Montague, William Pepperell (1873–1953)

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William Pepperell Montague, an American realist philosopher, received his BA from Harvard in 1896, his MA the following year, and his PhD in 1898. He taught briefly at Radcliffe, Harvard, and the University of California. In 1903 he began teaching at Barnard and from 1907 to 1910 was an adjunct professor and a member of the Columbia University graduate faculty of philosophy. He became associate professor in 1910, professor in 1920, and was the Johnsonian professor of philosophy from 1920 to 1941. In 1928 he was Carnegie visiting professor in Japan, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. He served as chairman of several delegations to the International Congress of Philosophy (1920, 1934, 1937) and as president of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association in 1923.


Montague advocated a frankly Platonic "subsistential realism." He called it a right-wing realism, in contrast with left-wing realism, whose adherents included the behaviorists, objective relativists, andto some extentpragmatists. At the turn of the twentieth century, the idealist claim that the object of knowledge was dependent on the knower and thus was "ideal" had come increasingly under attack in England and America. Montague, in "Professor Royce's Refutation of Realism" (1902), was one of the first to attack idealism by means of the realist theory of independence. This theorythat the object of knowledge is not dependent for its reality on the knowing relationbecame one of the cardinal tenets of the New Realist movement, of which Montague was a charter member. However, by itself it was not enough to establish that the known is independent of the knower. It also had to be shown how a conscious, knowing organism could be in such a unique kind of rapport with events whose loci and dates were different from its own. Thus the central issue in epistemology for Montague was to establish the independence and the immanence of the object of knowledge.

Montague proposed his "subsistential realism" as a resolution of this issue. Subsistence included everything that could be made an object of discourse. The objects of knowledge then are subsistently real, that is, propositions and terms rather than commonsense objects, and as such they are directly present to mind (immanent), though independent of it. Montague thus brought the things of the earth into the realm of ideas by interpreting existence as a subclass of subsistence, hence also as a set of propositions.

With his idea of subsistent and existential propositions, Montague could distinguish nonveridical and unreal objects from the veridical and real. Existential propositions are the objects of true or real knowledge, and the "merely subsistent" propositions are the objects of false or unreal knowledge. Thus there is a tendency in Montague's thinking to identify the true, real, and existent on the one hand, and the false, unreal, and nonexistent on the other.

What, then, is the cause of error? Truth and falsity attach to our judgments, Montague said, because of their content, not because they are stated or believed. Error is the result of the selective action of sense perception and conception. He attributed error to these factors of the "personal equation" (as realists called the subjective aspect of knowledge) because he had said existential subsistent propositions cause themselves to be known in a way the "merely subsistent" cannot. But how can a proposition cause itself to be known?

The answer apparently was in the difference between the "merely subsistent" propositions and the existential subsistent propositions. Montague identified existential propositions with facts, and he described a fact as "something done," a fait accompli. But this was as far as he went.

Animistic Materialism

Epistemology was secondary, however, to Montague's preoccupation with the psychophysical problem of the nature of mind and its relation to the body. Naturalistic monism, strongly supported by science, could not, Montague claimed, adequately account for such characteristics of mind as purpose, privacy, duration, and integration. Traditional dualism could account for them, but it was scientifically sterile in its reliance on concepts of spirit. Montague's answer, which he called "animistic materialism," was the hypothesis of a physical soul possessing all of the traits of mind although still physically describable.

Throughout his career, Montague considered the soul to be the only answer to the psychophysical problem. After proposing the idea of a substantial soul in his first published writing, Montague soon rejected it in favor of considering the soul as a new kind of energy, purely private, and internally observable as sensation. This "potential" energy comes into existence when and where the kinetic energy of a stimulus ceases to be externally observable as motion. Sensations (or consciousness) and their externally observable causes are thus qualitatively identical. The potentiality of the physical is the actuality of the psychical, and vice versa. Just as when successive twists are imposed upon a coiled spring there is left unobservable potential energy, so too the potential energies of sensations leave traces superposed on one another. These traces constitute the memory system and modify the organism's responses to later stimuli.

Thus, within the organism there arises a field of potential energy that is externally unobservable yet is causally effective upon the visible cerebral matrix; this inner organism possesses all the characteristics of mind. In Montague's relational dualism, therefore, mind and body are in radical contrast as relations but not as substances. The truths of psychophysical dualism were thus saved without departing from material categories. Montague in general maintained this materialistic dualism, yet at one point (in "A Realistic Theory of Truth and Error," 1912) he admitted to what he called a qualified panpsychism: Matter had something psychical about it.

Religious Views

Montague's "Promethean challenge to religion" (as he called it in Belief Unbound ) was a challenge to authoritarianism, supernaturalism, and asceticism in religion. Montague denied what he termed the "pseudo creativeness" that idealism and pragmatism attribute to humans. Man has no transcendent power to legislate for nature, or to support infinite space and time by his consciousness. Realism instead gives to man an even greater responsibility of membership in the independent order of nature. Realism also adds to existent things the "quiet and infinitely great immensities of the realm of subsistence" where mind gains access to new and imperishable sources of joy and peace. Philosophy's one certainty is that ideals are eternal things, and the life that incarnates them attains an absolute value that time alone could not create and that death is powerless to destroy.

Ideals are not dependent on God's will. God is neither finite nor infinite in all things. He is infinite and eternal like the universe that is his body, all-perfect in himself and in his will but limited in power by that totality of actual and possible things which is within him yet not himself. God is to be loved because he is good, not because he is powerful.

Montague had a genuinely speculative and daring mind that explored not only the fields of philosophy but also such areas as time perception, mathematics, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics. At the beginning of Montague's career, philosophy suffered from what he called "internalism," a subjectivism sometimes carried to the point of solipsism, which, if it perhaps contained a grain of truth, was sterile. By the end of his life Montague feared that philosophy had gone to the other extreme. In "The Modern Distemper of Philosophy" (1951), he expressed his concern that it now suffered from an "externalism," a "distemper" that was eliminating important philosophical problems from discussion because they were insufficiently empirical.

See also Epistemology, History of; Idealism; New Realism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Propositions; Realism.


Works by Montague include the following: "A Plea for Soul-Substance," in Psychological Review 6 (5) (September 1899): 457476; "Professor Royce's Refutation of Realism," in Philosophical Review 2 (January 1902): 4355; "A Realistic Theory of Truth and Error," in E. B. Holt and others, The New Realism (New York: Macmillan, 1912), pp. 251300; The Ways of Knowing; or The Methods of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1925), a good example of Montague's desire to save the truths in all philosophies; Belief Unbound; a Promethean Religion for the Modern World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930); "Confessions of an Animistic Materialist," in Contemporary American Philosophy, edited by W. P. Montague and G. P. Adams, Vol. II (New York: Macmillan, 1930), pp. 135158; The Ways of Things: A Philosophy of Knowledge, Nature and Value (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1940), the best single source for an overall view of Montague's philosophy; "The Human Soul and the Cosmic Mind," in Mind 54 (213) (January 1945): 5064; Great Visions of Philosophy: Varieties of Speculative Thought in the West from the Greeks to Bergson (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1950), Montague's Carus Lectures; and "The Modern Distemper of Philosophy," in Journal of Philosophy 48 (14) (1951): 429435.

See also Helen Huss Parkhurst et al., "The Philosophic Creed of William Pepperell Montague," in Journal of Philosophy 52 (21) (1954): 593637, which consists of articles on Montague and tributes to him by former colleagues and students.

Thomas Robischon (1967)

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Montague, William Pepperell (1873–1953)

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Montague, William Pepperell (1873–1953)