Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

R. W. Sellars, fully Roy Wood Sellars

Canadian-born American Philosopher of Critical Realism and Religious Humanism, Taught at University of Michigan

"The Humanist’s religion, is the religion of one who says yea to the life here and now, of one who is self-reliant, fearless, intelligent and creative... Its Goal is the mastery of things that they may become servants and instrumentalities to man’s spiritual comradeship."

"This is the way things go in philosophy. There are traditions and winds of doctrine and many seem shut into the tradition in which they have been brought up. There is vital need of communication. I may remark here, incidentally, that I have found European philosophers more shut into their traditions than Americans. This is not a matter of virtue of American thinkers but of historical circumstances. They have had to learn and assimilate until it came about that they could strike out on the paths which appealed to them. Such independence was not always welcomed abroad when it occurred. This, I think, happened in the case of pragmatism and, in some measure, with realism. And, then, curiously enough, when what was regarded as a stalemate in the realistic movement occurred—how justifiable remains to be seen—a new kind of colonialism manifested itself in the United States. One soon heard only of analysis a la Moore, of Wittgenstein, and of logical positivism. This to be followed by existentialism. I do not say this attitude was universal. There remained many Deweyites and the study of Peirce increased. But I had to work rather alone. I continued to circle around perceiving, evolutionary levels, double knowledge of the mind-brain functioning and humanism. That is the way things go and one must have what has been called intestinal fortitude. I think the situation is somewhat altering and more of an international equilibrium is getting established. But what I call journalistic philosophy still echoes the period of neo-colonialism. Literary critics, whose philosophy is second-hand, mouth the accepted terms. And I find that many young philosophers in the United States seem to have little knowledge of past developments. In their eyes, one must be analytic, or a logical positivist or a defender of ordinary language."

"One of the difficulties facing a serious philosopher is that he must keep his eyes on so many subjects. He must recognize the fruits of division of labor and yet try to appreciate what is going on. On the one hand, he must be critical of many moves in the past, such as a deductive approach to what is, which have shown themselves to be mistaken. On the other hand, he must have a keen eye for genuine puzzles and problems. I, myself, concentrated on the nature of human knowing, on the status of value in the world, and on the traditional mind-body problem. I did not think that philosophy just by itself could solve these problems. The increase of knowledge would help. But I thought that philosophy could make a cooperative contribution by what has come to be called categorial analysis. Philosophy usually had a long historical perspective in these matters. It could keep its eye on the nature of the puzzle. In short, philosophy never meant to me uncontrolled speculation about a supposed transcendental realm, as positivists always assume. I was quite early naturalistic and even materialistic in my outlook. I just wanted to fit things together in an intelligible way."

"No problem is more crucial for a naturalistic view of the world than the mind-body problem."

"Is Humanism a religion, perhaps, the next great religion? Yes, it must be so characterized, for the word, religion, has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things---which every human being, in some degree and in some fashion, makes. What can I expect from life? What kind of universe is it? Is there, as some say, a friendly Providence in control of it? And, if not, what then? The universe of discourse of religion consists of such questions, and the answers relevant to them. Christian theism and Vedantic mysticism are but historic frameworks in relation to which answers have in the past been given to these poignant and persistent queries. But there is nothing sacrosanct and self-certifying about these frameworks. What Humanism represents is the awareness of another framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The Humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers, with what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions. It would be absurd to expect complete novelty in either framework or answers. Many people throughout the ages have had a shrewd suspicion that established beliefs were insecurely based. Humanism at its best represents a growth and a maturing of its perspective...I fear that the orthodox idea of religion is something static and given---once for all. The Humanist thinks of his answers as responsible ones, that is, responsible to the best thought and knowledge on the subjects involved. He [they are] is always ready for honest debate... I want to contrast the perspective of Humanism with that of traditional rationalism...There is no Humanist who does not appreciate with respect and admiration the moving story of the Gospels. Seen as one of the culminations of Judaism in the setting of the Roman Empire, it speaks to us of nobility of soul, human love, pity, and comradeship; and this among everyday people fired by moral and religious leadership of high quality. The heroic and the earthly touch meet, and mingle; and so it has been ever since... What have the intervening centuries made possible? The gradual disentangling of ethical principle and example from both the early framework of belief and the later ecclesiastical development of power and dogma which supervened. But the notes of love and self-sacrifice remain as perennial chords. This also, is greatly human. The older rationalism was on the defensive. And so it expressed itself too often in negative terms: not this; not that; not God; not revelation; not personal immortality. What Humanism signified was a shift from negation to construction. There came a time when naturalism no longer felt on the defensive. Rather, supernaturalism began, it its eyes, to grow dim and fade out despite all the blustering and rationalizations of its advocates."

"Materialism is distinctly an ontological theory, a theory of the stuff of reality. Its polar opposite is usually taken to be mentalism of some kind. Naturalism, on the other hand, is a cosmological position; its opposite is supernaturalism in the larger meaning of that term. I mean that naturalism takes nature in a definite way as identical with reality, as self-sufficient and as the whole of reality. And by nature is meant the space-time-causal system which is studied by science and in which our lives are passed. The whole nature of nature may not be exhaustively known, but its location and general characteristics come under the above categories."

"The coming phase of religion will reflect man’s power over nature and his moral courage in the face of the facts and possibilities of life. It will be a religion of action and passion, a social religion, a religion of goals and prospects. It will be a free man’s religion, a religion for an adult and aspiring democracy."

"Another weakness of materialism was its whole-hearted identification of itself with the principles of elementary mechanics. It was naively scientific. We may call this species of materialism reductive materialism. . . . By its very principle evolutionary materialism is opposed to reductive materialism. It is not finalistic, or teleological, in the old sense . . . but it does not hold that relations in nature are external and that things are machines of atomic complexity. Organization and wholes are genuinely significant."

"Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created... believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process... recognizes that man’s religious culture and civilization, as clearly depicted by anthropology and history, are the product of a gradual development due to his interaction with his natural environment and with his social heritage."

"The center of gravity of religion has been openly changing for some time now from supernaturalism to what may best be called a humanistic naturalism….. There have been many steps forward in the past, for every age must possess its own religion, a religion concordant with its knowledge and expressive of its problems and aims."

"But the humanist’s religion is the religion of one who says yea to life here and now, of one who is self-reliant and fearless, intelligent and creative. It is the religion of the will to power, of one who is hard on himself and yet joyous in himself. It is the religion of courage and purpose and transforming energy. Its motto is, ‘What hath man not wrought?’ … The religious man will now be he who seeks out causes to be loyal to, social mistakes to correct, wounds to heal, achievements to further."

"The religion of human possibilities needs prophets who will grip men’s souls with their description of a society in which righteousness, wisdom, and beauty will reign together … Loyalty to such an ideal will surely constitute the heart of the humanist’s religion."

"If religion is to survive, it must be human and social. It is they who insist upon a supernatural foundation and object who are its enemies. Man’s life is spiritual in its own right. So long as he shall dream of beauty and goodness and truth his life will not lack religion."