Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Review of J. E. Turner, A Theory of Direct Realism.  New York: Macmillan Co., 1925.  From The Philosophical Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, January 1927, 76-80.

Posted May 13, 2008


Brand Blanshard

In this book the author attempts three principal tasks: first, to state and defend a theory which approaches to naive realism; second, to fortify his position by criticisms of some rival theories of knowledge; third, to reconcile his views with a system which has often, though he thinks mistakenly, been opposed to realism, the absolute idealism of Hegel.

I. By “direct realism” the writer means a theory in which no representative factor at all is admitted in perception, a theory in which the mind is considered to be “in immediate contact and relation with the external world as this actually exists” (p. 8).  The “sensed contents” of ordinary experience—sizes, odors, colors—are not symbols of things out there, nor are they copies of them; there is an “unqualified identity between sensed content and reality” (p. 67).  This is not merely an assumption; it is a conclusion which Dr. Turner thinks is forced on us gradually and implicitly in the course of early life.

I suppose that the crucial instance for this as for all forms of realism is error, and it is interesting to note the author’s method of dealing with this. The sensed content of illusion, he says, is just as physical as that of true perception.  When I see a reflection in a mirror, the various sensible qualities actually exist there; they have merely become “dissociated from the real object” to which they belong (p. 80).  Appearances are always “contained parts” of the real world (p. 173), and as such are not to be dismissed as figments of the mind.  Are we then to say that every object which comes before the mind, including dreams, hallucinations and the characters of fiction, exist out there before us?  No; this, Dr. Turner thinks, would be extreme.  Images must be regarded as mental and subjective; they are not composed of sense content, and differ from it not only in degree but in kind (p. 181). Nevertheless, the author admits that there is so close a resemblance between them that the two are often confused (p. 243), and that in the case of the setting sun sense-content may be “indistinguishably merged with the positive after-image” (p. 191).  Now it seems to me that the admission of these facts, which was unavoidable, reduces the convincingness of the theory.  Dr. Turner is bent on proving that the appearances of objects cannot be produced by the organism, that the organism is merely the instrument through which the characters of the external world are accurately revealed.  But when it is admitted that slight modifications of the organism can produce numberless images and hallucinations indistinguishable from reality, it becomes hard to believe that in its dealing with the sense content of perception it keeps its hands so scrupulously off.

2. The meaning of direct realism becomes clearer as the author contrasts it successively with other well-known views.  Although his theory “was elaborated in complete independence of Professor Alexander’s work,” his final conclusions are very much the same. Various differences are enumerated, but there is only one, I think, of first importance: for Mr. Turner images are mental, for Mr. Alexander they are not.  With Stout the writer agrees that sense data belong to the material world; but he holds that Professor Stout’s position, denying as it does that our sense data are actual parts of physical things, leads to a doctrine very like Kant’s of the thing-it-self.  And this doctrine, he holds, not only means skepticism; it is a doctrine whose conclusion can have no grounds if our sense knowledge is really as limited as it claims.  In the course of an effective chapter, a very similar judgment is passed on critical realism.  His view of this theory is put trenchantly in a dilemma: “If it maintains its universal distinction between physical things themselves beyond our consciousness, and their perceived or apparent sense characters, then it becomes a noumenalism.  But if on the other hand it founds its affirmations on instinctive belief, it forfeits all title to be regarded as a philosophic system . . .” (p. 129). The critical realist, “in his dread of the Scylla of naive realism, is finally overwhelmed in the Charybdis of subjectivism, from which he attempts to escape on the raft of representationism” (p. 131).  Bravo! the reviewer would add.  Professor Broad is dealt with in not dissimilar fashion.  If we can correlate our sense data with physical things, as Mr. Broad says, then we must know these things directly; and if we can’t, there is no reason to say that we know them at all (p. 178).

Dr. Turner deals also with some of those current theories that verge more closely on idealism.  Mr. Russell is found full of inconsistency.  Sometimes he speaks of the physical object as if it were a system of appearances, sometimes as if it were a special appearance that we gain from a particular position; and having taken the latter view, he then implies a third, inconsistent with both the others, namely that there is an “it” which has these appearances.  Sensations are taken sometimes as in the object, sometimes as in the brain, etc.  Dr. Turner’s remark, twice offered, that Mr. Russell’s realism “is, at bottom, a mere revival of Hume’s ontology” is more true, one suspects, than is sometimes realized.

The criticisms of Kemp Smith’s views do not appear equally effective.  Three chief charges are brought.  (a) Professor Smith’s reasoning, it is held, is circular.  He holds that in the simplest sense experience there are involved the “intuitions” of space and time and the use by the understanding of the categories.  At the same time he holds that “discursive thought and developed conception are subsequent to perception” (p. 105).  And if conception is in this way made the condition of sense, it can hardly also be made the outgrowth.  Dr. Turner himself has made note of the natural reply, which lies in the distinction between the implicit use of conception in early experience and its explicit use later on.  Surely we can only suppose that Kemp Smith takes this distinction for granted, so thoroughly incredible does his view otherwise become.  (b) It is charged that on his view, the limits of our knowledge become extremely narrow, since “if any real permanent physical entities exist, other than shapes, sizes and motions, they must be purely noumenal” (p. 109).  These shapes, etc., we know to exist because we can intuit them; but the sensa are mere events, caused presumably by objects which themselves remain unknown.  Thus our knowledge is seriously limited.  This, I think, is sound commentary, though it may be remarked that the unpleasantness of this limitation does not make it the less likely to be true, and again that when realism is said to become in the hands of Kemp Smith “so exiguous as to be practically worthless” (p. 102) the criticism is overstated.  (c) The line between sensing and intuiting is held to be gratuitous, the objects of both being really on the same level.  Mental process, it is argued, must admittedly be aroused by something; in the case of sensation what is this something?  Not the spaces, times and motions of things, since these, Kemp Smith maintains, will arouse, not sensing, but intuiting.  What else, then, but the sensa?  And these sensa cannot be subjective, for if so they could not serve as a filling for objective space and time.  Hence they themselves are objective.  And if so, then the objects of sense and of intuition are arrived at in the same way, and the distinction may as well be abandoned for direct realism.

This conclusion is questionable.  For Kemp Smith has argued elaborately that sensa are not spatial at all in the sense of being extended.  We can guess how, through a long process of association they have come to be thought so, but this thought is a mistake.  To urge upon one who holds such a view that for the sake of an objective filling for space and time the sensa must be taken as “real properties of the initial causal physical objects” (p. 112) can hardly be effective.  Such filling is for him unnecessary.

Dr. Turner discusses at some length the place of causation in the theory of knowledge. Following Dr. Broad, he distinguishes two principal views.  According to the first, the instrumental theory, our bodies are the instruments or channels by means of which we come to a knowledge of things as they really are.  According to the second, the causal theory, the body gives rise to our percepts when stimulated to do so, and whether these percepts resemble what exists outside remains an open question.  Dr. Turner adopts the instrumental theory, admitting, however, an element of truth in the other.  It is not the content of our perceptions, he says, which is caused by the brain; it is merely the process of perceiving; and this, when brought into play, lays hold directly of the features of the real world.  This theory is ingenious, but scarcely, I think, convincing.  Apart from our previous difficulty, that the organism in the case of images can produce both process and content, is there not a touch of fairyland in a cerebral mechanism that, by some inconceivable process, can unstop and then stop up again the white ray of apprehension which, issuing from the depths of the mind, casts a pure and undistorting illumination upon a foreign circle of objects?  It would be difficult, again, to reconcile this view with any convincing treatment of pain and pleasure.  Since these are not images, there is apparently no reason, on Dr. Turner’s theory, for calling their content mental, and yet to say that the organic cause of feeling does not play a part in determining the nature of the pain we feel falls short of being plausible.  How far such criticism is fair I am rather uncertain, since one misses in the book any adequate discussion of the place in a realistic theory of such experiences as pleasure and pain.

3. In the concluding chapters of the book, Dr. Turner attempts to show that although his theory is realistic, it is still possible to combine it with a world view which is substantially Hegelian, since Hegel’s treatment of experience is “wholly free from subjectivism” (p. 266).  The realist may hold, like the idealist, that “what is actual is reasonable, and what is reasonable is actual”—actuality and rationality are, at bottom, one and the same; and in taking up this attitude, realism expands into a more profound idealism . . . .” (p. 320).  Dr. Turner has done a valuable service in thus emphasising how far Hegel was from any sort of subjective idealism, and in insisting that idealism does not rest, as has so often been claimed, upon any theory of knowledge.  It is suspected, however, that most realists will find it difficult to reconcile their desire for a theory by which we see things just as they are with a theory which holds that the characters we see are real only as transmuted in the light of an all-embracing system.

This is a very able book, and the large volume of footnotes and appendices reveals an extraordinary range of philosophic reading. Unfortunately it is not well written.  The style cannot be called obscure, but its cumbrousness leaves the effect of obscurity nevertheless. Nothing is put quite simply.  If the author wishes to say of sensed content that it is what science always deals with, he says that it “constitutes the perennial objective of scientific investigation” (p. 27); if he wishes to say that “pure sensing, of course, is not knowing, if indeed it ever occurs,” he says, “that pure sensing (if it ever occurs) can have no specifically cognitive function is a truism” (p. 176).  And so through three hundred pages.  But to single out our present writer for special criticism in this matter would be unfair.  Is there something about the theory of knowledge that demoralises the literary sense of all who write on it?  When one recalls all his struggling and irritated hours in the desert of recent books on epistemology, one is strongly tempted to think so.  The only preventive of despair is the thought that the impossible has been done—that books on epistemology which were at once technical and readable have actually been produced, and that therefore somehow, somewhere and by someone, such a book may be produced again.

Blanshard page