The Realistic Naturalism of Frederick J. E. Woodbridge

Woodbridge was an important figure in the transition to philosophical realism and naturalism in the United States from the neo-Kantian and idealist philosophies that were dominant there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A classical realist, Woodbridge characterized his philosophical position as a synthesis of Aristotle’s naturalism and Spinoza’s emphasis on structure, tempered by Locke’s empiricism. He was particularly concerned with the relationship between structure and activity, his own view being that the former determines what is possible, while the latter determines what is actual. He later found in George Santayana’s writings a powerful and stimulating statement of the sort of Aristotelian naturalism he avowed, and he credited Santayana’s works with reorganizing and solidifying his views. Woodbridge played a significant role in the revival of Aristotelian trends of thought in the United States, and in the development of the classic American naturalistic interpretation of Aristotle. Woodbridge also had an important impact on John Dewey, after the latter’s arrival at Columbia in 1905. Their interaction and exposure to the naturalistic metaphysics Woodbridge promoted helped Dewey recognize the possibility of a type of metaphysics that purported to be neither speculative nor transcendental and thus could provide a valuable grounding for his naturalistic epistemology and psychology. While Woodbridge authored several books and numerous articles, it was through his tremendous influence as a teacher that he had his greatest effect. His teaching shaped the views of many philosophers from the next generation of naturalists, including Morris Cohen, John H. Randall, Jr., Ernest Nagel, and Sterling P. Lamprecht. Their writings and teachings helped spread the fundamental principles of the realism and naturalism Woodbridge championed throughout the American philosophical community.

Woodbridge’s philosophical perspective was highly historical, as evidenced by his own characterization of it in historical terms, and he emphasized the history of philosophy in his teaching. In this way, and through encouraging historical interests in his students, he was a leader in establishing the history of philosophy as a major philosophical discipline in 20th century America. It is interesting, however, that despite his naturalistic emphasis on scientific inquiry, Woodbridge was disinclined in his own historical works (e.g., 1929, 1965) to precise, scientific analysis intended to explain just how philosophers of the past and their contemporaries understood various ideas and ways of living in their own time. He preferred to focus on the current significance of the ideas and modes of life they presented, often looking to past philosophers more as models of how to do philosophy than as sources of ideas. More scientific historians sometimes criticized his work for lack of scholarly exactness, but for Woodbridge, these criticisms misunderstood the purpose of his appeals to the history of philosophy. His interest was more thematic than scientific; for him the relevant issue was explaining how and why these historical figures have something important to say to us in our own time. He offered his forays into the history of philosophy not so much as contributions to knowledge of how things were and were thought about in the past, but rather more as presentations of resources that might provide insight for and aid in our own struggles with matters of contemporary and perhaps perennial concern.

In an era of epistemologists, Woodbridge was an unabashed metaphysician. However, on his understanding, metaphysics was descriptive and empirical. Following Aristotle, Woodbridge saw metaphysics as a form of scientific inquiry, differing from the special sciences only in virtue of subject matter, not in virtue of method. Whereas the special sciences each focus on a limited subject area and thus on only a particular type or portion of existence, metaphysics applies the scientific method to investigate “existence as existence” or existence in general. This is not to be understood as an investigation of reality (what Woodbridge called “Nature”) as a whole, but rather as inquiry into reality’s most general features. Woodbridge’s understanding of the scientific method was connected to his realism. He saw scientific inquiry as involving a methodological realism, an approach Woodbridge called “realism in principle” in contrast with the sort of “realism of selection” characteristic of eliminativist or reductionist views. His realism was a commitment to the primacy of an inquiry’s subject matter; he grounded scientific inquiry on a principled naďveté that insulated its subject matter from skeptical questioning or denial. Thus insulated, the subject matter (rather than prior theoretical assumptions) should lead the inquiry, determining both the methods used and distinctions drawn in the investigation, and the meaning and adequacy of the inquirer’s interpretation.

On Woodbridge’s view, the scientific inquirer must always bear in mind the “realistic distinction,” that is, the distinction between his interpretation and the extra-linguistic focus of his inquiry. Preconceptions and distinctions made during inquiry should not displace the authority of the subject matter (as happens in reductive analyses); when they do, realistic-scientific inquiry ceases. Woodbridge’s commitments to the realistic distinction and the primacy of the subject matter led him to emphasize the contextual nature of scientific inquiry. As essentially an investigation of empirically accessible activities (activity determining what is), inquiry must always take into account the conditioning environment or structural context of its subject matter. Because the methods and interpretations appropriate to the subject matter and context of one special science might not be suitable for the subject matter of another science and its context of inquiry, Woodbridge saw appreciation of the contextual nature of scientific analysis as essential for realism. This was, on his view, especially important in metaphysics since this sort of analysis involved the most general context of inquiry, namely, that applying to any subject matter whatsoever.

As a scientific investigation into the ontological categories that apply to any and every subject matter, realistic metaphysics, according to Woodbridge, would acknowledge as ultimate the categories of individuality, structure, natural teleology, dynamism, activity, potentiality, and contingency. A failure to respect the contextual nature of inquiry through the misapplication of methods and distinctions developed in a more limited context to reality in general would inevitably overlook some of these categories. For example, emphasis on the notions of mechanism and causation (as in “genetic” analyses) typically leads inquirers to reject natural teleology (Woodbridge’s influential understanding of which did not imply design or the productivity of ends). But this rejection would not only disregard the presence of the inquirer as a conditioning factor in every context of inquiry, it would also ignore the ways that efficient factors help or hinder the outcomes of all processes in Nature. In this way, the result of overlooking inquiry’s contextual nature could only be, on Woodbridge’s view, a distorted and unrealistic metaphysics that missed some of Nature’s richness and variety. This general point was precisely his criticism both of modern philosophy and of pragmatism. On his view, loss of context in the former had led it to transform acceptable philosophical distinctions into untenable, radical dualisms that eventually forced a choice between the equally problematic alternatives of skeptical epistemology and idealism. With regard to pragmatism, while Woodbridge viewed this approach as a valuable method for clarifying mental activities, one which itself involved a demand to respect contexts, he held that the pragmatists had extended their procedures and concepts beyond their legitimate context of application to that of Nature in general and thereby generated confusion and fruitless controversy.

Woodbridge’s naturalism was a product of his realism. He held that the empirically accessible activities investigated in realistic inquiry are fundamentally the cooperation of spatio-temporally located bodies, more specifically, that of the subject under investigation with those making up its conditioning environment. Any such activity, however, always also occurs within the most general context of inquiry, that of Nature. Woodbridge thus rejected the idea of the supernatural, understood as a domain of activity outside of Nature (although, as will be discussed below, he did acknowledge a non-cognitive sense of the supernatural). This naturalistic view applied equally to the activities of human beings, including human mental activities. Woodbridge held a broadly functionalist account of the mental, according to which the human mind is nothing more than an activity of the human body, an activity that takes place, like any other, in Nature. By theoretically incorporating human beings into Nature, Woodbridge rejected the radical dualisms that modern philosophy had derived from its unrealistic divorce of the two, e.g., the dualisms of mind-body, appearance-reality, freedom-necessity, and fact-value. These commitments, along with his emphasis on the scientific method as the sole means of securing knowledge, track those typically seen as the characteristic tenets of naturalism. The importance Woodbridge placed on integrating human beings into Nature also made his position a form of humanism. Thus naturalized, human beings and their activities were, on his view, the fullest expression of Nature’s actualities and the most complete illustration of what Nature is. While his humanistic naturalism brought human beings down to earth, this was less a debasement of the human than an elevation of Nature. A realistic investigation of human nature would reveal Nature to be much more than atoms and the void. By including the unreduced rational and purposeful behavior of human beings, Nature goes beyond the baldly materialist view of it as just a domain in which the movements of physical objects illustrate mechanical laws.

On Woodbridge’s conception, Nature itself was what human beings directly perceive in their ordinary experience of obvious and familiar things and their activities. As a direct realist, he rejected subjectivist epistemologies and the Cartesian-Lockean thesis that experience involves ideas, understood as representations distinct and separated from external objects. He held that the myths of the “end-term” (i.e., entity) conception of the mind and of consciousness as a divide between human perceivers and the world entail the impossibility of knowledge. Woodbridge took the human activities of perceiving, thinking, and even knowing all to be matters of particular sorts of cooperation between bodies (in particular, human bodies) in Nature. The immediate objects of thought were, on his view, identical with the very objects whose activities and cooperation constitute Nature’s processes. While not yet knowledge, experience was, Woodbridge maintained, a completely reliable source of knowledge of the world. Human perception always reveals Nature as it really is, given the conditions in which the perceiver’s body cooperates with the other bodies in its environment. Cognitive errors, including illusions, hallucinations, etc., are not a matter of deceptive experience but rather result from human judgments made in a state of ignorance about the natures of the objects and the conditions involved.

Understanding experience as he did, Woodbridge claimed that a realistic metaphysics adequate to human experience would identify three types of structure, or “realms of being,” in Nature. For him this meant that Nature was, first and foremost, the “visible world,” that is, a spatial realm with a built-in optical structure. Human experience reveals a continuous structure of connected but inherently perspectival positions, each of which is circumscribed by its own horizon. This understanding of Nature’s spatial structure had interesting consequences, such as parallel lines always meeting at the horizon, but Woodbridge maintained that this is what experience demanded. While Woodbridge emphasized vision because he held that this mode of experience reveals Nature’s most common and public structure, he recognized that human beings also experience Nature as a dynamic context of activities or processes, and thus as a temporal realm. In fact, he considered the spatial and temporal realms inseparable since their combination was a necessary precondition for the physical activities of bodies (including human bodies). In addition to these two structures, however, Woodbridge held that realistic inquiry also discovers a third realm of being. Taking human thinking as a bodily activity involving a kind of cooperation with other bodies (the objects of thought), he claimed that Nature had to be structured in a way that made this type of bodily cooperation possible. He concluded that Nature must also include an objective logical structure, what he called the “realm of mind.” Because the objects of thought related in this realm are the same objects that human beings experience as spatio-temporally related, the realm of mind is also inseparable from the spatial and temporal realms. Their explicit connection in thought (discovering the spatio-temporal relations of objects through discovery of their logical relations) was, in fact, how Woodbridge understood knowledge. In describing the realm of mind, Woodbridge co-opted terminology from the objective idealism influential in his day. He called objects in their logical relations “ideas” and the world of logically structured objects discovered in human knowledge “objective mind.” For Woodbridge, however, ideas were not subjective and objective mind was no kind of subject. Moreover, knowledge in no way constructed the objects known; their natures and logical relations were an objective aspect of reality discovered in inquiry.

A final, somewhat surprising aspect of Woodbridge’s philosophy was his view that realism and naturalism require one to acknowledge the supernatural in addition to Nature. This is surprising because it appears to violate naturalism in two ways: 1) by admitting something beyond Nature, and 2) by accepting a dualism. While there is a sense in which Woodbridge’s philosophy did both of these things, it remained a coherent naturalism by giving the supernatural a natural basis without reducing or eliminating it. His starting point was a recognition of the fact that, while still a part of Nature, human beings engage in creative and valuing activities that involve the setting and pursuing of ideals. These ideals are not provided by Nature (considered apart from human beings), since Nature exhibits no preferences among states of affairs, and they look beyond Nature by aspiring to transcend how things are. Woodbridge called this aspect of human life the “pursuit of happiness” in contrast with the pursuit of knowledge, and he considered human spiritual and moral activities paradigmatic forms of this pursuit. As a realist, he held that morality and religion are shown to be real through their occurrence in human experience. Thus, while Nature considered apart from human ideals contains no values or divinity, it must include the conditions necessary for their reality. Nature therefore provides the basis for its own transcendence in human activity. Unlike the three realms of being, however, this “moral order” is not something that can be given a scientific account; the supernatural is not a realm of knowledge. Woodbridge held that while moral and religious discourse appears to make claims about the activities and natures of objects, their grounding in human ideals makes their function expressive rather than cognitive. Utterances involving supernatural (including moral) terms do not have truth-values, since they are not about how things are. Statements of religious faith, for example, putative claims about the nature of God or about the divine aspect of human beings, should be taken not as statements of fact, but as an expression of devotion to certain values and ideals. For Woodbridge, a supernatural notion like God is a regulating ideal. In contrast with Kant, however, on Woodbridge’s view the notion of God is not a regulating ideal of reason but rather of the pursuit of happiness in the Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia. While not clearly making good on all of Woodbridge’s realist aspirations, this non-cognitivist account at least makes room for some sort of acknowledgement of the supernatural within a naturalistic framework.

(See the Works on Woodbridge page for the sources for this summary.)

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