Samuel Alexander Essay - Critical Essays

Alexander, Samuel


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."

Principal Works

Moral Order and Progress: An Analysis of Ethical Consideration (philosophy) 1889

Locke (philosophy) 1908

The Basis of Realism (philosophy) 1914

Space, Time and Deity. 2 vols. (philosophy) 1920

Spinoza and Time (philosophy) 1921

Lessons from Spinoza (philosophy) 1927

Spinoza: An Address (philosophy) 1927

Beauty and Other Forms of Value (philosophy) 1933

Philosophical and Literary Pieces (philosophy and criticism) 1939


Haldane (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "Prof. Alexander's Gifford Lectures," in Nature, August 26, 1920, pp. 798-801.

[In the following essay, Haldane considers Alexander's Space, Time and Diety in the context of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.]

Prof. Alexander has written a book which requires more than cursory reading. It deserves careful study. For it embodies a thoroughly modern exposition of New Realism in full detail. Moreover, these two volumes are not merely the outcome of a sustained effort at accurate investigation. They are distinguished by their admirable tone and temper. The author is throughout anxious to understand and to represent faithfully the views of those...

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Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "Mead and Alexander on Time," in Beyond Humanism, Willett, Clark & Company, 1937, pp. 242-52.

[In the following essay, Hartshorne explicates and identifies weaknesses in Alexander's arguments in Space, Time and Diety.]

George Herbert Mead was a great philosopher and certainly a humanist. Until his Philosophy of the Act has been published it will be too soon to pass judgment on his philosophy. But there are some aspects of his system which seem fairly well defined by his extant writings, and these aspects suggest the following criticisms. In his Philosophy of the Present Mead declares that each age creates its own past—not its own image of...

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G. F. Stout (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (I.)," in Mind: A Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 193, January, 1940, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Stout presents the first part of an extended analysis of Alexander's philosophical system, focusing on his concepts of mind, mental processes, and sensory perception.]

According to Mr. Laird "no English writer has produced so grand a system of speculative metaphysics in so grand a manner since Hobbes in 1696 completed his metaphysical journey with the publication of De Corpore". I entirely agree. But this was not the kind of praise which pleased Alexander himself. When the plan of his philosophy first dawned upon...

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G. F. Stout (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander (II.)," in Mind: A Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 194, April, 1940, pp. 136-49.

[In the following essay, which comprises the second installment of his analysis of Alexander's philosophy, Stout discusses Alexander's distinction between the ways objects and mental processes are experienced, his treatment of the knowledge of other minds, and his conceptions of space-time, intuitive knowledge, and the emergent quality of nature. ]

Enjoyment and Contemplation.

Alexander draws a hard and fast distinction between the way in which we experience objects and the way in which we experience our own...

(The entire section is 5591 words.)

J. V. Bateman (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Professor Alexander's Proofs of the Spatio-Temporal Nature of Mind," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, May, 1940, pp. 309-24.

[In the following essay, Bateman examines Alexander's proofs of the spatial and temporal nature of mind: his argument from introspection and his argument from the spatio-temporal properties of the neural processes.]

According to Alexander, Space-Time is the simplest form of reality, out of which all finite existents—including minds—are made. Growth and creative process flow from the intrinsic nature of this primordial stuff; and the ensuing spatio-temporal configurations, with their differences of complexity and...

(The entire section is 5856 words.)

John Laird (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "Samuel Alexander's Theism," in The Hibbert Journal, Vol. XL, No. 2, January, 1942, pp. 146-55.

[In the following essay, Laird examines Alexander's views on the nature and existence of God.]

Alexander was, quite certainly, a theist in his own Alexandrian way, a way that was never insincere. Indeed his "nisus theory of deity," to judge for instance from Mr Brightman's Philosophy of Religion (1940), seems by now to have taken its place as one of the accepted types of text-book theism. It has almost achieved respectability, like an eccentric old friend whose ways have become too familiar to startle.

A letter of Alexander's which...

(The entire section is 5611 words.)

The Earl of Listowel (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "Samuel Alexander's Aesthetics," in The Menorah Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 2, July-September, 1942, pp. 145-60.

[In the following essay, Listowel discusses Alexander's views on beauty in art and nature, noting Alexander's emphasis of the role of the spectator in artistic creation.]

Those, like the present writer, for whom the late Samuel Alexander unlocked doors to new realms of wisdom and delight, or who basked in the sunshine of encouragement and kindly advice he gave so readily to younger men, will understand with what alacrity this opportunity was seized of paying a small tribute to the memory of so unusual and attractive a personality. To resurrect the mind...

(The entire section is 5788 words.)

John K. McCreary (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "The Religious Philosophy of Samuel Alexander," in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, April, 1947, pp. 102-13.

[In the following essay, McCreary explicates Alexander's theological views, which posit the existence of God through the principle of emergence, or, the development of nature to successively higher levels.]

Alexander is a representative of that movement of thought which may be termed Anglo-American realism; in his Space, Time, and Deity, he has offered the most complete metaphysical and religious system so far given by that group.1 Much, if not most, of his work is occupied with mind—mind as in the order of realities...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

John Passmore (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The New Realists," in A Hundred Years of Philosophy, Basic Books, Inc., 1966, pp. 259-80.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1957, Passmore focuses on Alexander in a discussion of realist philosophers of the early twentieth century.]

In the early years of the present century, it could no longer be presumed that Realism was intellectually disreputable, a mere vulgar prejudice. What a mind knows, Brentano and Meinong had argued, exists independently of the act by which it is known; Mach, and James after him—if they were still, from a Realist point of view, tainted with subjectivism—had at least denied that what is immediately...

(The entire section is 9542 words.)

Michael A. Weinstein (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Spirit and Nature: Alexander's Early Writings," in Unity and Variety in the Philosophy of Samuel Alexander, Purdue University Press, 1984, pp. 12-32.

[In the following essay, Weinstein discusses the development of Alexander's philosophical system from Hegelian idealism in the 1880s to Darwinism and Naturalism in the 1890s.]

May it not be that the inability of philosophy to understand the great body of facts familiar to us as variety, modification, multiplicity, accident, is not due to the weakness of nature, but suggests a problem for philosophy itself. (1886)

The real answer to Hume is given by Darwinism. (1892)...

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Further Reading


Brettschneider, Bertram D. The Philosophy of Samuel Alexander: Idealism in "Space, Time and Deity. " New York: Humanities Press, 1964, 177 p.

Extended examination of Alexander's philosophical system. Brettschneider devotes chapters to such topics as Alexander's concept and categories of Space-Time, his doctrine of emergent evolution, his theory of mind, and the systematic implications of his concepts of value, God, and deity.

Burtt, Edwin, A. "Some Individual Philosophies and Current Trends." In his Types of Religious Philosophy, pp. 409-48. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939.

Concise explication of Alexander's...

(The entire section is 473 words.)