capacities and tendencies. This knowledge is based on both external observation and self‑awareness. [—> main text]

8  I would ask both of them this question, Do we have knowledge‑by‑acquaintance of the self? [—> main text]

9  Of course, as Dewey points out, we might produce neural Siamese twins by surgery. [—> main text]

10  In the July, 1944, number of the Philosophical Review (Vol. LIII, pp. 359‑382), I have an article entitled "Reformed Materialism and Intrinsic Endurance" which illustrates in detail what I mean by this thesis. [—> main text]

11 A really splendid discussion between Dewey and Rice, far above the level of positivistic reductionism of values to commands and interjections, this journal, vol. XL (1943), pp. 5‑14; 309‑317; 533‑543; 543‑552; 552‑557. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. “Is Naturalism Enough?”, in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970), pp. 140-150. Original publication: R. W. Sellars, Journal of Philosophy, XLI (1944), 533‑544.

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