Ralph Barton Perry

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Ralph Barton Perry

The American philosopher Ralph Barton Perry (1876-1957) was a leader of the New Realist movement and the originator of the interest theory of value.

Ralph Barton Perry was born on July 3, 1876, in Poultney, Vt. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University in 1896 and his master of arts and doctor of philosophy degrees from Harvard University in 1897 and 1899. After teaching at Williams and Smith colleges, he joined the faculty of Harvard in 1902.

In 1910 Perry joined in the publication of "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists" in the Journal of Philosophy. The New Realist movement, which flourished during the first 2 decades of the 20th century, opposed idealism. New Realism claimed that the world is not dependent on the mind and that the knowledge relation is accidental or external to the object known.

Perry contributed to the cooperative volume New Realism (1912). In Present Philosophical Tendencies (1912) Perry maintained that the cardinal principle of New Realism is "the independence of the immanent, " meaning that the same object which is immanent in the mind when known is also independent of the mind.

During World War I Perry served in the U.S. Army as a major. He was also secretary of the War Department Committee on Education and Special Training. From this experience came The Plattsburg Movement (1921). In 1919 Perry returned to Harvard. He was elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1920.

Perry's General Theory of Value (1926) contended that interest is "the original source and constant feature of all value" and defined interest as that which belongs to the motor-affective life of instinct, desire, and feeling. Recognizing that interests conflict, he was concerned with the problem of comparative value. Morality, he held, originates with the conflict of interests, and moral value consists in the most inclusive integration of interests—"harmonious happiness."

In 1930 Perry was appointed Edgar Pierce professor of philosophy at Harvard. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume biography, The Thought and Character of William James (1935). In 1936 he became chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France). He also received many honorary degrees.

Perry retired from Harvard in 1946 and was Gifford lecturer at Glasgow University until 1948. His lectures were published in Realms of Value (1954), a critique of human civilization in the light of the interest theory of value. On Jan. 22, 1957, he died in a hospital near Boston.

Further Reading

The best treatments of Perry's thought are in the following: W. H. Werkmeister, A History of Philosophical Ideas in America (1949); Joseph L. Blau, Men and Movements in American Philosophy (1952); Lars Boman, Criticism and Construction in the Philosophy of the American New Realism (1955); and Andrew J. Reck, Recent American Philosophy (1964). □