Reflections on the Career of Marvin Farber

Roy Wood Sellars,
University of Michigan, Emeritus


AS I understand it, a Festschrift is a cooperative recognition of the standing and achievements of a colleague in his field of endeavor. Professor Farber has given steady and persistent support to international contacts in philosophy, Franco-American and German-American and Latin-American. These are still much needed, as I shall show. In so doing, Farber has also brought out his own realistic and naturalistic outlook which I take to be somewhat of an American note. He has also produced many publications developing his own personal views. These show, as we would expect, a wide horizon.

I shall begin with a remark on what has seemed to me an outstanding feature of Professor Farber’s career. This I call his constantia, a union of balance and perseverance. He has, however, avoided gravitas, a virtue the Romans somewhat overdid.

It has seemed to me that constantia has been somewhat lacking in many contemporary thinkers who have set fashions. There are so many winds of doctrine blowing hither and thither. For instance, mathematical logic was regarded by many to be a magic wand. The thing to do was to show technical competence by translating any statement or argument into symbols. Then one was supposed to have something equivalent to Holy Writ. But we know now that Russell did not escape from his Humean presuppositions by this technique. But he did uncover certain unclarities by stressing the importance of words. We hear now of ordinary language as a reaction. But it has never seemed to me that either device threw much light on the question of the reach and nature of perceiving, which was to me a pet problem. And then there were the enthusiastic logical positivists, who emerged from Vienna with a magic formula about meaning to offer. I have the impression that it had the promise of undercutting German speculative philosophy which irked them as devoted to science. There was, surely, some provincialism in this move. Moore and Wittgenstein came to the front with their stress on analysis. All this enriched philosophy, no doubt, but tended to narrow emphasis.

To show that it was still effervescent and not stodgy like America, Europe finally produced existentialism and exported it chiefly in Sartrean, Heideggerian, and Tillichian forms.

All this kept young philosophers busy. It was well to have an older man, like Farber, in the background. There was need of his constantia, his unwillingness to be stampeded. He had a broad base. I think he devoted himself at first to exploring Husserl’s methodology. He did this so thoroughly that some thought he was an outright Husserlian. But he reacted strongly against Husserl’s lapse into idealism. Sartre seems to have thought that Husserl overemphasized the Self. But it seems clear that Farber was fundamentally naturalistic in his outlook. He has spoken out strongly against the subjectivistic and antinaturalistic trend in German philosophy. He collaborated with McGill and me in our joint work on modem materialism in the book entitled Philosophy for the Future. This book came out during the McCarthy period and was not too hospitably received. It was an attempt to integrate science and philosophy.

I first met Farber when, as a young man fresh from his years at Harvard and in Germany, he was beginning his teaching career. Soon after he went to the University of Buffalo, since become the State University of New York at Buffalo. Under his tutelage, it has become one of the centers for philosophy in the United States with what seems to an oldtimer like me an enormous staff. There were only five at the University of Michigan when I began teaching there in 1905.

I shall not concern myself with the details of his career for they will be handled elsewhere. I can quite understand his interest in Husserl who was, on all accounts, an intellectually vigorous man with a strong belief in his adopted procedure. I recall that my colleague, Charles Bruce Vibbert, visited Husserl in 1908 and asked him about a point in William James’ Principles of Psychology. I think it concerned the famous last chapter. According to Vibbert’s account, Husserl made the classic reply, “Ich habe meine Arbeit.” And it is clear that he had. His production was astonishing. Just to keep in touch with it was no mean job. Farber did so to an amazing degree. He was also the editorial continuer of the German Jahrbuch which henceforth became the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. It secured from the first international standing. Farber was judicious in his editing. All shades of opinion were welcomed so long as they came up to scholarly standards.

I come now for a moment to the question of Ideas as essences. This always seemed to me to smack of Platonism. I had come to stress the informative reach of concepts. I thought of myself as a realistic empiricist. Hence I was very interested in noting Farber’'s view of the status of Noemata. I quote from his remarkable essay in Diogenes: “The so-called ‘eidetic reduction’ of phenomenology involves the concept of essence, of essential structures and relations. This concept was never clarified satisfactorily . . . The contingency of the natural world was emphasized repeatedly, in contradistinction to the necessity attached to essences . .  . In the Ideas Husserl gave some attention to the concept of essence. In his view, to say that a given thing could be essentially different would be to admit that it has an essence. Of course, if by essence is meant ‘that without which a thing would not be what it is,’ there is nothing to insure the continued reality of an essence . . . Essences would then be affairs of knowledge . . .”

Now this raises the question whether essences are not affairs of knowledge, or a kind of idealization. If not, one might have something like Leibniz’s position. What Caesar is to become lies in his essence. As I see it, Farber takes the naturalistic, contingency line. He also stresses the cultural base. This is longitudinal. But he still regards phenomenology as an important discipline for technical explication. I can understand this position though I have not used it in my own thinking. Perhaps, I have used something analogous to it and linguistic analysis. One must stress the content of thought as well as what it is about.

I want next to say a few words about national differences in philosophy. These I take it to be not racial but expressions of historical involvements. In England, Cambridge talked to Oxford and Oxford replied. I was, for instance, always intrigued by the neglect of the ethical thought of Hobhouse, which seemed to me broadly based on anthropology and sociology. I was rather irked by the dominance of the dialectical moves of G. E. Moore with its nonnaturalistic view of the good. This did not seem me to to fit in with an axiological approach. John Passmore, a remarkable polymath, points out that the Germans moved into Neo-Kantianism and an interest in epistemology even as the British turned away from it in Anglo-American idealism. I have always thought that John Dewey inherited this lack of interest. He made some tirades against epistemology. Everything was to be an affair of experience.

But, in Germany, as I understand it, Neo-Kantianism got into a dead end. I am not surprised that Husserl turned away from it and sought a new lead, finding it, to some degree, in Brentano’s emphasis on intention.

But, to continue this glance at national differences in philosophy, I think that there was a freshness in classic American thought when idealism, pragmatism and realism contended. There was also an openness to science and a trend to naturalism.

Now I may be wrong. But I had the feeling that Husserl’s methodological emphasis expressed, to some degree, a turning away from epistemology. Was this not reflected in his bracketing? I am going to use Merleau-Ponty as an illustration. I understand that Farber has criticized him also. He was influenced in his psychology by the Gestalt movement. He called his outlook that of a philosophical psychology rather than an epistemology. But Merleau-Ponty was very interested in sense-perception. And here came the question of Husserl’s bracketing. Did it not tend to make consciousness an affair of immanence? Merleau-Ponty spoke of a perceptual relationship to the outside world. But he seems to have been rather puzzled by it. How do we get to an external world?

Now Farber is a naturalist and I am going to question him about the kind of transcendence involved in perceiving. It has been my thesis that perceiving involves a from-and-to operation resulting in reference to things and the use of sensations as informational about them. It is in this fashion that the percipient surveys the world around him and science builds on this framework. Now I have the feeling that Husserl’s technique turned him away from this problem. In examining Sartre, Heidegger and Jaspers, I seemed to find a corresponding opaqueness here. Sartre simply postulates two kinds of being and lands in a kind of phenomenalism. Heidegger wants to get an ontology but does not see any clear way to it. Jaspers seeks to squirm through the Kantian subject-object frame to some kind of transcendence. I suggest that these able men did not find a lead in Husserl. Now I know that Farber is an evolutionary materialist and merely wish to question him on this point. In what sense do we perceive external things? Here, as elsewhere, our thinking has run along parallel lines. I think an explicit statement on this point might influence German philosophers.

Since Professor Farber has—and I think rightly—criticized German thought for its tendency to subjectivism and antinaturalism, I shall want to take up the way in which he includes human experience in nature. I quite agree with him. This is a topic which a critical materialism, such as his, must be clear about. Here, again, our thoughts seem to me to run in parallel channels. I take up, first, the topic which he calls the assimilation of subjectivism.

While granting the value of reflection under suspension, Farber raises the question of its completeness. May it not ignore too much certain features of human experience, the social, for instance? From the naturalistic point of view there exists a world antecedent to all reflection. Farber’s social interests come out here. He mentions miners and other workers. And, incidentally, he suggests that the existentialists put too much stress on the abstract.

Farber displays a comprehensive knowledge of the thought of Marx and Engels. While they rejected idealism as connected with the supremacy of the spirit, they equally turned away from narrow mechanical notions. They stressed history and social problems. But, perhaps they overstressed the practical. There has been a renewed interest in a critical form of materialism. This is a challenge to thought. Science has passed from concentration on the inorganic world to biology and the social scene. As he sees it, materialism is strictly connected with the level of scientific knowledge. As I see it, Farber qualifies the materialistic theory of history to give weight to all relevant factors, much as Engels tried to do.

What Farber envisages is an integral materialism able to satisfy both scientific and logical demands. He formulates five principles essential to this approach. The first is that all existence is immanent in nature. The fifth is that all research is situated in the bosom of nature. He is very skeptical of the arguments on which idealism has been historically based.

The realistic note comes out clearly in Farber’s declaration that metaphysics ought not to let itself be shut into the concept of experience nor should experience become a sort of garment imposed on existence. Experience is, therefore, a type of existence.

Needless to say that I have sympathy with this comprehensive outlook. Inevitably we approached some of the questions from different angles. I moved from critical realism to the mind-body problem and thence to an evolutionary materialism. Farber, on the other hand, wrestled with the phenomenological approach. But we seem to have reached much the same conclusions. That is to me heartening. And I welcome this opportunity to stress it.

As supernaturalism and dogmatism retreat in the cultural age of science and technology, I hope Professor Farber will join me in the furtherance of a naturalistic humanism with its stress on human values. I take religion to express man's effort to understand his situation in the world. I am ninety-two years old, near the end of my tether, but he has many years of constructive endeavor before him.


SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. “Reflections on the Career of Marvin Farber,” in Phenomenology and Natural Existence: Essays in Honor of Marvin Farber, edited by Dale Riepe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973), pp. 20-25.


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