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Woodbridge, Frederick James Eugene (1867–1940)


Frederick James Eugene Woodbridge, the American educator, was born in Windsor, Ontario, and attended Amherst College, Union Theological Seminary, and the University of Berlin. He taught philosophy at the University of Minnesota (18941902) and Columbia University (19021937). At Columbia he also served as dean of the faculty of political science, philosophy, and pure science (19121929). Like his colleague John Dewey, he had great influence as a teacher. His influence was less widespread than was Dewey's and was more confined to professional philosophers, but it went deep and is clearly responsible for the revival in the United States of Aristotelian trends of thought. His successor at Columbia University as teacher of the history of philosophy, John H. Randall Jr., is a notable instance of his influence.

Realism and Naturalism

In describing his own philosophical position Woodbridge used the terms realism and naturalism. By realism he meant that life and mind are products that develop, here and there, in the course of the manifold developments in the natural world. Mind, life, consciousness, and soul are activities of certain types of bodies; they never appear apart from those bodies, although mind, once it has emerged in Nature, may come to guide and thus to master some of the occurrences in the world about it. Consciousness is an awareness of some of the things in the environment; it salutes, as it were, those things. Consciousness, far from being the source of the objective world, presupposes its existence. In all this realistic position Woodbridge regarded himself, quite correctly, as reaffirming in modern terms some basic themes of Aristotle's metaphysics.

By naturalism Woodbridge meant much the same thing as he meant by realism. Naturalism, he said, "is an attitude and not a doctrine." Some contemporary writers used the word Nature to indicate a norm of perfection that the historical processes in this world seldom bring to fulfillment. Others, especially theologians, used it to connote an inferior mode of being, contrasting it with an allegedly superior spirit or supernature. Woodbridge avoided such implied judgments. He wrote, in a hitherto unpublished letter of July 24, 1939:

Let Nature be, as I love to put it, heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and I do not see how one can here complain of ambiguity; there is no mistaking what is named by the name Nature. So now I have adopted the practice of spelling Nature with a big N to indicate that it is a name given and not a predicate with implications. It is a name for the clearly identified subject-matter of all inquiry, so that now we can ask what Nature is and proceed at once to look for answers.

In other writers the word naturalism often introduced untested presuppositions and undetected prejudices. Woodbridge took Nature as anything and everything we encounter and want to investigate. He abjured "anticipations of nature" and made no commitments, in advance of careful study and research, as to the "interpretations of nature" that investigation would reveal to be proper and true. Nature is what we find around us, whether we are looking on a top closet shelf, or through telescopic instruments at stellar universes that are distant in both time and space, or at the evidences for ancient cities that long ago disappeared from view. Daily life, technical science, and history alike presuppose Nature; that is, all these kinds of quests for knowledge presuppose simply that there is much to investigate. Naturalism, in Woodbridge's sense of the term, is not a thesis about what kind of world we have; it is a summons to unbiased research.

Woodbridge's writings reflect, in their form as well as in their content, the attitude he called naturalism and realism. He had no interest in producing an intricate tome designed systematically to account for the existence of everything. Rather, he wrote outstanding essays, in each of which he pushed some one line of analysis as far as he then could. His interests are revealed by the titles of his essays: "Substance," "Teleology," "Creation," "Structure," "Evolution," "Behaviour," "Sensations," "Mind," and "Man." In these essays he examined the question of what thing or process or aspect of the world we isolate for inspection when we speak, for example, of "substance" or "teleology." The positions these essays expose are consistent enough, to be sure. But no one is a premise from which others are deduced; rather, each is a fresh inquiry into some facet of Nature. Moreover, Woodbridge maintained that all the possible investigations that might be undertaken still would not exhaust the intricacies of Nature. We may reach some profound conclusions, but we can never properly say concerning any or all of our conclusions that we have discovered the whole truth about Nature.

Time and Change

The most influential of Woodbridge's writings are his discussions of time and change (see particularly Ch. 2 of The Purpose of History ). Woodbridge argues that what happens at any time is not simply or wholly the effect of what has already happened; an event is dependent upon its past as the material upon which activity may be expended, but it is also a new and fresh expenditure of activity upon that material. What occurs is reconstruction, transformation, remaking. What was is thus pushed back into the past, and what becomes takes the place of what was. Time does not move from past through present to future; rather, it moves from the possible to the actual, that is, from one of the potentialities of what formerly was to a single actuality that is brought into existence by an action (whether that action be unconscious chance or conscious choice) upon what was. What comes to us from the past offers us opportunities and often imposes cruel limitations, but it does not make our choices for us. Rather, it allows us to realize our ends insofar as we have understanding of the potentialities it contains. History has no one end; it includes many processes with their many, often incompatible, ends. And human choices, insofar as they are intelligent, may well be effective to some degree. A naturalistic theory of Nature thus issues in a humanistic theory of man.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Consciousness; Dewey, John; Metaphysics; Naturalism; Realism.


works by woodbridge

The Purpose of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.

The Realm of Mind. New York: Columbia University Press, 1926.

The Son of Apollo: Themes of Plato. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

Nature and Mind. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937. A volume of essays presented to Woodbridge on his seventieth birthday by students, colleagues, and friends; contains a bibliography of his writings.

An Essay on Nature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Aristotle's Vision of Nature. Edited with an introduction by J. H. Randall Jr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

works on woodbridge

Cohen, Morris R. American Thought, 315316. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954.

Cohen, Morris R. Chapter 17, "Later Philosophy," of Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. III, pp. 263264. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1921.

Costello, Harry T. "The Naturalism of Frederick J. E. Woodbridge." In Naturalism and the Human Spirit, edited by Y. H. Krikorian, 295318. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

Lamprecht, Sterling P. Our Philosophical Traditions, 486497. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955.

Randall, John H., Jr. "Dean Woodbridge." Columbia University Quarterly 32 (December 1940): 324331.

Randall, John H., Jr. "Introduction" and "The Department of Philosophy." In A History of the Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University, 357, 102145. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Sterling P. Lamprecht (1967)

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