Bertrand Russell’s relationship to the American philosophical realism of the early twentieth century is both highly interesting and little explored. In the present paper, I shall shed some light on this under-investigated chapter in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. My principal thesis is that Russell’s attitude toward American realism was ambiguous: on the one hand he heartily welcomed the movement of so-called new or neo-realism; on the other hand, he—quite offensively—distanced himself from the movement called critical realism that emerged somewhat later. In doing so, I argue, Russell was instrumental in preparing an analytic-continental divide within American philosophy itself.Footnote 1

I will proceed as follows. In Sect. 1, I shall briefly introduce the two main varieties of early twentieth-century American realism, that is, new and critical realism. Section 2 is devoted to Russell’s engagement with the new realists, while Sect. 3 deals with his position on critical realism. The concluding Sect. 4 draws some consequences regarding the analytic-continental divide within early twentieth-century American philosophy.

1 Two Varieties of Early Twentieth-Century American Realism

To begin with, American philosophical realism of the early twentieth century developed in two distinct varieties. Historically, the new or neo-realism came first. Emerged as a more or less direct reaction to the “absolute idealism” of Josiah Royce (for details see Neuber, forthcoming a), the neo-realist movement partook at what W. H. Werkmeister, in his classic A History of Philosophical Ideas in America, called “the new spirit of science” (1949, p. 370). Indeed, the new realists were impressed by the developments in contemporary psychology and evolutionary biology, but also by the advent of modern, symbolic logic. All these disciplines fed into their philosophical agenda and served as the basis for their writings, which revolved primarily around the topics of consciousness and perception. In short, the American neo-realists saw themselves as representatives of a scientific philosophy.

To be more concrete, this first realist wave in early twentieth-century American philosophy took its start with the manifesto “The Program and First Platform of Six Realists”, published in 1910 in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. This was followed in 1912 by a nearly 500-page collaborative volume entitled The New Realism: Coöperative Studies in Philosophy. Contributors to this volume were Harvard psychologist Edwin B. Holt (1873–1946), William Pepperell Montague (1873–1953) and Ralph Barton Perry (1876–1957), both also of Harvard, Walter T. Marvin (1872–1944) of Rutgers, the psychologist Walter B. Pitkin (1876–1957) of Columbia University, and Edward Gleason Spaulding (1873–1940) of Princeton University. The outlook of these six realists was realistic in that it asserted the independence of the objects of perception, urged an emancipation of metaphysics from epistemology, and argued for the externality of relations. What was new was that it explicitly distinguished itself from indirect, representational realism in the sense of René Descartes and especially John Locke.

The second realist wave in early twentieth-century American philosophy culminated with the volume Essays in Critical Realism: A Co-Operative Study of the Problem of Knowledge, published in (1920). The authors of the volume were Durant Drake (1878–1933) of Columbia University, Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) of Johns Hopkins University, James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) of Williams College, Arthur K. Rogers (1868–1936) of Yale University, George Santayana (1863–1952), formerly of Columbia University, but then as a freelance writer in Rome, and the philosopher-psychologist C. A. Strong (1862–1940), who also had taught at Columbia but, from 1906 on, just like Santayana preferred to spend his life in Italy (more concretely as the spouse of Bessie Rockefeller in Fiesole, near Florence). The outlook of this particular group of realists was realistic in that, like neo-realism, it asserted the independence of the objects of perception; but unlike neo-realism, it assumed a kind of indirect, representational account of mediation in the perceptual process. It was critical in that it rejected the alleged naïve—direct or straight presentational—approach of the neo-realists to perception and argued in terms of what Lovejoy and Sellars liked to call “epistemological dualism”. Sellars, for example, pointed out as early as 1918:

The very gist of the difference between neo-realism and critical realism is that the knowledge-content, or object of awareness, is […] numerically distinct from the existent or object of knowledge. The only justification of the phrase epistemological dualism resides in this fact. The existent acknowledged, but not given, is the object, while the mental content given is the material and content of knowledge, but not the object. (Sellars 1918, p. 507)

Lovejoy, in his later—quite famous—The Revolt Against Dualism (1930), emphatically justified and strongly defended what he saw as the unbridgeable gulf between the epistemological dualism of the critical realists, on the one hand, and the epistemological monism of the rivaling neo-realists, on the other. I will come back to this point later.

2 Russell and New Realism

Turning now to Russell’s relationship to this dual movement inside American realism, the first thing to realize is that he, in 1911, immediately reacted to the American neo-realists’ manifesto from 1910. In a short article entitled “The Basis of Realism”, Russell made it clear that the neo-realist manifesto “gives expression to a growing movement in philosophy in a way which deserves the gratitude of all who are in sympathy with that movement” (1911, p. 158). And he continued: “I find myself in almost complete agreement with the six realists” (ibid.). Indeed, the views of Russell and the neo-realists overlapped in many respects: both argued for the externality of relations, both strived to maintain close contact with common sense and science, and both rejected any form of a priori construction.

As for the reception of Russell’s writings by the neo-realists, it is striking that these writings were massively invoked in the New Realism volume from 1912. Perry and especially Spaulding repeatedly referred to Russell to bolster their respective cases, that is, Perry the independence of the objects of perception and Spaulding the method of analysis (see Perry (1912, p. 137); Spaulding (1912, pp. 166, 169, 170, 176, 182, 185, 187, 190, 202, 206, 210); see further Spaulding (1918) and the reconstruction in Neuber (2022)). What is more, in his 1914 The Concept of Consciousness, Holt celebrated Russell as the messiah of modern logic. The first four chapters of Holt’s book are devoted to what he called the “renaissance of logic” (1914, p. 1), and Russell is seen as the crucial figure in this development. More generally, Holt declares: “The subject of formal logic, which for many years had progressed very little if indeed at all, has been taken up once more, and this time by investigators whose first interest is mathematics rather than philosophy” (ibid.).Footnote 2 Moreover, Holt, like the other neo-realists, agreed with Russell in rejecting idealism and deflating the concept of consciousness (although regarding the latter, the neo-realists were even more inspired by William James).

In 1914, Russell visited Harvard University as a guest professor. He had been in correspondence with Perry since 1910, who invited him to come to Harvard. Russell gave two lecture courses during the three-month spring term of 1914, an introductory lecture on the “Theory of Knowledge” and an advanced lecture on “Logic” (See Willis (1989, p. 9)). Particularly regarding logic, Russell wrote in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell dated May 26, 1914: “I have persuaded Perry, and he has persuaded the other ‘six realists,’ that logic is the important thing, and they all are going to try and learn it. That is one of the things I hoped to achieve here, so I am glad it has happened” (Griffin 1992, p. 508). Interestingly, there were at Harvard at that time Henry M. Scheffer and C. I. Lewis, two students of Perry (and Royce, who in fact taught the Harvard logic courses) who later became important, if not famous, logicians. Also, in 1919/1920 Perry published a volume together with Scheffer entitled Logic Cases for Philosophy C (see Perry and Scheffer (1919–1920)).

From what has been said so far, it is not difficult to see that Russell and the American neo-realists considered themselves allies. In his 1921 The Analysis of Mind, Russell again refers to American neo-realism and states:

The interests of this school are in general philosophy and the philosophy of the sciences, rather than in psychology; they have derived a strong impulsion from James but have more interest than he had in logic and mathematics and the abstract part of philosophy. (Russell 1921, p. 9)

This is entirely correct. One should be aware, however, that Russell qualifies his statement by claiming that “the American realists are partly right, though not wholly, in considering that both mind and matter are composed of a neutral stuff which, in isolation, is neither mental nor material” (ibid.). This comment undoubtedly pertains to the neo-realists’ indebtedness to James’ ‘neutral monism,’ according to which mind and matter are indeed composed of the same stuff, differing only by the perspective of research (see James (1912); further Mach (1886, ch. 1)).Footnote 3 To be specific, it was primarily Holt who, in his The Concept of Consciousness, combined this Jamesian viewpoint with a more rigid and thus more ‘logical’ approach to the mind–body problem.Footnote 4 More importantly, in chapter XII of his book, Holt criticizes Russell’s conception of mental images at length and attempts to strip mental imagery of its autonomy. Russell, for his part, thinks that the neo-realists go too far at this point; but that is a topic in itself.

3 Russell and Critical Realism

The relationship between Russell and American critical realism is more intricate. Note that the first of the critical realists to comment on Russell’s work was Santayana. Thus, in a review of Russell’s Philosophical Essays (1910), Santayana highlights Russell’s view of mathematics, identifying mathematics itself with a particular “realm of essences” (1911, p. 60), while completely rejecting Russell’s ethical views. Strong, in a review of Russell’s The Analysis of Mind, explicitly agrees with what he calls Russell’s “sensualistic psychology” (1922, p. 307), but at the same time expresses reservations about Russell’s theory of knowledge, especially in emphasizing that meanings or essences, and not, as Russell thinks, pure sensational data, are crucial to perception. Lovejoy, in his aforementioned The Revolt Against Dualism, devotes two whole chapters to criticizing Russell’s epistemological views, which he sees in partial—and fatal—proximity to the idealist viz. fictionalist positions of George Berkeley and Hans Vaihinger (see Lovejoy (1930, ch.s VI and VII)). On the other hand, Lovejoy regards the position advocated in Russell’s The Analysis of Mind as “a curious mixture of phenomenalist and realist prejudices” (1930, p. 203; emphasis added).

Be that as it may, a more coherent critical realist critique of both Russell and American neo-realism came from Roy Wood Sellars. In an article entitled “Current Realism in Great Britain and United States”, published in 1927, Sellars points out: “In his theory of knowledge, Russell has moved from a position akin to that of Brentano and Meinong to one which approaches American neo-realism” (1927, p. 509). Sellars goes on to emphasize that the new realists around Perry rely on the Russellian “logic of analysis” as giving “their epistemology its foundation” (513). And he immediately adds: “It may be that they were deceived in this belief, but it cannot be denied that it helped to bring about that efflorescence of mathematical logic so characteristic of Harvard, as it is of Cambridge” (ibid.).Footnote 5 Notably, in his The Philosophy of Physical Realism of 1932, Sellars again comments on Russell and the American neo-realists, claiming that the view defended in Russell’s The Analysis of Mind is quite close to the “perspective of American neo-realism” (1932/1966, p. 113). Similar to Strong, Sellars insists on a strict demarcation of perception and mere percepts, which he equates with sense data, from perceiving, which according to him is interpretatively directed toward external things. While, Sellars maintains, for Russell and the American neo-realists sense data are terminal, from the perspective of critical realism they are merely functional in that they “guide” the perceptual process that enables us to refer to things transcending the purely sensory realm (for further details see Neuber (2020, Sects. 4 and 5)). It is precisely this difference in perspective that Sellars points to in the following passage from his 1962 article “American Critical Realism and British Theories of Sense-Perception:”

Several times in meeting him [Russell] at Ann Arbor, I tried to get him interested in my analysis of perceiving as involving an integration of stimulus with response in which sensations play a guiding and deciphering role but he was too dominated by the traditional idea that percepts are sensations plus images to get my point. But, surely, perceiving things is not having percepts. Reference, transcendence and claims, or verdicts, are left out in such a translation. The subjectivist curtain has come down. (1962/1966, p. 483)

What Sellars spent a lifetime trying to establish was a view of perception or, better, perceiving according to which it is both direct and mediated. But that, again, is a topic in itself.Footnote 6

4 Russell and the US-Realists: Prelude to an Intra-American Analytic-Continental Divide?

In this final section of my paper, I want to draw some conclusions for our understanding of what happened in early twentieth-century American philosophy. The conventional wisdom is that various forms of idealism dominated American philosophy until the beginning of the twentieth century, and that then the pragmatists gained the upper hand. This view of things is distorting and reductive, and to that extent historically incorrect. True, there was an anti-idealist ‘revolt’ around 1900. But the driving force in this context was the neo-realist movement, rather than the pragmatists. Thus, both Perry and Montague expressed explicit criticism of the absolute idealism of their teacher Royce as early as 1902 (see Perry (1902) and Montague (1902)). At that time, pragmatism was still in the background. One researcher even goes so far as to claim that “there never was a period of Pragmatic dominance in American academic philosophy” (Campbell 2007, p. 3) and that “Realism […] was the primary perspective in American philosophy after about 1900” (7). Similarly, as early as 1950, in an article entitled “The Emergence of American Philosophy”, May Brodbeck contrasted two rival currents of early twentieth-century anti-idealist philosophy in the United States, namely the “analytic school” and the “pragmatist school”, with the former being largely identical to the neo-realist movement around Perry, Montague, and Holt (see Brodbeck (1950, pp. 39–40)). According to Brodbeck, neo-realism and the analytic school were quite obviously distinguished from the pragmatist movement around James and Dewey by their “use of logical tools” (51).Footnote 7 Neo-realism thus proved to be an early American, as it were proto-analytic, “technical approach to the problems of philosophy” (Brodbeck (1950, p. 51); for similar assessments, see Kuklick (1977, pp. 349–350), Misak (2013, pp. 122–123), Soames (2014, p. 5)). Indeed, modern—Russellian—logic was considered by the neo-realists as a central methodological device. Relatedly, another feature that prepared later full-fledged American analytic philosophy was the neorealists’ appeal to clearness, exactitude, and a science-oriented cooperative attitude. Thus, the beginning of the 1910 neo-realist manifesto reads as follows:

Philosophy is famous for its disagreements, which have contributed not a little towards bringing it into disrepute as being unscientific, subjective, or temperamental. These disagreements are due in part, no doubt, to the subject-matter of philosophy, but chiefly to the lack of precision and uniformity in the use of words and to the lack of deliberate cooperation in research. In having these failings philosophy still differs widely from such sciences as physics and chemistry. They tend to make it seem mere opinion; for through the appearance of many figurative or loose expressions in the writings of isolated theorists, the impression is given that philosophical problems and their solutions are essentially personal. This impression is strengthened by the fact that philosophy concerns itself with emotions, temperaments, and taste. A conspicuous result of this lack of cooperation, common terminology, and a working agreement as to fundamental presuppositions is that genuine philosophical problems have been obscured, and real philosophical progress has been seriously hindered. (Holt et al. 1910, p. 393)

This reads like an anticipation of the Vienna Circle’s manifesto “Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung – Der Wiener Kreis” from 1929. Yet, as a matter of fact, the neo-realist movement disintegrated already in the further course of the 1910s, not least because of the Great War. Its legacy was resumed, however, after the European logical empiricists immigrated to the United States in the 1930s and made the analytic ‘style of reasoning’ respectable again.Footnote 8

So, the first conclusion to be drawn is that the American neo-realists proved to be instrumental in setting the stage for analytic philosophy in the United States and that their relationship to Russell played a decisive role in this connection. I leave it at this assessment since I recently tried to justify it in detail elsewhere (see Neuber forthcoming b).Footnote 9

My second conclusion relates to the relationship between Russell and the critical realists. Here I would like to suggest the following: Since the respective approaches of Russell and the American critical realists are largely incompatible, they can serve—via the juxtaposition of critical and neo-realism—as evidence of an ‘analytic-continental divide’ within early twentieth-century American philosophy that is indeed worthy of closer examination. While neo-realism, with its (Russell-inspired) emphasis on logic and formal analysis, may seem downright ‘progressive,’ critical realism, with its emphasis on epistemology and (anti-Russellian) representationalism, appears rather ‘regressive.’ To be sure, this should be taken with a grain of salt. But there are indeed indications that such a divide existed.Footnote 10

To begin with, in contrast to his rather enthusiastic attitude toward the neo-realist movement, Russell was sort of repulsed by the critical realists’ enterprise. Regarding Santayana, for example, Russell retrospectively mocked as follows:

He could admit into the realms of his admirations the ancient Greeks and the modern Italians, even Mussolini. But he could feel no sincere respect for anyone who came from north of the Alps. […] Towards me, as towards other northern philosophers, his attitude was one of gentle pity for having attempted too high for us. (1956, p. 87)

Russell further states: “For my part, I was never able to take Santayana very seriously as a technical philosopher […]. The American dress in which his writing appeared somewhat concealed the extremely reactionary character of his thinking” (88). And Russell continues: “much of what he says, particularly as regards essence, ignores much work which most modern philosophers would consider relevant. He completely ignored modern logic” (89).

Conceded, Santayana—perhaps being more a poet than a philosopher and a born Spaniard and no US-American at that—might be too easy a victim to postulate an analytic-continental divide within early twentieth-century American philosophy. However, further evidence for such a divide can be collected by taking a look at certain statements by Roy Wood Sellars (who, it must be admitted, was also not born in the United States, but in Canada—but this is not of any importance). For example, Sellars confesses at one point that “I belong to traditional philosophy and, I hope, to its growing point to the present” (1962/1966, p. 486).Footnote 11 Moreover, and rather revealingly, he declares: “Quine sought to ground ontology on the techniques of mathematical logic. But I do not believe that the problem of perceiving can be thus side-stepped” (503). Perhaps the most explicit dissociation from the analytic school in American philosophy is found in Sellars’ retrospective Reflections on American Philosophy from Within, where he reports that

since I could not agree with either Russell or Moore on fundamental points […] it seemed to me that the so-called analytic philosophy which got quite a vogue was ambivalent. In one sense, I liked its emphasis. In another sense, it did not seem to me very creative in either epistemology or ontology. American addiction to it and disregard of its own momentum struck me as a form of neo-colonialism. (1969, p. 5)

Of course, Sellars quite blatantly ignores the fact that critical realism was not invented by himself, but had its origins in Europe as well, particularly in the writings of thinkers such as Alois Riehl, Oswald Külpe, and the early Moritz Schlick (see, in this connection, Neuber (2014)). Be that as it may, Sellars basically wanted realism to replace idealism, but at the same time retain some of the insights of traditional idealism, especially the importance of mediation in knowledge.Footnote 12 Ultimately, then, Sellars’ break with idealism was incomplete, and thus another sign of his attachment to tradition.Footnote 13

At this point, a somewhat daring assumption may be allowed. It was Roy Wood Sellars’ son Wilfrid who attempted in a very influential way to bridge the intra-American analytic-continental divide expressed, among other things, in the two varieties of early twentieth-century American realism discussed here in connection with Russell. The so-called Pittsburgh School around Robert Brandom and John McDowell is evidence of the continuing vitality of this endeavor; to go into it, however, would require another paper.Footnote 14

The present paper, though, should not be concluded without some comment on the relations to the discussions in current philosophy of mind. To be sure, representationalist approaches in the vein of American critical realism prevailed for a long time in twentieth century philosophy of mind. With the turn to the twenty-first century, however, the neo-realists’ approach enjoyed a kind of unexpected renaissance. Representationalism had exhausted its resources to the point of “Olympic-level mental gymnastics” (Chemero 2009, p. 127), and conceptions emerged according to which perception, including illusions and hallucinations, is to be described in terms of organism-environment dynamics, rather than in representational (or computational) terms (see, for example, Campbell (2002), Martin (2002), Travis (2004), Brewer (2011); further the overview in Wilson and Locatelli (2017)).Footnote 15 It seems, then, that a new new realism is on the way.