Reflections on American Philosophy From Within

Roy Wood Sellars

Chapter 1:

What I shall be concerned with in this book is a comparison of what may be called philosophical profiles in the Western World during the last fifty or so years. And I shall select United States, Great Britain and the European Continent as particularly interesting cases. I am quite ready to admit that such selection involves omission of other centers of thought; but I am best acquainted with these centers and I shall leave it to others to supplement my work of exploration.

It so happened that I was introduced to philosophy in the year nineteen hundred, that is, at the very turn of the century, by a Scotsman, Robert Mark Wenley, who had been a pupil of the Cairds, John and Edward, of Glasgow. John was Principal of Glasgow and, I was given to understand, an eloquent preacher on set occasions. Edward became Master of Balliol. They worked largely within the Kantian‑Hegelian framework.

A few words about Professor Wenley are in order. He stressed the history of philosophy rather than the analysis of problems. That is, he concerned himself with the presentation of varying outlooks from Ancient to Modern times. He was also rather a polymath, proud of the fact that he had been a pupil of Kelvin in physics and Jebb in Greek. While he retained the general outlook of his teachers, he was, I think, a little puzzled by the situation which was developing. This comes out in his contribution, toward the end of his life, to the enterprise, called Contemporary American Philosophy (1930). He called it An Unborn Idealism. It is interesting because it is so largely autobiographical and reflects the currents playing on him. As I recall it, he felt himself nearest in thought to Bernard Bosanquet. He was a striking personality, witty, and with a fund of stories of a Caledonian flavor. Perhaps his puzzlement prevented him from trying to indoctrinate me. And I was left with a rather open mind to find my way about.

Since, in the following chapters, I shall be engaged in making running commentaries on persons and movements of my time, it may be as well to say something about my development and the niche I occupied.

I had not specialized but had taken a large range of subjects. As yet, graduate work in philosophy had not developed except as a minor topic, as it was then called. So I did not think of it as a professional outlet. My father was a village doctor—in those days, a very hard life, indeed. My brother took that line and so I cast around for another. Comparative religions seemed an opening for I had pursued courses under the guidance of a very able man, Professor Craig, one of the early workers in Assyriology and the teacher of a man who later became a professor of that subject at Oxford. And so I secured a fellowship at Hartford Theological Seminary to study under Paton and Duncan Black MacDonald. But the next year an opening occurred in the way of a teaching fellowship in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. F. C. Sharp was the chairman of the department and Boyd Bode was an instructor. Professor Sharp specialized in ethics and worked along the lines of a kind of experimental and statistical development of utilitarianism. I think the book he later published was too much neglected. He had studied in Berlin, as so many Americans of that day had. He was empirical‑minded and used Stout's Analytic Psychology as a text in his seminar. Bode was just in process of making a transition from objective idealism to pragmatism. I had long talks with both but especially with Bode, a very friendly and unassuming person.

The next year I was called back to Michigan and actually spent my life at Ann Arbor. In the summer of 1906, I attended a summer session at the University of Chicago in order to hear James Mark Baldwin. I found him very stimulating and he encouraged me to write a paper, for the Psychological Review of which he was the editor, taking up critically a point in his treatment of the mind‑body problem. I have sometimes wondered why he has been so neglected in histories of American philosophy. His approach was genetic. So my first two papers were published in a psychological journal at that time ready to accept papers with a philosophical background. That policy altered sharply when Watson succeeded Baldwin. I remember Watson very well for he used to come in to chat with Baldwin before class. It so happened that Michigan became a center of study in animal psychology under John F. Shepard and Norman Maier. So I had to reflect on behaviorism long before it reached England. It hardly fitted in with idealism. In these surroundings I was led to develop a course called The Main Concepts of Science which has been regarded as the first course in the philosophy of science.

It was not long after this that the realistic movement in the United States began. I participated in it from the beginning but took the line I called critical realism. It was not easy to work out an adequate theory of perceiving which would allow the mediating role of sensations and yet make perceiving cognitively direct. Clarification of what this involved has been a life‑work. I have always been skeptical of men like Wittgenstein and Carnap who brushed this problem aside and tried to work out a framework largely based on logic and semantics. Of course, logic and semantics should have their place.

And so it turned out that I was the only one in the middle west who helped to initiate philosophical thinking along the lines of critical realism, evolutionary naturalism and humanism. It is this framework which I shall use in my critiques of the profiles of philosophy in the cultural areas of United States, Great Britain and the Continent. One can see that I developed a kind of momentum which I found contrasting with winds of fashion as time went on. That is, I got deep roots. There are many dimensions to philosophy as I saw it, the epistemological, the ontological, the moral and valuational. And these should, if possible, be tied together. It could hardly be a work of improvisation.

Science and Philosophy

I undertook the task of being a philosopher and of facing what seemed to be fundamental problems at the time when the sciences were showing their fruitfulness. I would not quite put it the way Parrington did but, in essentials, he was correct. The old systems of philosophy were turning out to be irrelevant, particularly the idealist ones which I shall shortly examine. I quote from his book Main Currents In American Thought. "A new spirit of realism was abroad, probing and questioning the material world, pushing the realm of exact knowledge into the earlier regions of faith. The conquest of nature was the great business of the day, and as that conquest went forward triumphantly the solid fruits of the new mastery were gathered by industrialism." [p. 4]

Now this did not mean that, when confronted by the general problems philosophy and religion had together raised, the scientist would offhand have an answer for them. I had read my Huxley and my Tyndall and saw where they diverged. My sympathies were more with Tyndall but I saw that Huxley was aware of the problems connected with perceiving and with the mind‑body issue. These were inherited epistemological questions connected with Locke, Berkeley and Hume and with Cartesian dualism and had to be met. As time went on, I focussed my attention on perceiving as the starting‑point of knowing, on the mind‑body problem, and on the import of evolution. These, I felt, were tied in together.

What, then, had science and philosophy in common? It was clear that scientific method had gradually been worked out and was being applied in the various special sciences in accordance with the demands of particular problems. It was, likewise, clear that philosophy was not equipped to do this kind of work. What, then, was its point of contact and relevance?

Looking back, I saw philosophy as logical scrutiny of systems of ideas or, as we say, categories, characteristic of an epoch, such as mechanism, teleology, cognition, mind, the transcendent, etc. I saw the increasing importance of tools and experimentation but recognized the matrix of ideas and queries. These accompanied one another and undoubtedly interacted. But it was the accepted job of philosophy to keep the categories before its attention and to raise issues. If it thought that mechanical ideas needed qualification, it felt free to do so. It might go to the other extreme and advocate vitalism or stress the importance of time, as Bergson did. All this was part of the dialogue. On the whole, I found science self‑correcting but I would not exclude the qualifying effect of such dialogues.

Since I am going to take the development of American philosophy in the twentieth century—something in which I participated from the beginning—as a base‑line for my estimation of the movement of philosophy in Great Britain and on the Continent, it may be well to note at this point the reaction to this question of the differing roles of science and philosophy, made by A. K. Rogers, a contemporary of mine who was keenly alive to the issue. In his contribution to Contemporary American Philosophy he pointed to the value of following through the logical development of ideas in systems of philosophy, like those of Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz and Locke. These were, undoubtedly, able men. One might not agree with their preliminary axioms—a cultural shift might well account for this disagreement—but there would be mental training in the effort. And then he goes on to say: "To the philosopher must go a very large portion of the credit for rendering precise the terms of intellectual discourse and bringing them into something like an intelligible connection; apart from that subtle and technical tracing of the links of logical relationship which so irritates the unfriendly critic, the mind of man would be ruled even more universally than it is by a mass of desultory catchwords."  [Vol. 2, p. 225]

Now I have been a systematic thinker from the start with one eye on philosophy and another on the sciences. And it may well be that I shall show myself too critical of men like Wittgenstein and Carnap who largely ignore philosophical dialogue and go off on a tangent of their own. It has been pointed out to me that Descartes did much the same in his attempt to make a new beginning in line with developments in science, though Gilson has argued that he owed more than he realized to past philosophy. I agree that originality is very desirable and is likely to make issues sharper. But I must postpone farther comment on this point until later. I merely remark that unsolved problems are easily locatable in the context of philosophy; and it is better to face up to them than to turn one's back on them. That, at least, is what I have found. I have in mind Dewey as well as Wittgenstein and Carnap. The nature of perceiving is a case in point. It has always seemed to me very fundamental. It was so assessed by the generation of American philosophers to whom I belong. And then, strangely enough, it was ignored for a time. I kept on working at it with, I shall try to show, increasing clarification.

 In concluding this section on philosophy and science, I wish to remark by way of anticipation that I have the impression that American philosophy, as it developed in the twentieth century, as the universities got under way, had more intimate contact with science than did British philosophy or German philosophy. In those countries it had more or less culturally isolated itself. I fear that Germany thought of itself as the home of modern philosophy because of the Kant‑Hegel tradition, while Great Britain had its inter‑necine disputes into which I shall look later. It is not surprising that the next generation after mine of American thinkers turned to Great Britain with its cultural prestige, and what seemed to me, as an onlooker, its immersion in debate between Oxford and Cambridge. I do not want to oversimplify. But since I could not agree with either Russell or Moore on fundamental points—as I shall try to show later—it seemed to me that the so‑called analytic philosophy which got quite a vogue was ambivalent. In one sense, I liked its emphasis. In another sense, it did not seem to me very creative in either epistemology or ontology. American addiction to it and disregard of its own momentum struck me as a form of neo‑colonialism.

I shall, of course, go into this quite thoroughly in later chapters. I shall have occasion to discuss German thought, particularly in connection with existentialism. I by no means think of this as exhaustive of German thought for one of my best friends is a phenomenologist. But it is a striking phenomenon. And it has engrossed much attention because of its emphasis on the individual and his anxiety in the face of death. In it we hear much of freedom and of the authentic life. It is rather inclined to be hortatory rather than analytic and it does not pay much attention to science. But of all that later.

One other general remark. Recently, in lecturing on philosophy at Syracuse University, I had occasion to criticize rather severely both logical positivism and existentialism and was accused of being rather anti‑foreign in the stand I took. I replied that I did not feel that way about it. Rather I was trying to redress the balance. I thought that, for a while, American philosophers had neglected some rather vital contributions that had been made here. It is to me interesting that I am told that logical positivism is held to have shot its bolt and shown certain inadequacies. Even existentialism, so I am told, is thought of more as a sort of ideology than as a well‑worked‑out philosophy. I am encouraged to think that a dialogue concerning philosophical profiles, such as I have in mind, may be profitable.

I spoke of a tendency, after the Second World War, to a kind of neo‑colonialism in the United States. It seemed that it was believed that there had been a kind of stalemate here. In any case, British philosophy had gained a new vitality and self‑confidence. And the British had the advantage that they could write very well, indeed. And so they secured attention. Analysis was a word to conjure with and then came the movement called that of "ordinary language." But all this was, in effect, a clearing of the ground. Philosophy in partnership with science could not be made that easy, as Bertrand Russell pointed out. And with increased communication at work something of the nature of interplay between the United States and Great Britain is occurring. I hope much from it. I expect that a better balance in ethical theory may even take place.  I, myself, never considered G. E. Moore's theory of goodness as a simple, indefinable quality as a good starting point. I was persuaded that F. C. Sharp, John Dewey, Walter Everett, Warner Fite, Ralph B. Perry, A. K. Rogers and even my own analysis should be considered. There are, however, fashions in these things. It is against a temporary swing of the pendulum that I have protested. As I have indicated, I think a broader base is developing.

And I would hope that Germany and France will be included. The Continent seems to be going its own way. Perhaps it was more affected by the two great wars, driven in on itself, and looking backward for leads. And so it turned to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kant and Hegel were, of course, always there as backgrounds. I find little account taken of British empiricism and American naturalism. I do not think this is healthy.

I conclude this section with an illustration of the temptation to look at things in a kind of journalistic way. I have found that literary circles absorb a kind of journalistic version of philosophical affairs. This means that fashions and what Santayana called Winds of Doctrine move to the front. But to my illustration. In reading recently Denis De Rougemont's book on The Meaning of Europe I came across an instance he gives of what he regards as the perennial dominance of Europe in cultural matters. He pointed to the large acceptance in the United States of the writings of Maritain, Tillich and Barth.

Now it so happens that the conspicuousness of these three names is, technically, rather a journalistic illusion. Maritain is, undoubtedly, a man of great ability but he has had little influence on philosophy in the universities. I shall later examine his rather odd combination of an Aristotelian theory of sense‑perception with acceptance of positivistic phenomenalism as regards the scientific view of the physical world. I do not believe that he has paid very much attention to currents in American thought. I have the impression that able Catholic thinkers in the United States do not take his emphases too seriously. So much, with due qualification, for De Rougemont's first example.

Now Tillich was considered here rather as a theologian than as a philosopher. And even here he was a mediator, half liberal, half conservative. Formally, he was allied with existentialism. I shall later give my critique of his theses. It so happens that humanism was gaining headway in the United States and I think still is. We even hear at times of a strange "theology without God." It was presented to Tillich shortly before his death (though I doubt it surprised him). The neo‑Calvinism, or neo‑orthodoxy, of Reinhold Niebuhr and of Paul Tillich represented a blast against liberal, religious thought and humanism in the United States. I well remember when it came, as I was teaching philosophy of religion when it arrived. From the liberal standpoint, it was a cause of conservative reaction of a somewhat ambiguous type. Eustace Hayden, Max Otto, John Dewey and myself were opposed to it. It was a sort of half‑way position likely to appeal, as it did, to those not ready for a frank naturalism. And so I do not think that De Rougemont's second example supports his thesis of the supremacy of Europe in culture. While I admire Europe and am quite ready to grant the role it has played in civilization, I think the time has come for recognition of the broader base which now exists. Some of my contacts have indicated that Latin America, as regards its intelligentsia, should be included.

The case of Karl Barth is also interesting. I believe that he rejects the intrusion of philosophy into the realm of theology which is based on revelation. He is, undoubtedly, a vigorous exponent of his outlook. And he has influenced established tradition in England and on the Continent. But there is more pluralism in these matters in the United States and the dialogue goes on. Here, again, I take it that De Rougemont has been misled by journalism. He must learn to look a little deeper. I conclude that while much can be said for Europe and while it is desirable that it federate, its hegemony is not as exceptional in science and in philosophy as it once was. In politics it has, perhaps, learned the lesson of retreat to its own resources while the United States is still tempted. But that is another question.

The General Plan of the Book

As I have indicated, I am interested in comparisons of philosophical perspectives. I shall take the American scene as a base‑line because I participated in it and watched events as they unfolded. I shall devote the next chapters to the movement from idealism to pragmatism and realism. The chapter after that I shall give to the debate between the new realists and the critical realists. Here, again, we are largely on American soil. I shall argue that there was a rather remarkable amount of vigor and variety in the debate. Looking back on the participants, many of whom I knew, I am impressed by their obvious competence. It is clear that they felt that philosophy was in the making. They were well‑trained, many having studied in Europe or with the rather exceptional galaxy of thinkers which made up the Harvard Department of Philosophy. What stands out is the freshness of their thought. They were exploring. Most of them had turned away from idealism. Philosophy in the United States had come of age.

After having studied the debate between the new realists and the critical realists and the apparent stalemate which ensued, I shall allow myself the privilege, which an author is entitled to take, to develop and explain his own position. This will constitute what I have called the base‑line for my analysis of other cultural traditions in philosophy whose profiles I shall examine.

First, then, after the presentation of the general position which I regard as defensible and in harmony with the sciences, I shall take up the various strands of British thought. These are more diverse than ordinarily supposed. There was the tradition of Anglo‑American idealism which we have already encountered. But this existed with other strands of thought, Platonic and Aristotelian, on the one hand, and empiricist, on the other. I cannot undertake to do justice to this diversity but must recognize it. As time went on, it was overshadowed by the influence of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore; but I have found it operating in unexpected ways in the background. Thus there is an obvious connection between the Aristotelian tradition and what is now called the "ordinary language" approach. Aristotle was very careful in his use of words. But, of course, words are tied in with a dominant outlook and must not be given connotative finality.

I shall be concerned, then, with dominant features of British thought in the twentieth century. And I shall not quarrel with those who give it a somewhat different profile. In my own thinking, I pass in review F. H. Bradley, James Ward, Cook Wilson and Prichard, Russell, Moore, C. D. Broad, Gilbert Ryle, and Ayer, while holding in suspense that rather enigmatic figure, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Logically and linguistically he is acute; but I am not so sure of his epistemology and ontology.

After the study of the British thought, which is both akin to the American and divergent from it, I pass to the Continent. In this connection I shall give, perhaps, stress to existentialism. I recognize this is a label applied rather arbitrarily. Heidegger, for instance, does not now approve of it for he regards himself as concerned with "being." But the perspective and historical leads are rather shared. We hear much of Kierkegaard, Angst, and existence. And we also hear little of empiricism, naturalism and science. The philosophical climate is divergent from that we have so far been accustomed to. There are ingredients of anti‑intellectualism and voluntarism and of subjectivism in existentialism's historical heredity which are interesting and must be taken into account. Saint Augustine, Pascal and Nietzsche come into purview. I take it to be a question of comprehensive adjustment within a framework. As a realistic empiricist I do not accept the rather sharp contrasts between the objective and the subjective, the rational and the non‑rational, which I find current in existential writings. Kierkegaard's abrupt reaction to Hegelian rationalism has hardly a parallel in British and American thought in which the transition was modified by empiricism. William James's criticism of Royce is only analogous.

While, then, I shall try to do justice to Continental thought and its emphases, I shall naturally have in mind the base‑line which I have set up as paradigmatic. I do not want this to be rigid. And I should expect it to be able to do justice to justifiable demands. I hold that the subjective can be integrated with the objective in a double‑knowledge approach and I can see no good reason why deductive thought should be set in opposition to observation. In short, I am skeptical of the validity of some of the abrupt contrasts I find in Continental literature. As another instance, I would bring forward my notion of levels of causality and the belief I entertain that the human organism cannot solve its problems apart from deliberation. This is, to me, the locus of what is called free‑will or choosing. I am opposed to complete pre‑determination and would enlarge and deepen causality at the mind‑brain level. But of this more in the concluding chapter.

In another chapter I shall explore Marxist materialism. This, as is well known, is called dialectical materialism. First, it is essential to examine the theory of knowledge involved. It is a form of realism called the "reflection" view of perception. As I read Lenin, he starts from things and moves to sensations as reflecting them. But the epistemological difficulty is that of how he gets to things in the first place. Certainly, the old empirical puzzle was that thinkers made sensations terminal in experience and landed in representationalism, as Locke did. You seem shut into your sensations. How, then, do you know there are things and that your sensations reflect them? This is the gambit critics of dialectical materialism take.

Now it may be recalled that critical realism seeks to overcome this dilemma by reanalyzing perceiving and finding in it a direct response guided and informed by sensations so that sensations are not so much terminal as used as informational sources. We note how a thing looks or feels, that is, how what we are responding to looks and feels. Thus, the thought of a thing grows up in this context of response, action and used sensory information. What stands out in this setting is the decipherment of facts about things. How they look, how far away they are, how they feel. We are always busy in working out such facts by using our sensations as informative; and, of course, measuring and weighing and scientific technique take over.

I am inclined to think, therefore, that the epistemology of materialism can be worked out. I note that Thomists, who have a fairly definite epistemology along Aristotelian lines, make much of this requirement. Materialism, they rightly say, rests on the establishment of realism. I agree; and shall later examine their theory of perceiving. It stresses a kind of identity between object and experienced content in terms of forms or essences. I shall argue that critical realism has a more adequate notion of the mechanisms nature worked out.

But, after clarifying perceiving, the philosopher still has problems with respect to materialism. The founders of dialectical materialism recognized this fact and appealed to the term, dialectic, as used by Hegel. It was not to be what they called vulgar materialism of a reductive type which they would defend but one more historical‑minded. They held that there was a movement in nature of a progressive, logical sort, at least analogous to Hegel's scheme of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Especially in the human scene they found indications of this kind of dialectic. A position was adopted and then negations of it, showing its inadequacy, manifested themselves. The next stage was a sort of transcendence of this tense confrontation of thesis and antithesis in a synthesis. Marxist experts used this schematism to throw light on history. They discerned conflict and struggle where liberals tended to find a kind of harmonious growth.

There is another contender in the field called emergence. It stresses novelty with organization. It has its roots in Darwinian biology rather than in Hegelian logic. It will be advisable to explore the kind of ontology involved.

While, then, I favor an evolutionary kind of materialism able to recognize the emergent categories of the human scene, such as those of politics and morality, I look upon a dialogue with dialectics as desirable. There are, certainly, ambivalences to be cleared up. Some of these were inherited from Hegelianism. I shall, then, discuss the "reflection" base of Marxism as well as its tendency to determinism.

Another chapter will discuss neo‑Thomism. This, as I see it, is a form of neo‑Aristotelianism, I have studied it recently with a good deal of interest. There was a realism here opposed sharply to Cartesian subjectivism and dualism and thus not taking the line of British empiricism. Yet it had to wrestle with the question of the nature and reach of perceiving. The mind‑body problem also had to be faced. Except with Aristotle's rather vague postulation of the "active reason," there had been a marked naturalistic note in his later thought.

I had the impression, therefore, that neo‑Aristotelianism had not faced up to recent developments in science. It still retained the old, relative use of the term "matter" and its complement "form." And with these went a corresponding vocabulary of potency and actuality. I was not blind to a certain common‑sense richness in Aristotelianism. And yet I was persuaded that it had to be done all over again, starting with a different view of the mechanism of perceiving and taking account of evolutionary ideas alien to Aristotle. This meant, of course, taking the modern view of matter‑energy and such constituents as electrons, protons, atoms, molecules, etc., along with scientific techniques. The necessary philosophical linkage was a solution of the problem of the nature and reach of perceiving. Cartesian and empirical subjectivism had to be overcome. Perceiving had to be direct in import and yet mediated by the informative use of sensations. Do we not note how things look and how they feel? That is, sensations are cognitively functional and not terminal. Inquisitively used, they are the sources of facts about objects.

When I turned to Maritain, for instance, I found him emphasizing what he called sensible things made up of forms and matter in the Aristotelian tradition and stressing a kind of cognitional identity of thought and thing. When it came to the scientific view of the world he found logical positivism with its essential phenomenalism to hand. What, I ask myself, will he do now that logical positivism is being rejected? I have the impression that Gilson and Maritain have not paid much attention to developments in Anglo‑American philosophy. I am not surprised because these were very ambivalent as yet. I could not expect them to single out my form of critical realism since this was largely ignored. But I do think that such a confrontation is needed. It is this I shall undertake.

This, then, is my plan, a study of basic movements in the light of my own paradigms. By its very nature, such a comprehensive survey can only be sketchy and touch the high points. To carry it into detail would require the cooperation of many scholars expert in the different fields touched on. I cannot do much more than to set up guidelines. Yet I think I have a fair knowledge of cultural setting and philosophical profiles. Having participated in philosophical movements from the inside, I have a fair knowledge of the psychology of philosophers, their attachments and limitations. What I have noted in the American scene, I have also noticed abroad. There are trends and fashions but seldom basic reorientations. There is, also, a tendency to cultural isolation. It may well be that this last tendency is being offset by better communication.

I shall argue that American philosophical thought had a very healthy beginning and was carried on by exceptionally able men. In certain ways, its horizon was more open and less confined by tradition than was British, French and German thought. It tended, on the whole, to a broad empiricism and naturalism. And then came what I have called a certain stalemate and a tendency to look abroad for cues and guidance. And this tendency was reinforced by a certain vigor and self‑confidence abroad. I was not unaware of this change of venue and tried to do justice to it, while pressing forward along the lines I had outlined. Not unnaturally I sometimes felt frustrated and ignored. But the only thing to do was, like a spider, to retest my web and strengthen it. There are, I believe, signs that something like critical realism and evolutionary materialism and humanism are being again considered viable possibilities. This book is an attempt to initiate a dialogue along these lines.

SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. Reflections on American Philosophy From Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. ix, 202 p. Chapter 1—The Nature of the Project, pp. 1-13.

American Philosophy Study Guide
includes the following & more:

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within: Foreword & Table of Contents
Chapter 8 — Intersecting Dialectical Materialism

Some Reflections of Roy Wood Sellars

"Epilogue on Berkeley" by Roy Wood Sellars

Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays by Roy Wood Sellars

"The New Materialism" by Roy Wood Sellars

Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents

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