Editor's comment

In language rich with
meaning, where almost every sentence is worthy of deep consideration, Edman defines the world-view of naturalism.

He advances the idea
of a "common sense" philosophy; recognition that there is a real
material world with which we must come to terms. He believes that such a naturalistic philosophy was and is everyone's possession and that it supports both morals and ideals.

Naturalism abandons
the crutch of an unseen world and describes without illusion man's place in the universe. It requires courage because it means giving up the sense
of a special purpose for humans. It is faith in the unity and causality of
nature. It is philosophy as nature understood.


Edman, Irwin, Four Ways of Philosophy, Henry Holt, New York 1937 [Chapter 4, abridged– 3000 words] — a philosophy both realistic and beautiful

Naturalism– philosophy as nature understood

All philosophers, of course, think of themselves as understanding nature, and regard their philosophies as the faithful translation into the syntax of discourse of the syntax of things… But there is a tradition coming from the Greeks which has possibly a little more claim to the distinction of being simply nature understood.

There is a stream of thought beginning with Democritus that has sedulously eschewed going beyond the world of phenomena, that has tried scrupulously to remain within the circle of experienced objects and events and their discoverable relations. This philosophy has tried to refrain from going to a world beyond the world, to a friend behind phenomena...

Naturalism is the name generally attached to that point view in the history of thought which tries with intellectual modesty and moral candor to frame a systematic vision of things in terms of what critical knowledge and effective human practice reveal them to be…

Philosophers so minded have called nature that circle of objects and events with which men are initially familiar, which they fruitfully explore, and which, in their lives they are constrained to respect and to understand as both the instrument and the obstacle to their desires.

To be the mouthpiece of nature, and to describe without illusion man’s place in it, is certainly the highest ambition of a philosopher. To be such requires courage. It requires abstention from all allegations, high and soothing, of nature’s providential arrangements for man’s purposes, and courage to follow the lineaments of nature in understanding, no matter what such following may mean in the abandonment of hopes and wishes…

A certain rough and ready naturalism has always been imposed upon men, whatever they may say in their books—a recognition of nature in the characteristic traits of the environment with which they have to deal, in the habits and impulses of their own bodies and in the practical necessities imposed upon them by things and by their impulses toward and their need for things. The facts of food and of hunger and the relation between them have made men naturalists in practice…

Common sense has been a persistent philosophy in all ages, although it has not always been the most fashionable, or the most articulate or the officially acknowledged one.

…[I]t very early occurred to thinkers… that, whatever be the confusion and chaos or miscellany of things, we are after all living in one universe, and that if we could penetrate surfaces sufficiently, all the variety of things might be found to be variations of one substance, changes effected somehow in one fundamental and essentially changeless stuff…

These early Greek thinkers were making one of the most audacious and fruitful leaps of human imagination. They were the first to realize that all substance might be variations of one substance… and, in thinking of all things as forms of one stuff, hit at the same time upon the general principles of persistence amid transformation.

…Democritus tried by a simple and intelligible system of thought to account for both the changing and the permanent. His conception of mechanism is, in one form or another, still the technique if not the ideal of most naturalistic philosophies… All the variety of things consisted in combinations of atoms, but the combinations were according to regular though blind motions. The world was rendered intelligible in terms of “constant parts and constant laws.”

The ideal of mechanism received celebration and even exaltation at the hands of Lucretius in the ancient world. From then on, it remained for the most part buried until the rise of modern science… The permanence of the world lay in its elements; the intelligibility of its changes lay in the regularity, the constancy of its combinations. Matter in motion remains the essential formula and the persistent insight of mechanism.

It came to be unnecessary to look beyond atoms in motion for principles of explanation. Chance and caprice, supernatural interference, Providence were all removed from the universe.
It is hard to appreciate how great a leap forward and how great an emancipation mechanism is as an intellectual ideal. Men had hitherto regarded the universe as the handiwork and theater of friendly and alien powers.

The notion of a stable orderly cosmos in which, given elements and their combinations, one could make dependable predictions, in which given causes could plausibly be expected to have given effects, provided the clarity and the peace that comes with understanding. All facts have consequences; all things and all events are seen as the consequences or the antecedents of facts thus studied. Mechanism in its most general form is the indispensable correlate to a belief in causality in the sphere of life and practice. To believe that all effects have discoverable causes, all causes discoverable or calculable effects, is the irreducible “animal faith.” Without it men could not and would not plant seeds, roast meat, build boats, found schools or establish or maintain governments.

The Democritean physics seems simple, almost simple-minded now, but the analytic ideal of mechanism was revived in modern times with the rise of Newtonian science and in the thought of Descartes in philosophy. Nature was conceived as a great machine, though for various reasons, including the theological, Descartes himself felt it necessary to exclude the soul of man from that mathematically calculable system. The laws of physics… made it seem that everything on earth and indeed in the whole solar system happened according to mathematically definable regularities, another name for mechanical laws.

By the eighteenth century this had become so favorite a way of conceiving the universe that one French philosopher, La Mettrie, could write a book, immensely popular in the salons, called Man a Machine, which attempted to show that all the operations of human emotion and thought as well as all the physiological activities of the human body could be explained in terms of the laws of mechanical motion. Deists could say that the perfect machine of nature had been set in motion by God (as “natural reason” clearly revealed) or that the very conception of so perfect a machine implied an intelligent designer. A universal mechanical system could be used as an argument that that order was itself God. Spinoza said just that, and said that the true love of God was the intellectual understanding of the order of nature. Or the notion of the blind regularity of nature could be used as an argument against the presence within it of anything like a general purpose or a general directing mind…

An infinite system in which mere blind mechanical regularity ruled throughout seemed to rule out the notion of a kind and just cosmic Father whose special purpose and concern were his children, those human beings whom La Mettrie could speak of as machines, incidental mechanisms in the vast mechanism of the solar system and in no sense with any privileged status in it.

By the nineteenth century the sway of mechanical law was extended to the field of physiology and psychology, until by the twentieth century there arose psychologies, still fashionable, which could insist that all human behavior, that of a poet writing a sonnet or a thinker arriving at his conclusions, could be completely and exhaustively described and explained in purely mechanical terms…

The system of mathematico-physical notions has yielded both practical and intellectual fruits. On the practical side, the whole of modern technology, industry, and transportation have been its fruits. The conception of mechanism meant the possibility of calculation, calculation meant predictability and predictability meant control. The order of nature was not something to gape at in awe and admiration, as did Pope, or to become mystically inflamed with, as was Giordano Bruno, or resigned to, as was Spinoza. The order of nature was the order of possible operations, and to understand specific facts and their specific consequences was to be put, within limits, in control of those consequences. The whole of human progress seemed to lie within the grasp of men if they would only sufficiently explore the conditions, that is to say the mechanical relations, of the objects and events among which they lived. “Knowledge is power, Bacon had said, and three centuries of mechanical and medical triumph have confirmed his boast.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the idea had widely spread (in England under the leadership of John Stuart Mill, in France stimulated by the propaganda of Auguste Comte, the positivist) that the method of physical science applied to human affairs could be as effective in solving the problems of human relations, of government, industry, society and social institutions as it had been in the field of physical and physiological control. The method of intelligence and the mathematico-physical concept of nature seemed to go hand in hand.

What had been so powerful an instrument in the control of physical things might be equally effective in human relations, social affairs and social passions. The psychologist moved from his study into the laboratory; his language and his point of view became, as they still are in many quarters today, those of the mathematically exact worker in the field of the physical sciences. Our relative incompetence in reducing the study of social affairs and human relations to mechanical terms may have profounder reasons, but the simple reason given is that we do not as yet know enough, have not explored thoroughly enough, to measure as exactly, to define as precisely, to think as tightly in social matters as in physical ones.

These younger studies are of facts more complex but in no way different in kind from those with which the physical scientist deals. The hope still lingers among many that eventually everything from the movements of the stars to the movement of ideas in the mind of a philosopher may be reduced to mechanico-mathematical terms. Psychology itself, it is piously hoped, may eventually simply be a branch of physics, as astronomy is a cosmic yet special case of it. And in the laboratory we may some day—who knows? —cure men of all their psychical ills or even chemically produce men at will…

The cogency of naturalism as a point of view has been lately called into question. Both the stuff of nature, matter, and the billiard-ball physics of nineteenth century mechanism have recently been called into question in the fields of the sciences themselves. Matter has dissolved into centers of force or foci of energy; matter itself is simply known by what it does; in itself it is, as Herbert Spencer said, the unknowable. The scientist turns out to be dealing with the relation of events; he never deals immediately with any gross palpable stuff called matter. The simple atoms of Democritus seem absurd to the modern biochemist. The sciences of life have moreover emphasized the habits of growth, the “tropes” of development in nature, in which an inert and dead matter, made up of static, inert and lifeless atoms, seems irrelevant.

There seem, furthermore, to be elements in life and in mind not reducible to matter in motion. The phenomena of purpose, for instance, and the total reaction of an organism are not analyzable in terms of mechanical physics. The new physics itself, moreover, has reduced the whole conception of mechanism to that of a convenient system of “pointer readings.” The world that the physicist used to think of as basically real turns out to be simply the “world” of laboratory measurements and mathematical deductions, marvelously fertile in practical use, and fascinating to the intellectual virtuoso. But it is hardly nature itself in its absoluteness. No, the mechanical description of nature has no more right to call itself nature than a ticket of admission has a right to call itself the concert or a key to call itself a door. The identification of the reality of nature with the description of it in mechanical terms has certainly become suspect. “Nature is no system but that to which all our systems refer.”

But all this is far from being tantamount to saying that the naturalistic point of view has broken down. For the faith of the philosophical (not biological) naturalist is simply that there is something substantial, not our own invention, not to be wholly described by our descriptions or any descriptions of it, with which we must deal. It holds further there are no breaks in the order of events; everything that happens has consequences, and to learn to discern those causes and consequences is to understand nature…

Man is an animal living precariously, with the help of an exploring intelligence, in a process of events itself a mixture of stability and change. The world in which man lives and of which he is a part is, like himself, changing, a process of growth. Nature, far from being like a machine, is like an organism, like a plant or animal, and man is one among its flora and fauna. He happens to be so complicated an organic creature that he can think, that is, experimentally explore, imagine consequences and verify them.

The “world of nature,” in terms of the Newtonian and Cartesian world scheme, of matter in motion, left out precisely those qualities which in human experience are most precious… It rendered fantastic any alleged meaning of the universe… Moral values were a farce in an unmoral cosmic machine… The naturalistic world-view seemed (and still does seem) cold to those brought up on the warm comfort of providential myths.

All human aspirations, all apparent meaning in the universe, seemed to be rendered nugatory by the vast meaninglessness of the “blind march of matter on its relentless way.” Everything that seemed distinctively human—hope and faith and charity, spiritual ends and esthetic raptures—threatened to vanish in the scientific picture of the world. Man was an accident, an incident, a casualty, helpless and hopeless, in the relentless movement of matter in motion.

Sensitive spirits have been deeply hurt by the fact that all that constitutes human value and dignity finds no support, no guarantee, no moral status in the universe. Now, as we shall see presently, the division between man and nature is made more absolute in such a picture than it actually is. All man’s achievements are in a large sense nature’s too. It needs also to be pointed out that much of the sadness in the presence of the mechanistic picture of the world is a piece of romantic impertinence on the part of those who have it…

Naturalism transcends mechanical physics… Naturalism is simply a faith in the unity of nature… It is faith in causality… [It is an] expression of a faith that animates most human practice and must always to some degree have animated it, or human life would long ago have come to an end. Whatever they say theoretically, men do recognize a something not themselves with which they must reckon…

The violent despair that arose in the nineteenth century, therefore, as to the conflict between man and nature seems an invented sadness based on artificial dividing of what is in fact unified.
Man is one of the forms and habits of nature. The notion that man’s highest ideals are somehow pathetic oppositions to nature neglects the important fact that those ideals are themselves generated in the imagination and mind of a creature to whom thinking and imagination are themselves natural…

The so-called spiritual and moral interests and even the religious interests of man are quite as much a part and product of nature as are the brutalities of the animal kingdom or the brutalities and stupidities of men. Truth, Goodness and Beauty are not visitations or glints from an empyrean, though men enraptured have called them so. They are fruits of this world…

Naturalists in philosophy admit, and even claim, some religious impulse in man… They suppose that all that there is to religion is the theory of the universe that has been associated with it, as if it were not patent that those theories themselves arose in response to human need and as an expression of human aspiration and human feeling… However complex the religious temper, it is among other things a longing for spiritual peace. Religion indeed may be defined as the peace a man makes with the ultimate. For those [who recognize] that they are biological animals living in a world of change… the ultimate, however, is here and now, in the world that experience discloses, and not in some veiled Heaven beyond experience, and a reflective mind and sensitive spirit will need to come to terms with it…

Certainly all that is or may be is from nature, the universal mother. It is man’s source, his nourishment, his material, his reliance. It defines and sets the limits of his power. Man is umbilical to earth, says Aldous Huxley. He is umbilical to the whole movement of things. Such realization is the basis of the natural and cosmic pieties that even the most “irreligious” have felt.

But in the procedure of thinking and imagination, man thinks of goals not realized, ends not attained, imagines a world better than he has ever known and lavishes his love upon that world of his own imagings. The devotion to what men at their best may be, to what at their best they make of the world, constitutes a love that is nothing less than religious.

Man stands at the pinnacle of nature and looks beyond it to a world of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, not as a second shadow world, a super-nature, but as this world’s still unrealized, never completely to be realized, good. That vision of the best is itself a natural development, and so is the love of it which accompanies the vision:

Experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever as I move.