Neo-Realism and Idealism


Hollands, Edmund H. “Neo-Realism and Idealism.” The Philosophical Review 17, no. 5 (1908): 507. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177213


ONE of the most interesting features in the philosophical writing of the last few years, particularly in the periodical literature, has been the appearance of a new type of Realism. Although its adherents in this country and those in England, chief among whom are Mr. G. E. Moore and Mr. Bertrand Russell, seem to have worked out their theory independently, at least at first, yet, in spite of a generally predominant polemic interest, and the absence of any extended or systematic development of its presuppositions, sufficient harmony of doctrine seems to be traceable to entitle this tendency to the name of a school. The aim of this paper is to state briefly what seem to be the essential features of its epistemology, and to estimate their bearing upon Objective Idealism.


In the first place, this Neo-Realism is sharply distinguished from the older Realism by an explicit rejection of the representative theory of knowledge. It does not oppose to Idealism the supposed necessity of a real external order to make our ideas of that order true; nor can the Idealist reply by indicating the absurdity of making any statements about an object which is by definition quite external to knowledge, or the uselessness of such duplication of worlds. The field of argument is materially changed. I may quote the very clear statement of one of the recent advocates of the theory: "There is surely another course open, lying between the doctrine that everything that is perceived is a 'modification of consciousness' and beyond such 'modifications of consciousness' there is nothing, and the doctrine that everything is perceived as a 'modification of consciousness' and beyond these modifications there is something like them in quality, but forever inaccessible to consciousness. It is perfectly permissible to conceive the object of vision as being not a 'modification of consciousness' at all, but as the real thing; in this case there is no duplication of worlds prater necessitatem"

These sentences of Professor McGilvary describe an attitude towards knowledge which seems to be common, under various forms, to all the representatives of this school; and with it the Objective Idealist surely has no quarrel. He might say that in the first type of epistemology mentioned he recognizes Subjective or Psychological Idealism, which he rejects. The second seems to be that Lockean type of Realism out of which Subjective Idealism was, in modern times, developed; and the third states his own attitude in insisting that knowledge is objective and super-individual, as against the subjectivism of the other two types. So far, he would be glad to agree with the Neo-Realists and welcome their assistance in the common warfare against skeptical subjectivity.


But he would find that the agreement ends here. For the-Realist not only holds that knowledge is objective; he holds also that knowledge makes no difference to the facts which are known. The facts, and the truth of any proposition about them, are quite independent of any knowledge or judgment about them, logically prior, indeed, to such knowledge or judgment. As Professor Woodbridge puts it, reality undergoes no change in becoming known. "The transformation which takes place, takes place in the one who knows, a transformation of ignorance to knowledge." The Idealist quite agrees with this statement, so far as any particular judgment of this or that individual is concerned. But it is of the essence of his theory to take the unity of thought and its object, which the Realist has just stated, seriously, and to conclude that to speak of facts quite independent of knowledge is an inadmissible abstraction. It would seem, then, that Neo-Realism must refute Idealism in order to establish its point.

This, of course, is what it attempts to do. But most of the arguments which have thus far entered into its polemic museum to the Objective Idealist to be based on a serious misapprehension of the historical meaning of Idealism; for they all assume that its fundamental postulate is, that esse is percipi, and that if this be disproved, the whole idealistic construction falls to the ground. Accordingly, Mr. G. E. Moore is at pains to show that, starting from this assumption, we cannot logically avoid solipsism, and also that the definition of reality as perception is circular, since it presupposes the distinction of a real from a fictitious perception. Moore, Montague, and Woodbridge insist that we do not intuitively apprehend the objects of immediate perception as states of the knower, but that the conclusion that they are so is a result of logical sophistication. McGilvary, Montague, and Woodbridge point out that the physiological argument that esse is percipi is self-contradictory, since it postulates the reality of unperceived physiological processes, and the priority of the object of perception to those processes. Montague and McGilvary strengthen this criticism by an argument for the objectivity of the so-called 'secondary qualities.' Finally, Woodbridge regards the whole of modern Idealism, including Hegelianism, as a logical development from Locke's axiom that "the mind . . . hath no other immediate object but its own ideas. “In short, save for one slight reference which I shall mention immediately, throughout the whole literature of this controversy which has as yet fallen into my hands, Idealism is identified with subjectivism.


But the historical inadequacy of this view is surely obvious. It is a view which applies, in the case of Kant, to only a portion of the first Critique, and entirely overlooks the other two. It makes of later German Idealism a mere attempt at ' deduction of the categories,' and neglects the fact that the problems which gave the motive to Hegel's philosophy were as much religious and moral as epistemological. And, to sum up in one word the objections to it: It thinks that, when Idealism says that reality is spiritual, it means this in a psychological and subjective sense, and that this is its starting-point, instead of its conclusion. But Objective Idealism at least aims to be an interpretation of experience, and not a short and easy explanation of it, as this view of it implies. Nevertheless, the Idealist, while disclaiming their application to his own position, will welcome the fresh and telling way in which the arguments against Subjective Idealism have been restated, and even recognize some useful additions. And he must also admit, as Professor Caird has recently pointed out, that there has been a certain subjectivism about the discussions of some recent English Idealists, a tendency to speak of the minds 'creating relations ' or 'constructing reality,' to which these criticisms legitimately apply.

It has been said above that there is one exception to this restriction of the realistic criticism to esse Est percipi. Mr. Glenmore, in the course of a long and minute argument of some fifty pages, pauses once, and, merely in passing, devotes a half page to two other definitions of reality. "Some philosophers, “he says, "have sometimes suggested that when we call a thing ‘real,' we mean that it is 'systematically connected' in some way with other things. But when we look into their meaning, we find that what they mean is... systematically connected with other real things. . .. And other philosophers have suggested that what we mean by real is... connected in some way with a purpose. . .. But if we look into this meaning, we find they mean connected with a real purpose." Both definitions, therefore, are circular, for both presuppose reality in some simpler sense.


Now this criticism is vitiated by an assumption which seems tithe Idealist very common in realistic arguments. This assumption that there are many possible systems of things, but only one among them is real, and so qualified to serve as a test to apply to any object claiming reality. Therefore, we must look for some more ultimate reality to distinguish the real system from those which are not real, and this we can find only in that reality which, as an immediate quality, attaches to its members as contrasted with things which are merely possible. This is surely a radical misconception of the meaning of the Idealists whom Mr. Moore here has in mind. For them there is only one system of reality, either possible or real, whether they emphasize its logical or its purposive coherence. This system is real, because it is the system of real things; and these things are real, because they find a place in the system. Nor is this a vicious circle. The Idealist has no royal road to Reality. He takes it as he finds it, quite as submissively as does the Realist. But he thinks that he finds good reason to believe that it is systematic and coherent, although he may be, often is, fairly cautious in his estimate of the depth of his own insight into its ultimate nature. And he submits that there is nothing essentially absurd or self-contradictory in the notion of a self-maintaining system, and that the Realist’s request for some further basis for its reality is as absurd as for the astronomer to seek for some support in space for the stellar universe. If he were asked further why, then, he cannot pass a priori judgments of truth and falsity, he would reply that his individual ignorance of the systematic connection of one part of reality with another in any given case is no disproof of its presence; and, in any case, this connection is not merely logical.


It would seem, then, that the formal polemic of Neo-Realism against Idealism, so far as it has yet been developed, is not effective. What judgment must we pass on its own attempts at stating the relation of knowledge to reality? How far does it succeeding giving an account of experience as something of which the facts may be 'independent'


This constructive side of the theory is not so easy to discuss as its critical side since there is not the same agreement among the various writers of the school.


In the first place, we find Messrs. Moore, Russell, and McGilvary agreed in regarding consciousness as 'awareness,' which has to its object the unique relation of knowing, or being aware of it, and not that of a thing to its quality or state, or of one part of any content to another part, to follow Mr. Moore's statement. This awareness is qualitatively the same for all objects. The objects may vary indefinitely, but consciousness is always the same. It is just this independent variation of the objects, either affecting or being affected by consciousness, which constitutes the independence of truth or knowledge.


This form of the realistic theory I do not wish to dwell on at any length. Its highly abstract account of consciousness, as Badin its way as the old ethical fiction of the indifferent will, seems to refute itself. For the question is not, of course, Can we distinguish between consciousness and its objects? But, Is consciousness real apart from any objects? And if the answer is given, as it is by Professor McGilvary, that it is separable for analytic abstraction, though not in existence, this is quite sufficient for our purpose. The concrete variable is then 'consciousness of objects, ‘or 'objects as known,' and not objects by themselves. Indeed, Professor Woodbridge, though in a different context, defends his own more concrete view against this definition of consciousness in a way which is quite acceptable to the idealist. He says: “such phrases as 'conscious of and 'conscious that' have often been taken to indicate that consciousness is not simply the kind of relation indicated, but that it has in addition the property of ‘awareness,' which gives to things a peculiar and immediate kind of presence. I am not sure but that we find ourselves here in a verbal difficulty, for what is it 'to be aware' of anything? If we cannot make the 'awareness' responsible for the thing's qualities or for its spatial and temporal relations, what is then left to constitute that peculiar presence? Indeed, it seems to me, on analysis of the situation, that just this character of 'awareness ‘turns out to be the manifold and irresistible meaning connections which the things in the conscious situation have.... It is to be noted also that the 'awareness' diminishes in its evident character just in proportion as the linkage of meanings becomes deranged."


Just what, however, Professor Woodbridge intends by his own definition of consciousness, I am not quite certain. For him, consciousness is a relation between objects, akin to the spatial and temporal relations, in that it is a continuum. And just as objects may vary independently of their spatial and temporal relations, so they may vary independently of the conscious relation. As tithe nature of this relation, it is, in the first place, quite internal tithe reals between which it holds good. “Reality as known is a new stage in the development of reality itself. It is not an external mind which knows reality by means of its own ideas, but reality itself becomes known through its own expanding and readjusting processes." Pragmatism, therefore, is refuted by the fact that, paradoxical as the statement may seem, the very relativity of knowledge to the evolutionary process involves its absoluteness. Adaptation, as Professor Woodbridge remarks, is itself metaphysical.


In the second place, this relation may be defined as one meaning. In consciousness, "objects become grouped and systematized in a manner quite different from their grouping in another form. They become representative of each other." " One thing may be a certain measurable distance from another thing, but it may mean that other thing without encompassing the distance. And I wish to emphasize the fact that this relation of meaning which is so prominent among the things is just as much a relation between them as is space or time." This sentence is immediately followed by the only examples of these relations of meaning which I have been able to discover in Professor Woodbridge’s discussions. "It is the ice," he says, "which means that it will cool the water, just as much as it is the ice which does cool the water when put into it. The water which means that it will quench thirst is the water which does quench thirst when swallowed. I take a powder to dispel the pain in the head, not only because pain and powder are incompatible in juxtaposition, but incompatible also in their meaning."


To me, I must confess, these examples of the meaning relation are more mystifying than illuminating. They seem to be only cases of the contrast of a possible with an actual relation in space and time; and surely either may be meant. Or, again, there are differences between the matter of a hypothetical and that of a categorical judgment; and surely, we may mean to pass either one. Then it seems strange, also, that this 'immaterial synthesis' of meanings should include all material syntheses within its scope. That the territory of this one relation should be coextensive with that of all the others is left merely as an unexplained fact.


Passing over the difficulties of this definition of conscious relations one of meaning, we may raise the further question: Admitting provisionally some type of relational definition of consciousness, are its implications realistic? Professor Montague assures us that they are, because "all relations presuppose the existence of terms between which they subsist." But how true is this statement? Just as true, I should say, as its opposite, and no more so, that all terms presuppose the existence of relations existing between them. The whole truth consists in related terms or terms in relations; neither is logically prior. Let us take a simple example from the favorite field of the Neo-Realists, Mathematics. The first three digits of the common numeral series may be related one to another in various ways. I May add 1 to 2, multiply 2 by 3, and so on. Does this mean that 1,2, 3 must be given before 1+2 can equal 3, or 2 x 3 can equal6? Would it not be equally true to say that for 1 and 2 to be given, they must be addable, and further that the result of their addition must be 3? 1 and 2 are nothing but the potentialities, so to say, of this relation among many others. When we choose fewer abstract relations, the mutual implication of terms and relations is even more obvious. Who would say, for example, that the parental relation presupposed the existence of parent and child? Temporally as well as logically, this relation and its terms are given together. The parent qua parent and the child qua child are just the terms of this relation. Or, again, who would ask whether the spectrum presupposed its colors, or the colors of the spectrum?


Here, however, we may be confronted by an objection from a Realist of the type of Mr. Russell. " We do not," he might say, “define consciousness as a relation grounded in its terms at all; and the terms of which we particularly speak in other ways are ultimate simples, which, as such, do precede any relations into which they may enter, and, being altogether unanalyzable, are not to be defined in turn by these relations." The answer to this would be two-fold. In the first place, one could wish some of these simples to be pointed out, as actually taking some part in the world we know. Do they ever do anything? I must confess a strong prejudice to the contrary, and the examples chosen by the adherents of this view have not impressed me favorably. The names of these simples end too often in 'ness 'or 'ity.' If, however, they are concrete actualities, then of course they enter into relations, however external these relations maybe to them. How is this miracle accomplished? Is this entrance into relations merely arbitrary, a brute datum? It must be so if it is not grounded in the nature of the related terms. Mr. Joachim has elaborated this objection with much skill in his recent book, The Nature of Truth. Mr. Russell, however, replies that he cannot see why a reason should be expected for everything, unless we make theistic assumptions. But even if we provisionally admit this as an answer, it can hardly be said to get at the root of the difficulty. For what is demanded is 'aground of truth in judgment. These simple terms, of course, are combined in propositions, and these propositions are either true or false. But it is 'according to the nature of this relation, ‘says Mr. Moore, and Mr. Russell agrees with him, 'that the proposition is either true or false.' Now, let us grant as much as you will that " the kind of relation which makes a proposition true (or false), cannot be further defined, but must be immediately recognized," the truth or falsity is nevertheless grounded in the nature of the relation in question; and the same relation, obviously, which is false of two given terms, might be true as between two others. It is then this relation, of this specific nature, which is true or false of these specific terms. And this can be so only because its nature is not external to the nature of the terms. If they reject or accept it, they do so in accordance with their own natures. And still more may be said. However simple the ultimate terms of the original propositions may be, such propositions are further combined in wider syntheses. We say, for example, that such a proposition implies, or is equivalent to, or contrary to, such another; and such a wider proposition may be either true or false. Now here it is sufficiently apparent that the relation does not presuppose the terms, in this case are propositions, any more than the terms do the relation; for the propositions are this equivalence, or opposition, or implication. On the theory we are discussing, then, the criterion of truth must be not one, but two. It is immediate in the case of simple judgments but mediate in that of combinations of such simple judgments.


But if the terms imply the relation, and the relation imply the terms, and consciousness be a relation, as Professor Woodbridge holds, then after all this new Realism has not modified the philosophical problem so very profoundly. What we start with is still the world as known; and we make the preliminary statement that these objects presuppose consciousness, and, per contra, that consciousness presupposes these objects. If the first half of the statement be over-emphasized, we develop a Subjective Idealism; if the second, a Naturalistic Realism. But if both be given their due weight, and neither side of the one truth neglected, we shall have an Objective Idealism, the strength of which will lie in its overcoming the one-sidedness of both the opposing theories. It will be quite as confident as Realism that there is no consciousness apart from objects; but it will be equally sure that there are no objects, ultimately, apart from consciousness. To the second half of this statement, Professor Woodbridge has objected that the conscious relations of objects are not permanent, and that evolution has shown us that objects were temporally prior to consciousness, existing long before it, as all the evidence shows. But in this matter, we can use Professor Woodbridge’s own statements against himself. He admits that the objects are nevertheless spiritually determined from the first or preadapted to knowledge. This is the essence of the Idealistic position. Adaptation must be quite as metaphysical here as Professor Woodbridge insists it is in criticizing Pragmatism. The problem of time cannot be broached here; but it is certainly not less a difficulty, to say the least, for the Realist than for the Idealist.


To conclude, then, very briefly. To start with relations and try to arrive at reals, or to start with reals and try to arrive at relations of reals, are equally abstract procedures. The first is essentially the method of Subjective Idealism. The second is, apparently, that of this type of Realism, in so far as it is in anyway distinguishable from Idealism. The concrete reality is a whole of related things; and the metaphysical problem is, what is the nature of this whole? Neo-Realism gives us the point of departure from investigation, cleared from all subjectivism, if we take it on its Idealistic side, which I have tried to exhibit; but it does not go beyond. The solution of Idealism may be very tentative as yet, but at least it does not halt with the statement of the problem.


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