New Realism

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"New Realism" arose at the turn of the twentieth century in opposition to the Idealist doctrines that the known or perceived object is dependent for its existence on the act of knowing and that the immediately perceived object is a state of the perceiving mind. The Austrian philosophers Franz Brentano and Alexius Meinong first enunciated the cardinal tenet of this new realism: that what the mind knows or perceives exists independently of the acts of knowing and perceiving. Developing mainly as a polemic against Idealism, this new realism was represented prior to 1900 in England in the works of such men as John Cook Wilson, Thomas Case, H. W. B. Joseph, and H. A. Prichard. Similar realist polemics were taking place in Sweden and Italy.

In America the movement known as New Realism dates from the critical writings of William P. Montague and Ralph Barton Perry in 1901 and 1902. Their immediate aim was to refute Josiah Royce's "refutation" of realism, which he had based on the claim that the knower and the known could not be independent of each other and still be related. The movement took definite form when Montague and Perry were joined by four others in a statement of a New Realist program ("The Program and First Platform of Six Realists") in 1910.

In England, New Realism took explicit form in the works of T. P. Nunn, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. In both America and England, New Realists asserted the independence of consciousness and its object, but serious differences soon appeared between the two groups and between individuals within each group. The differences were particularly noticeable in their statements about the nature of consciousness and of its object, and of the relation between them. Moore claimed that the act of consciousness included both a nonmental, independent object and a transparent, or "diaphanous," mental act of consciousness. He agreed with Brentano and Meinong that consciousness involved awareness in the form of an act of intending something other than itself. To have an idea, to perceive or be aware at all, is already to be beyond consciousness and to be confronted by an independent object. American New Realists, on the other hand, took their view of consciousness from William James. While he, too, described consciousness as a relation, James denied that there was anything uniquely mental or psychic about it at all, and associated consciousness rather with the behavioral responses or functions of the organism.

But there were also differences between Moore, Nunn, and Russell. Nunn argued that both primary and secondary qualities not only exist as they are perceived, but also are really in their objects, whether perceived or not. He even argued that pain is something independent of mind, with which mind may come into various relations. In this he was closer to the American New Realism of Perry and E. B. Holt. Russell was influenced by Nunn's view, but his New Realism took a frankly Platonic turn that brought it closer to the New Realism of Montague. Russell's Realism, however, was soon significantly altered. Another variant of English New Realism, perhaps more a development from it than a version of it, was Samuel Alexander's. It, too, resembled American New Realism.

American New Realism

Although American, English, and, to a lesser extent, European New Realists influenced one another, it was among the Americans that New Realism flourished, particularly as a movement. Their aim was to produce an account of how a real object could be present in consciousness and knowledge and still be independent of that relation, and they sought to do this without a dualistic separation of knower and known. "The independence of the immanent" was their manifesto. Their first platform statement consisted of six lists of doctrines that had been discussed at length, revised, and agreed to by all, and that all thought were consistent. The lists were signed by Holt and Perry at Harvard, Walter T. Marvin at Rutgers, Montague and Walter B. Pitkin at Columbia, and Edward C. Spaulding at Princeton.

At a Philosophical Association meeting in 1909, five of these six had found themselves in agreement against a common foe that still spoke with authority and was listened to with deference: Idealism. Pitkin and Montague are credited with the idea of translating their agreement into an articulate statement, and papers soon began circulating. F. J. E. Woodbridge at Columbia gave encouragement, although he declined an invitation to join. Montague, in "Confessions of an Animistic Materialist," described E. B. McGilvary, Morris R. Cohen, J. E. Boodin, J. Lowenberg, and Douglas C. Macintosh as "unofficial" New Realists. Believing that philosophic disagreements were the result chiefly of a lack of precision and uniformity in the use of words, plus a lack of planned cooperation in research, the original six banded together in the hope of revealing the genuine philosophic disagreements that were more than mere differences of personal opinion. They hoped thereby to open the way to the solution of genuine philosophic disputes. They called for a new alliance between philosophy and science and formulated a statement of principles and doctrines, a program of constructive work with a method based on these, and an agreed-upon system of axioms, methods, hypotheses, and facts.

In 1912 they published their cooperative volume, The New Realism; Cooperative Studies in Philosophy. Al-though they were still preoccupied with polemics, the six authors hoped to go beyond criticism to produce a complete philosophy that would play a major part in human thought. They saw themselves as proponents of a doctrine concerning the relation between the knowing process and the thing known. They described their most urgent problem (one that had not been resolved by naive realism, dualism, or subjectivism) as how to give an adequate account of "the facts of relativity" in the knowing process from a Realist point of view; how, in other words, to reconcile the apparently hopeless disagreement of the world presented in immediate experience with the true or corrected system of objects in whose independent reality they believed. While New Realism succeeded in showing the fatal weaknesses in dualistic answers to this problem, it nonetheless failed to provide an adequate answer of its own.

the "facts of relativity"

New Realism faced the above problem not just because Idealism had failed to resolve it but also because Idealism had made it impossible to ignore these "facts of relativity." Thus, any attempt by New Realists to return to the naïveté of earlier doctrines of realism, to a primitive notion that nothing intervenes between subject and object (particularly nothing attributable to the subject), was out of the question. Equally closed to them was any recourse to a Lockean or Cartesian dualism that, they thought, never escaped the subject's own mental states. The third traditional answer to the problem, subjectivism, was also impossible. Of the three approaches, subjectivism was most often the object of criticism by New Realists, and they identified it as the fatal doctrine of Idealism. They saw it as an illicit argument from the "egocentric predicament," an argument based on the difficulty of conceiving known things to exist independently of their being known. New Realists refuted Idealism by refuting this argument; but then it became their turn to reconcile the facts of relativity, of which the predicament was one, with their theory of the independent existence, or reality, of objects of consciousness and knowledge.

New Realist writings thus were largely devoted to such facts of relativity as illusion, error, secondary qualities, andlaterchoosing, valuing, meaning or intending, and purposing. The New Realists also thought that Idealism had gone too far in its view of the subject's role. However, if Idealism went too far in that direction, New Realism went too far in the opposite direction; its polemical theory of independence could not be reconciled with the facts of relativity. This in turn provoked such reactions as Critical Realism, Perspective Realism, and Objective Relativism.

Chief among the positive aspects of the doctrines of the New Realists was what they called the "emancipation of metaphysics from epistemology," the result of their theory of independence. Contrary to the Idealist claim that knowing was the universal condition of being and hence constitutive of it, the New Realists argued that knowing and being were independent. This, Perry showed, did not mean they were therefore unrelated, as Royce had argued, but simply that there was not the particular relation of dependence between them. Dependence is a special type of relation in which the dependent element contains, implies, or is exclusively caused or implied by that on which it is dependent. Between knowing and being, therefore, it was possible for there to be relations both of independence (external relations) and of dependence (internal relations). In holding out this possibility against the Idealist claim that all relations are internal, New Realism became identified with a theory of external relations.

In "immediate and intimate connection" with this theory was the doctrine that the content of knowledge is numerically identical with the thing known; things, when consciousness is had of them, become contents of consciousness, thus figuring both in the external world and in "the manifold which introspection reveals." This view was very close to James's Neutral Monism, but only Holt worked out its fullest implications. The theory of numerical identity soon became the target of critics of New Realism, and it was difficult to determine whether, and to what extent, any New Realist other than Holt maintained it. Yet for a time, at least, it was said to be fundamental to New Realism. If there was a numerical identity between consciousness and its contents, then the "things" of thought would have to be given full ontological status along with the "things" of sense. This the New Realists claimed to do in their volume. They said they were Platonic Realists in granting this status to subsistents as well as existents. Here, again, a belief held by all in the beginning became in the end the belief of but a few, notably Montague and Spaulding.

the egocentric predicament

The facts of relativity haunted New Realism throughout the life of the movement. That the New Realists ultimately failed in their professed aim of doing justice to these facts was in part the result of their constant polemical concern with asserting their doctrine of independence against Idealism and in part the result of their failure to recognize some possibly constitutive elements within the knowing relation. One such fact was the egocentric predicament, described by Perry as the fact that the "extent to which knowledge conditions any situation in which it is present cannot be discovered by the simple and conclusive method of direct elimination" ("The Ego-Centric Predicament"). Perry thought this was merely a methodological difficulty, one faced by all philosophers. Idealism had used it to argue that since it was impossible to discover anything that is, when discovered, undiscovered by someone, therefore it is impossible to discover anything that is not thought. The argument, Perry contended, rested on a confusion between "everything which is known, is known," and "everything which is, is known."

Perry concluded that the predicament could not be used to support either Idealism or Realism. Idealists could not use it as an argument for dependence, or internal relations, and New Realists could not use it as an argument for independence, or external relations. But while exposing its illicit use, New Realists did not offer a convincing way out of the predicament. As a test for the dependence or independence of any element in consciousness, Perry proposed that insofar as the element was deducible from anything other than consciousness, it was independent. To be dependent, or subjective, the element would have to be exclusively determined by consciousness. However, it was pointed out, the predicament would prevent us, by the very test Perry proposed, from reaching an object that we could be sure was independent of consciousness, for we would be using consciousness (deduction) in order to get to it.

Spaulding maintained that New Realism had provided a solution to the predicament and that this solution was its most important doctrine. He argued that any sort of analysis purporting to discoverand not merely createwhat is there would be impossible if it did not presuppose a Realist position; that is, presuppose relatedness with independence. Even a theory that argued against the Realist position would have to take that position toward the very state of affairs it described, assuming that it was a genuine state of affairs, not one created, altered, or modified by virtue of the knowing relation. Every philosopher, knowingly or not, solves the predicament by the Realist attitude he assumes toward his subject. But the question remained: What warrant do we have for such an assumption?

Pitkin attempted to support the doctrine of external relations by refuting the assertion that biology provided evidence for the internalist view. On the contrary, he argued, biology supports the externalist view through the discovery that organic parts do not depend upon the whole in which they naturally occur; and an organic whole does not depend upon its individual parts for its total specific organic character.

Beyond this, and apart from showing that independence did not rule out relatedness, the New Realists did not demonstrate how the knowing relation was external and independent, nor did they show how the facts of relativity were to be reconciled with externality and independence. In their cooperative volume they had refused to recognize ultimate immediacies, or any nonrelational or indefinable entities other than the simples in which they claimed analysis terminates. Their view that the knowing relation was external required such simples, or "neutral entities," that would maintain their identity no matter what relations they entered into. But it was never clear why analysis had to stop where the New Realists said it didusually with the simples of mathematics and logic. Nor was it clear whether these simples were the product of their analysis or a genuine discovery by it.

epistemology and ontology

In its constructive phase, New Realism proposed an epistemological monism and an ontological pluralism. James had argued that consciousness was not a substantive entity, and Moore similarly argued that it was diaphanous and transparent. In both cases, consciousness of something was viewed as a direct, unmediated, immanent affair. All content of consciousness, with the exception of Moore's psychical, diaphanous element, was thus objective in the sense that it consisted of objects in the real, external world. This was New Realism's epistemological monism: Thought and its object are numerically the same.

Its ontology was pluralistic, however: Some elements of the object would not be found in the consciousness of that object. Any elements in consciousness not found in the object would give consciousness a constitutive role beyond mere selection or grouping. The problem was to account for all of the "facts of relativity" through the selective and grouping function of consciousness without jeopardizing the New Realist theory of immanence that asserted that it was the "real" objects of the external world that were present in consciousness.

There were two principal positions taken on this matter among New Realists. Montague called them the left and right wings of New Realism. One was Neutral Monism, developed by Holt and, to a lesser extent, by Perry, but eventually abandoned by both. The other was a Platonic Realism developed by Montague into what he called Subsistential Realism.

Holt and Perry

Neutral Monism derived from James's idea of "pure experience." Pure experience was pure because it was uncontaminated by such distinctions as "object," "content," "subject," or "knower and known." It was "neutral" in terms of these distinctions; such distinctions could only be made later in terms of the relations between portions of pure experience. A "thing" could be said to be one portion of pure experience that was represented by another portion. A "thought" could be said to be one portion of pure experience that represented another portion. The dualisms of "inner" and "outer," mind and body, thus were undercut. All such distinctions were a matter of relations between bits of pure experience, but these relations had to be external. Hence, "mental," "nonmental," "real," "external," and "physical," are accidental features. New Realists thus were driven back to a realm of indefinable simples that come into and go out of various relations but never change their original identities. Where could such a realm be found? And what could these simples be?

Where James thought they were bits of pure experience (and may have been working toward an identification of experience with nature), Holt and Perry, influenced by developments in mathematics and symbolic logic, found these entities in a mathematical-logical realm of "being." It was a realm of entities having no definition or identity: neutral entities. These entities were similar to the simples that the New Realists had said analysis ultimately discloses. What we call consciousness is a grouping of these entities resulting from the selective (although not constitutive) response of the nervous system. This explanation enabled Holt and Perry to maintain the New Realist claim that consciousness and its objects were identical: Error and illusory experiences were no less objective or real than veridical experience. However, it failed to give an account of the difference between objects grouped and objects not grouped by consciousness. And it was still no easier to give an account of the organism's response to objects that were spatially or temporally distant.

Although he espoused Neutral Monism in his early years, Perry never went as far as Holt. He admitted that error and other nonveridical experiences were cases of "mis-taking" entities for something other than what they are. In a later development he identified this mis-taking as an anticipation or expectation of an event that does not, when acted on or verified, occur as expected. By this time, however, Perry had departed from the New Realist theories of independence and immanence.

Spaulding and Montague

Spaulding also identified error as a mis-taking, but he described it as a case of taking something to be existential that was only "subsistential." This mis-taking was the only subjective feature in consciousness. Therefore, he concluded, illusory objects and errors are objective and real because both the existential and subsistential are objective and real. It is the taking of a thing to be what it is not that is the psychic or subjective element in consciousness, and the problem of errorwhy error occursis one for psychologists and not for philosophers. Along with Pitkin, Spaulding also took a behaviorist view of consciousness, describing its objects as nonspatial projections or dimensions of spatial objects resulting from the interaction of organism and environment.

The second major attempt to formulate a New Realist epistemology and ontology consistent with the doctrines of independence and immanence was developed furthest by W. P. Montague, the only one of the New Realists who argued for uniquely mental, subjective elements in knowledge and experience. While admitting this was dualism, he insisted it was not the psychophysical dualism rejected by New Realism. He invoked a realm of subsistents, identifying them as propositions of which existential propositions, and hence existence, were a part. Error was a case of mis-taking the "merely" subsistential to be an existent as well.

critiques of new realism

All of these attempted solutions raised the question of whether New Realism's epistemology, based on an independently real object immanent in experience, could coexist with its view that the real object was part of the commonsense world. When the independence of the object of knowledge was emphasized, the facts of relativity were slighted, but the object could more easily be identified with commonsense objects. On the other hand, when immanence of the object was emphasized, it tended to lose its commonsense quality, becoming instead a neutral entity, or subsistent, or simple, supposedly disclosed by a rather sophisticated analysis. At the same time, however, the facts of relativity could more easily be taken into account. The former emphasis moved in the direction of dualism; the latter in the direction of monism.

Criticisms of New Realism in the second decade of the twentieth century were concerned mainly with showing that the organism intervenes in a considerably less naive way than the New Realists had thought and that their theories of external relations, independence, and immanence did not adequately account for what was given in knowledge and experience. Describing New Realism as the first phase of the "revolt against dualism," A. O. Lovejoy said its constructive program argued that since nothing "mental" could be admitted without leading to subjectivism and skepticism, therefore no content could be held to be psychically generated or dependent upon percipient functions. New Realism was left with things in a purely external relation to consciousness, or at best a bare and sterile awareness of them. In rejecting all mediated knowledge, he argued, New Realism could only hold the position that all content of experience must be identical with reality; everything before or "to" mind or consciousness was "objective." When this claim collided with the manifestly disparate content of nonveridical experience, an objective but "subsistent" content was said to be directly present or immanent; or, alternatively, this content was said to be no less objective than veridical content because it was at bottom ("neutrally") the same as it. But, Lovejoy concluded, this was little more than what the earlier naive, or commonsense, realism had said.

Although the New Realists hoped to produce other collections of studies, and although their discussions continued through 1914, according to Perry disagreements that had been subordinated and only imperfectly concealed, divergence of interests, and the ambition of each to write his own book soon divided them. As a movement, New Realism was soon displaced by the second major realist movement of the twentieth century, Critical Realism, which also developed and published a platform and joint program.

See also Alexander, Samuel; Brentano, Franz; Cohen, Morris Raphael; Critical Realism; Holt, Edwin Bissell; Idealism; James, William; Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; McGilvary, Evander Bradley; Meinong, Alexius; Montague, William Pepperell; Moore, George Edward; Perry, Ralph Barton; Realism; Royce, Josiah; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Woodbridge, Frederick James Eugene.


works by new realists

Holt, Edwin B. et al. "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists." Journal of Philosophy 7 (July 21, 1910): 393401. Reprinted in their cooperative volume The New Realism; Cooperative Studies in Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Montague, William P. "Confessions of an Animistic Materialist." In Contemporary American Philosophy, edited by W. P. Montague and G. P. Adams. New York: Macmillan, 1930. Vol. II, 135158. Pieces by other New Realists, "official" and otherwise, will be found in both volumes of this work.

Montague, William P. "Professor Royce's Refutation of Realism." Philosophical Review 11 (January 1902): 4355.

Moore, G. E. "The Refutation of Idealism." Mind, n.s. 12 (1903): 442453. Reprinted in Moore's Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge, 1922.

Perry, Ralph B. "The Ego-Centric Predicament." Journal of Philosophy 7 (1) (1910): 514. Reprinted in The Development of American Philosophy, edited by W. G. Muelder and L. Sears. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940; 2nd ed., 1960.

Perry, Ralph B. "Professor Royce's Refutation of Realism and Pluralism." Monist 12 (19011902): 446458.

Perry, Ralph B. "William Pepperell Montague and the New Realists." In "William Pepperell Montague." Journal of Philosophy 51 (21) (October 14, 1954): 593637.

Spaulding, Edward G. The New Rationalism. New York: Holt, 1918.

works on new realism

Bowman, Lars. Criticism and Construction in the Philosophy of the American New Realism. Stockholm, 1955. One of the two extant studies devoted entirely to American New Realism, this work is mainly expository, using the tools of modem philosophical analysis in order to determine the central doctrines of New Realism. It includes one of the better short bibliographies.

Chisholm, Roderick M. Realism and the Background of Phenomenology. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960. A collection of readings, with probably the best bibliography of the works of all major Realists and their critics.

Harlow, Victor. A Bibliography and Genetic Study of American Realism. Oklahoma City: Harlow, 1931. One of the best separate bibliographies of American Realism.

Hasan, Syed Zafarul. Realism: An Attempt to Trace Its Origins and Development in Its Chief Representations. Cambridge, U.K., 1928. An extensive treatment of New Realism (particularly of E. B. Holt) that includes a useful bibliography.

Hill, Thomas E. Contemporary Theories of Knowledge. New York: Ronald Press, 1961. Although limited to theories of knowledge, this work includes an extensive critical treatment of American New Realists, centering on Perry ("polemical"), Holt ("radical"), and Montague ("conservative").

James, William. "Does Consciousness Exist?" Journal of Philosophy 1 (18) (September 1, 1904). Reprinted in James's Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans Green, 1938.

Kremer, René. Le néo-réalisme américain. Paris: Alcan, 1920. Devoted exclusively to New Realism.

Lapan, Arthur. "The Significance of James' 'Essay.'" PhD diss., Columbia University, New York, 1936.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Revolt against Dualism: An Inquiry concerning the Existence of Ideas. La Salle IL: Open Court, 1930. Lovejoy was probably the most persistent and incisive critic of New Realism.

Morris, Charles W. Six Theories of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932. A discussion of the relationships of the various realisms, Pragmatism, and Objective Relativism.

Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Duckworth, 1957. The chapter on New Realism is mainly concerned with English New Realism, most particularly Alexander's. Selected bibliography.

Piller, Christian. "The New Realism in Ethics." In The Cambridge History of Philosophy 18701945, edited by Thomas Baldwin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Royce, Josiah. The World and the Individual. New York, 1912.

Schneider, Herbert W. Sources of Contemporary Philosophical Realism in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

Werkmeister, W. H. A History of Philosophical Ideas in America. New York: Ronald Press, 1949. A good survey of the development of New Realism, including a detailed account of the polemical exchanges beginning with early New Realist statements in 1907.

other recommended titles

Almeder, Robert. Blind Realism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992.

Alston, William. A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Baldwin, Thomas. "Ethical Non-Naturalism" In Exercises in Analysis, edited by Ian Hacking. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Devitt, Michael. Realism and Truth. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

Moser, Paul K. "Beyond Realism and Idealism." Philosophia 23 (1994): 271288.

O'Connor, David. The Metaphysics of G. E. Moore. Boston: Reidel, 1982.

O'Leary-Hawthorne, John. "Anti-Realism, Before and After Moore." History of Philosophy Quarterly 12 (1995): 443467.

Putnam, Hilary. The Many Faces of Realism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987.

Skolimowski, Henryk. Polish Analytical Philosophy: A Survey and Comparison with British Analytical Philosophy. New York: Humanities Press, 1967.

Soames, Scott. Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 1: The Dawn of Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Stroud, Barry. The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Thomas Robischon (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

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