McGilvary, Evander Bradley (1864–1953)

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Evander Bradley McGilvary, an American realist philosopher, was born in Bangkok, Siam. He received his B.A. from Davidson College in 1884, his M.A. from Princeton in 1888, and his Ph.D. from the University of California in 1897. He was appointed assistant professor of philosophy in California and then Sage professor of ethics at Cornell (18991905). From 1905 to 1924 he was professor of philosophy and head of the department at the University of Wisconsin, and in the year 19121913 he was the president of the American Philosophical Association. He was the Howison lecturer in 1927, the Mills lecturer in 1928, and the Carus lecturer in 1939.

Philosophical Orientation

McGilvary's "first impulse" toward philosophy was a reaction against the theology in which he was schooled. He came under the Hegelian influence of George Howison at California, and his writings from 1897 to 1903 reflect this influence. But McGilvary, like other Hegelians of his time, eventually found Hegelianism unacceptable. From the start McGilvary held the view that every part of the world is what it is by virtue of its organic relation to every other part. And when he broke with Hegelianism, he took with him this theory of relations and the characteristically Hegelian view that two antagonistic ideas always suggest a third that synthesizes the truth of each.

Realist philosophers in America during the first two decades of the twentieth century were struggling to formulate an epistemology that would do justice both to those elements in experience that are clearly in the objective world and to those dependent upon the experiencing organism. Taking William James's thesis that "the world is as it is experienced," the non-Hegelian new realists developed a monistic realism, but it always threatened to become panobjectivism. In reaction the critical realists set forth a dualistic realism that always threatened to become pansubjectivism. In his "perspective realism" McGilvary sought to combine the truth of new realism with the truth of critical realism. He, too, took James's thesis as his starting point and sought to combine epistemological monism with epistemological dualism and the theory of external relations with the theory of internal relations. McGilvary's synthesis of the objective and the relativelike John Dewey's and A. N. Whitehead'swas dubbed "objective relativism" by A. E. Murphy.

To effect the synthesis of monism and dualism, McGilvary developed his theory of perspectives. It is summarized in the first three postulates of perspective realism: (1) "In our sense-experience there is presented to us in part the real world in which we all in common live"; (2) "Every particular in the world is what it is only because of its context"; (3) "In the world of nature any 'thing' at any time is, and is nothing but, the totality of the relational characters, experienced or not experienced, that the 'thing' has at that time in whatever relations it has at that time to other 'things.'" McGilvary first hinted at such a theory in 1907, but he did not systematically state it until twenty years later, and in 1939 it became the core of his Carus lectures, Toward a Perspective Realism. This work is the key to understanding McGilvary's philosophy, and it grew out of his early thinking about the nature of consciousness.

The Nature of Consciousness

McGilvary believed that the question of the precise nature of consciousness was the fundamental question of philosophy. Like other realists, he agreed with James that consciousness is a relation. Since it was his view that things are what they are only in their relations to other things, he could not agree with realists who claimed that this relation was external. Consciousness, he held, is that relation by which anything becomes an experience. It is a unique kind of "togetherness" of, or between, things. It is neither a spatial nor temporal togetherness, nor is it any other distinguishable relation. The peculiar relation of feeling binds external objects together into an experiential unity we call "consciousness," "awareness," or "experiencing."

McGilvary thought this togetherness may have been what Immanuel Kant meant by the synthetic unity of apperception. It has a unique center of reference in the body of the experiencing organism. This centering gives to the relation of togetherness a character and coloring all its own. Hence, consciousness exists in individualized instances, like other relations, yet each instance produces an individuality generically different from that of any other individualized relation. Each instance is its own kind of betweenness.

As he developed this theory, McGilvary increasingly described consciousness in terms of perspectives. In addition to the familiar perceptual perspectives of space and time, he said, consciousness is characterized by intellectual, moral, and aesthetic perspectives. All these perspectives have both a physical and an "epiphysical," a dynamic and an "epidynamic," causal and noncausal quality. The most distinctive characteristic of these perspectives is the absence of energy transaction between their station point (the organism) and objects in the perspective. The peculiar "epidynamic" relatedness of a perspective does not "go over" to the object or do anything to it. Yet it does "go over" in the way any other relation "goes over" from one term to another. It is a conditioning relatedness that is not itself a cause of the physical existence of its objects, nor is it itself an object in the relation complex. Thus, a perspective (seeing, for example) is not an act of the organism on its object. If it were, it would be difficult to understand how an organism can see now what antedates the seeing, such as a star that may have exploded aeons ago. Like the verb "to relate," the verb "to see" does not name an act performed on the objects seen, any more than "having" a grandfather is an act performed on him. Physical objects become a field of vision when light from them stimulates an organism through its eyes, just as grandparents become grandparents only when a grandchild is born.

The organism, then, is a condition of vision, and as such it is not one of the members or terms in the relationship, just as common parents are a condition for the relationship of brotherhood but are not members in that relationship. Seeing the star that no longer exists is no more difficult for McGilvary to explain than how being an ancestor of a president of the United States is a quality that comes to belong to persons who die before the event that permits ascribing that characteristic to them. In the same way the perspective realist can hold that the physical object that initiated the series of physical conditions that ended in a perception of attributes occupying the position of that object still does not have those attributes. These attributes, however, can be considered part of the real world resulting from a real and natural relation between the organism and external objects. Not all physical qualities, then, are causally conditioned. Sense qualities, for example, can be considered part of their object but are not causally related to the organism that senses them.

It is the same for McGilvary with memory or knowledge of the past. The pastness of an event is not independent of all external standpoints. The pastness of consciousness is retrospective, a particular kind of perspectivity, but not retroactive. Consciousness also is prospective, another kind of perspectivity, but not active on the future. This is the "epiphysical" or "epidynamic" quality of the consciousness relation that distinguishes it from other physical, dynamic, causal relations that act on their objects. Perspectives do not exist if that means being in space and time. Nor do they subsist. The being of a perspective is its being between"inter-sistence," McGilvary called itand each perspective is its own kind of "inter-sistence."

But it is not clear whether McGilvary thought that each perspective is an instance of consciousness and whether perspectives go to make up what we call consciousness. Nor does he show us how to distinguish between what the organism contributes to the perspective, as its station point, and what is there independent of the organism. At times he said nothing is there independent of the organism, for the organism is the necessary condition of any perspective. But when Dewey said that the logical forms of our knowledge cannot be read back into nature (because they come into being only when inquiry is instituted and are only modes of operating upon subject matter), McGilvary disagreed. He argued that any logical form that serves to solve a problematic situation serves that purpose because it is actually the form of the subject matter under investigation, not of the subject matter as it was immediately experienced when inquiry started but as successful inquiry shows the subject matter to have been in the natural world.

It is doubtful, then, that McGilvary, like the other objective relativists, was any more successful than other realists in doing justice to the objective and the relative found in experience.

McGilvary's few articles on ethics present familiar positions, but none of them is developed systematically, nor did McGilvary apply his perspective realism beyond epistemological and ontological problems.

See also Consciousness; Dewey, John; Hegelianism; Howison, George Holmes; James, William; Murphy, Arthur Edward; Realism; Whitehead, Alfred North.


works by mcgilvary

"Pure Experience and Reality: A Re-assertion." Philosophical Review 16 (May 1907): 266284.

"The Physiological Argument against Realism." Journal of Philosophy 4 (October 1907): 589601.

"Realism and the Physical World." Journal of Philosophy 4 (December 1907): 683692.

"Experience and Its Inner Duplicity." Journal of Philosophy 6 (April 1909): 225232.

"Experience as Pure and Consciousness as Meaning." Journal of Philosophy 8 (September 1911): 511525.

"The Relation of Consciousness and Object in Sense Perception." Philosophical Review 21 (March 1912): 152173.

"A Tentative Realistic Metaphysics." In Contemporary American Philosophy, edited by G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague, 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1930. Vol. II, pp. 109132.

"The Revolt against Dualism." Philosophical Review 40 (May 1931): 246265.

"Perceptual and Memory Perspectives." Journal of Philosophy 30 (June 1933): 109132.

Toward a Perspective Realism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1956. His 1939 Carus lectures and his only book.

Between 1918 and 1926 McGilvary published only two book reviews. His publications after 1926 display a new interest in and command of mathematical physics. Two of these papers are reprinted in his book. In all he published 48 articles and 23 reviews in addition to 81 articles in The New International Encyclopedia (New York, 1902).

works on mcgilvary

Murphy, Arthur E. "McGilvary's Perspective Realism." Journal of Philosophy 56 (February 1959): 149165. Reprinted in Reason and the Common Good, edited by W. H. Hay et al. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Oliver, Donald W. "The Logic of Perspective Realism." Journal of Philosophy 35 (April 1938): 197208.

Thomas Robischon (1967)

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McGilvary, Evander Bradley (1864–1953)

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