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Critical Realism

Although most Anglo-American philosophers of the turn of the century were trained in absolute idealism, many of them rebelled against it. One important way of doing so was to insist that material objects do exist independently of our perception of them. Thus, many English-speaking thinkers defended some form of perceptual realism during the early years of the century.

American Realists

In the United States, for example, A.O. Lovejoy rejected idealism vigorously, but sought an alternative account of perception that would avoid notorious difficulties of direct realism. Lovejoy's The Revolt against Dualism (1930) simply began with the assumption that real objects ("cognoscenda") are socially shared, verifiable existents that exist independently of us in both space and time. Since, on the other hand, individual acts of perception ("data") are simultaneous with our having them, subject to variation and illusion, and unique to each observer, Lovejoy argued, they must be distinct from the objects themselves. In this way, Lovejoy supposed it possible to defend representational realism against its opponents on every side.

Another significant American realist was George Santayana, whose The Life of Reason (1905-6) aimed at a synoptic vision of human thought and culture. There his central theme was that human rationality is invariably conditioned by its locus in living human organisms. In Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) Santayana explicitly accounted for cognition of ordinary objects as material composites whose essences are to be understood as descriptions in the Platonic sense. Santayana's mature philosophy emphasized the hope of achieving progress through exploration of the spiritual character of human existence.

British Realists

Meanwhile, developments of the same sort were taking place in Great Britain. Australian Samuel Alexander (who taught at Manchester) similarly distinguished between the mental act of perception and its object. Even if we are mistaken about many of their features, he argued, material objects constitute the basis of all existence. According to Alexander, individual beings must be spatial and temporal in essence, but sometimes come to exhibit such emergent properties as sensation, cognition, and even spiritual intuition. Thus, like Bergson, he supposed that human thought is merely part of a larger evolutionary process.

John Cook Wilson, on the other hand, regarded epistemology as the primary function of philosophical reasoning. A generation before Austin, Cook Wilson used careful attention to grammatical form—including verbal stress and contextual position—as the method of investigating the foundations of human knowledge. The result was an almost Aristotelian notion of substances that are known to us in perceptual experience. Appeal to the Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities, he held, resolves the difficulties of perceptual illusion.

Cook Wilson's students at Oxford, H. A. Prichard and H. H. Price, continued his efforts to defend perceptual realism against both idealistic abstraction and materialistic analysis. Prichard held that what we perceive are the very colored surfaces from which knowledge of material objects is constructed. Price granted the role of sense-data in perception, but argued that they have a direct relation to the physical objects that cause them in us. Even the analytic philosophers of this era were influenced by this vigorous defence of realist principles.

Broad on the Nature of Mind

British philosopher C. D. Broad defended a realistic epistemology in somewhat different fashion. In The Mind and its Place in Nature (1925) Broad carefully surveyed alternative positions with respect to the philosophy of mind. In the book's final chapter, he distinguished seventeen distinct theories about the relation between mind and body, arguing that emergent materialism is most likely to be correct.

Broad's patient explication of the traditional mind-body problem in Chapter 3 provides a good example of his methods and their results. Beginning with the dualistic assumption that mind and body are ontologically distinct, Broad examines in detail each of the major alternative explanations of their apparent interaction with each other. The only reasonable conclusion, Broad argued, is that the interaction is real and works in both directions: physical events cause mental events and mental events cause physical events.

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