Alexander, Samuel (1859–1938)

views updated


The British realist metaphysician Samuel Alexander was born in Sydney, New South Wales, and was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne. He came to England in 1877 on a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read mathematics, classics, and philosophy (literae humaniores ). In 1882 he was elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford, becoming the first Jew to be a fellow of an Oxford or Cambridge college. His earliest work, the Green Prize essay in moral philosophy, subsequently published as Moral Order and Progress (1889), shows the influence of the idealist ethics dominant in Oxford at the time. But he soon began moving toward an approach to philosophy that could be more closely related to the development of the empirical sciences, particularly biology and psychology. He gave up his fellowship and spent a year in Hugo Münsterberg's psychological laboratory at Freiburg, Germany, continuing in private study until his election to the chair of philosophy at Owens College (later the Victoria University of Manchester) in 1893. He held the chair until his retirement in 1924 and lived in Manchester until his death in 1938, a beloved, influential, and, indeed, legendary figure in both city and university.

Empirical Metaphysics

Alexander wrote occasional papers and a small book on John Locke, but it was not until 1920 that he published his major work, Space, Time and Deity (delivered as the Gifford Lectures in Glasgow in 1915). This was a comprehensive and constructive system, which he claimed was metaphysics following an "empirical method." By this he meant that he understood metaphysics to be a very inclusive kind of science, differing from the special sciences "not in its spirit, but only in its boundaries, dealing with certain comprehensive features of experience which lie outside the purview of the special sciences." Alexander called these features "categorial" and "a priori" but said that this must not be taken to mean that they are imposed or constructed by thought; they are discerned by reflective inspection as pervasive features of the world. As such he called them "nonempirical," reserving the term empirical for the variable features of the world. But the study of both, as a study of what is found in experience, he called "empirical." This could be considered an empirical way of thinking only in a much broader and more speculative sense than subsequent forms of empiricism, with their stricter notions of what constitutes tests in observation and experiment. Nevertheless, Alexander insisted that his system not only was a speculative world view but also took account of certain ways of thinking he believed were suggested by work in contemporary experimental science. Here his starting point was probably his interest in physiological psychology (he had introduced this study into the University of Manchester at a time when British universities were still slow to recognize it).


In contrast to idealistic or dualistic views, Alexander regarded mind as, in one sense, identical with an organized structure of physiological and neural processes, there being no animistic or purely "mental" factor over and above these. But in another sense, mind could be looked on as a new "emergent"when neural processes are organized in a certain way, they manifest a new quality, consciousness, or awareness.


By emergents (a term generally ascribed to C. Lloyd Morgan, though its first use can be found in G. H. Lewes) Alexander designated certain organized patterns which, he held, produce new qualitative syntheses that could not have been predicted from knowledge of the constituent elements of the pattern before they were so organized. Emergents are thus what others have called gestalt properties of organized systems; Alexander thought of them particularly as characteristics of those syntheses where some strikingly new quality can be discerned. He generalized the idea that new qualities emerge from patterns of subvening elements of certain degrees of complexity, so as to look on the world as a hierarchy of qualities, a hierarchy in which those higher in the scale depend on the lower but manifest something genuinely new.


At the basis of nature Alexander set space-time as a continuum of interrelated complexes of motion. These can be analyzed into relations between "point-instants," a point-instant being the limiting case of a motion. Sometimes he spoke of point-instants as if they were real elements, the smallest instances of spatiotemporal motions, sometimes as if they were ideal concepts, the bare notion of time at a point or space at an instant, while any actual motion has a spatiotemporal spread.

Space-time was also distinguished into "perspectives." A perspective defines how space-time can be ordered with reference to particular point-instants. It is a line of advance, or phase of a spatiotemporal process, seen in relation to some point-instant as its center of reference. Alexander used the illustration of a tree sawn across. For the carpenter the concentric rings are simultaneous, but this is to look on it as an artificial section. For the botanist they are of different dates, carrying with them the history of the tree. Thus, a perspective is a historical phase of the process of nature, ordered with reference to some event, e, as center and integrating other events related to the event from which the perspective is developed. These may be integrated as observably contemporaneous or as earlier and later stages in motions of which e is a stage.

The definition of a perspective thus depends on the notion of motions and their interrelation, and even on their causal relations. It is difficult to see how these notions can be derived purely from that of structures within space-time. Indeed, the notion of space-time itself as the fundamental stuff or matrix out of which things arise is certainly not one that it is natural to see as an "empirical" description of the most general features of the world as it discloses itself to an observing mind.


It might be more plausible if Alexander could be taken to have meant that the basic universal feature of all experience is its spatiotemporal character. He did indeed claim to follow Kant in holding that the world is apprehended first and foremost as a spatiotemporal manifold, under categories. Apart from the union of space and time in a four-dimensional continuum, his categories follow closely the Kantian ones of substance, cause, number, and relation. But Alexander insisted that these categories are discovered or discerned in the world and are not a conceptual framework imposed by the mind. Indeed, according to his realist theory of knowledge, thought does not construct or impose conceptual schemes. Knowledge is "contemplation" of an object where there is a relation of "compresence" between a mind and an object (except in the special case of a mind's knowledge of itself, for a mind cannot be compresent as an object to itself but is aware of itself as knowing and perceiving; Alexander calls this kind of knowing "enjoyment"). But it is surely difficult to understand why any mind compresent with the world of nature would see in it just these particular all-pervasive categorial features.

empirical features of regions of space-time

Beside the categorial features, which Alexander called "nonempirical," meaning by this that they are invariable and all-pervasive, we discover "empirical" features, defined as variable qualities characterizing particular regions of space-time. "Universals" are discerned in rebus, as plans of configurations of motions in space-time showing persistent identities; Alexander called them "habits" of space-time. Within space-time arises the hierarchy of emergent qualities. The patterns of motions that differentiate it are in the first place bearers of the properties of extension and inertia that characterize "matter." These organized patterns of matter are bearers of the qualities found in physical structures and chemical syntheses. Some of these syntheses, in turn, are bearers of the quality of "life," and some living structures are bearers of mind or consciousness, which is the highest empirical quality known to us. There is no reason, however, to assume that this is the highest possible emergent quality. Alexander held that the structures that are bearers of "mind" may in their turn become productive of a new emergent quality, which he called "deity."


The term deity does not here stand for a God who precedes the universe as its cause or creator. Alexander did not try to find in such terms an "explanation" of why the universe should exist. Existence, he held, should be accepted with "natural piety" (borrowing a phrase of William Wordsworth's), and its general character should then be described. This general character is first and foremost spatiotemporal. In addition, Alexander held that it exhibits a nisus, or creative tendency, toward the production of new qualitative syntheses. So in one sense God can be thought of as Deus sive Natura, the universe of space-time "pregnant" with emergent qualities. In another sense deity is "the next highest emergent quality which the universe is engaged in bringing to birth." This quality, Alexander suggested, may emerge in beingswe do not yet know what they would be likewho would be bearers of deity as we are of mind, and these in their turn might prepare the basis for a yet further emergent quality. Alexander held that the existence of religious sentiments and aspirations witnesses to an experience of the nisus toward the higher quality of deity in some of those who are already bearers of mind. Such religious feelings, he thought, are incipient aspirations toward a new level of development. It is toward this further stage of development, not toward an already existent object, that the religious sentiment is directed. Alexander claimed that he started from the empirical fact of this sentiment, rather than from a theory of its object, and asked what it suggests; the religious sentiment can be interpreted as the feelings of beings caught up in the nisus of a universe "pregnant" with the quality of deity.

time as mind

Is there any reason in the nature of space-time itself why there should be this nisus ? Alexander sometimes spoke as though the mere fact of conjoining time with space in itself produces the possibility not only of a dynamic but even of a creative process. He summed this up in the saying "Time is the Mind of Space"surely one of the most astonishing remarks ever made by a metaphysician. But it was not intended merely to shock. It should be read in connection with Alexander's interest in physiological psychology and the view of the body-mind relation that he derived from this and that he here extended in a daring analogy. Alexander reported that he reached his notion of perspectives in space-time by considering the unity of the self. There is no such thing as awareness of the self at an instant. The least moment of conscious experience is a "specious present" with a durational aspect and, as embodied, a spatialized aspect. Our consciousness of what we are thinking at any moment is linked with the memory of what we were thinking, for example, a fraction of a second ago, and it is directed in anticipation toward what we are going to think a fraction of a second from now. What we are, at any given stage, is partly constituted by memories of the past and anticipation of the future.

Hence, the unity of the self depends on events of different dates being brought into a perspective with reference to the self of "present" experience. Similarly, a physical perspective consists of all events that can be shown to be earlier or later stages in lines of development in which a given event, taken as center of reference, is a phase. A perspective thus describes a historical line of advance. The temporal aspect of this is said to be the analogue of its "mind" and the spatial aspect the analogue of its "body." This is because mental experience is partly constituted by memory of the past and anticipation of the future and, more specifically, because the "mind" aspect of anything is looked on as the new quality it may exhibit at its latest point of development, whereas the organized structure that is the bearer of this property and could be described beforehand as accomplished fact is looked on as its body. Time is not mind in the sense of consciousness or thought, which is the distinctive quality characteristic of the level we call mind proper. It is "mind" in an analogical sense, as whatever is the new property characteristic of a new qualitative synthesis. Thus, for example, to Alexander the defining qualities of matter are the primary qualities, such as extension and inertia. Secondary qualities, such as color, are emergents from organized complexes of matter and may, as such, be called their "mind." This is not to give them some rudimentary degree of consciousness; it is to say that on each level there is an element that can be called the analogue of mind, as introducing something new. But what is new appears sometimes to be not describable as an element, but rather as a new way of functioning released in some particular kind of ordered structure. When this happens, the new way of functioning dominates the lower levels that support it but does not transform them into something different. Physicochemical processes continue to be physicochemical processes, and neural processes to be a form of physicochemical processes. But where there is conscious thinking, although no separate animistic or mental factor may be present, the whole ordered structure becomes a vehicle for this new activity, and we say we are confronted by an "embodied mind."

time as an attribute of reality

Alexander's view of a hierarchy of syntheses with new emergent qualities may be significant, but can time, as the pure notion of irreversible succession, be sufficient to account for their possibility? To say that there is a general tendency for complexes of one order to combine and form complexes of what will become a new order must surely presuppose some fundamental property or properties in the world besides those of space and time; Alexander, in fact, admits this when he speaks of a nisus, or creative tendency, in space-time. But is this a necessary property of an infinite four-dimensional continuum, unless one can assume that the mere fact of succession entails creative advance? Alexander may have been near enough to nineteenth-century ideas of inevitable evolutionary progress to be able implicitly to assume this. In agreement with these ideas, he insisted that philosophers must "take Time seriously"; that is to say, they must incorporate a conception of time as an essential attribute of reality and not only as describing a way of experiencing or measuring a reality that is ultimately nontemporal. Alexander said that if Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza could be rewritten with time as well as extension as an attribute of substance, this would represent the type of past philosophy most congenial to him; indeed, if someone were to write on his funerary urn "Erravit cum Spinoza," he would be content.

reality as process

Alexander's view of space-time as the final reality seems, however, open to two interpretations. On the one (perhaps the more Spinozistic) interpretation, space and time are the two necessary attributes of an infinite substance, distinguishable, it is true, into perspectives defined by reference to point-instants, but where "motions" (analogous to Spinoza's "modes") are simply the redistribution of spatiotemporal coefficients within the whole already existent space-time. In this view space-time is looked on as that out of which things come, and we can ask whether, as with the materialist's conception of matter, this is not to treat an abstraction as though it were a reality. In another sense Alexander was giving a view of reality as essentially a process, and as historical. There is an irreversible direction in it, defined by "time's arrow" (to use Arthur Stanley Eddington's expression). In this, nature is focused in lines of development whose "history" describes the successive levels of ordered structures they exhibit. At each stage in time, where there is a new emergent quality, this quality is the spearhead of a genuine creative advance. Yet if this new emergent quality at each stage is said to be analogous to mind, is it satisfactory to equate this with saying that it is analogous to time? It might be more plausible to say that it was Alexander's notion of the nisus in space-time that corresponds to the "mind" factor in those complexes whose extended patterns can be regarded as the analogue of the body. Or one might say that the "body" of anything is the external view of nature as unified in that particular perspective, while its "mind" is the "idea" of the distinctive internal quality of that particular perspective; this indeed suggests comparison with Spinoza's view of the body-mind relation.


Alexander wrote no large work besides Space, Time and Deity. The volume Beauty and the Other Forms of Value (1933) is a collection of occasional papers and lectures on themes relating to aesthetics and ethics. The general notion underlying these is that of values as related to the satisfaction of impulses. Values are "tertiary qualities" (supervening on the primary and secondary qualities), characterizing complexes where one component is a mind capable of interest or appreciation. The higher valuesbeauty, truth, and goodnessare qualities that arise in the satisfaction of certain impulses where these have become contemplative and disengaged from their immediate practical ends. Thus aesthetic creation and enjoyment grow out of the impulse to construct things, which Alexander traced down to the animals ("impulse," he thought, was a less question-begging term than "instinct"). The impulse to construct something out of physical materials, including sounds, becomes a contemplative delight in the form so imposed on the material. Truth is a value analogous to beauty, as that which satisfies the impulse of curiosity when this too becomes contemplative rather than practical. Moral value is a quality created out of natural impulses by the introduction of another natural impulse that can bring form and harmony into the impulses that are its materials. This impulse Alexander called "gregariousness." His interpretation of this was close to Adam Smith's view of "sympathy" as fellow feeling with the feelings of others. Gregariousness, like Smith's sympathy, becomes disinterested and so is able to act as a harmonizing agent both among a person's other impulses and in producing "sociality." The impulse of "sociality" was also invoked in support of Alexander's view that we are directly aware of other minds in such experiences as friendly conversation or quarrels, which are completed as experiences through reciprocated responses. These are not, in Alexander's view, adequately described as merely responses to behavior; they are responses to behavior as expressing the mind of the other person.

A collection of occasional papers and addresses, Philosophical and Literary Pieces (1939), was published posthumously by John Laird, prefaced by a memoir that gives a sympathetic account of Alexander the man, including a number of the stories, true or apocryphal, that were told about him. Some of the pieces on nontechnical themeson Dr. Johnson, for instance, or Jane Austen, or Blaise Pascalshow Alexander in his happiest vein.

Alexander was awarded the Order of Merit in 1930. His appearance was impressive; a bust by Jacob Epstein in the entrance hall of the Arts Building of the University of Manchester gives a good impression of his massive head and beard but misses his kindliness. The library of the University of Manchester contains a large collection of letters written to him by his contemporaries, including the philosophers F. H. Bradley, G. F. Stout, and T. Percy Nunn, the physiologists C. Lloyd Morgan and Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, and the Jewish leaders Chaim Weizmann and Claude Montefiore.

See also Bradley, Francis Herbert; Emergence; Empiricism; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Morgan, C. Lloyd; Pascal, Blaise; Smith, Adam; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Stout, George Frederick.


works by alexander


Moral Order and Progress. London: Trübner, 1889.

Locke. London: Constable, 1908.

Space, Time and Deity. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1920.

Beauty and Other Forms of Value. London: Macmillan, 1933.

Philosophical and Literary Pieces. Edited by J. Laird. London: Macmillan, 1939.

The papers of particular philosophical interest appearing in this volume are "Art and Instinct," Herbert Spencer Lecture (1927); "Artistic Creation and Cosmic Creation," Annual Philosophical Lecture of the British Academy (1927); and "Spinoza and Time," Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture (1921). The book also contains a list of Alexander's published works, including reviews and contributions to journals.


"The Method of Metaphysics; and the Categories." Mind, n.s., 21 (1912): 120.

"On Relations" and, in particular, "The Cognitive Relation." Mind, n.s., 21 (1912): 305328.

"Collective Willing and Truth." Mind, n.s., 22 (1913): 1447 and 161189.

"The Basis of Realism." In Proceedings of the British Academy, 1914. Republished in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, edited by Roderick M. Chisholm. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960. This lecture relates Alexander's views on the theory of knowledge to those of other philosophers of the time and presents his theory that mind and object are both empirically within nature, their relation being a particular form of a more general relation of "compresence."

"Sense-Perception: A Reply to Mr. Stout." Mind, n.s., 32 (1923): 111. Written in answer to criticisms by G. F. Stout, in Mind, n.s., 31 (1922): 385412.

works on alexander

Broad, C. D. The Mind and Its Place in Nature, pp. 646650. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925. Discusses Alexander's "emergence" theory of mind. See also two reviews by Broad of Space, Time and Deity, in Mind, n.s., 30 (1921): 2539 and 129150.

Devaux, P. Le système d'Alexander. Paris: J. Vrin, 1929.

McCarthy, J. W. The Naturalism of Samuel Alexander. New York: King's Crown, 1948.

Dorothy M. Emmet (1967)

About this article

Alexander, Samuel (1859–1938)

Updated About content Print Article