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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 33. The New Realism

The latest movement in American philosophy, opposing certain phases of pragmatism as well as of the older idealism, is the tendency known as the new realism. The common element in the diverse and often conflicting doctrines which constitute this general tendency is the opposition to the Lockian tradition that the objects of knowledge are always our own ideas. Realism maintains that the nature of objects is not determined by our knowing them. Unlike the older Scotch realism, it does not view the mind and nature as two distinct entities, but tends rather, like Santayana and Dewey, to conceive the mind in an Aristotelian fashion as the form or function of a natural organic body responding to its environment. The pioneers of this movement were Professors Woodbridge, Montague, Holt, and Perry.

Frederick J. E. Woodbridge is one of the very few Americans interested in metaphysics or the philosophy of nature rather than in psychology or epistemology. His sources are in Aristotle, Hobbes, and Spinoza rather than in Locke and Kant. He rejects the Lockian tradition that we must first examine the mind as the organ of knowledge before we can study the nature of existing things. For you cannot begin the epistemologic inquiry, how knowledge is possible, without assuming something already known; and we cannot know any mind entirely apart from nature. When the earth was a fiery mist there was no consciousness on it at all. Besides, the question how in general we come to know is irrelevant to the determination of any specific issue: as, for example, why the flowers bloom in the spring.

Studying mind not as a bare subject of knowledge, but as a natural manifestation in nature, we find it to be not an additional thing or term, but a relation between things, namely, the relation of meaning. Whenever through an organic body things come to stand in the relation of meaning to each other we have consciousness. From this distinctive view of mind and meaning, logic ceases to be a study of the laws of thinking and becomes a study of the laws of being.

For one reason or another, Professor Woodbridge has never fully elaborated his views, but has barely sketched them in occasional essays and papers. His personal influence, however, and the support of The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Method, of which he is the editor, have undoubtedly helped to make the new realism a strong organized movement. Such it became with the publication of a volume of co-operative studies entitled The New Realism (1912) by Walter Taylor Marvin, Ralph Barton Perry, Edward Gleason Spaulding, W. P. Montague, Edwin Holt, and Walter B. Pitkin. The new realism began as an appeal to the naive consciousness of reality; but relying naively as it does on modern physics, physiology, and experimental biology (as opposed to the field and speculative biology of the Darwinians) its doctrine necessarily becomes very technical and complicated. Its insistence on rigorous definitions and definitive intellectual solutions to specific problems has brought on it the charge of being a new scholasticism. But whatever the merits of scholasticism—the renaissance of logical studies has begun to reveal some of them —the new realism has certainly tried to avoid the tendency of philosophy to become a branch of apologetics or a brief in behalf of supposed valuable interests of humanity. In this a technical vocabulary and the ethically neutral symbols of mathematics are a great aid.

The period covered by the greater portion of this chapter is too near us to make a just appreciation of its achievement likely at this time. In the main it has been dominated by two interests, the theologic and the psychologic. The development during this period has been to weaken the former and to deepen but narrow the latter and make it more and more technical. For this reason the philosophers covered in this chapter have as yet exerted little influence on the general thought of the country. The general current of American economic, political, and legal thought has until very recently been entirely dominated by our traditional eighteenth-century individualism or natural-law philosophy. Neither does our general literature, religious life, or current scientific procedure as yet show any distinctive influence of our professional philosophy. But it must be remembered that all our universities are comparatively young institutions and our university-trained men numerically an almost insignificant portion of our total population. In the field of education William T. Harris and after him Dewey have undoubtedly exerted potent influences, and it looks as if American legal thought is certain to be profoundly impressed by Roscoe Pound, who draws some of his inspiration from philosophic pragmatism as well as from Ward’s social theories.

From the point of view of European culture, America has certainly not produced a philosopher as influential as was Willard Gibbs in the realm of physics or Lester Ward in the realms of sociology. Though Ward and even Gibbs may with some justice be claimed as philosophers, this can be done only by disregarding the unmistakable tendency to divorce technical philosophy entirely from physical and social theory. James, however, is undoubtedly a European force, and, in a lesser degree, Baldwin, Royce, and Dewey. Serious and competent students in Germany, Italy, and Great Britain have also recognized the permanent importance of C. S. Peirce’s contribution to the field of logic. History frequently shows philosophers who receive no adequate recognition except from later generations, but it is hazardous to anticipate the judgment of posterity.