Alexander, Samuel

views updated May 23 2018


English educator and neorealist philosopher; b. Sydney, Australia, Jan. 6, 1859; d. Manchester, England, Sept. 11, 1938. Alexander was educated at the University of Melbourne and at Balliol College, Oxford, and served as a teaching fellow of Lincoln College from 1882 to 1893. He was then professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Manchester until 1924, during which time he was president of the Aristotelian Society (190811), fellow of the British Academy (1913), and Gifford lecturer at the University of Glasgow (191618). In 1927, he was appointed the Herbert Spencer lecturer at Oxford. He published many philosophical and literary works, among which Space, Time, and Deity (2 v., London 1920) is the most important.

In revolt against traditional materialism, Alexander formulated his epistemology and metaphysics in the context of naturalism and realism. His principal synthesis may be summarized as follows: (1) space and time are infinite, continuous, and inseparablethe universal matrix of all reality; (2) all being originates by "emergent evolution," an intrinsic urge (nisus ) to develop into a more complex form of reality; (3) reality is creative; each emergent level is known by the "perspective" enjoyed by the mind; (4) just as mind emerges from life, and life from a lower physico-chemical level of existence, so the values of truth, beauty, freedom, and goodness emerge from mind; (5) deity is not a transcendent Creator, but the last emergent quality of mind.

While Alexander's pantheistic evolutionism directly opposed the materialistic, agnostic evolutionism of Spencer and T. H. Huxley, it can be identified with other currents of contemporary thought. Alexander associated his space-time matrix with the four-dimensional continuum arrived at mathematically by Einstein. He allied his "emergent evolution," a concept used independently by the British zoologist, C. Lloyd Morgan, with H. Bergson's "creative evolution." His empirical "perspectivism" was closely akin to the direct realism of G. E. Moore, B. russell, and the pragmatists, while leaving place for the a priori and nonempirical as found in Plato and Kant. His concept of value, human freedom, and deity has much in common with the pantheistic naturalism of B. spinoza, the French philosophy of the spirit, and the absolute idealism of F. H. bradley and B. Bosanquet. Again, his psychic evolutionism is not unlike that proposed by A. N. whitehead.

The defects of Alexander's evolutionism were two: his system remained basically eclectic and he never unified in principle, logically or ontologically, the world of spirit and of matter. In spite of his instinct against materialism and agnosticism, his thought never truly attained to spiritual substance and the transcendence of God.

See Also: evolutionism; pantheism.

Bibliography: Works. Moral Order and Progress (3d ed. London 1899); Locke (London 1908); The Basis of Realism (London 1914); Space, Time, and Deity, 2 v. (London 1920); Artistic Creation and Cosmic Creation (London 1928); Spinoza and Time (London 1921); Spinoza (Manchester 1933); Philosophical and Literary Pieces, ed. j. laird (London 1939), bibliog. Literature. p. devaux, Le Système d'Alexander (Paris 1929). m. r. konvitz, On the Nature of Value: The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (New York 1946). a. f. liddell Alexander's Space, Time, and Deity (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1925). j. w. mccarthy, The Naturalism of Samuel Alexander (New York 1948), bibliog.

[r. j. nogar]

Alexander, Samuel

views updated May 18 2018


ALEXANDER, SAMUEL (1859–1938), British philosopher. His family originated in Alsace and he was born in Australia. From 1882 to 1893 he taught at Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College, being the first Jew appointed to a college fellowship in an English university. From 1894 to 1924 he was a professor of philosophy in Manchester. In 1930 he was made a member of the Order of Merit, the highest honor in British intellectual life. Alexander also participated in Anglo-Jewish communal life and was a member of the academic council of the Hebrew University. Alexander was the principal exponent of metaphysical realism in England. In his view, metaphysics is a descriptive science, which elucidates the most universal levels of reality. There are various levels in the unfolding of reality, each of which is rooted in the one preceding it and emerges from it. The most important of these emergent levels which have thus far manifested themselves are those of matter, the physical-chemical life, and mind. However, the creative potential of the cosmic order has not ceased – the next level to evolve will be that of "deity." The relationship of "deity" to mind will be of the same order as that of mind to matter and of matter to space-time. The impending advent of "deity" in the process of emergent evolution is evidenced by the existence of religious consciousness. Deity is the goal of the ever-advancing craving – perhaps asymptotic – for it. His doctrines have much in common with those held by Alexander's friends and contemporaries, A.N. Whitehead and Lloyd Morgan. In his later life, Alexander turned to the study of aesthetics in which he found much substantiation for his views on the cosmic order. The most original and characteristic portion of his work in metaphysics is the recognition of the reality of time, change, process, and the concept of "point-instants" as ultimate units of reality. The "pragmatic deduction" of the categories (i.e., categories of reality, not of thought) is found in the second part of his book Space, Time and Deity (2 vols., 1920). His most lasting contribution to epistemology is his elaborate distinction between "contemplation" of an experience and the "enjoyment" of it: the objective awareness of an "-ed" and the subjective "non-accusative" enjoying self-awareness of an "-ing." Many modern philosophers not otherwise in sympathy with Alexander's realistic metaphysics owe to him this celebrated distinction. His other major writings are Moral Order and Progress (1889); Locke (1908); The Foundation of Realism (1914); Spinoza and Time (1921); Beauty and Other Forms of Value (1933); Philosophical and Literary Pieces (edited 1939).


B. Bosanquet, The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy (1924), index; P. Devaux, Le systéme d'Alexander (1929); R. Metz, Hundred Years of British Philosophy (1938), index; M.R. Konvits, On the Nature of Value: The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (1946). add. bibliography: J. Laird (ed.), "Memoir," in: Philosophical and Literary Pieces (1939); J. Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1978), index; M.A. Weinstein, Unity and Variety in the Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (1984); The Collected Works of Samuel Alexander (2000), a 1,988 page collection of his writings; odnb online.

[Leon Roth]

Samuel Alexander

views updated May 23 2018

Samuel Alexander

The British philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) was a forceful exponent of metaphysics at a time when that subject had largely fallen into disrepute. His work shows a fine capacity for synthesis and system.

Samuel Alexander was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on Jan. 6, 1859. His early education was at Wesley College in Melbourne. He went to England in 1877 with a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he took the literae humaniores (humanities) degree, reading mathematics and philosophy. After graduation he stayed on at Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College, where he taught philosophy. He was the first Jew to be a fellow at Oxford.

While at Oxford, Alexander was awarded the Green Moral Philosophy Prize for a dissertation in ethics, which formed the basis for his first publication, Moral Order and Progress (1889). This book secured Alexander a wide reputation and, in 1893, a chair of philosophy at the University of Manchester, which he held until his retirement in 1924. After retirement he continued to live in Manchester, where he was well known and well loved, a nearly legendary figure. The city and the university honored him in 1925 by erecting an impressive bust by the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Alexander's major work came late in life with his Gifford Lectures, later published as a book, Space, Time and Deity (1920). The book is a complex metaphysics in the grand manner, portraying the world as an evolving hierarchy of emerging qualities: space-time, matter, life, mind, and finally deity. Each new quality depends on the lower ones but at the same time presents something genuinely novel.

In 1933 Alexander collected some of his papers on ethics and esthetics and issued them under the title Beauty and the Other Forms of Value. More of his papers were issued in book form after his death. Many of these pieces show a geniality and sense of fun quite different from his systematic works. Reading them, one comes to understand why a friend characterized him as "deep but gay."

In appearance Alexander was forceful and impressive. He looked every inch the philosopher, with a flowing beard, high forehead, and penetrating glance. A bachelor, he had a genius for friendship with persons of all ages and situations.

Further Reading

Alexander's Philosophical and Literary Pieces (1939), edited by his literary executor, John Laird, is prefaced by a long memoir which is a synthesis of information and anecdotes obtained from friends of Alexander. The volume also contains a complete bibliography. John W. McCarthy, The Naturalism of Samuel Alexander (1948), is a good critical work. For a contrary view see Milton R. Konvitz, On the Nature of Value: The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (1946). Bernard Bosanquet, The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy (1921), contains valuable background material. □

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