Samuel Alexander Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Alexander, Samuel 1859-1938

Australian-born English philosopher and critic.

Alexander was among the foremost English realist philosophers of the early twentieth century. He is chiefly remembered for his Space, Time and Deity (1920), a systematic metaphysical inquiry into the nature of reality, consciousness, and God. Employing concepts of biology and psychology in addition to the methods of philosophical investigation, Alexander propounded his theory of "emergent evolution," the development of existence from primal space-time to successively higher levels, and posited the existence of God as an extension of the development of mind.

Biographical Information

Alexander was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1859. His father was a saddler who died before Alexander's birth. His mother later moved the family to St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, where in 1871 Alexander entered Wesley College. He attended the University of Melbourne for two years, and while he left Melbourne without completing a degree, he had enjoyed a distinguished academic career. Moving to England in 1877, Alexander was awarded a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1882 he became the first Jewish fellow of either Oxford or Cambridge, when he received a fellowship from Lincoln College, Oxford. Alexander maintained his position in Oxford until 1893, when he became professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester. He remained in Manchester for more than thirty years, becoming highly admired by his students and well-known within the wider cultural life of the city. From 1908 until 1911 he was president of the Aristotelian Society, a position to which he returned in 1936-37. He was elected to the British Academy in 1913. During 1917 and 1918, at the invitation of the University of Glasgow, Alexander developed a series of lectures summarizing his philosophical system. Known as the Gifford Lectures, these works provided the basis of his masterwork, Space, Time and Deity, 1920, an extensive consideration of such metaphysical questions as the nature of the space-time continuum and the existence of God. Alexander retired from academic teaching in 1924 but continued to give public lectures and in his later years devoted his attentions to matters of literary criticism and aesthetics. In 1930 he was awarded the Order of Merit. He died in 1938.

Major Works

Alexander's philosophical system is chiefly elaborated in his magnum opus, Space, Time and Deity, which represents the culmination of more than thirty years of academic research and teaching. In Alexander's view, metaphysical inquiry into the nature of reality and of such concepts as space, time, and value must utilize and reflect developments in the empirical sciences, including biology and psychology. In Space, Time and Deity Alexander maintained that neither space nor time can be comprehended without reference to the other and that all properties and values of nature arise out of the space-time continuum; in other words, out of motion.

Central to Alexander's philosophical system as outlined in Space, Time and Deity is the theory of "emergent evolution," a concept that dates from the works of the English philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes in the mid-1870s and which had been developed by Alexander's contemporary, the English zoologist and psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan. Rather than focusing on the sources of evolutionary development, emergent evolutionists concentrated on the process of evolution, in which the resulting advancement is greater than and is not reducible to the physical or chemical process through which it has emerged. For Alexander, as space-time reaches successively higher levels of complexity new qualities emerge. The first to emerge are the primary qualities of matter, including size and shape. Such secondary qualities as color then follow. Applying the reasoning of emergent evolution, Alexander posited the existence of God as a "level of existence" that would be realized in the development from body to mind to deity—from physical to mental to supramental. However, because the way in which God would be distinguished from mind cannot be predicted, Alexander maintained that the nature of God is unknowable.

In Space, Time and Deity Alexander also sought to elucidate questions of human perception, and his concept of "compresence" embodies his explanation of the cognitive relation of mind to objects and actions and of minds to other minds. Alexander held that an object may be before a consciousness but is not in it; consciousness of an object is not the same as consciousness of one's consciousness of the object. For example, an object such as a chair may be apprehended by a consciousness, but the chair is not located within that consciousness; and, the contemplation of the chair is distinct from thinking about the act of contemplating the chair. Further, since the contemplation of an object is itself an action, in Alexander's view it cannot be "contemplated" but only subjectively experienced, or "enjoyed."

While Space, Time and Deity represents the highest achievement of Alexander's career, he had earlier published works of philosophy and criticism analyzing the writings of G. W. Hegel and John Locke, as well as essays on evolutionary theory, ethics, and political philosophy. During the 1920s and 1930s he turned to such subjects as the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and the realm of aesthetics. A posthumous collection, Philosophical and Literary Pieces, was published in 1939.

Critical Reception

Contemporary criticism of Alexander generally viewed his writings within the realist resurgence that flourished in American and English philosophy during the early twentieth century. Reviewers of Space, Time and Deity sought to explicate the extensive and systematic inquiry he presented and often praised particularly the comprehensiveness of his metaphysical system. However, within the decade such notable metaphysical works as M'Taggart's The Nature of Existence (1921) and Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality (1929) largely eclipsed Alexander's work, and his reputation subsided in the decades following his death. Some critics have suggested that his diminished status stems in part from the fact that he was connected with no movement or school and thus left no disciples engaged in the work of extending and refining his ideas. Yet Alexander has remained an attractive subject for numerous late-twentieth-century scholars, including Michael A. Weinstein, who summarized Alexander's appeal in 1984, writing, "The spirit of Alexander's philosophy is elegant passion, something that is of vital importance for the sustenance of civilization. The elegance should not be taken to indicate indifference to public affairs .. . or retreatism .. ., but an understanding of philosophy's special role in describing experience comprehensively and reflectively, identifying its pervasive characters, relating them to one another, and judging them according to their importance."