Critical Realism and Modern Materialism

Roy Wood Sellars *

For the purpose of this book which is the promotion of a better understanding, on the part of French and American thinkers, of trends of thought in the two countries, it may be simplest to sketch a general outline of my own position, indicating, in passing, its setting in American philosophy. Where possible I shall, likewise point to possible continuities with French eighteenth-century thought, such as that which appeared in the writings of Cabanis and De Tracy and which affected Thomas Cooper, and even John Adams. Let me confess that I have always been an admirer of the blending of science and philosophy in eighteenth-century thought.

There is this historical thread of continuity in the acceptance of the scientific view of man and the universe in which he finds himself. But the idealogues were quickly pushed to one side in France; and the materialistic naturalism of Cooper did not secure much of a hearing in the United States. Since then, the theory of evolution and the tremendous growth of the biological and the social sciences, as well as the series of revolutions in physics, itself, have introduced new possibilities and given plasticity to empirical thought. In general, these changes are manifested in terms of such principles as those of emergence and levels. I would also point to the increasing emphasis upon symbols in connection with thought, something which takes us away from sensations and images per se. Concepts and symbols are functional.

The materialism I represent stresses, then, emergent novelty as against the kind of reductionism associated with classical, mechanical principles. It seeks to do justice to levels of causality in nature and thus to treat human personalityand its associated categories empirically and with respect. In a certain sense, therefore, it recognizes the past motivations of idealism and Kantianism while arguing that historical idealism took the easy way

* Born in 1880. Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1908. Professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. President of the American Philosophical Association, 1923. Author of works cited in bibliography, and of many articles in philosophical publications.



of breaking with physical realism and with naturalism. In this regard, did not dualism, Kantian phenomenalism, and idealism all represent a temporary strategy for which the time is now past? Even if this is the case—as I think it is—there remain technical problems to be cleared up. The gateway here is epistemology. That is the reason for my stress upon critical realism. It represented an empirical realism which broke through subjectivism and phenomenalism to nature.

The period in which I matured is best characterized as one influenced by (1) a reaction against Anglo-American idealism and by (2) an expansion of the sciences. The growth of biology and psychology under the guidance of the theory of evolution was particularly important. This led to a stress upon genetic considerations. Fortunately, this emphasis was in some measure moderated by the rise of mathematical logic and an interest in analysis. Something of an equilibrium between the genetic outlook and the analytic established itself. The cultural atmosphere became increasingly secular. All this was to point ultimately to a humanistic perspective.

The implication of this cultural situation was not positivism in the technical sense of that term, for Anglo-American traditions were colored by a concern for theory of knowledge and metaphysics. It was philosophy after the grand manner with its feeling for basic questions which sought to come to terms with science.

It was fairly evident that the Kantian gambit was outmoded. That as we saw it, reflected a wrong premise in epistemology to the effect that to know is to construct what is known. And the reaction against idealism had made a fairly direct form of realism more promising. Moreover, Kantianism was tied in too intimately with the Newtonian view of the world.

In this situation, the path my own thinking took still seems to me the promising one. It was that of realism in epistemology and of an evolutionary, materialistic naturalism in metaphysics. At one and the same time, I explored the possibilities of a new form of empirical realism and of a rejection of traditional forms of dualism with respect to the mind-body problem. And I soon found these two explorations supporting one another. May not consciousness be intrinsic to brain-patterns as these are activated? What is the nature and reach of objective knowing? In this fashion—and quite logically, I think—realism was becoming a door to an evolutionary way of handling the mind-body problem. I thought much in terms of organization.


I suppose philosophy has always moved in terms of puzzles of a large sort. That is certainly true of Aristotle and of Kant. In this sense, it represents what, in the jargon of today, might be called a meta-level. There are knowledge-claims in our experience—but what is knowledge? No particular science investigates it, even though the various sciences may throw light upon its conditions. Suppose we look at human knowledge-claims. The older empiricism had become so entangled in the causal, or transmission, approach that it could think only of sensations and images. And yet do we not know through, and by means of, these, taken up into the context of referential designations and concepts? I certainly seem to myself to be looking at this typewriter and not at my sensations qua sensations. Response, meanings, an awareness of extra-bodily externality, the category of thinghood, all play their part. And so the critical realists began to stress reference, action, symbols, as empirically discoverable in the perceptual act. The causal approach did not do justice to perception. There was stimulation, of course; but that was just in initiation. Much was added in the way of direct response, conceptual interpretation, an awareness of objectivity. Why not, then, analyze perceptual judgment and statements? In so doing, one would still be empirical. Thus American critical realism was born. In the essay contributed to the Essays in Critical Realism, I emphasized knowledge and its categories.

Now this was not neo-Kantianism because it was strictly physical realism. It was gnostic and not agnostic. It did not speak of things-in-themselves but of things. And, what was more, it regarded the knower as the organic self. Here it was more in line with Hobbes as against Descartes. Do you need a mental substance for the cogito? In our ordinary language is not the I the organic speaker? The same question can be asked about Kant’s I think. In perception the percipient is clearly organic. Perhaps it is because the cortex in verbal symbolism does not always call up organic resonance to a marked degree that this illusion of incorporeality so easily arises. Symbols may involve cortical patterns and be engaged in thought without that feeling of motor attitude and sense of preparatory response so characteristic of the set of perception. Thus the cortex may have misled a culture with a predisposition to spiritualism and dualism. In the light of recent work on the brain, that temptation is lessening. After all, language took the place of gesticulation with the hands, leaving them free for business. But we shall have more to say about all this in connection with the mind-body problem.

There was, I believe, a certain inevitability about this direction of philosophical development in the United States. Idealism and Kantianism


had been able to hold the fort against Spencerian materialism—I leave out, of course, Spencer’s gesture to the Unknowable and the Unconditioned—by emphasizing mind and experience. But now, in the realistic movement, the physical world was being recognized as basic and not phenomenal or mental. Yet there still remained the job of naturalizing mind. Today psychology is doing this fairly well. But there still remains an aporia, a puzzle. In what sense is mind, or intelligence, a physical category emergent upon life? And what is the nature of the inness of consciousness to the brain? Neo-materialism has subtle clarifications to make. It must use epistemology to clarify our double knowledge of the functioning brain. We can have external, descriptive knowledge about the brain; and it may be that, in consciousness, each one is participating in the thalamic-cortical operations of the brain. Linguistic and philosophical distinctions must aid the actual movement of science in these matters.

To make a long story short, pragmatism and realism challenged idealism in the United States. And they, themselves, began to interact upon one another. For a long time now, John Dewey has called himself a realist, though his realism is less epistemological in character than that of the new realists and the critical realists. Having given up idealism, he gradually dropped back upon the human organism and its transactions. And so he moved to evolutionary naturalism, much as I had done. In fact, he and his followers have finally come to adopt the label of non- reductive materialism. All of which I welcome since I had arrived at this decision by 1916 in my book Critical Realism. I still think, however, that certain epistemological distinctions are of value in clarifying our complex conception of the integral unity of mind, body, and consciousness. But, as I have already promised, I shall touch upon this aporia more systematically later.

Thus far, I have been more concerned with opening up a perspective in American thought than with points of detail. In what follows I shall explain the direct form of realism which I defend, then pass to metaphysics, that is, to ontology and cosmology, and, finally, consider axiology or value. While these main divisions of philosophy are distinguishable and while each requires relevant analyses, they, of course, should finally fit into each other and throw light upon one another. In the conclusion, I shall try, very briefly, to draw these main divisions together. Valuing and knowing must be shown to be natural operations of human beings within the evolutionary diversified universe. This is, if you will, a quite pluralistic, empirical way of looking at valuing and knowing.



First of all, then, to an attempt to clarify the principles of critical realism.

In place of traditional empiricism, largely reflecting the preconceptions of the time, the realists tended to start with an analysis of actual perceptual experiences with their designations and meanings. It was realized that perceiving is a thick experience, dominated by attitudes of response, the arousal of concepts, the felt awareness of the body of the percipient over against what he is concerned with. In short, it reflects a high level of organic and minded activity and not merely the effect of a stimulus. Of course, this fact is manifested in the linguistic expression of perception as well as in overt behavior. Thus I am aware of myself as looking at this typewriter whose keys I am at present pounding. And I say that I “see” this typewriter-sort of thing. That is, I am visually aware of it. But what does this expression mean? Essentially that my designative concern with it is dominated by the visual appearance. I look at it through the visual appearance. It, like my concepts, are means of referential awareness.

Now the point of all this is that referential awareness is a complex achievement, sui generis, which must be studied in the light of its conditions and its claims. There is no need to be mystical about it. There is not some entity, called the mind, which bodily gets outside the organism and spiritually touches the thing with which the minded organism is concerned. Rather is there an awareness of extra-bodily referring and intent, and awareness guided by the embodiment of the self in the organism. The objectivity of reference and meaning at the level of perception is tied in with organic action and passion. The I is the self, the concrete human being.

The categories of objective knowing must be seen in this context to be understood. Action, social intercourse, symbolism are, all of them, of this level. The flaw, then, in early empiricism was its neglect of the perceptual experience and its concentration upon the one moment of causal, transmissive stimulation. No wonder subjectivism was the consequence, especially while the soul-mind theory was in the ascendancy. Now I am not going to deny the possibility of a reflexive introspection of experiencing, as such, in all its complexity. This is sometimes called knowledge of acquaintance. But it would be vicious to make this shift of attention and interest negate our actual objective concern and cognitive claims.


While both the new realism and critical realism were, intentionally, forms of direct realism, the new realism, dominated by James’s famous essay, Does Consciousness Exist? with its appeal to contexts, by the vogue of the phrase, external relations, and by the fear of the pitfalls of representative realism, sought its direct realism in a kind of searchlight view. The external world is, for it, open to an apprehension of an unmediated sort. Things are as they seem. Perceiving is apprehending. As Perry put it, the idea is the thing and the thing is the idea. This was called epistemological monism and panobjectivism. In England, it dominated the outlook of S. Alexander. The difficulty was, of course, to understand error and illusion.

I want it to be quite clear that critical realism, as I understood it, was a form of direct realism but that it thought of this directness in terms of designative, responsive directness which used sensory data and concepts as factors in its objective concern. Perceiving was an activity of a minded organism in which response, the use of sensory data and symbols, the awareness of the felt body in its commerce with the things around it, all played their part. Now the thing to do was to analyze perceptual judgments in an empirical way and then to go to modern biology and psychology, the better to understand what processes sustained them. Obviously, we were far from Cartesian and Lockian conceptions.

Now it has always been my contention that the critical realist was a direct realist, or epistemological monist, in the sense that perceptual cognition involved a pointing, or direct reference, to the thing, or event, made the object of cognition by the concerned, designative activity of the organic knower. But such direct, objective designation did not mean that the object was literally open to inspection, that it entered consciousness in the way James and the new realist assumed. It merely meant that we sensuously symbolized what we were dealing with and that we could check up on the fact by walking to the thing and taking hold of it, if necessary. But the descriptions added, under the guidance of sensory data and accrued concepts, always needed verification, though it was to be assumed that sensory data gave an appearance of the object, that is, that it in some measure disclosed the object. And yet this premise, founded on the very guidance-use of sensory data by the working organism in the know-how of animals, could be studied in the light of criteria, such as control of nature, coherent cognitive systems, increasing insight, power of prediction. In other words, the human knower could confirm the essential trustworthiness of his point of departure, given to him by organic perception itself. And that gives us the correct conception of


what epistemology is. It is a study of human knowing as to its claims, its mechanism, its conditions, and its reach. And its results must fit into scientific knowledge. But it is philosophical in that knowing is sui generis, even though a natural achievement.

But I cannot linger upon epistemology, fascinating as the subject is. I shall merely make a few additional, general remarks. First, by its very logic, the new realism tended to be scornful of substance or continuant bodies with dispositional properties. It was a transformation of radical empiricism. The critical realist, because of his stress upon reference and the body, could explore matter and bodies. Second, the critical realist could avoid mystical ideas of the so-called cognitive relation and deny that there was anything involved but selective pointing and designation, the sort of thing, at the elementary level of perceiving, carried by gesture and demonstrative, like this and that. Though language has an organic base in the brain, it is functionally symbolic and, in a sense, super-organic and tied in with objective, social understanding. In this regard, it is different from sensations and images and has the same context as action. It represents an emergent, cultural level. In other words, designative and symbolic reference and conceptual predication must replace mystical notions of an internal subject-object relation, so dear to idealism. Third, I am decidedly skeptical of Santayana’s essence. Sensory discriminations and concepts in the setting of referential awareness can carry cognition. Ultimately, it is a question of the confirmation of statements in accordance with scientific method. Such confirmed statements formulate facts about things and events in the context of categorial meanings. As I see it, a fact is a cognitive disclosure to the effect that a thing or event is so-and-so.

The theory of truth implied is logically obvious. To say that a statement is true is to say (1) that it has been tested and (2) that it gives knowledge about its referent in terms of facts. Such a theory of truth is a revision of the correspondence tradition in terms of a direct realism. The testing is logical and methodical. And agreement is a verified implication. Since we know, the statement must correspond.

So far as I can see, the logical empiricists (or positivists) can have no essential objection to this analysis. It is unfortunate that they neglected epistemology and metaphysics; but they seem to have done so in ignorance of realistic and naturalistic developments in the United States. Curiously enough, England developed realism but fought shy of naturalism. Bertrand Russell is, of course, sympathetic with naturalism and


materialism but never escaped from Hume. That is, he never clearly enough distinguished between sensing and perceiving. I mean that he never adequately supplemented the causal approach to perception with the responsive, objective activity which sets the percipient over against the perceived something which appears in meanings and language.

It is only fair to say that Thomism is realistic; but it never allowed itself to reanalyze the distinction between form and matter and retained an antiquated conception of reason. I have tried to show that the broader, empirical term is intelligence, working through the operational development of concepts under strict control of observation and action. Thomism never underwent the agony of modern philosophy with its false starts, its plunge into subjectivism, Kantian machinery, romanticism, and idealism. But it paid a price for this escape. It found it hard to understand the more functional view of mind and the logic of scientific method.

We have already paid our respects to Kant. The point is that he did not reanalyze perceiving to give it objective reference but took sensations and added to them innate forms. To know is to construct. But, given a better epistemology and a more genetic view of the categories, there is much in his analysis that can be taken up into a critical realism. Yet ordinary neo-Kantianism gives one something super-organic with no suitable foundation in the human knower. Only an analysis of perceptual cognition in the light of its causal and responsive, operational conditions which we have outlined can put knowing into the world.

Now I have treated epistemology at this great length, comparatively speaking, because it has, rightly or wrongly, seemed to me that French philosophy has not wrestled with it to the same extent that English and American philosophy has. We could never forget Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. For instance, Bergson, in Matter and Memory, makes some passing references to Berkeley and images at a time when the major energy in England and the United States was devoted to the refutation of Berkeley, Germany exercised too much of a fascination. I suspect it still does in existentialism.


I pass now to ontology and cosmology, that is, to metaphysics.

Being a physical realist and skeptical, as an evolutionist would be, of Cartesian dualism, I was early pushed on to challenge what is usually called the reductive, or dead-level, view of nature. Could not mind, like life, be taken in a functional sense as a high-level, physical category?


Suppose we use the term of the biologist, C. Judson Herrick, and speak of mentation. Now this, of course, is what the comparative psychologists are doing. Mind, as substance, does not mean anything to them. How to conceive consciousness still remains a problem, in the handling of which epistemology, I think, aids. How existentially penetrative is our external knowledge of brain-activity? Are, to use Gestalt terminology, psychical contents in some sense isomorphic with brain events? Are they “in” the brain in an existential sense? That was the position I explained in Critical Realism in 1916 and in articles going back to 1907. Bertrand Russell has recently been advocating the same notion. Let us recall that, for critical realism, external knowledge is factual and not intuitively penetrative. It builds on the disclosures mediated by sensory data and concepts. But surely, physical processes must have existential content or thickness of being. They cannot, to use Whitehead’s expression, be vacuous. Therefore, there is nothing in our factual knowledge which excludes what I have called, in default of a better expression, a qualitative dimension. This does not signify panpsychism. That is the other extreme to old-fashioned materialism.

Now the theory of emergent levels with novel properties implied a rejection of both the Thomistic theory of causality, as agency from above, and dead-level, atomistic mechanicalism. It postulated what I call integrative causality, the forming of wholes, the effective reality of organization. Of course, time would be a feature of such active wholes. It would be physiological, functional time, adjustment, pattern-forming, and functioning. As we pass from the microscopic to the macroscopic, temporal units change. It takes a long time for a person to make a moral decision, while an electron jumps almost instantaneously. Integrative patterns rest upon included patterns. But I can only hint at the categorial problems of evolution. The whole-part relation needs thorough analysis.

If, then, organization, levels in nature, and functional wholeness were to be taken seriously — as the theory of evolution seemed to demand then the idea of operational unity, or togetherness, must needs be explored. In what sense, for instance, is an atom other than its constituent particles as these are thought of in isolation from one another? In what sense is a molecule other than an external addition of two atoms? In what sense is a living thing other than a sum, or aggregation, of what it can be broken down into? There were, no doubt, additive properties but other properties were, on the face of it, novel or emergent and apparently went with organization and functional wholeness.

Such reflection on what may be called functional unities in nature


was exploratory and tried to avoid anything of the nature of mysticism. I, myself, was convinced that what I called integrative causality was at work, that is, that unified wholes with a degree of capacity for self-maintenance could arise in nature under favoring conditions. This would signify some measure of action-as-a-whole. It was this action-as-a-whole which should be correlated with emergent properties. Any part, taken by itself and studied in isolation, would involve some measure of disregard of the total context. In this sense it would be an isolate.

Obviously, philosophy could do only a preliminary piece of analysis. It could challenge preconceptions by emphasizing the whole range of things from the human to the inorganic. It could move in imagination from the lowest level to the highest and back again in a quite empirical and undogmatic fashion. And the more naturalistically it was inclined, the more would it be skeptical of the final adequacy of principles built upon a concentration upon additive, molar properties alone, as Newtonianism was in the main. All the sciences should be heard from before the final synthesis was in order. What philosophy could do was to make suggestions as to demands which, on the face of human experience, had to be met either by explaining or by inexorable explaining away. And it had to be made very certain that the supposed inexorable explaining away was inexorable in the light of verifiable principles. It seemed to me that the tradition of reduction to isolates and their simple, mechanical relations was not as inevitable as had been assumed. Did not evolution mean the cumulative effect of integrative causality in bringing about functional, self-maintaining wholes?

One of the characteristics about wholes is that their pattern of action involves a temporal as well as a spatial dimension. This stage here prepares the way for that stage there. In this fashion, there are inner controls and conditions, a differentiated, moving equilibrium. Now, as I see it, all this is empirical; and I should expect that the sciences from physics to psychology would increasingly work out the categories demanded by the facts. And there are many indications that various developments in science are moving away from old principles to new and more flexible ones. Flat reductionism now seems a priori and dogmatic. If integrative organization goes on in nature under favoring conditions of free energy, genuine novelty of process and procedure can take place. And this implies the ontological import of biological and social history on this planet of ours. As to the universe as a whole, that is quite another matter. Solar systems may, in a certain sense, be episodic and local. Whether astrophysics and astronomy can work out principles for the universe as a


whole remains to be seen. I suppose that all materialistic naturalists regard the universe as intrinsically eternal.

The theory of emergence and levels arose in the United States and England practically simultaneously. It is particularly associated with the names of S. Alexander and Lloyd Morgan in England and with Spaulding and, in its naturalistic form, with myself in the United States. It seemed to me to imply the importance of organization and, with it, levels of causality. I tried to give it a completely naturalistic setting. In this it differed, I take it, from certain aspects of Bergson’s creative evolutionism. That is, there was about it less of neo-Platonism and vitalism. It has already been pointed out that the epistemological preparation in terms of physical realism was important. Yet there is an ingredient of naturalism in Bergson.


Since I have taken the side of Hobbes against Descartes in a rejection of a mental substance, I should like to call attention to the impact of the thinking of Cabanis and De Tracy upon the United States in the time of Jefferson. As is well known, they explored the domain of organic sensations and voluntary movements, an area which had been neglected by Condillac. In philosophy all this represented a shift from the more analytic to the exploratory and empirical. Locke, it will be recalled, was often thought of as having a materialistic implication. Hobbes could never be completely forgotten.

In this country Thomas Cooper moved to an explicit materialism with the denial of soul. Not far from him was Priestley with his doctrine of the homogeneity of mind and matter. Wrote Cooper: “We have not the slightest proof of any kind that ideas can arise or exist independently of corporeal organization.” And then, continuing in the spirit of Cabanis, he points to the growth of a human being from infancy under the influence of nature and society. But genetic psychology, as we know it, was still in the future.

For the sake of the historical setting, let me introduce Jefferson. In a letter dated from Monticello, the fourteenth of March, 1820, Jefferson discusses these theories. “Mr. Locke, you know, and other materialists have charged with blasphemy the spiritualists who have denied the Creator the power of endowing certain forms of matter with the faculty of thought. These, however, are speculations and subtleties in which, for my own part, I have little indulged myself . . . Were it necessary,


however, to form an opinion, I confess I should, with Mr. Locke, prefer swallowing one incomprehensible rather than two.”

This association of materialism with Lockianism is evident in Emerson as he turns toward idealism. In the essay, The Transcendentalist, he contrasts the two philosophies. “The materialist insists on fact, on history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture.” Like Theodore Parker, he demands objective validity for moral intuitions. How can materialism justify such a demand? Leaving out capitals, it is evident that materialism must handle value-judgements and be prepared to justify them. I have been accustomed to speak of verifying factual statements and of justifying normative ones.

In France, Maine de Biran became the father of French spiritualism in a somewhat analogous way. Starting from the ideologists he moved in the direction of dualism by means of his marked introspective capacity. How can this realm of will and feeling be brought into the compass of the organism?

It must not be forgotten, however, that neither Descartes nor Maine de Biran felt satisfied with a dualistic treatment of the mind-body puzzle. Professor Jean Wahl has brought out this fact in his recent book, The Philosopher’s Way. For that matter, neither were Plato and Aristotle too happy about it. The active reason was Aristotle’s only way of escape. The burden of proof would seem to be upon dualism.

The physical realist, in the light of modern science, seeks to begin with the concrete human being. We are not only sensitive but active and responsive. If we emphasize the thalamus and the cortex we must see them as agencies in emotional, volitional, intelligent conduct. We have already noted that perceiving is designative, directed and interpretative. In this sense, mentation is as concerned with the environment as is life, itself, which it aids. Gesture and language grow up together. As we have pointed out, epistemological categories must be studied in the light of this context and in terms of actual judgments of perception.

But the critical realist admits the existential privacy of the current of consciousness, or experiencing, as it arises in connection with minded conduct. How shall we think it ontologically? Let us remember that we are concerned not merely with sensations and images but with all that is actually experienced, with all that we have in some measure by knowledge of acquaintance. We can take this knowledge in terms of introspection, or more naively, as the Gestaltists do. As I see it, thought about is ex-


perienced but not the referant of that thought. Concepts display themselves in language and conduct.

The experiential status of concepts apart from language is a difficult, psychological question, tied in with abstraction and generalization. The forebrain seems to be crucial for this higher level, though it has been found that areas around the visual projection in the brain are important for the significant use made of the visual sensations. But, as I see it, the philosopher is concerned with the basic questions involved. How are we to think this existential inness of sensations with respect to brain events?

First of all, it is important to bear in mind the point that perceptual knowledge of the brain and the more abstract scientific knowledge developed upon it, as a base, do not represent an intuition of the brain event. It is not a literal participation in the very functioning of the area of the brain observed. We are not on the inside of the brain studied. What we get are facts about it. Such knowledge is knowledge and should not be belittled. But to know a thing is not to be it. It is a disclosure of facts about it, facts of size, composition, structure, pattern, etc. All of which is a very wonderful achievement.

However, in a sensation we seem to be participating in a brain event, to be on the inside existentially.

Now those who had a feeling for this unique situation and did not have an adequate epistemology often spoke of the double-aspect theory. But the term aspect is metaphorical. Epistemologically, it is better to speak of a “double knowledge.” On the one hand, we have objective knowledge mediated by sensory data, which represents the cognitive use of sensations. Such data are taken up into references and concepts and play their part in empirical statements. But, underlying knowledge-claims of this sort, are the mediating factors. These are studied in introspection. They are then objects of what can best be called intuition. Now we are on the percipient pole of perceiving, reflexively examined.

The situation is specific, just as human knowing is. Both sensation and the total process of experiencing which contains it are natural isolates within the brain activity. It would seem, however, that the various kinds of sensations have a degree of localization as yet best worked out for visual sensations. A visual sensation is in the visual area, not as one physical thing is in another, but as one kind of event can be in a more inclusive kind of event. And the significant point is that the sensation is a quale whose context and background cannot be given as it is given. It is sensed as taken up in the complex act of awareness. How the sen-


sation is sustained by, and one with, the action-pattern of the area cannot be intuited, as the sensation, itself, is intuited. But we can well believe that we have here a seamless unity. Thus, a sensation is, I am convinced, one with a brain activity and not something separate. It is, if you will, an expression, isomorphic with the activated brain event. But further knowledge of this unity can be gained chiefly by finding correlations between external knowledge of the neural event and the intuitions of subjects. Such investigation must be left to psychologist and neurologist.

There are, of course, language complexities. Our ordinary language is dominated by perception and action. Thus it is objective and easily social. But man has been able to symbolize the realm of the subjective within the social I-thing which each one of us is. Such references are introduced by the phrase “I have.” Thus, I have a “feeling of pain,” a “color sensation,” etc. These symbols are public but refer to the intra-organic, to that which cannot be perceived as things are perceived. Rather to that which only the person having them can intuit. But be¬ cause people can communicate about objective, common referents, they have little difficulty in adding symbols of that which can be intuited within the intra-organic. The private thus becomes symbolically public, always with the addition of such phrases as “I have or experience” or “You have or experience.”

The neo-materialist holds it essential to do full justice to mental operations and to personality. And in all this he is rather commonsensical, regarding it as unlikely that certain broad distinctions which stand out in human thought should not be valid. Since his outlook is not reductionist, he considers it his primary task to further clarification and to develop heuristic principles. The growth of the psychosomatic perspective, which regards the human organism as the unit, illustrates the trend in modern materialism.

Traditional empiricism tended to confuse introspective acquaintance with its flow of psychical data with self-knowledge. Realistic empiricism does not. Reflexive self-knowledge involves judgments about tendencies, capacities, and dispositions. All this concerns verifiable knowledge about the self as a continuant. It would seem that the object of both external knowledge and reflexive self-knowledge is the same concrete human being. And this is the basic reason why the pronoun I is both public and personal in import. My self-knowledge develops within a social and public frame.

While, then, self-knowledge is mediated by intra-organic sensations, feelings, and words, it is important to realize that these are given a cate-


gorial setting of substantiality, that is, of organic selfhood. At the linguistic level, this is symbolized by the cogito of Descartes and the “I think” of Kant. But the neo-materialist, somewhat like the Aristotelian, takes the I to symbolize the self-conscious, human organism. The modern challenge against dualism was, as we saw, issued by Hobbes. But we are better prepared today to analyze the situation. The main point is that there is no good reason to begin with a disembodied self or mind. Nor, for that matter, with a body alien to the self. When I look out through my eyes and “see” an object, that means that I am coordinately aware of myself and of the external thing I am designating and interpreting. Awareness, here, is referential in both directions.

This sense of agency which we have, as percipients and doers, is lifted to a higher level and internalized in thought and moral decision. Yet there is no break with the organism. There is, simply internal rehearsal. But it would seem that cortical activity does not carry with it the same sense of localization that is involved in the mechanism of sensory projection. That is, we do not feel our brain to be busy in thought in the same sense as we feel our arms to be busy in action. Our knowledge about the existential location of consciousness in the brain is gained indirectly. But all this means is that consciousness does not locate itself. How could it? And why should it? There is no sensori-motor circuit for cortical action. I do not move my brain in thinking as I move a muscle.

There are, then, two points about modern materialism which I desire to make clear as possible. First, sensory data are emergent qualia which are “natural isolates” within an active, cortical matrix whose totality we cannot intuit. What corresponds to these qualia is an activation of pattern. Epistemology is important here. We must realize that knowledge, as against experiencing, involves a complex referential and interpretative process and that the object is never intuited. Thus, the brain is never intuited from outside. Perception is not existentially penetrative. It is, at the most, cognitively descriptive. This situation should not surprise us. Why should not nature have a qualitative content? And here, alone, are we on the inside of nature. But I see no reason to generalize to panpsychism, particularly not to the idealistic variety which rejects matter.

The second point concerns the complex identity of cerebral and mental processes.

The majority of opponents of neo-materialism build on classical physics. They argue that the kind of interpretative awareness which we


can introspect involves a unique togetherness which is alien to even cortical processes. But is this not a case of dogmatism? Certainly, modern neurology is far more open-minded. The brain seems to function as a differentiated whole with activated patterns expressive of accumulated dispositions. And we have noted that referential self-knowledge tends to use much the same categories. That is, self and mind are less event-terms than substantival, dispositional, and operational, terms. The complex identity of cerebral and mental processes is a theory based upon the belief that the categories of self-knowledge harmonize with the categories of cerebral action and upon the principle that, in experienced awareness, the subject is participating in mind-brain activity. The burden of proof would appear to rest upon the denial of this identity.


Let us observe how this framework enables us to escape epiphenomenalism. It does so by (1) not defining the brain as alien to consciousness and by (2) identifying mental and cerebral operations, this identity being achieved by the common reference of self-knowledge and objective, scientific knowledge.

But if we escape epiphenomenalism we must do justice to the categories of the self, such as freedom and choice. Modern materialism takes this responsibility.

What, then, is freedom? It is the power to handle problems confronting the self with the resources at its command. It is another term for intelligent agency. Now I would make much of the notion of levels of causality, a notion opposed to reductive ideas. An organism has a certain autonomy or causal internality. And man is particularly gifted in resources by means of his intelligence. There are, then, degrees of capacity within freedom as relative autonomy.

It is obvious that freedom is opposed to external constraint; and at the human level, it has a more positive and complex meaning. It symbolizes the more or less realizable ideal of the intelligent and rational handling of critical, moral problems by the self. As such, it is opposed both to external constraint and to the denial of the significance of intelligence. The neo-materialist flatly takes the stand for the reality of intelligence as both neural and mental. In self-knowledge we are aware of ourselves as solving problems and living up to norms. In the use of the term, norm, I am anticipating axiology.

But such freedom as rational capacity still meets with the ultimate


question of free-will. As I see it, free-will signifies the reality of choice and time as features of agency at the human level. A choice does not express a blind freedom of indifference but decision upon awareness of alternative lines of action. But could I have done otherwise? Yes; the self could have decided otherwise if it had known other facts or if its activated values had been different. The point is that the self is a changing continuant and decisions are temporal actions. Free-will is, to the materialist, meaningful as a term for agential decision within a locus of relative autonomy. A decision is an event and has its existential context. It can however, be challenged and even reversed. This signifies that the self is a continuant inclusive of its decisions. Only if decision is not regarded as an expression of the self do we have mythological free-will. There are, of course, emotive meanings connected with all these terms.

One final point in ontology as against Thomism. The materialist sees no realistic reason to accept the esse of supernaturalistic creationism. In the first place, existence is, logically, a property of applicable concepts. In the second place, existing things are not unions of forms and existence. Existing things are just concrete things. And we, ourselves, are instances of felt and known existence. That is, we are immersed in existence. And the whole mechanism of knowledge presupposes existence in the concrete. I doubt that neo-Thomism does justice to the concreteness of existence by breaking it up in the traditional Platonic-Aristotelian fashion and adding esse. The materialist’s conception of self-organizing matter has always constituted a protest against the dualism of “form and matter.” And, immersed in being, he sees no empirical reason to doubt the conservation of the resources of being, any more than the neo-Thomist doubts the maintenance of the resources of a God.


Let us now turn briefly to axiology. Modern materialism is humanistic and takes values and valuation seriously as expressions of the dynamics of personality. Their primitive roots are in desire and aversion. But these can be lifted to the rational level. Hobbes and Spinoza began this relational theory of valuation. It develops within the realistic framework given by cognitive awareness.

Valuation is as objective in import as cognition but is differently concerned. In cognition the aim is to gain facts about objects; in valuation the concern is with their bearing upon the agent or group of agents. All this is relational and reflexive. While knowledge can help to mediate


valuation, the base of the latter is the self. It is too often forgotten that self-knowledge includes awareness of the hormic, or agential, nature of the self. In valuation, this tendency to activity is illuminated by guiding knowledge of things, events, and consequences. At the symbolic level, man is able to correlate himself as an agent with his environment.

Now it has been my custom to speak of value judgments as justifiable and factual judgements as verifiable. In both cases the appeal, before acceptance, is to investigation. Value judgments are not private even though they are personal. To be socially justified, they must do justice to whatever is relevant. Moral judgements, for instance, involve other selves within an estimation of consequences.

Values are in the world because man is a sensitive agent in the world. How far down the scale of being, something akin to valuing goes it is hard to say. But to look at the universe in terms of the inorganic sciences alone is unempirical. The modern materialist is a pluralist in all these matters. What is significant for man is the proliferation of values with in cultures. One of the main problems of social philosophy is that of the rational justification of institutions in terms of moral values.

So much for the general perspective of a humanistic materialism.


And so we come to the conclusion. I have concerned myself only with general principles. It will be noted that I see promise in a realistic empiricism which escapes the many false starts in modern philosophy, such as Humianism and Kantianism. In the realistic framework, so given, science and philosophy can cooperate. Idealism had good intentions and sought to counter the reductionism of nineteenth-century science. But, technically, its epistemology was poor.

Philosophy concerns itself, in the main, with general puzzles about epistemological and ontological categories. The Aristotelian tradition was fairly sound but it needs far more overhauling logically, epistemically and ontologically than neo-Thomists are willing to admit. The logical positivists made the mistake of ignoring epistemology and ontology. They were analytic enthusiasts with a Mach-Hume outlook. The modern materialist finds he has much in common with the Dewey type of pragmatism. But to speak of the transactions between the organism and its environment does not set aside the responsibility for a clear epistemology and ontology. It is my belief that critical realism gives an essential open-


ing gambit. But it is a realism of guided reference and tested concepts in accordance with scientific method.


Sellers, R. W., McGill, V. J., and Farber, M., editors, Philosophy for the Future. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1949.

Sellars, R. W. Critical Realism. Chicago, Rand, McNally and Co., 1916.

______________. The Next Step in Religion. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1918.

Sellars, R. W., and others. Essays in Critical Realism. London, The Macmillan Co., 1920.

Sellars, R. W. Evolutionary Naturalism. Chicago, Open Court Publishing Co., 1922.

______________. The Philosophy of Physical Realism. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1932.

Chinard, G. Jefferson et les idéologues. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

Cooper, Thomas. A View of the Metaphysical and Physiological Argument in Favor of Materialism. Philadelphia, 1823.

Harlow, Victor. Bibliography and Genetic Study of American Realism. Oklahoma City, Harlow Publishing Co., 1931.

Holt, E. B., and others. The New Realism. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1912.

Pratt, James Bissett. Matter and Spirit. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1922.

Santayana, George. The Realm of Matter. London, Constable and Co., Ltd., 1930.

Strong, Charles Augustus. The Origin of Consciousness. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1923.

SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. “Critical Realism and Modern Materialism,” in Philosophic Thought in France and the United States: Essays Representing Major Trends in Contemporary French and American Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Marvin Farber (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968); pp. 463-481. (1st ed., 1950.) For whole book see

Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy
by R. Dumain

Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links

American Philosophy Study Guide
Includes links to Marvin Farber & Roy Wood Sellars

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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