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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 314-316

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Book Review

Reason, Reality, and Speculative Philosophy

Reason, Reality, and Speculative Philosophy. Arthur E. Murphey. Edited with an introduction by Marcus G. Singer. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1996. Pp. xlix + 280. $45.00 h.c. 0-299-15040-2

The career and work of Arthur Murphey (1901-62) reflects much, but not all, of the general character of academic philosophy in the United States during his lifetime. His former student, Marcus G. Singer, supplies the contexts and details in a memoir and introduction for a lucid portrayal of this sympathetic, if now minor, figure of American philosophy. Evidently Murphey was conversant with every "ism" and doctrine extant, and he engagingly wrote and taught about every one. He was highly skilled as a teacher and department head, holding positions at no less than thirteen major universities. Friends of American philosophy should hold him in esteem, not only for his impressive writings, but also for his role as a "Johnny Appleseed" sowing the seeds of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, George Santayana, and Alfred North Whitehead across America. At his stations of greatest duration, Cornell University, Brown University, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas, the many dissertations trailing in his wake, and the lasting respect for his favored philosophers, testify to his influence in the face of mainstream disdain.

No friend of analytic philosophy, Murphey held that linguistic analysis is inferior to his preferred method of "contextual analysis." This method, and not speculative philosophy, is the major player of this edited drama. Nearly 900 pages of manuscript on "Speculative Philosophy," and the rest of his papers, were forgotten for decades until Singer's revived interest has brought them back into light. Singer's efforts to condense and distill Murphey's papers must be praised, and this volume and another portion (1993) will hopefully not be the last to be published. Perhaps only now, as renascent respect for the history of philosophy grows, could such a massive and complex survey of the major philosophical tendencies of the period from 1890 to 1940 receive proper appreciation.

Murphey was a philosopher's philosopher irrespective of his lack of trendiness because he was a master of the game of "comparative" philosophy. This game, intentional or not, seems well designed to produced students who, like himself, could exhaustively explain the merits and demerits of each theory in its turn. Murphey's own final convictions do not surface, and Singer is not explicit either (but see Singer 1985). But that is quite in character, apparently, for this volume quickly gives the impression that Murphey believes that it is more important to exhibit the limitations of each school separately than to use the pieces together to construct an improved philosophy. Readers should turn to Murphey's two other monographs (1943, 1965) for his more positive efforts, primarily in [End Page 314] ethics. No speculative philosophy having Murphey's approval is presented here, but only a series of close calls and frustrating disillusionments.

We are told that speculative philosophy and contextual analysis have quite distinct tasks. Contextual analysis has logical priority, despite the fact that most philosophers too quickly jump to speculation. Speculative systems by their very nature are well designed to prove all rival systems false, since each has the resources to show how the others fail to pay proper respect to that aspect of life/experience/reality which is embraced as all-important. Following Whitehead's Adventures of Ideas, Murphey hastens to defend the speculative motive as reasonable and human. Philosophers draw attention to neglected means of better organizing and dealing with life's real problems. The competition of philosophies is a natural phase of cultural growth and not simply a confirmation that philosophies are relative to societies or eras. But instead of conducting contextual analysis aiming at some mutual adjustment among valuable ways of dealing with the world, as Santayana's The Life of Reason illustrates, philosophies are very often taken too far. Speculative excess takes one mode...


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