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Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the
University of Michigan




Copyright, 1916,













The present work is an attempt to state systematically the
essential problems of epistemology. These problems are real; they
can be stated clearly, and they can, I am convinced, be solved.
What do we mean when we say that we know a thing? What are
the conditions of such knowledge ? These questions and the numer-
ous other questions to which they lead are as empirical as any
questions to be found in the special sciences and, so far as I can see,
just as susceptible of being answered in a satisfactory way. But
the individual thinker who approaches them must rid his mind of
prejudices and be prepared to spend some time in a preliminary
survey of the facts. He must, moreover, be willing to regard his
conclusions as tentative and of the nature of hypotheses. Such
is the spirit which I have tried to maintain throughout the present

The positions which I am setting forth in the following pages
are the summary of many years of teaching and of hard and pretty
constant thinking, inside the class-room and without. As time
passed, I found myself drifting ever more decidedly toward realism
and naturalism. I became increasingly aware of the realistic
structure of the individual's experience and noted those distinctions
and meanings in which this structure was expressed. Whether
these distinctions and meanings could be justified was the question
uppermost in my mind. While the pressure of my reflection was
evidently toward realism, I was dissatisfied with the customary
realisms and felt that idealism had the better of the argument so
far as generally accepted principles were concerned. It was at the
very best a drawn battle between them.

Every realist who wishes to justify the faith that is in him must
meet the arguments of Berkeley, not only his more formal principle
that to be for the sensible world is to be perceived, but also his
argument from content that all objects can be analyzed into sensa-
tions. Hume, and in our own day, F. H. Bradley, have also driven
home to philosophy the psychical character of everything which is
directly present in the field of experience. My knowledge of psy-
chology and of logic made me realize the pervasive influence of
mental activity; made me able to bear in mind the processes which
made possible those apparently stable products which presented
themselves to me so ready-made and external. The problem which


was formulating itself was to reach a position which would do justice
to both the idealistic motives in experience and the realistic structure
and meanings. Was there not some way out? Could not some
more adequate standpoint be reached? I determined to analyze
the nature of scientific knowledge to see whether it would give me
a clue.

A careful study of modern science in the light of my episte-
mological problem did give me a clue which it took some time to
work out. Do not both Locke and Berkeley have essentially the
same view of knowledge? For each of them if there is to be
knowledge of the physical world it must be of the nature of direct
or indirect apprehension. Either the physical world itself or a
substitute copy must be present to the understanding when we
think. Berkeley meets Locke on this ground and overcomes him.
The physical world cannot be like our ideas; hence, we cannot
know it. Therefore, there is no good reason to assume its existence.

But is actual scientific knowledge an attempt to achieve images
which faithfully copy the physical world? Does not this knowledge
consist, instead, of propositions which claim to give tested knowledge
about the physical world? I want the reader to get clearly in mind
the difference of outlook which this suggestion involves. It involves
a relinquishment of all attempts to picture the physical world. Science
offers us measurements of things and statements of their properties,
i.e., their effects upon us and upon other things, and of their structure;
but it unconsciously swings ever more completely away from the
assumption that physical things are open to our inspection or that
substitute copies are open to our inspection.

This result of the study of actual scientific knowledge was illu-
minating. I immediately saw how Berkeley's arguments could be
out-flanked. They were based on a conception of knowledge which
did not hold for science. The scientist-as-such was not aware of
the problem, nor was he in a position to see the exact bearing of his
own results upon epistemology. That was the task of the philos-
opher. The systematic development of this new point of view was
the problem I set myself. Gradually a full-fledged theory of knowl-
edge formulated itself in my mind. For want of a better name, I
have called it Critical Realism.

To be understood properly, Critical Realism must be connected
with a non-apprehensional view of knowledge. Scientific knowledge
about the physical world consists of propositions which do not
attempt to picture it. It is upon this principle that I take my
stand. These propositions must be tested immanently or within
experience, but, after being so tested, they are considered as being


knowledge about that which can never be literally present within the
field of experience, although it controls the elements in the field.
But the reader will understand this position better as he follows
the detailed argument. This much of anticipation may, however,
act as a guide.

My thesis is, then, that idealism and realism have had essentially '
the same view of knowledge and that the large measure of sterility
which has accompanied philosophical controversy is due to this
constant assumption that knowledge always involves the presence of
the existent known in the field of experience. Philosophy limited
itself to a controversial study of the subject-object duality and did
not lift its eyes to the triad consisting of subject, idea-object (in
science analyzable into propositions), and physical existent. It is to
this triad that Critical Realism calls attention. It is my persuasion
that this more complex form of realism does justice to the truth
contained on both sides in the old antithesis. And it is this inclusive-
ness as much as anything else that convinces me that I am on the
right track.

But my thinking has, from the first, been very much influenced
by the mind-body problem. I have always thought that this age-old
problem would be the crucial test of any philosophical system.
There can be no doubt that constant brooding over this tantalizing
question exerted a pressure on me in the direction of realism and,
at the same time, controlled my thinking. How could I obtain a
realism without a dualism? Chapter IX gives my solution. Con- .
.sciousness is a variant within those highly evolved parts of the physical
world which we call organisms. Perhaps the most novel idea in the
chapter is that consciousness is actually extended. I feel certain
that the reader will find many parts of the chapter extremely interest-
ing. I have no doubt that many critics will speak of the position
as Materialism; I prefer to call it Naturalism. The reason for this
preference is that Materialism has never had an adequate theory of
knowledge back of it and, therefore, has misleading associations in
regard to the nature of the physical world. If the critic desires to
follow the present liking for the word "new" he is at liberty to call
my position Neo-Materialism or the New Materialism. What I
particularly desire both critic and general reader to do, however,
is to see the solution of the mind-body problem in the light of Critical
Realism as a theory of knowledge.

The reader may, perhaps, be helped to grasp the rather long and
intimately connected argument of the book if I point out its general

Chapter I begins with a description of the plain man's outlook,


which is called Natural Realism. The plain man believes that the
physical thing itself is present in his field of vision. I try first to show
how natural this belief is and then to point out fatal objections to it.
The conclusion arrived at is that we perceive percepts, or thing-
experiences, and not physical things. The physical world retreats
into the background and the perceptual experience is thought of as
under two controls, the physical thing and the body. We begin to
suspect that perception and knowledge are not the same, but do
not yet know what knowledge is.

Chapter II examines Natural Realism in the light of science and
points out the growth of what may be called scientific realism. The
percept and the physical thing are pretty well distinguished, but the
reach of scientific knowledge remains vague. When the problem
of knowledge is raised, reflective scientists divide themselves into
at least three groups, but there is no clear consensus of opinion.
The tendency to picture the physical world still lingers.

Chapter III concerns itself with the Advance of the Personal.
Both percepts and concepts are seen to be personal, and the meaning
"commonness" gives way to "correspondence." We have corre-
spondent percepts and concepts; we do not sec the same things nor
have the same ideas. This result is entitled mental pluralism, and
is considered a reflective level of an empirical sort to be sharply
opposed to idealism which is a theory.

Chapters IV and V contain analyses of the field of the individual's
experience. The essential distinctions of what I call the coexistential
dimension of the field are seen in the light of the temporal, or process,
dimension. These chapters complete the empirical foundation.

Chapter VI includes an examination of both subjective and
objective idealism. The principles of these systems are shown to
be fallacious. I would especially call the attention of the reader to
the criticism of the assertion, characteristic of the objective idealist,
that the causal category has validity only within experience. This
assertion is shown to be ambiguous. If knowledge has a reference
to that which is outside of the field of the individual's experience,
the causal category, which is a part of the framework of that knowl-
edge, must follow this reference. The error of idealism turns out
to be the assumption that knowledge demands the presence in
experience of that which is known. Here I make appeal to the
triad referred to above.

Chapter VII exhibits the inadequacy of mental pluralism. Seven
problems are developed in some detail to demonstrate the pressure
within experience to the acceptance of an external control of expe-
rience and a continuous medium within which minds live and


move and have their being. The thought of the physical world
comes back with renewed force.

Chapter VIII discusses certain epistemological problems of
particular interest. I would call the attention of the reader to the
criticism of the assumption, characteristic of panpsychism, that the
mental cannot contain knowledge of the non-mental. This assump-
tion is shown to rest on the idea of knowledge, cherished by Natural
Realism, that knowledge involves the presence of the existent
known, so that the very material of the existent must be revealed.
Here, again, the new meaning of knowledge stands us in good stead.
Scientific knowledge is not an intuition of the stuff of the physical
world. Thus Critical Realism establishes itself as the only satis-
factory hypothesis which will solve the problems raised by

Chapter IX concerns itself with the mind-body problem as a
crucial test of Critical Realism. As we have already referred to
the conclusions drawn, we can omit any further summary.

Chapter X is given to a study of the new meaning of knowledge
and the experiential structure which makes extra-experiential
reference possible. The reader will find the discussion of denotation
particularly important. I have tried to show that there 'is nothing
mysterious in the mechanism of reference; that it depends upon
the realistic structure of the field of experience. The new meaning
of knowledge is now seen to contain two elements: the idea-object
which is accepted or believed, and the moment of reference. The
idea-object is knowledge and also knowledge-about. And this knowl-
edge is just the kind of knowledge which it purports to be. We
can eliminate from science all attempt to intuit or picture the physical
world. Any such tendency is a hold-over from Natural Realism.
We have out-flanked Berkeley. One more point is taken up in
this chapter the meaning of truth. I try to show that truth is a
contrast-meaning whose opposite is error. Both presuppose knowl-
edge, but they arise as a consequence of the experience of disappoint-
ment. Some idea-objects accepted as knowledge turn out later
not to be knowledge. Truth is thus a purely empirical meaning
connected with idea-objects. The criteria of truth have been
worked out in scientific method. The study of these criteria is the
work of the logician who really knows his science. Pragmatism
had considerable meaning as a criticism of the vaguenesses of the
traditional idealisms, but jt has encouraged looseness of thought.
The reason for this is that it was not founded on an adequate theory
of knowledge.

The present work was completed in the spring of 1913. Since


then I have been at work on the Categories. These Categories
represent the framework of our knowledge about the universe in
which we live, and their study will constitute what is traditionally
called Metaphysics.

I wish to make acknowledgment to my wife for her assistance in
proof-reading and for many helpful suggestions in regard to the
literary side of the work. Every philosophical system depends
upon the thinkers of the past and of the present. Where I have been
able, I have freely acknowledged my indebtedness. I owe much
to the intellectual atmosphere in which I have lived while doing
this work and to the stimulus given by my colleagues at the Univer-
sity of Michigan although none of them must be held responsible
for any of the views herein expressed.

Ann Arbor

November, 1915





PHILOSOPHY properly begins in a description of human
experience. It must give close attention to the distinc-
tions, meanings, and attitudes which are characteristic of
man's natural view of the world in which he lives. Such a
preliminary study prepares a foundation upon which the
thinker may work. He is aware that it presents an organiza-
tion of experience and an outlook which is the expression
of habits and judgments slowly formed through ages. It is
the part of wisdom, then, to examine this gradually developed
view of nature and of man with great care in order to see what
its principles and pre-suppositions are and to determine how
far these are tenable. Without this empirical basis and with-
out the respect for the accumulated insight of multitudes of
human beings to which it testifies, the thinker, with individ-
ual perspective founded on particular problems and facts, is
very apt to be led astray. Reason often creates difficulties
instead of solving them, and the history of philosophy bears
witness to the blind vortices into which genius has at times
thrown thought. The advance of philosophy, like that of
science, must be gradual, and the starting-point must be the
experience of everyday life.

The outlook of the plain man on the world is realistic.
He perceives what he calls physical things and reacts to them
in appropriate ways. He believes that these physical things
are experienced in much the same manner by all normal human
beings and that they are evidently independent, for their
properties and existence, of man's experience of them. All
workers see and handle the tools which are necessary for co-
operation. Sailors pull on the same rope; the farmer and his


helpers load the same wagon with sheaves of wheat or barley
grown on a field which has been tilled by them year after year ;
factory "hands" who, for a pittance, tend the whirring
machinery day after day, would laugh at the suggestion that
it is less real than they who are its servants. But why
multiply examples? To none of us does this outlook seem
strange. Stars, rivers, mountains, tenements, street-cars,
books to enumerate things at haphazard are all con-
sidered objects which exist in a common world to which we
must adapt ourselves. There is every reason to believe that
these general distinctions are universal with the human race,
although the properties assigned to particular classes of things
vary greatly from age to age.

The physical world is, then, regarded not only as common
to the experiencing of all individuals but also as independent,
for its existence and nature, of the individuals who experience
it. It is probable that the commonness of the objects is con-
sidered a result of their independent existence. You and I
perceive the same tree because it is there to be perceived.
Commonness is the inevitable consequence of a relation of
two persons, capable of perceiving, to the selfsame existence.
This would be, at least, the plain man's explanation of the
fact of commonness. As we shall have occasion to note in
another connection, commonness and independence have,
from the genetic point of view, a more intimate relation than
this explanation indicates ; they grow up together and reenf orce
each other. But common sense is not necessarily aware of
the motives and processes which lie back of its outlook and
make it possible. Within the world of common sense, it is
more natural to make the commonness of things a result of
their independence than their independence a result of their
commonness. When I am alone in my study I see things
which I regard as independent and as real as I myself. At
the time, they are not common, for others do not see them.
Commonness thus seems to be a secondary characteristic of
objects added to their independence. When we examine
what the plain man means by "seeing" or "perceiving," we
find that this is of the nature of an event in which the object
is revealed to the individual. And when we ask what is meant


by the term "independence," we find that it signifies that
physical things are as real as the individual who perceives
them and that he can affect them only by overt action,
much as one thing affects another.!

That the point of departure is tne supposedly independent
thing, is made still more evident when we examine the plain
man's explanation of the changes which occur in his expe-
riences of the same thing. These are accounted for by changes
in his relations to these objects. His experiences are func-
tions of the unvarying object in its varying relations to him-
self as a perceiver. Again, when an object is no longer seen,
it is not supposed that it has ceased to exist. Physical things
are thought of as permanent, just as individuals are, to the
degree determined by their nature and causal connections.
It is from these assumptions as a basis that we explain their
appearance and disappearance in our field of vision. When
I leave my study, I take it for granted that the desk will
remain such as it was while I was there to perceive it. As
a matter of fact, everything countenances this belief, which
is at the bottom of the plain man's view of the world, that
things are existences which we perceive but which are quite
independent of this event. Berkeley may consider this
belief the height of abstraction, but even the most mediocre
mind so views nature. We start from independent things,
and not from percepts.

This attitude toward the physical world, in which it is
considered independent of the event of perceiving and hence
common, may be called that of Natural Realism. Natural
Realism is a growth, as we shall see later, but the plain man
is not aware of the logical and factual motives which have led
him to this position. The view is based on the exigencies of
biological and practical life and is as natural to us as are our
instincts. Man is outward-looking: perception as an event
or act has an immediate object, and this is the physical thing
which exists in a common, independent sphere whose general
characteristics are fairly well known. While the conditions
of this act or event are, to some extent, matters of general
information, they are seldom reflected upon, and the
event itself remains unique. This uniqueness and apparent


directness of perception is expressed in common parlance in
the phrase, "Open your eyes and you cannot help seeing." It
is evident that the object with its associated meanings and the
attitude which it evokes dominates the individual. This
dominant role played by the object is all the more inevitable
that perception does not usually involve a consciously strained
attention. Accordingly, grant the nature of the physical
thing perceived, in the context of normal tendencies and
dispositions, and any working view other than Natural
Realism is improbable. The individual perceives things, and
not percepts.

This general description is true of Natural Realism in the
primary or uncritical form in which it is the matrix of realistic
theories of all sorts. No reflective theory of the nature of the
event which is called perceiving, or experiencing, an object is
as yet developed. Certainly, there is no intuition of a peculiar
ego or subject as the seat of this event. What would be
insisted upon, first of all, is the presence of the object to the
individual. We see what is around us and the we, who see
these things, are concrete individuals. There is nothing
recondite or mysterious about the individual who perceives.
To these things we can assume various attitudes accord-
ing to our interests. We may simply observe them or we
may handle them; but, all the while, they are out there as real
as ourselves. Furthermore, their relations and properties
are unchanged by our perception of them. We take them
unawares, so to speak. We are to them as Fortunatus in the
fairy story with his cap of darkness. They enter into no
peculiar relation to the perceiver but are rather flooded with
light and rendered visible. Natural Realism, in the form
in which it is a true description of our ordinary outlook on
nature, is a flat epistemological dualism in which there is no
peculiar, non-physical relation between the individual and
the object the two terms of the dualism. And the term,
epistemological, can be used here only by courtesy, since
the personal pole is the concrete individual and not an abstract
subject or centre of awareness. The individual, as one thing
among others, has simply the ability to take in these other
things along with himself. We shall find these facts, the


absence of any peculiar ego and of any unique perceptual or
cognitive relation, of great significance for theory of knowl-
edge. Let us remember, however, that we possess in descrip-
tive Natural Realism, not a theory of what takes place, but a
statement of what appears to take place.

It is, perhaps, at this point that we can best understand the
objections which the plain man and I hope others takes
to Berkeley's principles. Does not Berkeley assume a stand-
point different from the natural one and argue from it as
though it were the natural one? In other words, is he not
perilously near what is called begging the question? He
admits (Principles of Human Knowledge, sees. 4 and 5)
that it is "an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men that
houses, mountains, rivers, and, in a word, all sensible objects
have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being

Online LibraryRoy Wood SellarsCritical realism : a study of the nature and conditions of knowledge → online text (page 1 of 28)