Magazine article Free Inquiry

The Significance of American Philosophical Naturalism

Magazine article Free Inquiry

The Significance of American Philosophical Naturalism

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A full-length critical study of the naturalistic movement in the United States of America, from John Fiske to John Dewey and since, remains to be written. Meanwhile, the current renewal of interest in naturalism as a general philosophy with metaphysical import represents a radical shift from the protean analytic movement that dominated our academic philosophic scene until recently and that should have been exactly called "glosso-analytic" (from glossa, meaning "language" in Greek), on the ground that it deliberately reduces its whole anti-metaphysical function of philosophy to the analysis of language, its uses and abuses.

Whether openly acknowledged or not, the guiding principle implicit at least in contemporary American naturalism is what Morris R. Cohen explicitly termed (after Schelling) "the principle of polarity." The naturalistic principle of polarity may be succinctly defined as the general method of analysis that reinterprets mutually exclusive concepts in philosophical discussions as distinguishable yet inseparable poles (aspects or phases) of their particular subject matters that complement each other. To illustrate, once the polarity principle is applied to the Grand Debate between British empiricism and Continental rationalism, it necessarily follows that their respective methodological concepts of sense experience and reason are no longer to be treated partially as separate cognitive criteria at interminable war with each other, but, instead, as complementary phases of the same basic method of natural science, without which no reliable knowledge of nature is possible.

In other words, the flagrant flaw in the empiricism-rationalism controversy from Descartes to the early Kant is that both parties involved were barking up the wrong tree by reducing the pivotal problem of scientific methodology in early modern European philosophy to simplistic alternatives. On closer examination, the American naturalist's anti-reductionistic principle of polarity turns out to be an instrumental principle of complementarity, strictly speaking.

Turning from the methodological to the metaphysical and social significance of American philosophical naturalism, its leaders and followers are committed to a functionalistic and possibilistic theory of nature: Nature is as nature does and undoes. However, as should be expected, there are many variations on the general theme of nature among the American naturalists themselves, but this is not the occasion to go into such details. Suffice it to state briefly what nature in relation to human beings is and is not from a naturalistic standpoint.

Positively stated, nature may be conceived as the tantalizing power that, on the one hand, keeps prompting us, as striving animals by birth, to pursue all kinds of interests (harmonious or clashing), only to disappoint us sooner or later by interfering somehow, ironically enough, with our perfectly natural goal to succeed in actually fulfilling them as desirable objects of value whenever possible and justifiable. Negatively stated, nature (like the Petrine God) is no respecter of persons and makes no odious comparisons between people, be they male or female, black or white, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, high or low on the totem pole. Such offensive comparisons are not the product of that unique part of nature called human nature, but rather the outgrowth of one's particular culture, which fortunately is subject to human control in that one can ultimately choose to behave otherwise, socially and morally.

The humanistic and social implications of a thoroughly naturalistic theory of nature should be quite obvious from what we have just said, but what is not so obvious is their significant relevance to some of the current divisive problems in American life. To appreciate the relevance of those implications to such problems, we must return to the naturalist's complementary principle of polarity and apply it, by way of illustration, to the important issue of educational multiculturalism at the present time. …

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