Ducasse, Curt John (1881–1969)

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Curt John Ducasse, philosopher and educator, was born in Angoulême, France. After attending schools in France and England, he came to the United States in 1900. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington and, in 1912, his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he had served as an assistant to Josiah Royce. He taught philosophy at the University of Washington from 1912 until 1926, at Brown University from 1926 until his retirement in 1958, and elsewhere as visiting professor. He served as president of the Association for Symbolic Logic (19361938), which he had helped to found, and of other learned societies. He published extensively in all fields of philosophy.

Philosophical Method

Ducasse's views on method are worked out in detail in Philosophy as a Science: Its Matter and Method (New York, 1941), in his Carus lectures, published as Nature, Mind, and Death (La Salle, IL, 1951), and elsewhere.

He held that philosophy is a science and that it differs from other sciences not in the generic features of its method but by virtue of its subject matter, which consists of "spontaneous particular appraisals" (1941) or "standard evaluative statements" (1951) made by some person or group. The primitive problems of philosophy are to define the value predicates "good," "valid," "real," and so on, and their opposites, as used by the person or persons whose standard evaluative statements are taken as data. In the definitions will appear such terms as necessary, fact, and possibility, which are also in need of analysis, giving rise to derivative problems. Both sorts of problems are essentially semantical. Ducasse is thus squarely in the analytical tradition. However, he argued more explicitly than other contemporary analysts that a proposed analysis of a term as used in paradigm statements has the status of a hypothesis, and that it can be confirmed or disconfirmed by observing whether it is substitutable for the analysans in the paradigm statements without altering any of their standard implications.


Ducasse had adumbrated the above views and had applied his method to the concept of causality in Causation and the Types of Necessity (Seattle, 1924). Ducasse had always regarded causality as a "fundamental category," and in subsequent works he continued to refine his original analysis.

According to Ducasse, causality is a relation between events, is essentially triadic, and is correctly defined in terms of J. S. Mill's method of difference. That "method" is not in fact a method for discovering causal connections but a description of the causal relation itself. If, in a state of affairs S, only two changes occur, one the change C at time T 1 and the other the change E at time T 2, C is the cause of E. Ducasse asserted that despite David Hume's definition of causation as regularity of sequence, Hume actually thought of it in terms of the advent of a single difference in a given state of affairs, as is proved by the way he formulated his rules for ascertaining causal connections by a single experiment.

Given the above definition, the supposition that some events have no cause implies a contradiction. Hence, indeterminism, the view that some events are matters of objective change, is self-contradictory, although people are "free" in the sense that, and to the extent that, they can do what they will to do.

Mind and Nature

In Nature, Mind, and Death, Ducasse went on to assert that nature is the material world, comprising all the things, events, and relations which are publicly perceptible. The mental, which is directly observable only through introspection, is not part of nature. Substances are analyzed as systems of properties and their relations. A property is a causal capacity. Thus,

to say of carborundum that it is abrasive means that, under certain conditions, friction of it against certain other solids causes them to wear away. More generally, to say that a substance S has a property or capacity P means that S is such that, in circumstances of kind K, an event of kind C, occurring in S or about S, regularly causes an event of kind E to occur in or about S.
(Nature, Mind, and Death, p. 165)

Since C and E may stand for either a physical or a mental event, there are four kinds of properties: physicophysical, if C and E are both physical events; physicopsychical, if C is physical and E psychical; psychophysical; and psychopsychical.

The relation of a mind, a mental substance, to "its body," a material substance, is that of causal interaction. This is an analytic truth, for by "its body" can only be meant "the body with which that mind directly interacts." Many of the usual objections to interactionism presuppose a mistaken conception of causality.

In the case of physicopsychical properties ("bitter," "blue") it is important to distinguish between the sense quality in terms of which the property is defined and the property itself. "Bitter," for example, is equivocal. As applied to quinine, it is a disposition term designating the capacity of quinine to cause a certain taste experience when one places it on one's tongue. As applied to the experience itself, it is the name of a quality. With respect to the properties of material things, Ducasse is a realist. Quinine is bitter and roses are red, in the dispositional sense, even if the properties are not being exercised. Of properties, it is false that esse is percipi. But in the case of sense qualities, it is true that esse is percipi.

Now G. E. Moore, in his "Refutation of Idealism," had argued that since we can distinguish the sensum blue that is the object of a sensation from the sensing itself, sensa might exist without consciousness of them, and they might therefore be nonmental. Against Moore, Ducasse argues in Nature, Mind, and Death that a sensum is not an "object" of sensation but the "content" of it. When one sees some lapis lazuli, the lapis lazuli is the object seen. But the relation of the lapis lazuli to the seeing of it when "I see some lapis lazuli" is true is not the same as the relation of blue to the seeing of it when "I see blue" is true. (Compare "I taste quinine" with "I taste bitter," or "I am jumping a ditch" with "I am jumping gracefully.") After a meticulous examination of various hypotheses on what the relation of sensa to sensing might be, Ducasse concludes that sensa are species of experience. "I sense blue" means "I sense bluely," or, alternatively, "I sense in the manner blue," just as "I am dancing a waltz" means "I am dancing waltzily (in the manner of dancing called 'dancing a waltz')." Just as a waltz could not conceivably exist apart from the dancing of it, a sensum could not exist apart from the sensing of it.

On the basis of this analysis, Ducasse submits that the basic criterion of the mental may be expressed by saying that "if something being experienced is connate with the experiencing of it, then it is a mental primitive."


In The Philosophy of Art (New York, 1929), Art, the Critics, and You (New York, 1944), and many articles, Ducasse formulates and defends an emotionalist theory of art and aesthetic experience. His principal contentions are that art in the broadest sense is skilled activity; that fine or aesthetic art consists in the skilled objectification of feeling; that the fine artist judges the adequacy of the work he creates not by the degree to which it approximates to beauty but by the faithfulness with which it reflects back to him the feeling to which he attempted to give objective expression; that in the aesthetic attitude one "throws oneself open" to the advent of feelings; and that judgments of aesthetic value are relative to the taste of the critic.

Philosophy of Religion

In A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion (New York, 1953), Ducasse defines religion as essentially any set of articles of faith, with the observances, feelings, and so on, tied thereto, that has the social function of motivating altruism in individuals and the personal function of giving the believer inner peace and assurance. According to this definition, belief in a God or gods is not essential to religion. Ducasse himself is not a theist. He holds that orthodox theism is contradicted by the existence of evil, and that polytheism is more plausible than monotheism conceived in the orthodox manner.

Paranormal Phenomena

Throughout his career, Ducasse was interested in and wrote about the "wild facts" of mental telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and so on. His interest in them was manifold. If paranormal phenomena do occur, received theories about the mental and the physical must be revised to account for them. It is a gratuitous assumption that any theory capable of taming the wild facts would have to postulate supernatural entities or "spooks." It could well be as scientific as are current theories about hypnotism, which have more or less tamed the wild facts of mesmerism. One of the troubles of psychical research is the lack of a fruitful theory.

If paranormal phenomena do occur, there would be important implications for philosophy. How would philosophers have to conceive of time, causality, perception if there were such a thing as precognition?

It is a logical possibility that a mind survives the death of its body (or, to allow for reincarnation, bodies), even when due account has been taken of current science. But is there any evidence that it does? If there is, it is likely to be found by objective sifting of the reports concerning paranormal phenomena. In A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death (Springfield, IL, 1961), Ducasse states that the conclusion about survival seemingly warranted at present is that "the balance of the evidence so far obtained is on the side of the reality of survival," but that the evidence is not conclusive.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Art, Expression in; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Hume, David; Logic, History of: Modern Logic; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Parapsychology; Reincarnation; Royce, Josiah; Sensa.


A complete bibliography of Ducasse's writings up to December 31, 1951, is available in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 13 (1) (September 1952): 96102. This issue also contains "Symposium in Honor of C. J. Ducasse" by seven philosophers, a biographical note, and a portrait.

For George Santayana's response to Ducasse's views on causation, "ontological liberalism," art, and properties, see The Letters of George Santayana, edited by Daniel Cory, 213215, 234235, and 287288 (New York: Scribners, 1955). For a careful review of Nature, Mind, and Death by H. H. Price, see the Journal of Parapsychology 16 (2) (June 1952).

other recommended works

Ducasse, Curt John. Current Philosophical Issues: Essays in Honor of Curt John Ducasse. Compiled and edited by Frederick C. Dommeyer. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1966.

Ducasse, Curt John. Truth, Knowledge and Causation. London: Routledge & K. Paul; New York: Humanities P., 1969.

Vincent Tomas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael Farmer (2005)