North American Idealism and the Search for a Practical Philosophy

by Robert Sinclair

English Abstract

This essay makes the case for the historical treatment of Idealism as a more widespread North American phenomenon. It examines debates between the Scottish-Canadian philosophers John Watson and William Caldwell over the practical interpretation of Idealism and further shows how this debate mirrors the related dispute between the American philosophers Morris Cohen and John Dewey over the practical aims of philosophy. It concludes with a discussion of the balanced philosophy of Rupert Clendon Lodge, an English-Canadian idealist who seeks an irenic, practical solution to the technical disagreements found in professional philosophy. These debates all highlight the complexity found in assessing the differences between the theoretical, technical pursuit of philosophy and its possible visionary, or practical functions. The perspective provided by Idealism is seen to have played a significance role in these discussions, where its progressive social ideals are increasingly given a more practical interpretation.

Resumen en español

Este ensayo argumenta en favor de la comprensión histórica del idealismo como un fenómeno norteamericano amplio. Se examinan los debates entre los filósofos escoto-canadienses John Watson y William Caldwell sobre la interpretación práctica del idealismo. Se muestra cómo este debate refleja la relacionada disputa entre los filósofos estadounidenses Morris Cohen y John Dewey sobre los fines prácticos de la filosofía. Concluye con una discusión de la filosofía equilibrada de Rupert Clendon Lodge, un idealista anglo-canadiense que busca una solución irénica y práctica para los desacuerdos técnicos en la filosofía profesional. Estos debates subrayan la complexidad de sopesar las diferencias entre el quehacer teórico y técnico de la filosofía y sus posibles funciones visionarias o prácticas. Se muestra que la perspectiva idealista jugó un papel significativo en estas discusiones, en las cuales se otorgó una interpretación cada vez más práctica a sus ideales sociales progresistas.

Resumo em português

Este ensaio argumenta em favor de uma compreensão histórica do idealismo como um fenómeno norteamericano amplo. Examinam-se os debates entre os filósofos escoto-canadenses John Watson e William Caldwell sobre a interpretação prática do idealismo. Mostra-se como este debate reflete a disputa relacionada entre os filósofos estadunidenses Morris Cohen e John Dewey sobre os fins práticos da filosofia. Conclui com uma discussão da filosofia equilibrada de Rupert Clendon Lodge, um idealista anglo-canadense que procura uma solução irénica e prática para os desacordos técnicos da filosofia profissional. Esses debates resaltam a complexidade em avaliar as diferenças entre o afazer teórico e técnico da filosofia e as suas possíveis funções visionárias e prácticas. Mostra-se que a perspectiva idealista foi significativa nessas discussões, nas quais seus ideais sociais progressistas receberam uma interpretação cada vez mais práctica.

Were significance identical with existence, were values the same as events, idealism would be the only possible philosophy.

John Dewey

I. Introduction

The history of philosophy in nineteenth century Canada shares similar features with the development of American philosophy during this same period. Like its American counterpart to the south, Canadian philosophy was heavily influenced by the Scottish Common-Sense philosophy developed by Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart and Sir William Hamilton, while eventually turning to various forms of Idealism for its main inspiration. Several notable figures contributed to the central influence of Idealism in Canada from 1870 until 1920 including John Watson, George Paxton Young, William Caldwell, and the Canadian born philosopher George Blewett.i The start of the twentieth century is generally seen as the beginning of Idealism’s increasing decline both in the US and Canada. The reasons for this are complex but Idealist philosophy faced increasing pressure from advances in the biological and psychological sciences, and the further demands of higher education and the professionalization of philosophy. In this context, Idealism roughly characterized as “the belief that the cosmos is essentially mind-like” (Anderson 2004, 22) was often perceived as failing to meet the needs of a genuinely ‘scientific’ conception of philosophy.ii It was then various forms of Pragmatism and Realism that were seen as better suited to the increasing demand for academic standing in American higher education (Campbell 2006, 2007; Wilson 1979, 1990). In Canada, there was no corresponding development of such rival positions nor the demands of an organized philosophical profession in place to challenge Idealism, but similar pressures would have been familiar to many Canadian philosophers at that time, especially those active in the American Philosophical Association (APA), and there gradually was a general move toward more interest in historical scholarship and related forms of Realism (Irving 1951, 233).iii

Despite its moribund status, Idealism continued to have its defenders well into the twentieth century, with Idealists working and teaching in both the US and Canada. There was in fact a noticeable amount of ‘cross-border’ activity in this regard. We find several Canadian born Idealists who went to work in the US and others of Scottish origin who taught in the US before coming to work in Canada.iv In light of these facts, this essay argues for the value of the historical treatment of philosophical Idealism when it is seen as a more widespread North American phenomenon. As we will see further below, adopting this perspective enables us to examine a number of interesting issues concerning the question of Idealism’s status as both a theoretical, intellectual philosophy and its further possible practical functions. While Idealism was generally seen as ill-suited to professional conceptions of philosophy, interest remained in considering its role as a practically oriented philosophy. This suggestion continues a long-standing commitment of the British Idealism that influenced the thinkers discussed here, namely its socially progressive outlook and its further emphasis on the intimate connection between theory and practice.v We will see that the systematic presentation of Idealist philosophy grounded in an Absolute consciousness or Mind gave way to an interest in demonstrating its practical applications, especially after the traumatic events of two World

I will begin by discussing the Idealist philosophy of the Scottish-Canadian philosopher John Watson who for my purposes provides a key starting point for assessing the fortunes of North American Idealism. Watson’s type of absolute Idealism will then be contrasted with William Caldwell’s suggestion that a more ethical, even pragmatic, conception of Idealism is superior to this position. Watson’s forthright and critical reply further exemplifies his ‘intellectualistic’ version of Idealism, and his overall conception of philosophy as dealing with necessary truth rather than practical affairs. This debate sets the main theme: Idealist philosophy conceived as a purely theoretical, intellectual affair versus the idea of a more practically engaged form of Idealism. Next, I examine the debate between the American philosophers Morris Cohen and John Dewey over the use of vision and technique in philosophy. While not strictly speaking Idealists, both of their viewpoints contain Idealist elements, and their debate mirrors the one between Watson and Caldwell over the intellectual versus practical functions of Idealist philosophy. Lastly, I discuss the English-Canadian philosopher Rupert Clendon Lodge’s rather different ‘balanced’ conception of philosophy that looks to integrate the insights of Idealism, Pragmatism and Realism. Lodge argues that the technical, theoretical differences between philosophers can be resolved by seeing how their competing theoretical perspectives can achieve application in the practical problems of everyday life.

These debates all highlight the complexity found in these attempts to assess the differences between the theoretical, technical pursuit of philosophy and its visionary, or more practical dimensions. None of the philosophers discussed here simply defend the view that philosophy is exclusively one or the other, but they differ over how these dimensions of philosophical practice should be properly related. Central for my account of this development is the key turning point found with Caldwell’s suggestion that the socially progressive ideals of Idealism become more explicitly tied to practical engagement. Dewey’s own Idealist training results in a similar viewpoint that is more thorough in its breaking with the systematic aspects of Idealist thinking. Lodge further uses this moral stance as a platform for his more irenic position that demonstrates the practical dimensions of technical philosophical disputes. Their search for a practical philosophy adequate to the demands of modern life is then rooted in their shared commitment to the moral and social ideals of philosophical Idealism and their connections to the practical affairs of human life. For these philosophers, Idealism is a practical philosophy, one that can play a crucial role in clarifying those ideals relevant for addressing the problems of social life. By studying the way North American philosophers were attempting to carrying out this reconstruction of Idealism, we are not only reminded of these interesting historical facts, but also reacquaint ourselves with the ongoing challenge which they represent, namely, the problem of balancing both the theoretical and practical demands of philosophy.vii

II. Watson and Caldwell on Practical Idealism

At the start of his career at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, John Watson outlined the basic Idealist outlook that was to inform both his own thinking and Canadian thought for many years.viii In his inaugural lecture ‘The Relation of Philosophy to Science’ as the newly appointed Professor of Logic, Metaphysics, and Ethics, Watson offered this summary of his core Idealist position:

“Philosophy elevates itself above all mere opinions, above all untested assumptions, above all caprice and impulse—in short, above all that is peculiar to this or that individual—and lives and moves in the realm of necessary truth. It shews that man is able to free himself from all unwarranted beliefs and unveil the secret of the universe, by discovering the essential rationality that, however it may be concealed from those who seek it not, shines through all the outward manifestations of Nature and of Spirit. All men, consciously or unconsciously, participate in universal truth, and thus there is a universal consciousness, given through the consciousness of the individual, but in no way dependent on it” (1872, 36).

Here we have several themes fairly typical of the Idealism of this period. Idealist philosophy does not rest content with what is revealed through the particular experiences of individuals but, instead, turns to rational thought itself in order to reveal the universal truth about reality. The thinking subject is capable of grasping this essential nature of reality, because each one of us participates in this truth – the common principle of rational unity. The essentially mind-like nature of reality and rational order of the universe is then present in us and can be further known through the exercise of rational thought. Watson is then committed to a view of Idealist philosophy as the search for necessary truth, where such truths are ultimately grounded in the rational order found in the absolute or universal consciousness.

This conception of Idealism did not, of course, go unchallenged. Some of these challenges can be seen by briefly examining the work of another Scottish born and trained philosopher, William Caldwell, who worked in both the US and Canada.ix Writing at the turn of the century, he wishes to point out a decidedly practical and ethical turn in recent philosophical speculation. He explains that “The older conception of philosophy or metaphysics as an attempt to state (more or less systematically) the value of the world for thought is being slowly modified, if not altogether disappearing, into the attempt to explain or to grasp the significance of the world from the stand-point of the moral and social activity of man” (1898, 460). He cites a number of philosophers and scientifically minded thinkers, including William James, who recommend a rejection of the overintellectualized viewpoint of metaphysical philosophy in favor of one informed by the practical standpoint of human agents seeking to successfully negotiate their respective moral and social environments. In doing so, Caldwell carefully distinguishes between an ethical Idealism concerned with human will, activity and life and an older Idealism of the intellect, confidently asserting that: “the predominating note of the newer philosophy is its openness to the facts of the volitional and moral and social aspects of man’s life, as things that take us further along the path of truth than the mere categories of thought and their manipulation by metaphysic and epistemology” (1898, 465). In making such remarks, he further describes his central interest in bridging the gap between classical theoretical philosophy, such as that found in Plato’s Theory of Ideas and Watson’s Absolute Idealism, and the real-life efforts found in everyday practical life and experience. His aim is to remove the apparent contradiction, or logical tension between the traditionally separate realms of philosophical theory and everyday practice (465-6).

In doing so, this new ethical Idealism still maintains a basic truth found in Idealism when it affirms the central role of the mind in constituting both our knowledge of reality and reality itself. But given its further practical dimensions, Caldwell places special emphasis on the will’s role within this interpretative construction of knowledge and reality (468). This conception of ethical Idealism then emphasizes the role our practical nature plays in constructing reality, where reality is then “simply whatever sustains a verifiable relation…to our activity” (468). This viewpoint is, he thinks, confirmed by the new psychological and psycho-physiological work of this period and the role of practical human action in understanding, shaping and improving reality must then inform a philosophical commitment to Idealism. One of the central reasons he gives in defense of this view is precisely the way it breaks down the separation of philosophy from everyday life.x Thought itself is not a passive spectator of its surroundings but “an assertion of the impulse to live” and our concepts then represent shorthand guides introduced in order to better organize and remake the environment we live in (473). Rather than the world existing for thought, the empirical sciences show that thought exists as a tool for understanding and improving the world. Philosophers should then, he claims, assess the “implications of human action” where this is seen as an expression of physical, biological and moral life (474).When Idealism moves away from its purely theoretical, intellectual formulations and views human thought from this practical engaged perspective, philosophy will detect a more fundamental unity in all aspects of human experience and be better positioned to assess the consequences of human action for improving the world we live in (480).

In responding to Caldwell, Watson’s most fundamental objection against the superiority of this newer ‘practical and ethical’ Idealism turns on what he sees as a confusion over the proper nature and aims of philosophy:

The confusion is between the uncritical belief of the civilized man in the rationality of the world, including the reasonableness of morality, and an explicit theory of life. In other words, “ethical idealism” does not distinguish between what may be called a working-theory of life and that reasoned theory which it is the aim of philosophy to supply. Philosophy, as I understand it, at least aims at being a science, —i.e., a connected system of truth,— and just in the measure in which it succeeds in being a science has it any proper title to be called philosophy. Hence it is not a means to any other end. If philosophy is conceived as a means to some other end, no matter what that end may be, whether the satisfaction of “ethical” needs, or vigorous and healthy activity, or religion, it ceases to fulfil the function which is characteristic of it. For the sole aim of philosophy is to arrive at truth, not to persuade men to believe what they cannot prove to be true. (425)

Here, Watson presents philosophy as fundamentally concerned with seeking truth and not a means towards any other kind of social and moral end. Once this proper conception of philosophy is recognized it then follows that the pursuit of philosophy remains intellectual, with the aim of reaching truth through carefully reasoned thought. “Philosophy”, Watson further explains “…must be, or claim to be, abody of truth, and truth is necessarily “intellectual” in thesense that it has no being anywhere but in the thought of arational subject” (428). Here the aim is to provide a complete and self-consistent view of the principles that account for human experience, where this remains ‘intellectual’ as a system of thought and which then captures the systematic nature of experience. The test of a true philosophy is itsability to give a complete and self-consistent account of theprinciples without which experience is unthinkable. It is not “intellectual” in the sense of confining itself to the intellectual by excluding the ethical, religious side of human life, but by being a system of thought expressingthe nature of experience as a whole (428-29). For Watson, the emphasis on the practical dimensions of human life in Caldwell’s practical Idealism distorts the centrality of the Idealist attempt to provide a true systematic account of the entire unity of human experience. His specific Idealist view takes the aim of philosophy to make explicit how the conscious subject is involved in reality, and emphasizes that this is achieved through a demonstration of how the exercise of intelligent thought reveals the necessary truths of experience. Watson takes the pursuit of philosophy to involve the recognition by the subject of what follows from the fact that he or she is a part of the intelligible universe (431). He further notes that Caldwell’s ‘ethical idealism’ would claim that this view prevents or ‘destroys’ the self-generated activity of individual subjects. But this, Watson thinks, misunderstands the point of Idealist philosophy. Its aim is not to prevent ‘self-activity’, but to provide the philosophical justification of the beliefs that underlie our actions, so that they count as genuine knowledge of the truth that we all participate in (431).

We can then see that Watson was unmoved by the transition to a practical, ethical conception of Idealism and that his worries are grounded in a differing view of the proper aims of idealist philosophy. His intellectual Idealist vision presents philosophy to be a science, one aimed at yielding the systematic truth concerning the unity of consciousness. As a result, it is not concerned with the practical demands of human life but with providing a rational theoretical justification of human activity. It is precisely through its intellectual detachment from everyday affairs than philosophy is able to reach this goal of systematic truth. As we have seen, Caldwell is interested in pushing Idealism in a more practical direction, as a systematic philosophy that still emphasizes the ideal, mental factors in the creation of knowledge and reality, but further highlights the role of the will in such creation. Only when thought is viewed from this engaged practical perspective can philosophical Idealism yield a systematic understanding that can help improve society.

At first glance, this appears to be a straightforward disagreement, with Watson giving philosophical priority to intellectual, theoretical reflection over practical affairs and Caldwell doing the reserve, with practical life taking the lead in our philosophical speculations. However, it is both more complex and more interesting given that, Watson, like his idealist teacher, Edward Caird, was deeply concerned with social and political life, and his idealist philosophy is meant to inform these dimensions of human life (Irving 1951, 226-27).xi His Idealism attempts to do this not by itself becoming more ‘practical’, but by providing intellectual support for our beliefs and professed ideals, which are further used as guides within practical life. The validity of such ideals is secured through reason and it is this that warrants their use within practical life. Watson then rejects any form of the pragmatist thought where the justification or truth of our beliefs is to be measured in terms of their practical consequences. We have seen that Caldwell maintains Idealism’s emphasis on the mind-dependent nature of knowledge and reality and he does not explicitly reject the aim of systematic truth in philosophy. However, for him, this true system can only be achieved through a greater emphasis on the practical implications of our beliefs, ideals and human will. It is these implications that are certifiers of that systematic truth. The unity of the world achieved through reason by Watson, can only be fulfilled through our active involvement in that world.

For my purposes here, the central issue concerns the way both Watson and Caldwell recognize the possible interplay between theory and practice within philosophy but differ over how this relationship helps further the progressivist social ideals that are central to their Idealism. For Watson, philosophical reason justifies our beliefs and ideals and it is this that warrants their application to human conduct and action. Caldwell’s criticism of Watson suggests that this intellectual and theoretical depiction of Idealism is incapable of adequately affirming or justifying their shared socially progressive ideals. This requires the explicit recognition of the way our ideals are created, modified and justified through our practical engagement with the world. Caldwell’s criticism then represents a key turning point in the history of Idealism discussed here, since it foreshadows the more practical rendering of Idealism found in later thinkers. We can begin to see the fuller significance of these changes by now examining how these themes are carried forward into the early decades of the twentieth century in the work of the American philosophers Morris Cohen and John Dewey.

III. Cohen and Dewey on Technique and Vision in Philosophy

This turn of the century dispute concerning the theoretical versus practical demands of Idealist philosophy resurfaces in the debate between Cohen and Dewey in the 1910s and 1920s. During this period, when professional philosophers where struggling with the issue of whether and to what extent philosophy should model itself on scientific inquiry, many were proposing the identification of philosophy with the aims of science and the search for truth (Wilson 1979; 1990, 121-49). Against the view that philosophy should simply become a branch of science, Cohen argued for the importance of technique in philosophy but without the complete abandonment of the pursuit of philosophic vision.xii Offering a larger vision of human life and its place in the universe remains a fundamental task for philosophy, however he emphasizes that the proper development of this vision requires the use of scientific technique. During this same period, Dewey is also struggling to promote his cultural conception of philosophy, one that remains responsive to scientific advance, but which further rejects any scientific conception of philosophy exclusively grounded in technical problem solving. While Cohen agrees with Dewey in finding a role for vision within philosophy, he insists that philosophical work be specialized and above all, not concerned with the practical, social problems of human life. Dewey’s proposal that philosophy be seen as having a special practical, moral import is then rejected. As we will now see, Cohen’s view mirrors Watson’s rejection of Caldwell’s practical rendering of Idealist philosophy, while Dewey’s response represents a further stage in the pragmatist reinterpretation of Idealism encouraged by Caldwell.xiii

In his 1909 address to the APA, Cohen highlights the professionalization of philosophy as a central influence on the general push toward a more scientifically informed conception of philosophy, where the aim is to “make philosophic discussion itself scientific, i.e., to narrow it down to certain definite and decidable issues” (1910, 402). In assessing this change, Cohen accepts that applying scientific methods to philosophy helps to improve philosophical work, and he further emphasizes in a way similar to Watson, that both science and philosophy are aimed at knowing the truth: “Philosophy and science both agree in their desire to eliminate arbitrary opinion, in their insistence on method or system and on logical vigor or consistency, and in their effort to eliminate external authority, prejudice, personal interest and the like, in the consideration of what is true” (1910, 407). However, Cohen thinks that philosophy remains different from science because it examines the results of the special sciences in order to synthesize them into a coherent and meaningful worldview. In stressing this point, he draws parallels between philosophy and literature, where their appeal to “pure speculation”, and imagination helps to fill in the fragmentary picture of the world suggested by current scientific knowledge (1910, 407). In pursuing this aim, Cohen recommends that philosophers take advantage of philosophy’s affinity to both science and literature while maintaining its role as a systematic mediator or guide between the imaginative presentations of human life provided by literature and the cosmic worldview suggested by the natural sciences. Cohen is not an idealist, but he shares the general Idealist notion that philosophy seeks to give a systematic and unified view of the universe that we saw affirmed by Watson and other idealists working in America such as the Canadian-born philosopher J. E. Creighton (Wilson 1979, 59-60).

Cohen would later return to these themes in his 1929 presidential address titled “Vision and Technique in Philosophy”, when he stresses the value of scientific technique as a counter to the exclusive promotion of philosophical vision. Once again, he acknowledges that as professional academics, philosophers are increasingly focused on their own technical problems. However, even so, philosophy remains a love of wisdom where ‘wisdom’ involves the search for an elevated, universal cosmic understanding. Importantly, the search for this type of knowledge is done for its own sake, and not for any possible consequences. However, the pursuit of this ‘vision’ of “supreme truth” (1929, 128), must be reached thorough the careful use of philosophical, scientific technique.

Cohen emphatically rejects Dewey’s suggestion that philosophers turn away from technical epistemological issues in order to focus on the social and moral problems of modern society: “When the public at large is urging us, on the authority of our leading representative, Professor Dewey, to abandon the technical problems which occupy philosophers and to go back to the problems of men, it is surely opportune to insist in all seriousness that we shall never help humanity very much by neglecting our own special task, the only task for which we are as philosophers properly trained” (Cohen 1929, 130-31). As we have noted, Cohen sees the philosopher’s main role as involving a synthesis of vision and technique in order to offer a true overarching account of humanity’s place in the universe. Moreover, this aim is to be advanced only through using the very same technical tools that have furthered the sciences. He urges that philosophers note the limits of their abilities, stressing that we must “recognize that our philosophic studies or reflections do not enable us to take the place of the statesman, the administrator, the social worker, or the others who are more conversant with the facts and agonies of social life” (148-49). Lacking the requisite skill to effectively address society’s ills, philosophers should instead help us to bravely accept our human limits. By offering a broader vision of humanity’s limits within the vastness of the universe, philosophy helps to lessen the overstated significance we attach to our human practical concerns and this itself, Cohen claims, is an intellectual good (148-9). Here we see that Cohen maintains his earlier commitment to the Idealist philosophical aim of providing a true systematic view of the universe. Now, however, he further explicitly endorses Watson’s claim that the intellectual contributions of philosophy are importantly separate from the practical concerns of everyday life. Even here, however, we can note that he further agrees that philosophical truth has a practical and moral implication. But rather than providing us with a justified set of ideals for the conduct of life as is the case with Watson, we are offered a kind of stoic indifference to the harshness of the world around us. Philosophical study can encourage us to bravely stand firm in the face of our human limitations, rather than suggest ideals for improving ourselves or society.

John Dewey’s alternative pragmatist vision from this same period stands in sharp contrast with this perspective. In his 1919 paper, “Philosophy and Democracy,” Dewey argues that we should reject the view that philosophy is a kind of science or form of knowledge, and instead see it as a type of wisdom, which he further characterizes in the following terms: “A philosophy which was conscious of its own business and province would then perceive that it is an intellectualized wish, an aspiration subjected to rational discriminations and tests, a social hope reduced to a working program of action, a prophecy of the future, but one disciplined by serious thought and knowledge” (MW 11, 43).xiv Here Dewey outlines a view that he will further develop in Reconstruction in Philosophy where philosophical positions are depicted as arising from their specific historical, and social circumstances in the attempt to provide moral direction in addressing social, cultural and moral conflict (MW 12, also see EW 5, 4-24). From this perspective, philosophy does not offer any straightforward intellectual account of the nature of reality, but instead is taken to reflect a commitment to a deeper set of attitudes concerning the best way to live. It does not begin from established knowledge, but from a moral conviction concerning the greatest form of human life and it further engages in an attempt to persuade us that this represents a way of life we should adopt. In claiming that philosophy is wisdom, Dewey then differs from Cohen’s view that the love of wisdom be seen as related to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, with the result being a meaningful synthesis of current scientific results. Rather, for Dewey, wisdom involves “a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better kind of life to be led” where this highlights the need for choosing a plan of action that points to better future (MW 11, 44).

Dewey further explains that denying philosophy’s scientific status as a knowledge producing enterprise does not then make it an arbitrary or vague feeling concerning what the future may hold. On his view, philosophy still consists of a rational attempt to persuade us that one course of action be seen as more reasonable than another. It is a rational appraisal and defense of a view of human life that itself may arise from culture or instinct. However, this requires that it be logically presented and appeal to the best scientific knowledge available: “It can intellectually recommend its judgments of value only as it can select relevant material from that which is recognized to be established truth, and can persuasively use current knowledge to drive home the reasonableness of its conception of life” (MW 11, 46). So, while philosophy embodies a moral conviction of a better possible life, it still must take on an intellectual, even scientific form, in its attempt to convey and rationally convince others of that passionately felt conviction. This, Dewey notes, places philosophy in a delicate position, since it is engaged in a difficult balancing act between merely posing as a knowledge producing enterprise on the one hand, and some vague, incomprehensible mysterious viewpoint on the other. When philosophy stresses logical, scientific form, the moral conviction that lies behind it can become lost resulting in a dry, abstract form of scholasticism, a point similar to Caldwell’s critical charge against Watson’s systematic Idealism. However, when its moral aims lack sharpness of formulation, philosophical thought becomes simply hortatory or edifying, not a reasoned attempt to persuade. We have seen this viewpoint represented by the critical attitude taken by both Watson and Cohen towards any practical aim for philosophical reflection. As has been noted, at various times during his long career, Dewey himself struggled in his attempt to achieve the proper balance between these possible outcomes (Westbrook 1990, 147). Nonetheless, he concludes that the pursuit of philosophy remains important precisely because of its attempt to offer a moral ideal of the good life that is consistent with the best science of its time.

Dewey is then rejecting the intellectual features of Idealism that are central to Watson’s perspective and which, in their own respective ways, are carried forward by both Caldwell and especially Cohen. More specifically, he rejects the idea that philosophy is exclusively concerned with providing a true, systematic and unified account of reality grounded in human reason. Instead philosophy is seen as localized cultural activity designed to rational persuade us of a specific moral attitude concerning the best human life. Nevertheless, his view carries forward the socially progressive ideals that we have seen as central to Watson’s and Caldwell’s Idealism, while in a more fundamental way than Caldwell, breaks with its theoretical features by locating the defense of such ideals within the social and cultural practices of a given time and place. However, Dewey’s claim that such ideals represent a moral conviction that is basic to the pursuit of philosophy is even more deeply connected to another fundamental feature of Idealist philosophy which remains central to his Pragmatism. And it is this key standpoint of Idealism that distinguishes all of the Idealist philosophers discussed here from Cohen’s viewpoint.

Stated briefly, Dewey remains committed to the Idealist view that assigns a primacy to our human perspective on the surrounding environment. In other words, we experience a world that is full of meaning and value, which then further presents itself to us as having some kind of organic unity (LW 3, 3-7; Ryan 1995, 126-27). As we act within this world, we are both meaning-sensitive and meaning-creative creatures in the distinct way in which we find meaningful connections in our experience. For example, our experience of cause and effect connections are themselves further extensions of the interpretive lens we use in making sense of our surroundings. Dewey cannot accept the basic division Cohen makes between our limited human experience and the vast humanless universe separate from it: “It has become a cheap intellectual pastime to contrast the infinitesimal pettiness of man with the vastnesses of the stellar universes. Yet all such comparisons are illicit. We cannot compare existence and meaning; they are disparate. The characteristic life of man is itself the meaning of vast stretches of existences, and without it the latter have no value of significance. There is no measure of physical existence and conscious experience because the latter is the only measure there is for the former. The significance of being, though not its existence, is the emotion it stirs, the thought it sustains” (LW 3, 5). Dewey’s mature Pragmatism then retains the centrality of Idealism’s meaning giving human perspective without further requiring that this be grounded in an Absolute Consciousness as with Royce’s or Watson’s Idealism (Ryan 1995, 127; MW 2: 120-37). From this viewpoint, philosophy itself is one further creative and meaningful attempt to make sense of our world, which, for Dewey, highlights its importance in affirming and defending a specific moral opinion concerning the purpose of human life. Dewey’s Pragmatism shorn of Idealism’s systematic pretensions, remains committed to both its human centered perspective on the world and its morally progressive ideals as these are realized through our meaningful practical involvement with our social and cultural world.xv

IV. Rupert Lodge and ‘Balanced’ Philosophy

While Dewey’s pragmatist interpretation of Idealism’s progressive ideals was offered as an alternative to the increasingly technical and professional conceptions of philosophy found in American universities, other Idealists sought a more irenic alliance with professional philosophy. One striking example of such a position is found with the work of Rupert Clendon Lodge, an English-Canadian philosopher active in the APA who saw first-hand the changing professional face of philosophy in America.xvi Writing during the aftermath of the Second World War, Lodge emphasized the need for philosophers to move past their professional disagreements if they were to play a meaningful, practical role in the reconstruction of American society and of the global community at large. He saw the philosophical disagreements characteristic of this time as grounded in the fundamental divergence seen in the competing schools of Idealism, Realism and Pragmatism. These disagreements engendered a general skepticism among non-philosophers concerning philosophy’s ability to help in the rebuilding process. This is, he suggests, tied to the technical, theoretical formulation of philosophical positions: “…technical philosophers, as theorists, accentuate their differences to such an extent that a sceptical attitude has developed toward all philosophical pretensions: a feeling that all speculative hypotheses in the field of values are essentially useless as guides to action” (1944, 86).

In attempting to overcome this practical skepticism, Lodge writes with urgency about the need for philosophers to address the profound differences among them that cause it. In a war-weary world, Lodge recognizes a crucial role for philosophy in everyday life, affirming that “Practical life needs the positive contributions of all three schools” (86). For example, improving the conditions of modern life thorough the proper allocation of material resources, such as iron, coal and oil reserves, will need to be pursed from the realist attitude developed and clarified by philosophers. In addition, both Idealistic vision and technique will be needed to help clarify the long-range objectives, or ideals of individuals and nation-states as steps are taken to maintain a productive, post-war peace. The ideals set up in peace agreements must be clarified through their concrete application to everyday life, and here he sees Idealism playing a key technical role: “Aspirations resting upon emotional thinking need to have their confused feelings clarified by the techniques and insights developed by the philosophical idealists, if vision is to guide and take the lead in post-war cooperative action” (87). Lastly, Pragmatism with its emphasis on cooperative problem-solving, the development of novel methods for addressing problems and its more general emphasis on social experimentation will also play a crucial role in the process of social reconstruction (86-87). More specifically, he notes the distinctive role pragmatist social theory can play in providing insight into both the possibilities and limits of such social experiments and social control over current conditions. What is then needed to insure this ‘practical’ turn in philosophy is a way to see past the differences that result in mutually exclusive philosophical attitudes and disagreements.

Lodge further discusses two possibilities for addressing this apparent irreconcilable philosophical diversity. The first argues for a kind of synthesis – a blending of the various positive elements of each perspective despite their different backgrounds or starting points. He further explains how the highlighting of agreement between competing positions can easily provide us with what looks like a common program: philosophy conceived as the critical examination of the sources of human belief and intelligence (88). However, this general slogan either merely disguises the underlying differences that remain or the resulting reconciliation removes from each philosophical perspective its own distinctive vitality. When philosophical perspectives are as fundamentally different as in this case no synthesis of attitude could be accepted as fully satisfactory (1944, 88). A second suggestion argues for philosophical eclecticism. Rather than the blending of perspectives we here select resources from whatever philosophical perspective is deemed most helpful in the solution of a specific problem. On this view, philosophical systems are revealed as ‘artificial’, since it is their respective elements that are seen as potentially useful given a particular troubling problem. Lodge explains that this use of experience and reason in isolation from any careful systematic thinking would be viewed by many philosophers as simply the end of philosophy, an attitude reminiscent of the systematic aspirations we have seen emphasized by Watson’s and Cohen’s pursuit of philosophy. This suggestion cannot then be considered an acceptable solution to the problem of philosophical divergence (88).

Lodge’s own various attempts to compare these competing schools and their application to various practical problems leads him to suggest what he calls balanced philosophy (88).xvii He begins by noting the subjective tendencies in all of us that pull us in the direction of these differing philosophical positions: “We all have some regard for facts, some respect for ideals, and some faith in trial-and-error cooperation” (89).xviii More objectively, he notes that some situations require Realism (the use of natural resources), some Idealism (inventive craftsmanship), while still others Pragmatism (cooperative social experimentation). All three of these philosophical attitudes are needed, as they are themselves aspects of human life itself. For Lodge, the key problem then centers on how these attitudes can all be retained, where this means still recognizing their differences but without this leading to the negation of each other.

His solution turns on highlighting the way philosophical ideas ultimately achieve successful practical application. He explains how practical life requires a flexible philosophy, which remains open to all three of these philosophical perspectives and which does not weaken any one perspective by attempting to merge them (89). He provides the following example: “The history of commercial enterprises indicates that a management which is one-sidedly and inflexibly realistic, while useful in periods of depression, needs to be tempered with a good deal of social idealism and pragmatism, if it is to have the full loyalty of its workers and salesmen. A management excessively idealistic, while supplying wonderful leadership in periods of prosperity, needs to be tempered with realism and pragmatism, when newer and more strenuous conditions develop” (1946, 89).

Given the need for all three viewpoints, the function of a balanced philosophy should be to clarify the objectives, techniques and insights characteristic of each position while preserving their characteristic differences (90). By doing so situations that require a predominantly realistic stance will receive a ‘genuine’ version of that philosophy. But it will not be one-sided either, as the force of the other two stances will also be present serving as a kind of counterbalance. Lodge then recommends that each individual philosopher seek to develop his or her own ‘natural’ bias, while also forming a less negative attitude toward other philosophers and their alternative positions, bias, and attitudes (90). This can be helped by the further examination of practical situations, since it is here that philosophers can come to appreciate how other perspectives may provide resources for achieving a better solution to a problem than one’s own philosophical stance. Each respective Ism, whether Realism, Idealism or Pragmatism, will then be revealed as appropriate to a given practical situation, and this, Lodge suggests, will enable philosophers to better cooperate in the solution of practical problems (90). Philosophers should then learn to work cooperatively, presenting problems from different angles, with a further commitment to accepting the final outcome of their deliberations. Philosophical differences can thereby be maintained while simultaneously demonstrating their possible helpful applications. In this way, philosophy will be seen as “…not a merely one-sided technique whose place is in the ivory tower, but a way of life, and indeed an indispensable part of that reflective living which makes and keeps human life characteristically human” (91).

It has been claimed that it is only after the Second World War that philosophers became fully aware of the costs of professionalization, where the specialized study of technical problems in epistemology and other fields isolated philosophy from the pressing social problems of modern society (Campbell 2006). Lodge gave an explicit voice to such concerns with his attempt to articulate a balanced philosophy, which affirms that “pure theory, divorced from practice, is unable to prove the exclusive truth of any philosophical position” (1947, 334). This ‘truth’ of a philosophical position can only be achieved through a careful consideration of how the relevant theory applies to respective practical problems as they arise.xix We thus arrive at a position that conceives of Idealism as a thoroughly practical philosophy on par with Realism and Pragmatism, where its leading contribution is located in its clarification of ideals for the betterment of society. Lodge’s view then represents an interesting synthesis of the perspectives seen in earlier debates between both Watson and Caldwell and Cohen and Dewey. The systematic ambitions grounded in Absolute consciousness are no longer viewed as central to Idealism’s key philosophical contributions. In addition, there is an increased emphasis on the intimacy between theory and practice that is now fully explicit in the way Lodge recommends Idealism’s theoretical interventions be judged in terms of their practical applications. Here, we can note that like Cohen he emphasizes the value of technique in the clarification of philosophical concerns but further weds this idea to the socially progressive ideals central to Idealism. The use of Idealist ‘technique’ is deemed central to the clarification of our future aims, and for furthering a proper vision of possible progress. In then bridging the gap between the technical-intellectual and visionary-practical elements of philosophy, Lodge defends the use of the ‘idealist technique’ as vital to the practical solution of real-life problems, a position not unlike that seen with Caldwell, who emphasized a pragmatically engaged Idealism as helping to bridge the gap between philosophical theory and everyday life. With Lodge’s further insistence that all the leading theoretical schools of professional philosophy play a role in such practical resolutions, he further distinguishes himself from Dewey’s criticisms of professional conceptions of philosophical practice. Both the technique and the vision found in Idealism once allied with other competing positions is offered as a philosophy suited for addressing the practical challenges of modern life.

V. Conclusion

When viewed as a more widespread North American phenomenon, we can recognize that the fortunes of philosophical Idealism were increasingly seen as connected to its status as a practical philosophy, where this further turns on the ongoing importance of its socially progressive moral ideals. Caldwell’s criticism of Watson’s idealist philosophy, which affirms that human reason alone can understand the systematic and true unity of reality represents a key turning point in this history. His insistence that the aims of Idealist philosophy should not be portrayed in such exclusively intellectualist terms, but further recognize the human will as conditioning thought, opens up the possibility of a more practically engaged Idealism where our beliefs and ideals acquire validity through their demonstrated practical application. We saw Watson resist this practical rendering of Idealism, affirming that the worth of ideals is secured through reason, since this is the sole way to address the proper systematic aim of achieving truth. The ideals used in everyday practical life find their justification through philosophical reason as this is what guarantees their practical applicability. Both Watson and Caldwell share the progressive social outlook that is basic to British Idealism, but disagree concerning how the ideals that promote such progress are to be justified. Writing in the first decades of the new century, many of these same themes are revisited by Cohen and Dewey. Cohen shares Watson’s interest in philosophy as concerned with systematic truth and how the pursuit of this aim should be seen as distinct from addressing the issues of practical life. But he breaks with both Watson and Caldwell in viewing this perspective as supporting a non-progressive stoical moral attitude that is adequate for facing the difficulties of practical life. Dewey retains Idealism’s human centered perspective on the world and its morally progressive attitude but locates it within a Pragmatist philosophy, that more thoroughly than Caldwell, rejects the systematic aspirations and exclusive use of reason found in Watson’s Idealism. Lastly, Lodge offers a more irenic stance in showing how theoretical disagreements among the dominant philosophical perspectives of Realism, Idealism and Pragmatism can be resolved through noting their practical connections. Importantly, he retains Cohen’s emphasis on the significance of philosophical technique, but locates it within the Idealist attempt to clarify a proper vision of future social progress. I have attempted to show how the modifications to Idealist philosophy made by this group of North American philosophers where unified in their attempt to present it as a practical philosophy, with its central practical dimensions located in their continued effort to implement its progressivist social ideals. Their reflections illustrate the sort of challenges that persist in the attempt to balance both the theoretical and practical demands of philosophy. Lastly, while Pragmatism is generally recognized as taking a leading role in addressing this issue, Idealism also continued to be recognized by many thinkers as a philosophy capable of answering this challenge.xx

Robert Sinclair
Professor of Philosophy
Faculty of International Liberal Arts
Soka University, Tokyo


i For detailed accounts of the history of philosophy in Canada see Hendel 1952, Irving 1951 and especially Armour and Trott 1981. Other more recent treatments include Angus 2013 and Meynell 2011. For recent accounts of the history of philosophy in the US see Kuklick 2001 and Misak 2013.

ii For example, Allard explains: “Idealism was unable to adapt itself to the new conception of philosophy as a discipline concerned with certain problems, a conception common to both American pragmatism and British analytical philosophy, and one which proved more suitable for a secular and increasingly professional age” (2003, 59).

iii Canadian philosophers did not have their own national professional association until the Canadian Philosophical Association was founded in 1958. Meynell 2011 discusses Canadian Idealism losing theoretical ground, but finding a practical home in Canadian political life.

iv Examples of Idealism’s continuing presence into the twentieth century can be seen with the work of William Ernest Hocking at Harvard and Wilbur Urban at Yale (Murphey 2005, 106). Further examples of the North American scope and appeal of Idealism is found with Jacob Gould Schurman who was born in Prince Edward Island, receiving his training both in Canada and Europe and later serving as third president of Cornell University []. His colleague at Cornell, J.E. Creighton was born in Nova Scotia, studying in both Canada and the US and was the first president of the APA (Cunningham 1925). Both have Canadian roots, are Idealists and worked much of their professional life in the US. Two lesser known thinkers will be discussed further below: William Caldwell who was born and trained in Scotland, working in both the US and later in Canada and the British born R. C. Lodge, who worked in the US and then in Manitoba.

v These points are stressed by Mander 2011. It is also worth noting that the popular sense of Idealism as a progressive, optimistic social standpoint is itself related to the more philosophical uses of the term (Mander 2011; Guyer and Horstmann 2015).

vi There were related trends in nineteenth century America to modify absolutist conceptions of Idealism in favor of more personalist and pluralistic versions of that philosophy (Anderson 2004). My interest is then in further examining some of the ways in which this general trend continued into the first half of the twentieth century when philosophy became a specialized academic profession and as such issues were connected to the cross-border activity I have mentioned above.

vii What follows is intended as a small but revealing snapshot of the intellectual climate of this period and is not meant to be an exhaustive account of North American Idealism. A more complete history of Idealism in North America would need to discuss the contributions of such diverse thinkers as Josiah Royce, C.I. Lewis, George Paxton Young, and George Blewett among many others.

viii Full biographical details for Watson can be found at the Queen’s University Encyclopedia available at []. Related information can also be found in the online Canadian Encyclopedia at [].

ix Caldwell worked at Cornell, the University of Chicago and Northwestern and in 1903 became Sir William Macdonald Professor of Moral Philosophy, at McGill University, in Montreal. For a more detailed biography see the Quebec History Encyclopedia online []. His pragmatist conception of Idealism briefly discussed here is based on work completed while at Northwestern, and is further explored in his later examinations of Pragmatism (Caldwell 1900; 1913).

x The other reasons he gives include: the will as the best way to make systematic sense of the world in teleological terms and the fact of willing in action as the only process that we can know from the ‘inside’ (472-75).

xi This can be seen from the fact that Watson’s Idealism aims to provide rational support for religious belief, where Christianity is thought of as a set of ideals for human ethical conduct (Irving 1951, 230-31; Watson 1897).

xii More detailed discussion of Cohen’s views and their connection to the emerging philosophical profession are given in Campbell 2006 and Wilson 1979, 1990.

xiii For a more detailed account of the Cohen-Dewey debate see my 2016.

xiv Following standard practice, references to The Collected Works of John Dewey are abbreviated first by series, The Early Works (EW), The Middle Works (MW), or The Later Works (LW), then followed by volume and page number.

xv Dewey’s relationship to his early Idealist commitment has been much discussed. For recent treatments emphasizing the relevance of Dewey’s early Idealism for his mature philosophy, see Garrison 2006, Good 2006 and Pearce 2014.

xvi Lodge was educated in Oxford. He taught at a number of universities in both the US and Canada, and in 1920, was appointed Professor of Logic and the History of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. For further biographical details see Sibley 1961-2.

xvii Lodge develops and applies this approach in a number of works during the 1930s and 1940s including his 1937, 1938, 1945 and 1947.

xviii This is interestingly similar to James’s emphasis on temperament in philosophy and his conception of Pragmatism as a mediator between our conflicting desire for facts (realist, empiricist) and principles (idealist) (1907, 10-11).

xix Lodge then explicitly affirms Kant’s view of the priority of practical reason (1947, 334). This stands in sharp contrast with Watson who rejects this practical rendering of Idealism (Watson 1897, x). Lodge further acknowledges his own bias towards Idealism and how his appreciation for other philosophical attitudes was shaped through his interaction with the APA (1947, 334).

xx Thanks to Daniel Campos for his translations of the English abstract. This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant number JP17K02269.


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