The Issue of Naturalism vs. Subjectivism

by Marvin Farber

The reader of philosophical literature must be impressed above all by the warfare of the "schools," by the conflicting tendencies in philosophy. In the great tradition, spiritualism and materialism were the leading contenders. In recent years the chief actors in the professional field of philosophy have been naturalism and subjectivism, with the issue defined in terms of rival types of method. This is not to imply that traditional spiritualism disappeared from the scene, for it did not; nor that materialism, especially in the form of dialectical materialism, was superseded by naturalism, for it has had its own continuous development.

The term "naturalism" is sufficiently broad and tenuous to comprise all varieties of materialism, and also to allow for more cautious points of view, qualified by agnosticism and even pantheism in some conspicuous cases (Spencer and Huxley illustrating the former, and Haeckel the latter). It has had the advantage of providing a marginal academic respectability. In general, the definition of "naturalism" by Ralph Perry is useful: it is "the philosophical generalization of science," and its various forms are determined by the content and the method of the sciences. The rapid development of the special sciences, and especially the impact of the great evolutionary movement, in the nineteenth century, brought on a violent reaction in the interest of traditional beliefs and institutions, a reaction which became a prime motivating force in the world of philosophy. The "containment" of the sciences was a major objective for a generation of philosophical writers.

Traditional empiricism and psychology had led to a psychologistic philosophy of logic in England (J. S. Mill) and Germany (Sigwart, Wundt, and others). Allied with evolutionary concepts, this view of logic appeared to threaten the objectivity and rigor of formal science—as though logic were conceived as being a chapter in the natural science of psychology. The criticism of this faulty and one‑sided view of logic was one of the steps leading to the exclusion of the scientific method from philosophy. The original motivation for Edmund Husserl's phenomenology was thus provided. When the consequences of the evolutionary naturalistic movement for ethics are considered, the motivation for Husserl's associate, Max Scheler, is also seen. In the name of "pure" philosophy, these scholars, along with many others (Rickert, Dilthey, et al.) sought to oppose the growing scientific movement in philosophy. Certainly the latter was inadequate in some important respects. But the issue should have been viewed constructively, the correction of a poor scientific philosophy being made by a better one, and not by means of an antiscientific point of view. That is to say, if it were only an intellectual issue, which was not the case. In Husserl's hands—and he was one of the ablest of his generation of opponents of the scientific philosophy—the issue became clearly defined in terms of subjectivism as opposed to a naturalistic objectivism. Only his version of subjectivism was intended to be fundamentally different from the ordinary psychology of the time, and of the tradition. Above all, he sought to rise above the "naive natural attitude," which covered evolutionary as well as Marxian thought, in his usage.

The central theme of the subjectivist is the analysis of experience. Naturalists, pragmatists, realists, and positivists have also devoted much attention to this theme. The present study will include consideration of the analyses by conceptual pragmatism (C. I. Lewis), naturalism (John Dewey), and subjectivism (Edmund Husserl's phenomenology and its sphere of influence). The latter is of unusual interest because of its elaboration as a universal philosophy of idealism, and as a forerunner of "existentialism." The task of a complete and consistent scientific philosophy, whether it be called "naturalism" or "materialism," and "critical" or "new," is made more clear by determining the limits of a subjectivistic procedure, and by examining closely the arguments marshalled in support of subjectivism.

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. Naturalism and Subjectivism (Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas, 1959), pp. 3-5. This is section A of Chapter I: Experience and Basic Fact.

American Philosophy Study Guide

Includes the following & more:
Naturalism and Subjectivism: Contents
The Search for an Alternative 1
The Search for an Alternative 9: From the Perspective of Materialism
Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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