Reformed Materialism and Intrinsic Endurance

by Roy Wood Sellars

There are optional horizons in philosophy. Thus one can ignore ontology or one can commit oneself to the ontological enterprise and grapple, as best one can, with some rather abstract distinctions and their implications. Pragmatism and positivism have, in the main, made the first choice and within that horizon have done, as all acknowledge, admirable analytic work. Realism, on the other hand, has in its various modes accepted an ontological horizon. Even such opposing positions as materialism and neo‑Thomism have at least this much in common, that they take ontological categories seriously.

The drift of my own thought has been in the direction of a reformed materialism less dominated by extreme atomism and strict mechanical notions than has usually been the case in materialism. Recognition is given to internal relations, to integration, to immanent causality, to emergence and local wholeness. At the same time, epistemological reflection has convinced me that material systems have far more to them than is grasped by abstract scientific knowledge about their composition and properties. Dualistic traditions have been hurtful here. Likewise injurious has been the Humian denial of causal agency. It is my opinion that we must think more along the lines of a reformed notion of substantive being fully capable of doing justice to becoming, events, and process.

Now, as I see the ontological situation, materialism reformed along these lines is confronted by ontologies having a theistic dimension. It is, I take it, the very genius of all forms of materialism to postulate the intrinsic endurance and immanent existence of material systems. Theism, on the other hand, looks upon nature and natural things as pointing beyond themselves for their endurance and existence. Neo‑Thomism is very frank about this and conceives esse, or existence, as something contributed by God to the vast range of essences or quiddities. And such existence is different in different things, since it is received and not absolute. Non‑catholic writers, such as Whitehead and Parker, approach the question from different assumptions; and yet I sense in them the postulate of dependent, or contributed, existence.

It is my desire in the present paper to connect naturalism with the principle of intrinsic endurance and to explore the meanings to be given to such terms as matter, being, and existence, within such a context. It is my intention to use neo‑Thomism largely as a foil and to contrast its hylomorphism and its conception of substance and existence with those of reformed materialism. But I shall raise questions which, I feel sure, all anti‑naturalists will want to debate. Not only will I give definitions but I will also indicate cosmological principles dealing with such topics as conservation, intrinsic endurance and becoming, being and nothing, existence and non‑existence of denotables, eternity, quantity of being and quality, generation and corruption. In short, I shall permit myself something of an ontological debauch.

Now it goes without saying that a philosophically respectable materialism must have some epistemological and ontological subtlety. Atomic materialism united with classical mechanics had neither. The only intrinsic endurance it could think of was Eleatic. But in these energistic and evolutionary days the Eleatic type of intrinsic endurance is out of the question. Intrinsic endurance must be linked with activity, relations, and conservation. It cannot be a static permanence, or, as Whitehead calls it, simple endurance. All this sums up to my conviction that the postulates essential to a non‑reductive materialism have as yet scarcely been explored.

It is relevant to recall that, during the first two decades of this century, the most persistent philosophical problem outside the epistemological field was that of the conquest of Cartesian dualism. How could mind and matter be brought together? And it is worthy of note that the dependence of these terms upon a God as a more primary substance was largely disregarded. Cartesian dualism, so conceived, found its focus in the mind-body problem. Radical empiricism and neutralism represented one line of approach which is, perhaps, still reflected in the positivist's double‑language formula. The critical realist was, as naturally, led to explore other possibilities such as a double knowledge of the organism and the replacement of reductive mechanism by more evolutionary and integrative principles.

In those days the general drift in American philosophy—far more, I take it, than in English—was towards some sort of naturalism. And I do not say that is not still the case. But, for various cultural reasons, theism cannot now so easily be left out of the picture. Naturalism is being challenged to state and defend its postulates. Theologically inclined physicists have entered the lists; and, in the realm of technical philosophy, we have such distinguished thinkers as Maritain, Gilson, Whitehead, Montague, Parker, Northrop, and Hartshorne, standing for some form or other of theism.

Now any one who has an ontological horizon cannot brush this challenge off as easily as can the pragmatist or the positivist. An existential question is at stake and so a mere redefinition of God as an ideal does not meet the issue.

It is my conviction that this theistic challenge to naturalism is both desirable and stimulating. It should force the naturalistic physical realist to explore his most basic assumptions. In my own thinking, at least, it has led to a study of the existential theory implied by materialism. Of course, the type of materialism must first pass other tests. It must be of a philosophical kind responsive to the niceties of theory of knowledge. The name is of less consequence. It can be called the new materialism, reformed materialism, qualitative materialism—all expressions which I have used. [1] At this philosophical level inert brickbats are left behind and are replaced by categorial analyses. Existence, stuff, activity, relations, space, time, endurance, becoming, all these must be clarified and integrated. All of which means that materialism must be stepped up philosophically.

As I see it, the materialist holds that the cosmos is material in nature and exists in its own right. To assert this is to deny the contingency of the world. Another way of putting it is to affirm the intrinsic endurance of physical systems in their very becoming.

Now it is this principle that theism denies whether in terms of creation ex nihilo, most characteristic of Christian philosophies, or in terms of emanation or Platonic ingredience. The anti-materialist holds either that there is no material world (the idealistic alternative so dear to liberal Protestantism) or that it has a secondary, or derived, sort of existence. There are, of course, all sorts of philosophical complications and combinations. Thus Montague and Northrop seem to hold that the physical world needs supplementation to account for order and evolution. But I am, at present, chiefly interested in the question of aseity as against contingency.

This question is, of course, a hoary one. Looking up aseity in the Oxford Dictionary, I found three interesting quotations: "The natural world for any self stability, aseity, or essential immutability of its own may again cease to be;" "By what mysterious light have you discovered that aseity is entail'd on matter?"; "The obscure and abysmal subject of the divine aseity." To the positivist, no doubt, such quotations reflect obscurantism. To the physical realist they do not. It is important to get clear ideas about the meaning of existence and to connect them up with endurance and becoming. I shall, therefore, be engaged in the present article in looking at such categories from a materialist's point of view. A contrasting position is always of value in such matters; and so I shall employ neo‑Thomism . . ., partly because its postulates are so definite and partly because its Aristotelian principles enable me to bring out a contrasting way of handling generation and corruption. For the Thomist there are two modes of existence, the divine and the created; and existence is rather a mysterious transcendental along with truth and perfection. I may as well say at once that I shall argue against these transcendentals and change existence into the factual recognition of existency, so that to be a denotable entails existence. While I shall not discuss truth as a transcendental, it is obvious that, for the materialist, it cannot be a harmony between essence and the eternal thought of God, while perfection dissolves into properties and triadically founded valuations. All of which indicates that neo‑Thomism helps to bring the categories of materialism into relief. Now, while I shall employ Christian Aristotelianism as a contrast, I shall also have in mind Whitehead's union of theism and reformed subjectivism. . . .

Metaphysics has been so much associated with the postulation of a higher reality beyond nature, with a meta‑physics, that I have preferred the more neutral term ontology. I note that Marxists have the same preference, as also does Santayana. Materialism, then, is an ontology isomorphic with modern science. Much could be said for the post‑Aristotelian division of philosophy into physics, logic, and ethics. But the science of physics, as it increasingly expressed metric knowledge about nature and retreated from natural philosophy (wisely, I think), came to engross the first term of this trinity. But must not the science of physics give us knowledge about physical existence? Materialism holds this belief and is an ontology.

After considerable reflection I have chosen the expression, intrinsic endurance, in place of simple endurance. While intrinsic endurance rejects dependent, derived, or contributed, endurance, it does not entail passivity, Eleatic fixity, or brickbatness. Matter I take to be active, dynamic, relational and self‑organizing. It is an endurance which goes with activity for which I am contending. All composite existents which emerge are generated and corrupted, are maintained by activity. My divergence from eventism has other roots than a desire to defend outgrown notions of substance. Rather is it the expression of realism, as against sensationalism, and reflects the recognition of structure, ontological causality, and the generation of composite wholes. Eventism does not seem to me to do justice to unavoidable categories. Thus those who build upon sensations and feeling, as Russell and Whitehead do, cannot accept substantiveness and force. There is a perpetual perishing of consciousness which, as I pointed out long ago in an article, is not conserved. What, then, can possess intrinsic endurance? Is it creativity? God? the permanent possibility of sensibilia? or material being? Or can we get along without intrinsic endurance?

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Four primary principles of the new materialism may be stated as follows: (1) stuff or material, (2) dynamic connections and organization, (3) intrinsic endurance, and (4) levels of integrative and efficient causality. These principles qualify one another.

Stuff, or material, is a category of a fairly complex sort. It reflects the common notion of thinghood in terms of recoverable constituents. There is danger here since pattern and organization tend to be neglected as they were in traditional mechanical notions. I shall have something to say about this point in the later discussion of quality. Nor is this all. The concept of stuff has a relational moment. Here it ranges from the artist's idea of a medium upon which to work to the scientist's more analytic perspective. The term is realistic, denotative, manipulative, analytic, and synthetic. It does not imply that we need know very much about the intrinsic nature of materials. To the philosopher the concept of stuff, or material, is a challenge to categorial analysis. Plasticity, activity, form‑making, recoverableness, intrinsic endurance, all stand out for comprehension.

And this brings us to the consideration of connections and organization. I note that Pepper and many others assume that materialism involves mechanicalism. That, surely, is a prejudice. Why should materialism lag behind science? Classical materialism thought in terms of classical psychics, that is, in terms of Eleatic particles having simple endurance of the static variety. But there is nothing about materialism as an ontology which limits it to such outworn postulates. From the very beginning of my thinking I rejected Newtonian absolute space and time and made both space and time, ontologically speaking, adjectival and relational. And I have always argued that s and t as metric qualities presuppose space and time as ontological characteristics of matter. Particles must be conceived in terms of connections, causal activities, fields. And this signifies that ontological time is to be correlated with change of constitution but not with a perpetual perishing of matter. I shall, in fact, argue that activity and intrinsic endurance are not contradictory.

From its inception in Greek thought materialism emphasized the positive and independent nature of matter. It did not depend upon the God nor was it under the control of purposes or ends external to itself. Instead, it endured in its own right, was self-sufficient and self‑concerned. And it was the possession of these characteristics that made it from the first the logical correlate of naturalism. Let us admit at once that intrinsic endurance was conceived too simply and statically in traditional materialism, as it was later in classical physics. Changes were thought of as not involving the atoms themselves and reducible to mere shifts of position. This compromise with Eleaticism satisfied the demands of elementary physics and a philosophy hardly awake to the requirements of biology and psychology.

But I would still hold it true that the genius of materialism, as of naturalism, requires an intrinsic endurance, or self-conservation, on the part of material being. Such endurance must be underived and ultimate. And this, I take it, is a flat rejection of the contingency of nature. We shall have more to say about this as we come to distinguish between the existence of any denotable and the intrinsic endurance of material being. . . .


Let it be noted, then, that the overhauling of materialism must needs be a drastic one to make it compatible with evolutionary naturalism. There is no excuse for tying it down to past reductive and mechanical postulates. Simple location must not mean the denial of dynamic connections. At the most it means something of the nature of the law of inverse squares. Even the general relativity‑theory admits determinable warpings expressive of the localization of matter. In reading Eddington on The Philosophy of Physical Science I find that the only kind of realism he is acquainted with is the Joadian type and I have considerable sympathy with his criticism of it. To make sensations distinct from sensings; and thoughts independent of thinking does not appeal to the critical realist. Yet Eddington's conception of mind seems to me unempirical. But I have not the space to consider in detail his epistemology. Jeans, on the other hand, has developed a Kantian kind of agnosticism combined with an ontological Platonism. In any case both have developed a recognition of the difference between the form of scientific knowledge‑about and being. To the philosopher this points to the need of the clarification of categories. Being, stuff, space, time, causality, as ontological, must be distinguished from their cognitive translation. [2] To use Professor Hall's term, categories are constants; and we should not expect ontological statements to be verifiable in quite the fashion of predictive, scientific theories. [3]

It is important to bear in mind that traditional materialism not only had no adequate epistemology back of it but was identified with dualistic assumptions which left material being a washed‑out abstraction, such as mere extension, with no positive, intrinsic content. I am led to think of this tradition when I am told that mine is an agnostic kind of materialism. Rather is it a protest against these dualistic caricatures. [4] As I see it, science does not reduce material being to a mere quality but merely deciphers the metric quantities obtainable by its technique. It is such knowledge about material systems. It is the very import of ontology to deny that being can be reduced to knowledge. Surely it has been one of the weaknesses of idealism to flirt with such a reduction. Materialism and Aristotelian philosophies have been far healthier in this respect. Matter as being must have a positive and determinate content. Its actuality cannot be vacuous. But the materialist takes it to be wise not to jump too hastily to the panpsychistic universalization of feeling as a kind of sample. Have we not expected too much from external knowledge resting on sensory disclosures aided by metrical techniques? Ontology puts scientific knowledge in better perspective. Science does an excellent job. Why should we expect it to make nature transparent? Idealism, sensationalism, and positivism have, as I see it, nourished absurd pretensions which materialism must protest against. Knowledge merely makes certain quantitative, structural, and behavioral facts about nature stand out. So far it is a disclosure; but reflection on ontology and its categories should swing us over to the implications of causal agency. Post‑Humian philosophy has, in my opinion, been vitiated by the overstress on prediction. Predictions

and if‑thens have made philosophers too temporalistic, neglectful of constants and constitution.

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Let us grant, again, that materialism has, on the whole, been dominated by its approach in terms of the inorganic sciences. What I have called external, or non‑participative, knowledge called the tune. Now the evolutionary materialist recognizes that the organic self is a material system which has the peculiar property of having knowledge directed at itself. This fact is unique for human beings and must have basic significance for reformed materialism. Here we have what I would call participative knowledge. Here, and here alone, are the data of knowledge intrinsically integral to functional activities of the brain‑mind. What they disclose is a sustained series of processes resting on habits and capacities. In them we have some slight glimpse into organizational complexities, a glimpse which fits in with external knowledge of the brain.

Now, as I see it, the shifting field of private consciousness must be regarded as a "natural isolate" of the functioning brain. As such, it demonstrates that a unified physical system has it qualitative dimension of this sort coterminous with activities. And, surely, that is what we might expect, once we freed ourselves from the negative notions associated with purely external knowledge. Brickbat notions of matter, when united with the Eleatic and Cartesian traditions mentioned above, fostered it reluctance to conceive physical systems as having a qualitative, ontological dimension or insideness. And, as I have argued, phenomenalistic empiricism worked in the same direction by its rejection of ontology. But the critical materialist is forced to postulate a positive content to being, a content responsive to the relations and activities discernible even to external knowledge.

Participative knowing, not realistically enough interpreted, has been, of course, the raison d'ętre of idealism and panpsychism. But because they never did justice to external, or nonparticipative, knowing, they were easily misled even here. It was the question of the epistemology and ontology of the "self" which offered difficulties. Berkeley proclaims only a vague notion of the self. But the self is not the notion. And Kant is agnostic with respect to the noumenal self. How much simpler and franker is the proposal of the materialist that the self is the organism! Here, however, we have a twofold knowledge, the one participative, the other external, or nonparticipative. It is historically interesting to note that, as C. A. Strong and Durant Drake moved from Kantian agnosticism to critical realism, they at the same time became materialists, only materialists of a still mechanistic type who did not see the importance of organization and functional unity. One reason for Drake's theory of essences, which have no existence, was his belief that the brain is merely an aggregate of moving particles and that its functional unity is merely a sort of statistical resultant. It was upon this ground that he rejected my form of the double‑knowledge approach to the brain and left to the brain only the vague intrinsic sentiency of material particles. In a conversation I had with Strong at Fiesoli in '37 he admitted that he bad not done justice in his thought to organization and a functional togetherness. I do not hesitate to say that the dividing line between the old and the new materialism lies here. The wise handling of relational and functional togetherness which avoids the atomism of completely external relations, on the one hand, and the mystical rendition of the phrase that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, on the other, is the desideraturn. As I see it, Whitehead's Platonic concretion of events is one alternative to an activistic and pattern-forming materialism. I am also inclined to think that the brain is a very specialized organ for the formation of action‑patterns and that what holds of it does not apply to liver or stomach.

While, then, experiencing in the concrete is, I believe, intrinsic to the functioning brain, there is no intuition of the ontological context of such experiencing.

Now two conclusions seem to me to follow from these principles: we have (1) no intuition of matter, and (2) no acquaintance with an intrinsic endurant. [5] All of which means that a sample of intrinsic endurance cannot be found in consciousness. And that is precisely what we should deductively expect, since consciousness is correlated with functional activity and expresses what I call the qualitative dimension of material systems. Activity is to me unthinkable without a variable in that which is active. The antithesis is Eleaticism, inertness. Active intrinsic endurance entails duration, time. But duration applies to existents and their acts. Consciousness is inseparable from cerebral action‑patterns. Thoughts are participial events while the organic self is a continuant existent.

It follows that the mode of being of consciousness is participial rather than substantive. The principle of conservation, or intrinsic endurance, does not apply to it.

The empirical base of the apprehension of the meaning, continuance, is a tantalizing psychological question. And yet the meaning stands out in both external perception and self-awareness and, as I think, by mutual support. That is, I doubt that if we could not develop the apprehension of our numerical self‑identity we could develop the meaning of thinghood. At both poles, as I see it, we have the constant working of interpretative, cognitive activity. As regards the self, continuance and numerical sameness stand out cognitively through continuing felt attitudes and rememberings until we rightly comprehend ourselves as agents. Such experiences, heightened by social relations, operate as natural symbols of the self much as sensations are employed as natural symbols of external things. It is participative knowing since feelings and thoughts are in their mode of being participial to the organic self. By such participation we approach an intuition of the attitudes and activities of the self, for I see no reason to deny that these natural symbols have a disclosure‑value with respect to the tides of our being. Certainly, the situation is even more intimate than in the use of sensations in perception as natural symbols having disclosure‑value for external things. We must, however, be very careful in our use of the term intuition. I am inclined to think that cognition of the self is mediated, that is, symbolic and referential.

If, then, consciousness has only participial being and does not furnish us with a sample of intrinsic endurance, we must turn to the realm of denotables, that is, to self and things. To these, as we are aware, some measure of continuance is assigned, even though composite denotables are generated and corrupted and, consequently, are commonly characterized as having contingent, or historical, existence.

But we must be very careful to distinguish between being and existence. It seems to me clear that all physical denotables are forms of being. To deny this would be to consider them phenomenal or of the nature of illusions. They would be like bubbles which could burst and not leave a wrack behind. As I see it, reformed materialism is here confronted with the perennial question of process or becoming. There must be nothing illusory or transcending being about process and becoming. Matter must by its very nature be active and relational; and, to me, the two expressions imply one another. In short, I shall argue for the aseity of matter and maintain its intrinsic endurance.

And here we come upon basic questions which science alone can in the long run answer. Is the floor of physical being particulate even though the particles are never in isolation? Eddington holds strongly that there is a determinate number of both electrons and protons. In some fashion these are integrated to form the nucleus of atoms. They are in the nucleus as the eggs are in the omelette. Some kind of a dynamic organization has taken place which must not be pictorialized in billiard‑ball terms. At any rate we must, I take it, postulate primary endurants which form what I called secondary endurants.[6] Thereafter, generation and corruption are on a more macroscopic scale; and we enter the realm of the countable and the describable. It is at this level that the term existence most properly comes into play. Such complex denotables are generated and corrupted so that existence is epistemically balanced by nonexistence. If such a denotable is an existent, in a very real sense it can cease to exist. Such is the very nature of history, becoming, and process. It is clear that we must so conceive existence that it permits the significance of nonexistence or ceasing to exist. But being must be made of sterner stuff. It is conserved and, as we shall argue, never conceivably becomes nothing. Change of existence is, rather, within being, an affair of constitution and process. In this sense there is no conservation of existence even though there is conservation of being. But we shall have more to say about these distinctions when we come to discuss quality and the kind of substantiality which goes with composite individuality. We humans have only this kind of temporary and contingent existence within the domain of physical being.


The ontological alternatives are fairly definite. By its very logic materialism must harmonize the intrinsic endurance of its ultimate stuff with the generation and corruption of composite wholes; and the facts indicate that integrative causality gives rise to the emergence of novel levels of existence within being. If wholeness applies, then mechanistic atomism must be rejected with its reductionism and its denial of causal agency to composite existents like human beings. On the other hand, theism moves from the contingency of existents to the contingency of matter, from a contributed kind of existence to an existence of a higher order. In this setting creation is supposed to become logically thinkable if not realizable.

There are many subtle variations of the theistic hypothesis. A brilliant recent development of emanation is Parker's Omega System which makes what I call the floor of being higher in quality than the monads which are sustained by it.

The hylomorphism of materialism, as we have noted, makes the unity and organized wholeness of an existent the expression of integrative causality so that the higher arises from the lower. Such a thesis is contrary to the genius of Christian Aristotelianism just as it was contrary to the unevolutionary outlook of Aristotle. While a composite may have a unity and form. it is, I understand, held that this form must be given an existence commensurate with the potencies of the forms of the parts. The demand is logical and would correspond to the thesis of the evolutionist that the whole is not indifferent to its parts. But where the Thomist says form or quiddity, the materialist says organized wholeness. It is in this fashion that integrative causality makes room for immanent causality.

Lexicographers inform us that the verb "to exist" had a surprisingly late appearance in English and that the primary meaning was "to stand out, to be perceptible." Then came "having being in a specified place, to continue in being, to maintain in existence." Such existence has an epistemic and an ontological pole. The gist of the latter is an acknowledgment of a denotable, that is, of something which can be referred to by pointing and description. Being is not blank and undifferentiated but ordered and cut up into denotables. We do not intuit these denotables but select them through natural symbols and descriptions. But what we are seeking is supposed to have the same sort of reality we have. I take it that appreciation of the brute fact of existence is grounded in self‑awareness, in doing and suffering. Those who drop this meaning from perception are unrealistic. Denotables are then reducible to "If‑then" predictions. There is no appreciation of expendable energies.

Logicians who have been interested in so‑called existential propositions have, very naturally, concerned themselves with the epistemic pole and the applicability of concepts. Russell has never been afraid of paradoxes and so defined existence as a property of concepts. Obviously, it cannot be a property of all concepts but only of those which are exemplified. Hence it must be a relational property. The final test comes in perceptual verification. Is there a denotable describable by the concept? If seems to me clear that it is the denotable which we acknowledge to be an existent, to be out there; and yet the epistemic and relational element in the acknowledgment must not be forgotten. Were we able simply to intuit denotables there would not be this complication. And, as we have noted, the nearest approach to this is in self‑awareness.

The Russellian view has something in common with the scholastic tradition with respect to essences or forms. Existence was conceived as a plus except with respect to that essence which necessarily existed or entailed its own existence. It is obvious that the realistic empiricism is skeptical of finding any concept which implies its own exemplification. But even St. Thomas rejected the ontological proof. It is the contingency of the existence of denotables which is emphasized. But what if denotables are but organizations within being whose contingency is that of their composite wholeness and unity? Then being is something ultimate which contingent denotables themselves are regarded as being expressions of. Now, as I see it, that has always been the theory of materialism and finds formulation in the concept of recoverable stuff and intrinsic endurance. Contingency and variability are then assigned to relations, organization, to the process side of being. On the other hand, the more theistic and creationalistic theory denies this notion of being.

One of the reasons why the secular realist is accustomed to emphasize the categories of existence and being is his long controversy with idealism and positivism. Idealistic systems, as A. K. Rogers never tired of pointing out, neglected the question of existence and tried to remain within the context of merely logical coherence. The realist, in opposition, asserted that thought, from perception to judgment, always referred to something beyond itself. I have argued that the pragmatist in his rejection of the correspondence‑theory of truth [7] still remained with the idealist, though ambiguously and equivocally. But the naturalistic realist is thereupon confronted with the choice between materialism and theism with various forms of panpsychisin hovering between.

But must we not have a sample of being if the concept is to have empirical meaning? Now I have argued that we have only a sample of participial being as in sensations and feelings; and yet that both external and participative knowing operate in terms of meanings and references involving such categories as endurance, activity, capacity, constitution. All of which signifies that cognition is not the same as sensing and rests upon interpretation and intellection. I once remarked to Russell that perceiving should be distinguished from sensing; but he refused to consider the distinction, and that was that. [8] But without such a distinction eventism follows logically. The whole concept of substantive being arises in cognition. As I see it, then, we should not expect an intuition of substantive being either in self‑awareness or in external perception. And, as a matter of fact, consciousness is to be correlated with becoming and functioning, with patterns and shifts of relations.


We are brought, then, to the question of the proper conception of the relation between being and intrinsic endurance or conservation in activity.

It is fairly evident that composite denotables, such as chemical substances and organisms, are contingent existents, entities which come and go in the tides of being. What I have called qualitative substances, the highest emergent level of which, so far as we know, are human beings, are of this sort. They are generated, live their span, and vanish. They are continuants and have duration. Self‑awareness ceases at death but the bodies remain for others to study and science informs us that the stuff of which they are composed is conserved. The kind of self Hume looked for, and could not find, has no existence. There is no inert, and changeless, soul‑substance. And so we have consciousness, as a natural isolate and a case of experienced participial being, the organic self as a denotable, known externally and participatively and adjudged a continuant, or contingent substance, sustained by processes. Is this all? The materialist says there is more. There must be a stuff, active and relational but self‑conserving and having intrinsic endurance.

I take it that fact and reflection push the human mind on to the postulation of intrinsic endurance and the eternal. And the reasoning is not difficult to uncover. For instance, generation and corruption are seen to be supplementary. Already in Heraclitus this note is struck. Empedocles has his recurrent cycles driven by love and hate while the later atomism of Epicurus has much the same dramatis personae. Naturalism, in short, has been unable to conceive absolute beginnings and endings. And it should be recognized that orthodox theism has its own eternity of intrinsic endurance. It is to creation that there is assigned a secondary kind of being and endurance.

Now, as I see it, the generation of being from nonbeing is unthinkable for the simple reason that it is meaningless. The nonexistence of a continuant or contingent substance is thinkable since it merely signifies that no denotable is correctly symbolized by A since it has ceased to exist. But being is that which is presupposed by all denotables, for it is that within which they arise and cease to be. That A exists and that A does not exist are contradictories. But being cannot in the same logical fashion be set over against not‑being. So far as I can see, not-being is only a verbalism. Such seems to me the philosophy of the aseity of matter. Out of nothing arises nothing because the term can have no application.

I judge that it was thoughts such as these that led the Greeks to postulate the eternity of the universe and its self-maintenance through change. Aristotle but agreed with the lonians; and the materialists only emphasized the same postulate. Christian thought merely transferred it to a supernatural realm, while emanation doctrines sought a via media.

And so we come to the alternatives: either the intrinsic endurance of materialistic naturalism or the contributed endurance of supernaturalism in all its sophisticated forms. It seems to me evident that physical realism implies the first alternative. Existence signifies an acknowledgment of specified being; and, while we cannot intuit the intrinsic endurance of matter, we equally cannot intuit its dependent endurance. The burden of proof rests, therefore, upon anyone who postulates another kind of being to be granted intrinsic endurance.

Reformed materialism reverses Aristotelianism or, to use Marxism phraseology, stands it on its head. There must be a lowest limit of material texture and an open series of integrative emergence. It is, of course, the task of science to determine the most elementary level of stuff. But, since I do not believe in a linear evolution for the universe, as Lloyd Morgan and Alexander apparently did, I would hold that all levels of material organization are, or can be, contemporaneous. About this I shall have more to say in the next section. It may well be that the universe has always been much as it is at present, that is, has always had a variegated and spatially dispersed cosmography; and this without all eternal recurrence or great year. This would mean that ontological time has no direction since it is always local and is but a name for what is involved in all activity. We must avoid reading the distinctions of our temporal knowledge with its linear implications into nature. Real time is only an actual activity; and activity is local, relational, and spatial.

As I follow the argument of Gilson, it rests upon two bases: (1) the rejection of emergence, and (2) the unempirical, or metaphysical, postulation of an act of existing. And these are closely connected in this form of natural theology. [9]

It is, apparently, Gilson's thesis that philosophers have shut themselves up into essences and have, therefore, never got to existence. A hit, if you will, at Plato, Spinoza, and Santayana. But not a hit at Berkeley or Hume or at the outlook of the more empirical form of critical realism. In ourselves we have participative cognition and, in sensation and feeling, being is given participially and denoted both practically and theoretically through what is given. Thus being is factual and is both given and acknowledged.

But the materialist, while he does not believe in the metaphysical, recognizes and acknowledges what the pragmatist or the positivist is wont to call the transexperiential, but not, of course, the undenotable and the unknowable. External being cannot be intuited and internal being can be intuited only participially. The intriguing consequence is that what the neo‑Thomist calls esse and assigns to God is by the materialist assigned to dynamic and pattern‑forming matter. While the former asserts the contingency of the material world and postulates two modes of being, the materialist denies the contingency of the material world and finds no evidence for two modes of being. And with the denial of the contingency of the material world goes the affirmation of its intrinsic endurance.

It would lead us too far to consider Gilson's handling of the principle of emergence. I quite agree with him that it is an ontological principle as well as a scientific one. But he makes it too easy for his argument by assuming that order and organization are not intrinsic to even inorganic systems and that out of simpler forms of order more complex forms cannot emerge through integrative causality. I fear that his scientists are too tempting because of their careless use of categories like chance and mechanism. It is a good dialectical display but hardly convincing to the naturalistic philosopher. And, of course, we are brought here to the sharp opposition between finalistic hylomorphism and evolutionary materialism to whose matter activity, relations, and intrinsic order are not alien. A materialism which finds a place for organization reverses Aristotelianism, for its moves in an exploratory way from the lower to the higher and not in a finalistic and hierarchical fashion from the higher to the lower. [10]


And so we find ourselves overlooking the perennial problems of becoming with intrinsic endurance, of quantity with quality, of eternity with time. How are composite, individual substances generated, maintained, and corrupted within an ocean of intrinsic endurance? How can there be qualitative gain or loss along with conservation of the amount of stuff or being? How can eternity include time? The logic of reformed materialism points to answers. In this concluding section I can only make suggestions.

As I see it, generation applies to the composite and integrated and presupposes the intrinsic endurance of the stuff which is integrated. Were any part of this to lose its intrinsic endurance that would mean that being bad collapsed into not‑being, which is unthinkable, meaningless. [11] Generation and becoming, therefore, belong to another ontological dimension than intrinsic endurance. To assert that A is generated and continues to exist for a while and then is corrupted is a statement about the tides of organization within being with its intrinsic endurance. In neither generation nor corruption does one move outside the context of being. All of which means that activity and organization reside in the very substance of being. Here we turn our back on any Eleatic motif in the most drastic manner. Matter implies process and process implies matter. It is a materialistic devenir, not, as with Bergson, a vitalistic and mystical one.

Generable qualities and capacities accompany becoming [12] and it is for this reason that the conservation of the amount of being does not conflict with qualitative gain and loss. We humans are born, live some three score and ten, and then vanish from existence. Is there not quality to our lives, often unique quality? Values are realized; and lost because no longer sustained by the persons and groups who found them desirable. Such is the more or less tragic texture of human life.

Now I take it that the whole concept of quality in ontology has been mishandled because stupidly put in the context of projected sensuous qualities, for the naive realist plastered on the surface of denoted things. Critical realism has turned its back upon such pictorial and external conceptions of quality. No; quality must be internal and intrinsic to being itself and a variable congenital with organization, changing capacities, and abilities. Quality is the changing content of being as causal integration proceeds and recedes. But, alas! our own intuition of it is limited to that "natural isolate," the private stream of our experiencing. But how could it be otherwise? It is important to note the presence of meanings based on operations of denotation and comparison. Consciousness reflects intellection as well as sensing. Empiricism has not always done justice to intellection.

I may remark incidentally that I do not see that, as the Marxists maintain following a clue in Hegel, quantity changes into quality. It is true, however, that the allocation of quantity does affect quality in that it affects wholes and relations. But I intend to examine this question more thoroughly in a paper on dialectical materialism. [13]

It would follow from this ontological analysis that quality, like generation and corruption, is an existential variable in no wise in conflict with the intrinsic endurance of material being. When philosophers, following Leibniz, speak of possible worlds, it seems to me that they should refer to, existence rather than to being. Being is the context of existence. As I see it, being is beyond fact, for it is the source and foundation of fact. We discover being in its processes and manifestations, of which consciousness is the unique case of qualitative participation.

And here I shall allow myself some cosmological speculations which seem to me reasonable but have no connection with any high a priori road. The outlook is existential and pluralistic. Thus it is my feeling that cyclical and linear cosmologies are essentially monistic. By linear cosmologies I mean those that picture the cosmos as moving abreast down a supposed stream of time. Creationalistic analogies are, I think, apt to be operative in such cosmologies. There is a beginning and an end, a cosmic direction and a path; even God has an antecedent and a consequent nature. But, for reformed materialism, ontological time is but the fact of activity and existential process. It is local and covers both emergence and recession. It is tightly tied up with space. Chronology with its past, present, and future stretched out easily leads to ontological illusions. Only, as Eddington saw, if the second law of thermodynamics has cosmic validity is there an ontological arrow intrinsic to being. [14] The process, or existential, capacities of being would thereby be limited. Needless to say, I am skeptical. It seems to me that cyclical notions are really monistic and assume some kind of unified and recurrent cosmic pattern, after the analogy of the great year of the ancients, But pluralism—and I take it that relativity is causally pluralistic—must seek another pattern.

Being a believer in the eternity of the universe and skeptical of linear and cyclical notions, I am naturally led to suppose that the universe has always been much as it is now, a variegated existential domain with a floor, much the same everywhere, above which rise here and there mountain peaks of emergent becoming followed in time by recession. The picture is that of a qualitative rising and subsiding in quite plural and local ways with a cosmic floor woven of particles in their dynamic relations. Biological existents and qualities occur but rarely, and it may well be that mental abilities and symbolic processes are seldom generated. To the traditional religionist this is not a congenial picture and he would like a celestial ceiling or another story. But the naturalistic humanist is ready to accept an austere ontology, austere even though this earth harbors no secret hostility to man. The human drama is local but not without its engrossing qualities of life and death. Cosmic epics must be left to the theist and to all those who, denying the intrinsic endurance of nature, speculate on a metaphysics.

It seems to me logical to hold that the stuff of being neither increases nor decreases. The first possibility suggests minimum beginnings and maximum endings; it is a linear way of approach. The second would be just the reverse of the first. And would not both be based on naive biological analogies? If the stuff of being is intrinsically active and relational I should expect all generation and corruption to be an affair of integration and disintegration, neither violating the principle of conservation which expresses the intrinsic endurance of being. It is in this fashion that eternity includes existential time or process.

How far the fountain of qualitative, existential life will rise on this planet we do not know. The imagination still has free range. . . . There is relative, cumulative directionism guided by structure but no finalism. It is only in the behavior of individuals—and not in their genesis—that ends‑in‑view are set up, evaluated, and chosen. I have not the Platonic daring of Whitehead which assigns affective lure to eternal objects. Here, I suppose, is where the materialist has more of an agnostic streak than the panpsychist. What guides integrative causality at levels below the cortex? We have as yet little but words. Least action, equilibrium, dynamic tension? The genius of Whitehead shows in his philosophical daring. . . .


I offer, in conclusion, some summarizing theses:

1. Ontology expresses an horizon entailed by realism.

2. Materialism postulates the intrinsic endurance of material being and is the logical correlate of naturalism.

3. Intrinsic endurance is not Eleatic and is opposed to creation, emanation and, all forms of contributed endurance.

4. The opposite of materialism is meta‑physics in its various forms.

5. Reformed materialism rejects the caricatures of reductive materialism associated with Cartesian dualism and classical physics.

6. External, or nonparticipative, knowledge must be supplemented by the fact of the participative knowledge we have of our own organic selves.

7. The intrinsic endurance, or self‑conserving, characteristic of being suggests the eternity of the material universe.

8. Linear cosmologies should be replaced by the postulate of a floor from which emergent levels arise quite locally and exceptionally.

9. Existence is best kept as a term for the factual recognition of describable denotables.

10. There may be a denotable corresponding to the symbol A; and there may not be. "A exists" and "A does not exist" are contradictories which bring out the epistemic side of existence.

11. Existents are qualitative and their existence precarious and historical.

12. In contrast to existence, being is a purely ontological term. It is describable only in terms of categorial distinctions.

13. The nonexistence of A has meaning and so has the Leibnizian principle of existential possibility, but I doubt that not‑being or nothing is significant. At the most it would signify the denial of intrinsic endurance.

14. Aristotelian hylomorphism must be stood on its head, as the Marxists say of Hegel, by so changing the conception of matter that it includes form and activity. Directionism and emergence would then take the place of finalism and its theistic ceiling.

15. By distinguishing between being and existence and by giving up essences, except as descriptions, existence ceases to be something mysterious added to essences or quiddities.


[1] It may be of some slight historical interest to note the fact that I proposed the term, the new materialism, in the preface to Critical Realism (1916). Santayana became the only living materialist somewhat later.

[2] For this distinction see my article, “Causality and Substance," this Review, Jan. 1943.

[3] I refer to Hall's contribution to the book, Twentieth Century Philosophy. I hope the positivists will reply to his critique of their position. Also see Miss Stebbing's criticism of Joad's astonishingly naive epistemology in the recent Aristotelian Society symposium. He is almost as artless as most positivists for whom epistemology is sinnlos.

[4] Garnett follows Stout in this tradition and so establishes an immaterial self and God. Not being able to read everything, he limited himself to British theories of emergence. Colonially minded Americans do the same.

[5] Hume's discussion of personal identity is illuminating. Memory does not produce the identity but discloses it. But he cannot explain it on his assumptions.

[6] See The Philosophy of Physical Realism, ch. xii.

[7] I have reconstructed this traditional theory into a correspondence‑theory of the conditions of knowledge and truth. I define true as a case of knowledge or as expressing a fact. Criteria are empirical and logical. Correspondence is a justified inference.

[8] In my opinion perception hits a marked symbolic side. That is why it can be expressed in public terms and has its semantic content.

[9] I refer, of course, to his argument in God and Philosophy.

[10] Cf. my article, "Causality and Substance," this Review, Jan. 1943.

[11] Perhaps this is too strong. See Parker's comment. I mean that being, unlike an existent, has no contrast term. At most, it would signify the snuffing out of reality by itself, an internal collapse into nothingness. I can see no why to this. But the theists assume it; why can't the poor  materialist do the same?

[12] These must rest upon primordial qualities and capacities.

[13] This paper will appear in the July issue of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

[14] Entropy seems to be statistical and macroscopic and not to apply to the Alpha or "floor" level.

SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. “Reformed Materialism and Intrinsic Endurance,” in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970), pp. 150-173. Original publication: R. W. Sellars, Philosophic Review, LIII (July 1944), 359‑382.

Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays by Roy Wood Sellars

"The New Materialism" by Roy Wood Sellars

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within by Roy Wood Sellars

Some Reflections of Roy Wood Sellars

"Epilogue on Berkeley" by Roy Wood Sellars

Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism

American Philosophy Study Guide

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