Perry, Ralph Barton (1876–1957)

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Ralph Barton Perry, the American realist philosopher, was born in Poultney, Vermont. He attended Princeton University, where he received his B.A. in 1896; he received his M.A. from Harvard in 1897 and his Ph.D. in 1899. For a brief period he taught at Williams and Smith colleges. From 1902 to 1946 he taught at Harvard, where, after 1930, he was the Edgar Pierce professor of philosophy. He was Hyde lecturer at various French universities during the year 19211922. In 1920 he was elected president of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association, and he served as Gifford lecturer from 1946 to 1948.

Perry was the author of some two hundred essays and two dozen books, in addition to countless lectures and letters to newspapers, and he was considered the chief living authority on William James. Perry believed that a comprehensiveness of view is philosophy's contribution to human wisdom; in his own work he willingly risked inaccuracy to range over every province of science, art, philosophy, and religion. He insisted on the merit of this venture, insofar as it was an attempt to achieve systematic unity in a field that would otherwise be divided between experts who were unaware of one another's achievements.

Reaction against Idealism

As an early polemicist against idealism, Perry claimed that the relationship of the world to the mind is an accidental or subordinate aspect of the world. He argued that the relationship of knowing the world is not like the relationship of owning an object. An object owned becomes in a sense a part of the owner, whereas the world, although it lends itself to being known, does not thereby become entirely a part of the knower. It is not exhaustively defined by the relationship of being known. This claim became one of the basic tenets of what Perry and five other young American philosophers formulated as New Realism in their cooperative volume New Realism (1912). They argued that the world is real and independent of mind, and that it is directly present or "immanent" to the mind in knowledge and consciousness. Together these tenets formed their "cardinal principle"the "independence of the immanent."

In his article "The Ego-centric Predicament" (1910), Perry had shown how this "predicament" had been used illicitly to argue for idealism. The idealist argument begins with the predicament that "it is impossible for me to discover anything which is, when I discover it, undiscovered by me," and concludes that "it is impossible to discover anything that is not thought." The idealist, Perry claimed, has confused the statement that "everything which is known, is known " with the claim that "everything which is, is known." Perry maintained that the predicament was simply methodological: 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.

Perry did not deny that this predicament presents a real difficulty, but he did deny that it argues either for idealism or realism. He never suggested what could be done to overcome the difficulty, but he did not think there were other than methodological implications in it. Instead, Perry argued that the objects of knowledge and experience are independent of egocentricity. "Independence" here refers not to a particular kind of relation but rather to the absence of one. Perry defined it as nondependence. The independent object may be related or not, provided that it is not related in the way the dependent object is. The independent object can be related to consciousness, or mind, but not be dependent on that relationship for its existence.

However, as Perry developed his position (in Present Philosophical Tendencies, 1925), it turned out that independent objects of knowledge are not the real independent objects of the commonsense world but "neutral entities" indifferent to both the subjective and the physical (or objective) relations in experience. They do not exist in any place; they exist only in the logical sense, as either a class or members of a class. They are therefore preeminently independent of consciousness. The propositions of logic and mathematics are typical of such entities, and Perry contended that analysis of such propositions reveals neither a knowing relation nor reference to a knower.

In taking this position, Perry had adopted James's neutral monism, and although he eventually abandoned it, he continued to describe his own philosophy as, among other things, "neutralism." Perry's move away from neutral monism and New Realism is best seen in his two works on value theory, General Theory of Value (1926) and Realms of Value (1954). The first work sets forth Perry's theory of the generic nature of value, while the second details the varieties and types of this value as they appear in the major human institutions, or "realms of value."

Theory of Value

Believing that value was neither unanalyzable nor purely emotive, Perry formulated his well-known definition, "Any object, whatever it be, acquires value when any interest, whatever it be, is taken in it." Value is that which attaches to any object of any interest. Interest is defined as that which is characteristic of the motor-affective life, namely, instinct, desire, feeling, will, and all their states, acts, and attitudes. A thing is an object of interest when its being expected induces actions that anticipate its realization or nonrealization. Interested action is thus actively selective, tentative, instrumental, prospective, and fallible.

According to Perry, this theory did not conflict with the "independence of the immanent," because the latter, being restricted to knowledge, did not demand that values be conceived as independent. Yet Perry's theory included a cognitive element in all value or interest. Cognition gives the interest its object, Perry said, and the character of the object of interest is essentially the same as that of the object of cognition. The "mediating judgment" in interest and cognition is expectation and belief, and without belief there would be no basis for truth and error. All interest is characterized by expectancy, but it differs from cognition in that it also includes being for or against, favoring or disfavoring, the expected. Since both interest and cognition have this element of expecting something and being prepared to cope with it, expectancy is the key to understanding both.

Because expectancy looks forward and does not disclose itself except through a train of subsequent events, the object of interest and of cognition can be conceived of only as an ideal or "problematic" object, possessing the ambiguity or dual possibility of truth and error. This object is "internal" to the act or cognition and must be distinguished from its "external" referent, that which confirms or fails to confirm the expectation of the problematic object. Expectation is the meaning of an object.

Perry pointed out that during the process by which a sensory stimulus leads to an eventual sense perception, not only muscles and nerves, but attitudes, meanings, and interpretations are oriented toward the stimulus. Thus, when the ear is assailed by a stimulus, the organism listens toward the source and acts, or prepares to act, both upon that source and upon its context. At this point a conversion takes place: one hears the sound there and then perceives it as a bell having further characteristics. Thus, a stimulus touches off a reaction, and then the stimulus is superseded by thought, which now has an object, although the original stimulus has ceased to exist. The stimulus has been converted into an object; the sound has been converted into a bell, or in other words, into what it means, what is expected of it. This is the "perceptual object," that part of the total surrounding field to which the organism alerts itself, embracing what is expected of the sensory object.

This object is characterized both by meaningthat is, by what the organism expects of itand by being part of the surroundings. When Perry went on to describe its status further, his monistic bias became apparent. He maintained that if the ideal object is not somehow present in nature, it would be impossible to affirm that nature is as it is "represented" in the finished product of scientific inquiry. If the logical and mathematical structures of knowledge are to be true of nature, they must be in nature; the laws of nature reign in the realm of nature and not in the realm of natural science, which discovers them.

moral value

Having offered his theory of value, Perry went on to show in what sense we can say one value is "better" or "worse" than another. This too, he thought, called for a definitionthat is, a descriptive account of the meaning of "better" and "worse." For Perry, that meant a description of those conditions that would enable us to say with justification that one object of an interest was better (or worse) than another.

The key to this problem of value was integration or harmony of interests. To integrate or harmonize interests is to remove from them such qualities as independence, irrelevance, dissimilarity, opposition, indifference, antagonism, or incompatibility. Harmony in place of conflict is Perry's summum bonum. Morality takes the conflict of interests as its point of departure. What Perry called the moralization of lifethe harmonizing of interests for the sake of the interests harmonizedis effected through "reflective agreement" between the personal and the social will. "Harmonious happiness" is justified by its provision for the several interests that it harmonizes. Ought and obligation, then, are not moral ultimates but are justified by the good end.

That Perry's moral criterion was an absolute in an otherwise nonabsolutistic theory did not occur to him. However, he did assert that the criterion must agree with human nature and the circumstances of human life in such a way that men can adopt it and be governed by it. It must also possess qualifications for being accepted in lieu of other standards. Perry thought his concept of harmony, in its appeal to each knower's will, did possess universality because it embraced all intereststhat is, that it was to some extent applicable to everybody's interest.

The adequacy of Perry's theory rests therefore on his assumption that for all men "better" signifies a greater inclusiveness and harmony of values. Perry was by no means unaware of the need for social arrangements that would render the interests of individuals mutually innocent and cooperative. Almost half of his books were devoted to some aspect of this problem, and they were often written in response to the problems facing his country at the time. He brought to all of them his standard of harmonious happiness, or reflective agreement, a "creed of inclusiveness" that excluded only hatred and personal aggrandizement.

See also Ethics, History of; Idealism; James, William; Monism and Pluralism; New Realism; Realism; Value and Valuation.


works by perry

"The Ego-centric Predicament." In The Development of American Philosophy, edited by W. G. Muelder and L. Sears. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1940. Reprinted from original article in Journal of Philosophy 7 (1) (1910): 514.

"A Realistic Theory of Independence." In The New Realism, by E. B. Holt et al., 99151. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

The Present Conflict of Ideals; A Study of the Philosophical Background of the World War. New York: Longmans, Green, 1918.

Present Philosophical Tendencies; A Critical Survey of Naturalism, Idealism, Pragmatism and Realism Together with a Synopsis of the Philosophy of William James. New York, 1925.

General Theory of Value; Its Meaning and Basic Principles Construed in Terms of Interest. New York: Longmans, Green, 1926; reissued in 1950.

Philosophy of the Recent Past; An Outline of European and American Philosophy since 1860. New York and Chicago: Scribners, 1926.

"Realism in Retrospect." In Contemporary American Philosophy, edited by G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague, Vol. II, 187209. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

The Thought and Character of William James, as Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings, 2 vols. Boston: Little Brown, 1935. A Pulitzer Prize biography.

Our Side Is Right. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Puritanism and Democracy. New York: Vanguard Press, 1944. Best single statement of Perry's social and political philosophy.

The Citizen Decides: A Guide to Responsible Thinking in Time of Crisis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951.

Realms of Value; A Critique of Human Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

works on perry

Boman, Lars. Criticism and Construction in the Philosophy of the American New Realism. Stockholm, 1955. Mainly an exposition of Perry and other New Realists that utilizes the tools of modern philosophical analysis.

Harlow, Victor. A Bibliography and Genetic Study of American Realism. Oklahoma City: Harlow, 1931.

Hill, Thomas English. Contemporary Theories of Knowledge. New York: Ronald Press, 1961. Critical discussion of Perry as a "polemical" New Realist.

Thomas Robischon (1967)