Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott (1864–1937)

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Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, the British pragmatist philosopher, was born in Schleswig-Holstein and studied at Rugby and at Balliol College, Oxford. After teaching German at Eton, he returned to Oxford for his MA. In 1893 he went to Cornell University as an instructor and graduate student. In 1897, without receiving a doctorate, he returned to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he was successively assistant tutor, tutor, senior tutor, and fellow and where he received a DSc in 1906. He served as treasurer of the Mind Association and president of the Aristotelian Society (1921), and he was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1926. From 1926 on, Schiller spent part of each year at the University of Southern California as visiting lecturer and then as professor; in 1935 he moved there permanently.


Schiller's views, which he called at various times humanism, voluntarism, and personalism, as well as pragmatism, were strongly influenced by William James; and Schiller paid James great tribute, although he claimed to have arrived at his opinions independently. There was, however, an important difference of emphasis between them: James stressed the purposive aspect of thinking, and Schiller, the personal. James also accepted the independence of what is objectively given, whereas Schiller regarded all knowledge, even of "facts," as relatively subjective. Both Schiller and John Dewey were strongly influenced by G. W. F. Hegel and took the process of knowing as central to reality, but the influence of idealism was much stronger on Schiller than on Dewey. And whereas Schiller pursued the subjective and individual aspects of James's psychology, Dewey built upon its objective and social aspects. C. S. Peirce thought that Schiller's philosophy was intermediate between James's and his own.

Schiller's views may best be understood in terms of his opposition to the dominant absolute idealism of the British Hegelians, F. H. Bradley (Schiller's particular bête noire), J. M. E. McTaggart, Bernard Bosanquet, and T. H. Green. To Schiller the absolutism, monism, authoritarianism, rationalism, and intellectualism that these thinkers espoused ignored the basic insight of Protagoras that man is the measure of all things.

Schiller was convinced that all acts and all thoughts are irreducibly the products of individual human beings and therefore inescapably associated with the needs, desires, and purposes of humans. Such terms as reality and truth denote nothing complete and absolute; rather, they are intertwined with human intentions and deeds. Schiller emphasized the effective creativity of the human mind in organizing the universe of human experience and thus in making or remaking "reality." Man makes his truth along with his other values, Beauty and Goodness. Our axioms are never God-given but are human-made; they are not a priori verities but postulates, or working hypotheses, whose truth grows or diminishes within our experience. The logic we employ in gathering knowledge is dynamic and functional rather than eternally fixed. Our data are not "the given" but "the taken." Thus, in Schiller's view, human activity is focal both to epistemology and to metaphysics, and there is genuine novelty in our growing universe and no theoretical limit to human freedom.

Making Reality

The absolute idealists maintained that reality is a seamless logical unity, not a mere disjointed plurality; that in the Absolute all separateness vanishes; that nothing finite, nothing that changes, is ever quite real, not even human personality; and that there is something makeshift, transitory, and unsatisfactory about the bits of matter we see, the individual acts we perform, and the private thoughts we think. But, Schiller pointed out, that is all that exists for us. An independent or absolute reality that does not enter into our experience, or explain our knowledge, is irrelevant to us. "Reality" for us is piecemeal, incomplete, and plastic. It is idle to ask "What is real?" Rather, the only question we can answer is "What can I know as real?"

The reality revealed by our actual active procedures of knowing is not rigid but malleable, not completed but evolving. Because it responds, at least to some extent, to our working and probing, it must somehow be not unrelated to our needs and purposes. The process of knowing, Schiller said, is "never one of bringing the mind into relation with a fundamentally alien reality, but always one of improving and extending an already existing system which we know." What we call real is that which, for our own reasons, we evaluate as important. It is the result of the kind of selection by which we reduce the chaos about us to order.

Schiller's critics found intolerable the thesis that we make reality. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote, "Dr. Schiller says that the external world was first discovered by a low marine animal he calls 'Grumps,' who swallowed a bit of rock that disagreed with him, and argued that he would not have given himself such a pain, and therefore there must be an external world. One is tempted to think that many people had not yet made the disagreeable experience which Grumps made. Meanwhile, whatever accusations pragmatists may bring, I shall continue to protest that it was not I who made the world" ("Professor Dewey's 'Essays in Experimental Logic,'" Journal of Philosophy 16 [January 1919] 26).

Schiller found it hard to meet two particular objections to the theory of the making of reality: The world obviously preceded the existence of humans, and there are patent limits to human powers. In his later writings Schiller therefore reluctantly accepted the distinction between "finding" and "making" the real, although he reiterated the meaninglessness of the "real-as-it-is-in-itself." He revived the Greek term hule to refer to the indeterminate, formless chaos, to whatever may be beyond man's ability to perceive or manipulate, to the raw malleable material of the cosmos.

Despite its drawbacks, the doctrine of the making of reality provided Schiller with the basis for certain important conclusions. In his view, it provided a perfect accommodation for Darwinian evolution; it supported a belief in the existence of genuinely new things and situations (always a problem for the absolute idealists because they regarded reality as a self-contained whole); it legitimized human progress; it provided a suitable conceptual scheme for the view, which Schiller ascribed to Albert Einstein and other scientists, that to posit "the real" independently of our sensations is to make an intellectual construction; and, most significantly, it was a firm foundation for man's freedom.

Other Metaphysical Views

Schiller's other metaphysical views may be briefly stated. The function of philosophy, he thought, was to preserve the grand synoptic vision, to be an ultimate synthesis of the special sciences. Metaphysical systems, he held, are quasi ethical, or even aesthetic, in character; they reflect personality and temperament. Because the individual human person was an ontological ultimate for Schiller, he was a personalistic pluralist. He was also a hylozoist, asserting that all matter is more or less alive.


Many theories of truth have been propounded through the centuries, but none has been entirely satisfactory. Schiller pointed out the shortcomings of some, particularly the correspondence and coherence theories. Pragmatists agree that no statement wears its truth like a badge; its truth can be determined only by what follows from it in the course of experience. Truth is only a potential, a valuation applied as the result of a procedure called verifying, or making true. Truth is relative to the evidence and to the purpose of the investigator; no degree of verification will ever establish the absolute truth of a statement. Schiller held that truth is personal and particular, dynamic and progressive, not eternal or absolute but the best solution found so far for any problem. That which thwarts or defeats the purpose of an inquiry we call false; that which furthers it we call true. "Truth is that manipulation of [objects] which turns out upon trial to be useful, primarily for any human end, but ultimately for that perfect harmony of our whole life which forms our final aspiration" (Humanism, p. 61).

Nevertheless, Schiller thought the conversion of "The truth is useful" to "The useful is true" to be malicious. Therefore, in Chapter 8 of Logic for Use he distinguished seven kinds of truth claims. (1) A postulate is a statement that is "desirable if true," whose truth we try to establish. (2) "A fully verified postulate which serves as principle for a fully established science" and "rests securely on the solid mass of scientific fact it has been instrumental in eliciting" is an axiom. (3) A methodological assumption (determinism, for example) is any guiding principle that appears to be useful in analyzing the flux of events. (4) An assumption of limited usefulness, such as the use of Euclidean geometry in cartography, is a methodological fiction. Finally, truth claims may be, or are, made in (5) fictions, (6) jokes, and (7) lies. Lies are deliberately untrue but may be useful, as in propaganda.

Thus, Schiller held, to claim that all truths work for us in some way and that there is no useless knowledge is far from saying that whatever is useful is true. However, he was aware of difficulties concerning the status of past truth, the usefulness of some parts of pure mathematics, and such questions as whether truth is equivalent to survival value or to social acceptance.


Since the true is what is true for us as seekers for it, Schiller deplored the divorce of logic from the empirical sciences and from psychology. He criticized traditional formal logic for having been a word game and for having been allied to metaphysics rather than to the empirical sciences and to psychology. For Schiller, as for Dewey, thought arises as an element in the solution of a problem. Thus the activity of reasoning has a biological matrix, and it is conditioned by such factors as interest, purpose, emotion, and satisfaction. Schiller was concerned with showing that meanings had been misunderstood and ignored by logic. Meanings, he pointed out, are acquired only in use; they are plastic and personal, and they occur only in contexts. Traditional logic regarded them as purely verbal and as fixed; it believed that one meaning corresponded to one form, and vice versa.

Schiller thought that logic had made the two mistakes of "etherealizing" and "depersonalizing" truth. In its search for formal validity, it had made three fatal abstractions; from actual thinking processes (psychology); from purpose, truth, or utility; and from meaning, matter, and context. In two books, Formal Logic (1912) and Logic for Use (1929), Schiller made an exhaustive study of formal logic, including terms, propositions, definitions, the syllogism, and fallacies. He showed that, even on its own terms, logic was not free from ambiguityhow can there be novelty in the conclusion of a syllogism? What is the precise import of the copula in a proposition? Moreover, logic appealed at several crucial points to such psychological notions as the "necessity" of implication and the "certainty" or "self-evidence" of propositions. Schiller thought that logic should become a systematic evaluation of actual knowing, a study continuous with the sciences. His resolute experimentalism led him to assert, in "Axioms as Postulates" (1902), that even the laws of thought (identity, contradiction, excluded middle) are not principles of being or rules of logic but postulates.

Scientific Method

In analyzing the procedures of science, Schiller made several noteworthy contributions. He showed that the concept of "fact" is ambiguous. The "facts" of the scientist are the result of a process of selection, segregation, and evaluation; they are relative to the state of the science, the methods and instruments used, and the aims and bias of the scientist. They are also relative to the hypothesis used, to our own senses, to our memory, and to our words. Schiller also said, "The impossibility of 'breaking' a Law of Nature proves nothing but our determination to uphold a phraseology we have found convenient" (Formal Logic, p. 328).

Ethics and Religion

Schiller carried his pragmatic approach into ethics and religion. There are no abstract values, he said, but only acts of personal valuation. Moral principles are not a priori presuppositions of right conduct; they are its results. The statements of religion are likewise postulates. (James spoke of the will to believe; Schiller, of the right to postulate.) God is a pervasive principle of goodness, not infinite but finite, struggling to develop; the actions of men therefore make a difference. Man's freedom is correlative to the postulate that man is responsible for his acts and is an agent in the full sense of the term. Schiller shared with James and Henri Bergson an interest in psychical research that stemmed from his desire to examine the methods of science at its periphery and from his postulate of immortality. Schiller was also keenly interested in eugenics. This led him to oppose democracy as a "sham" (Problems of Belief, p. 81) and to praise the British fascist Oswald Mosley. His social opinions were generally regarded by his philosophic supporters as a vagary.

Schiller was a prolific writer, a sprightly stylist, and a spirited polemicist who maintained a role of philosophic enfant terrible through hundreds of essays and books. He edited and wrote most of a parody of Mind, which he called Mind! one of the rare examples of philosophic humor.

See also Humanism.


Schiller's major books are two collections of essays, Humanism: Philosophical Essays (London and New York: Macmillan, 1903) and Studies in Humanism (London and New York: Macmillan, 1907). Two later collections are Must Philosophers Disagree? (London: Macmillan, 1934) and Our Human Truths (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939).

His major works in logic are Formal Logic: A Scientific and Social Problem (London: Macmillan, 1912) and Logic for Use: An Introduction to the Voluntarist Theory of Knowledge (London: G. Bell, 1929).

His essay "Axioms as Postulates" appeared in the anthology Personal Idealism, edited by Henry Sturt (London: Macmillan, 1902), pp. 47133. An early, prepragmatic metaphysics, titled Riddles of the Sphinx and written under the pseudonym of A. Troglodyte (London and New York, 1891), was offered unsuccessfully to Cornell University as a PhD thesis. The essays "Scientific Discovery and Logical Proof" (1917) and "Hypothesis" (1921) were contributed to Studies in the History and Method of Science, edited by Charles J. Singer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19171921), and may be found in Vol. I, pp. 235289, and Vol. II, pp. 414446, respectively. Another work by Schiller is Problems of Belief (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924).

A critical study of Schiller's philosophy, with an exhaustive bibliography, is Reuben Abel, The Pragmatic Humanism of F. C. S. Schiller (New York: King's Crown Press, Columbia University, 1955).

See also Reuben Abel, ed., Humanistic Pragmatism; The Philosophy of F. C. S. Schiller (New York: Free Press, 1966); and A Bibliography of the Works of F. C. S. Schiller, with an Introduction to Pragmatic Humanism (San Diego, CA: San Diego State College Press, 1969).

Reuben Abel (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott (1864–1937)

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