Stace, Walter Terence (1886–1967)

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Walter Terence Stace, the Anglo American empiricist philosopher, was born in London. He was graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1908 and from 1910 to 1932 served in the civil service in Ceylon. During this period he published A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (London, 1920) and The Philosophy of Hegel (London, 1924). In 1932 he retired from the civil service to teach philosophy at Princeton University, where he remained until his academic retirement in 1955. He was president of the American Philosophical Association in 1949.

Stace's The Theory of Knowledge and Existence (Oxford, 1932) is the definitive statement of his general position on philosophical method. His argument rests on the claim that on strict empirical grounds the solipsist position is logically unassailable. Whereas philosophers such as George Santayana, starting with the same claim, appealed to a doctrine of "animal faith" and emphasized the irrational element in belief in an external world, Stace carefully and in detail offered an analysis of the steps whereby we construct our conception of an external physical world out of the available data. He often spoke of his doctrine as a theory of fictions, but in print he preferred the word constructions. The point is that the construction of the fiction of an external world is neither irrational nor animal. It is a step-by-step inference that, although it fails to provide a logical answer to solipsism's claims, does satisfy human demands for reasons for belief. Ultimately our reasons for belief rest, according to Stace, upon two general claims that can be empirically supportedthe claims that human minds are similar and that they labor together in common. These two empirical facts, and not logical proofs, support our commonsense beliefs. This thesis lies at the heart of most of Stace's later work.

Stace in this earlier period was an advocate of the sense-datum theory. In spite of continued association of his name with G. W. F. Hegel, he was chiefly indebted to David Hume, G. E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell. His main object of attack was Russell's Our Knowledge of the External World, which, according to Stace, constantly violates the principle of empiricism. In 1934 he published one of his best-known articles, "The Refutation of Realism" (Mind 43 [1934]: 145155), in response to Moore's influential "The Refutation of Idealism." Moore's argument was based upon a distinction between sense data and our awareness of them. Stace replied that one can grant the distinction and still deny any force to the claim that sense data exist when not being perceived. He generalized the claim that there can be no good reason for believing any version of the proposition that entities exist unperceived. They may so exist, but it is absurd to claim that this can be empirically proved. It follows that where "such proof is impossible, the belief ought not to be entertained."

This argument seems, on the face of it, to contradict the thesis of The Theory of Knowledge and Existence. Stace always subsequently maintained, however, that his article had been misunderstood because it was not recognized as irony. He also insisted that Moore's article had been intended as humorous. The irony of his own consisted in showing that the simplest natural belief cannot be supported by strict logical proofs.

Stace's next major work was The Concept of Morals (New York, 1937). In one sense the main argument of the book might be, and has been, characterized as a version of subjectivism because it associates a general theory of the meaning of moral judgments with a general theory of man's wants and approvals. Perhaps the most permanently valuable aspect of the argument, however, is the attempt to disassociate the view he is defending from the label "subjectivist." Stace held that the proper contrast between subjectivism and objectivism is between views which make reasoned adjudication of ethical disputes impossible, and views which provide rational grounds for holding that one moral claim can be correct and its rivals mistaken. According to Stace, what makes his view objectivist in this significant sense is the connection between it and a general theory of man's nature, including his desires, wants, and approvals. The result is a modified version of utilitarianism based upon the same two principles emphasized in the theory of knowledge, the similarity of men's minds and the fact that they labor together in common.

In two articles ("Positivism," Mind 53 [1944]: 215237; and "Some Misinterpretations of Empiricism," Mind 67 [1958]: 465484) Stace distinguished empiricism from recent positivistic tendencies. The intention of both is to attack the attempt on the part of more recent logical empiricists, who, Stace claimed, associate empiricism with the demand for strict logical proofs.

In September 1948 Stace published in the Atlantic Monthly (pp. 5358) an article titled "Man against Darkness." The thesis of the article, which Stace considered neither very original nor very shocking, was that the worldview endorsed by the physical sciences since the time of Galileo Galilei is incompatible with Christianity's traditional worldview. The violent reaction to this article stunned him. There followed The Gate of Silence (Boston, 1952), a book-length poem; Philosophy and the Modern Mind (New York, 1952), a careful historical study of the thesis that had been popularly stated in "Man against Darkness"; and Time and Eternity (Princeton, NJ, 1952), an essay in the philosophy of religion which many consider his most profound work.

No doubt partially because of the years he had lived in Ceylon, Stace was attracted to Hinayana Buddhism, and both The Gate of Silence and Time and Eternity reveal the extent of that influence on his later metaphysical thought. The theme of paradox runs throughout these works: "Men have always found that, in their search for the Ultimate, contradiction and paradox lie all around them. Either God is a Mystery or He is nothing at all" (Time and Eternity, p. 8).

Thus, Stace now held that belief must transcend the confines of strict logic, and the rigorous empiricist ended by courting mysticism. Fully aware of this fact, Stace set himself to what he conceived to be his final philosophical taskthe reconciliation of empiricism and mysticism. The result was Mysticism and Philosophy (New York, 1960). He claimed (1) that the mystical experience is a fact, is unique, and is the same in all cultures; (2) that the interpretations of the mystical experience vary widely from culture to culture; and (3) that a genuine empiricism cannot ignore the mystical experience simply because it is logically paradoxical.

Throughout the somewhat otherworldly philosophical reflection of his later life, Stace retained an interest in practical problems. His The Destiny of Western Man (New York, 1942) was an expression of horror against the irrational totalitarianism that swept Europe in the 1930s. In February 1947 he published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, vigorously attacking the legal basis of Zionist arguments. In early 1960s he was concerned with the universal condemnation of colonialism, insisting that high generalizations be checked against the evidence. In a letter to the New York Times (February 4, 1964), he wrote that colonialism "civilized half the world at the cost of the loss of some amour propre, of some snobbishness, of some arrogance, of some hard feeling, butin the case of the Romans and British, at any rateof very little real cruelty, injustice or tyranny."

See also Buddhism; Empiricism; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Solipsism.


additional works by stace

"The Metaphysics of Meaning." Mind 44 (1935): 417438.

A Critical History of Greek Philosophy. London, Macmillan; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1965.

Man against Darkness, and Other Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967.

The Nature of the World: An Essay in Phenomenalist Metaphysics. New York, Greenwood Press, 1969.

Time and Eternity: An Essay in the Philosophy of Religion. New York, Greenwood Press, 1969.

The Destiny of Western Man. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1970.

The Theory of Knowledge and Existence. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1970.

Mysticism and Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

The Concept of Morals. Gloucester, Mass., P. Smith, 1975.

Religion and the Modern Mind. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Works on Stace are A. J. Ayer, "The Principle of Verifiability," in Mind 45 (1936): 199203, a reply to Stace's "The Metaphysics of Meaning"; C. J. Ducasse, a review of Mysticism and Philosophy, in Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962): 323335; H. H. Price, "Mr. Stace on the Construction of the External World," in Mind 42 (1933): 273298; and Ralph E. Stedman and H. B. Acton, "Mr. Stace's Refutation of Realism," in Mind 43 (1934): 349353. On The Theory of Knowledge and Existence, see the critical notice by F. C. S. Schiller in Mind 42 (1933): 94100, and the review by L. Susan Stebbing in Philosophy 8 (1933): 354357.

James Ward Smith (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)