Ralph Barton Perry (1876-1957) was an American educator and philosopher and a leader of the school of new realism in American pragmatic philosophy during the first decades of the twentieth century. Perry graduated from Princeton in 1896 and served as a philosophy professor at Harvard for forty years. He was the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of William James, The Thought and Character of William James (1935), and one-time president of the American Philosophical Association.
In 1910, along with five colleagues, Perry helped to formulate The Program and First Platform of Six Realists published in the Journal of Philosophy, and contributed to the cooperative volume New Realism (1912). The central assertion of the new realism, which rejected idealism and of the epistemological dualism of John Locke, was that the world is not dependent on the mind and that knowledge of the world is accidental or external to it. Perry developed a naturalistic theory of value which defined value as “any object of any interest,” and contended that interest is "the original source and constant feature of all value." Morality deals with the conflicting interests of different individuals, and the highest moral value is realized in the most inclusive integration of interests for everyone involved, "harmonious happiness."
Ralph Barton Perry was born on July 3, 1876, in Poultney, Vermont. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University in 1896 and his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Harvard University in 1897 and 1899. After teaching at Williams and Smith colleges, he joined the faculty of Harvard in 1902.
In 1910 Perry joined in the publication of "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists" in the Journal of Philosophy, and helped elaborate the program of new realism. He wrote a celebrated biography of William James, and proceeded to a revision of his critical approach to natural knowledge. However, he soon dissented from moral and spiritual ontology, and turned to a philosophy of disillusionment. Perry was an advocate of a militant democracy: in his words "total but not totalitarian."
During World War I, Perry served in the U.S. Army as a major, and was also secretary of the War Department Committee on Education and Special Training. Based on these experiences he wrote The Plattsburg Movement (1921). Perry returned to Harvard in 1919, and the next year was elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. In 1926 he published General Theory of Value.
In 1930 Perry was appointed Edgar Pierce professor of philosophy at Harvard. In 1935 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume biography, The Thought and Character of William James (1935). He became chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France, 1936), and received many other honorary degrees. He was made an honorary member of the Class of 1896 at Harvard (as well as an honorary doctor of letters at both Princeton and Harvard).
Perry retired from Harvard in 1946 and was Gifford lecturer at Glasgow University until 1948. His lectures were published in Realms of Value (1954), a critique of human civilization in the light of the interest theory of value. He died in a hospital near Boston on January 22, 1957.
Perry is best known as a leading figure in the American New Realism movement, and for his theory of value. During his long tenure at Harvard, in cooperation with his colleague, C. I. Lewis, Perry helped to modernize philosophical teaching and research, and to establish a professional standard. Perry supported the New Deal economic policies during the Great Depression, and campaigned for the formation of the United Nations. His biography of William James, The Thought and Character of William James, (1935), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936.
In 1941 he attended the forty-fifth reunion of the classes of 1896 at both Princeton and Harvard, and gave the same talk at the two class dinners. This talk, Plea for an Age Movement, criticized the tendency of youth to ignore the value of those who are older than forty. It was printed in the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the Harvard Alumni Bulletin and later published in a little book by the Vanguard Press of New York.
The American New Realism movement flourished during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Perry helped to elaborate its manifesto, published in 1910 as "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists" in the Journal of Philosophy, and contributed to the cooperative volume New Realism (1912). The central feature of the new realism was a rejection of the epistemological dualism of John Locke and the older forms of realism. The group, including Ralph Barton Perry, Edwin Holt, and William Montague, maintained that when one is conscious of, or knows, an object, it is an error to say that there are two distinct facts, knowledge of the object in a mind, and an extra-mental object in itself. New Realism asserted that the world is not dependent on the mind and that knowledge of the world is accidental or external to it. Perry expressed the basic principle of New Realism as "the independence of the immanent," meaning that the same object which is “immanent” in the mind which knows it, is also independent of that mind.
Perry was the most extreme among the six realists. He accepted William James’ neutral monism, and agreed that the answer to the question, “Does consciousness exist?” is negative. He explained perception in terms of “physical” objects and “psychical” objects (mental constructs), and claimed that psychical objects did not duplicate physical objects, but include them as part of a larger perception.
New Realism lost its impetus because of difficulties in explaining abstractions and mental comments common to multiple objects.
In General Theory of Value ( 1926), Perry argued for a naturalistic account of values, defining value as “any object of any interest,” and contending that interest is "the original source and constant feature of all value." He defined “interest” as belonging to the motor-affective life of instinct, desire, and feeling. He recognized that the interests of different individuals conflict, and perceived morality as the means of reconciling these conflicts. The greatest moral value was realized in the most inclusive integration of interests for everyone involved, "harmonious happiness."
Perry on Philosophy: I sincerely wish that I could recommend philosophy on grounds of efficiency and common sense. I should be listened to, understood, and believed. I should at once insinuate myself into the confidence of my reader. If I could but say: “Now look here! Philosophy is just a matter of plain, hard-headed common sense”; or, “If you want to succeed, try philosophy. It will help you to make and to sell, to outstrip competitors, and to be efficient in whatever you undertake”; if I could make such an appeal to you, your instincts and prejudices would secure me your ready sympathy. But I should have deceived you. What I should thus have recommended to you would not be philosophy. For philosophy is neither plain nor hard-headed; nor is it a means of success, as success is ordinarily construed. This is the case, not accidentally, but in principle. The very point of philosophy lies in the fallibility of common sense, and in the arbitrariness of vulgar standards of success. Philosophy is one of those things that must be met on its own ground. You must seek it where it is at home; if you insist upon its meeting you half-way it will turn out not to be philosophy at all, but some poor compromise—the name or husk of philosophy with the soul gone out of it. No one can understand what philosophy means unless he lets it speak for itself and in its own language. If philosophy is good, it is because it contributes to life something different, something peculiarly its own, and which cannot be measured by any standards save those which philosophy itself supplies. (Lectures on the Harvard Classics, edited by William Allan Neilson, et al. Vol. XLI. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14)
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