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Summary Article: Perry, Ralph Barton from Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

American. b: 3 July 1876, Poultney, Vermont. d: 22 January 1957, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cat: New realist and pragmatist. Ints: Philosophy of value theoies; American philosophy. Educ: Princeton and Harvard Universties. Infls: William James. Appts: Williams College, 1899–1900; Smith College, 1900–2; Harvard, 1902–46.

Main publications:
  • (1905) The Approach to Philosophy, and Longmans New York. .
  • (1912) ‘A realistic theory of independence’, in Holt, Edwin, et al., The New Realism, Macmillan New York, pp. 99–151. .
  • (1912) Present Philosophical Tendencies: A Critical Survey of Naturalism, Idealism, and Realism, Longmans New York. .
  • (1918) The Present Conflict of Ideals: A Study of the Philosophical Background of the World War, Longmans New York. .
  • (1926) General Theory of Value, and Longmans New York. .
  • (1927) Philosophy of the Recent Past: An Outline of European and American Philosophy since 1860, and Scribner’s London. .
  • (1931) A Defence of Philosophy, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass.. .
  • (1935) The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass.. .
  • (1938) In the Spirit of William James, . .
  • (1945) One World in the Making, Current Books, Inc New York. .
  • (1948) The Thought and Character of William James, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass.. .
  • (1954) Realms of Value: A Critique of Human Civilization, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass. .
  • Secondary literature:
  • Kuklick, Bruce (1977) The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860–1930, : Yale University Press, chapter 18. .

  • A youthful call to the Presbyterian ministry was transformed into that of ‘teacher and scholar’ when Perry ‘migrated’ from Princeton to Harvard, trading religion for philosophy. At Harvard he chose the ‘way of James with its ‘youthful spirit of revolt’ over the more conservative way of Royce. From then on his ‘true’ religion would contain whatever ‘confirms man’s humanity to man’ (CAP II, p. 208). Support for those confirming causes was expressed in a succession of writings, one of which (1945) is listed above. His applied philosophy was supported, in turn, by his theoretical work.

    One of the leaders of the new realism, Perry argued for realism and against what he took to be its rivals: idealism, pragmatism and naturalism. His primary target was idealism, against which he argued that idealists misread the ‘egocentric predicament’, concluding fallaciously that since everything humans know is an idea, reality must be ideational. Against pragmatism he argued that pragmatists were so obsessed by their opposition to idealism that they overemphasized ‘the standpoint of practical belief (1912, p. 39). His argument against naturalism (in both its forms, materialism and positivism) was that it is a philosophical generalization of science, and science is not the whole of truth. The field is left, then, to realism with its principle of ‘the independence of the immanent’ (ibid. p. 313): things known are immanent in the knowledge relation while sustaining non-cognitive relations with each other.

    The rejection of pragmatism is somewhat puzzling, unless selective, since he held that the new realists work ‘within the spirit of William James’ and he contrasted Schiller’s version of pragmatism with ‘James’s realism’ (1935, II, p. 510). His interest theory of value was naturalistic, and compatible with both realism and pragmatism. All of this leads us to class him as both realist and pragmatist.

    For Perry value is any object of any interest. Interest involves expectation, having a forward reference, ‘a striving after the not-yet-attained’ (1926, p. 250). Values are ranked by their interests’ degrees of intensity, preference and inclusiveness. Inclusiveness implies the integration or harmonizing of interests, each person seeking to harmonize the interests of one’s own specific life. When conflict appears in the interests of a group the harmonizing or organizing of interests appears as morality: ‘Morality takes conflict as its point of departure and harmony of interests as its goal’ (1954, p. 87). For individual and group, ‘harmonious happiness’ is both the norm of morality and its goal (i.e. the summum bonum). The norm has the advantage of being able to appeal to all persons jointly.

    All successful institutions practise integration of interests for the benefit of their members and, among social forms, democracy is best adapted to the implementations of this norm. Identifying morality with democracy, Perry was able to ‘do good’ by defending the cause of democracy in both World Wars, lauding the moral superiority of the Western Allied cause, insisting on the compatibility (in the West) of human freedom and military conscription, and urging that since democracy ‘implies international organization as a phase of its own development’ (1945, p. 97), morality demands a ‘league of humanity’. He therefore supported the form that league assumed at the close of each World War. He also found a strong link between democracy and science, and argued for welfare and for a regulated version of capitalism. Supporting the right of educators to refuse to testify before Congressional committees when charged with subversion, he was himself investigated by the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1954.

    Sources: CAP II.

    © 1996 Routledge

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