Philosophy Samuel Alexander
by
Emily Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0181

Introduction

Samuel Alexander (b. 1859–d. 1938) was one of the leading proponents of British emergentism, an early-20th-century movement best known for its thesis that mind “emerges” from body. Fellow emergentists include C. Lloyd Morgan and C. D. Broad. Alexander developed a comprehensive metaphysical system, in which space and time are the foundation of things, and everything else—matter, life, mind, and deity—emerges from space-time. Alexander is also sometimes dubbed a “new realist,” in part because he attempts to seek confirmation for his ontology in the science of his period. Although Alexander rejects idealism, he is nonetheless closely associated with the movement known as British idealism, and his metaphysical system arguably bears some resemblance to that of F. H. Bradley. Alexander is best known for his metaphysics, but he wrote on many other subjects too, including the history of philosophy, the philosophy of mind, aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of religion. Alexander ultimately came to regard his space-time metaphysic as a “gloss” of Spinoza. Toward the end of his life, Alexander’s attention returned from metaphysics to some of the issues that had occupied his early career: aesthetics and ethics. Alexander put forward a “natural” account of beauty and goodness, on which these values are dependent on our minds. Alexander spent most of his academic career at the University of Manchester, and after his death he left a trove of papers to the John Rylands Library there. Although Alexander did not found a school, his philosophic influence extends to figures as diverse as Alfred North Whitehead and C. D. Broad. Alexander is also credited as being one of the founders of Australian philosophy, as he had a significant influence on the work of John Anderson and his school at Sydney. Most of the existing scholarship on Alexander concerns his metaphysics, but several pieces exist on other aspects of his thought, particularly his philosophy of mind and account of value.

General Overviews

Although Alexander’s work was well known to British philosophy in the first half of the 20th century, it has since slipped into neglect. This is why all of the book-length studies that exist on Alexander’s work are at least thirty years old. Passmore’s classic history of the period (Passmore 1957) provides a concise overview of Alexander’s work, placed within the context of British idealism and new realism. The focus of Brettschneider 1964 is on Alexander’s metaphysics, as is Weinstein 1984. In contrast, McCarthy 1948 and Stiernotte 1954 provide overviews of Alexander’s work as a whole, with extended discussions of Alexander’s ethics and philosophy of religion. An ongoing debate in Alexander scholarship is whether he is best understood as an idiosyncratic British idealist, or a new realist with idealist leanings; Brettschneider 1964 brings out the similarities between Alexander’s system and F. H. Bradley’s, while Weinstein 1984 rejects this reading.

  • Brettschneider, Bertram. The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander. New York: Humanities Press, 1964.

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    A critical, philosophically valuable study of Alexander that focuses on his metaphysics of emergence, spacetime and the categories; Brettschneider also discusses Alexander’s philosophy of mind and deity. Brettschneider particularly brings out the relationship between Alexander’s system and that of British idealist F. H. Bradley, arguing for example that both are using the coherence theory of truth toward ontological ends.

  • McCarthy, John. The Naturalism of Samuel Alexander. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

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    McCarthy presents a general study of Alexander’s philosophy of mind, metaphysics, methodology, truth, and philosophy of religion. He argues that Alexander is indebted to Aristotle and Spinoza, and that he is a realist in the sense that his system attempts to explain things as diverse as facts, pains, and God. McCarthy is particularly critical of Alexander’s notion of nisus.

  • Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1957.

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    This classic history of the period provides a brief overview of Alexander’s space-time and mind-body metaphysics and philosophy of religion; see pp. 272–279.

  • Stiernotte, Alfred. God and Space-Time. New York: Philosophy Library, 1954.

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    This broad study of Alexander explores his metaphysics of space-time, his account of beauty, truth, and goodness as human inventions, and his philosophy of religion. Stiernotte compares Alexander with the idealist F. H. Bradley and argues that his system can be understood as a “rebellion” against Bradley as space-time (unlike the Absolute) changes.

  • Weinstein, M. Unity and Variety in the Philosophy of Samuel Alexander. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1984.

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    Weinstein aims to understand Alexander’s corpus as a whole. He emphasizes the realist aspects of Alexander’s work, placing him alongside Moore and Russell as one of the generation that “destroyed” Absolute idealism. Weinstein discusses Alexander’s early work on Hegel, the subsequent influence of Darwin, and his late space-time metaphysics.

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