American Realism in the Early 20th Century

The Project

In contrast to American pragmatism, American philosophical realism is not very well researched. A comprehensive book-length treatment of American realism is still a desideratum. Having had its heyday during the first four decades of the twentieth century, the American realist movement came along in several different stages and versions, the most salient being a) direct realism, b) critical realism, and c) functional realism. It is the principal aim of the present project to explore the complex interrelation between these three varieties. The central working hypothesis is that American realism revolved around the concept of mental representation. It will be shown that direct realism, as it were, defined itself by explicitly rejecting the concept of mental representation, whereas critical and functional realism, though in deep agreement with that concept, came to significantly different conclusions concerning its explanatory role in epistemology. In order to support this claim, it will be necessary to choose a telling case study. This is provided by the American realists’ respective accounts of perception. Focusing, though not exclusively, on the views of Ralph Barton Perry (1876 – 1957), Roy Wood Sellars (1880 – 1973), and John Elof Boodin (1869 – 1950), an attempt will be made to determine the characteristic features of and differences between the diverse realist approaches to perception. Among the questions to be pursued, the following are decisive: How was American realism related to American pragmatism, specifically to William James’ and John Dewey’s critical attitudes toward the late nineteenth-century American idealist movement around Josiah Royce? How did it come about that direct realism rapidly declined in the late 1910s? And exactly at which point did critical and functional realism begin to part ways? In terms of method, the project aims at a minute historical reconstruction, partly based on hitherto unknown archival sources, combined with a critical examination of the crucial arguments advanced by the defenders of the particular realist currents. Moreover, substantial contextualization will be provided by accounting for the scientific environment of American realism, especially by exploring the American realists’ reception of both behaviorist and Gestalt psychology, on the one hand, and evolutionary biology, on the other. The expected overall gain of the project is a reliable comparative survey of one of the most revealing programmatic episodes in the history of American philosophy. Connections with current discussions in epistemology and the philosophy of mind shall be addressed as well, including the surprising revival of direct realist accounts. Furthermore, some broader lessons for the history of early twentieth-century philosophy will be drawn, particularly concerning the European roots of American realism in the late nineteenth-century German-speaking philosophical landscape (especially Alois Riehl and Oswald Külpe).