Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott

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Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott

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16 August 1864 - 6 August 1937


(from Wikipedia entry)

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (August 16, 1864 - August 6, 1937) was a German-British philosopher. Born in Altona, Holstein (at that time member of the German Confederation, but under Danish administration), Schiller studied at the University of Oxford, and later was a professor there, after being invited back after a brief time at Cornell University. Later in his life he taught at the University of Southern California. In his lifetime he was well known as a philosopher; after his death his work was largely forgotten.

Schiller's philosophy was very similar to and often aligned with the pragmatism of William James, although Schiller referred to it as "humanism". He argued vigorously against both logical positivism and associated philosophers (for example, Bertrand Russell) as well as absolute idealism (such as F.H. Bradley).

Schiller was an early supporter of evolution and a founding member of the English Eugenics Society. Born in 1864, one of three brothers and the son of Ferdinand Schiller (a Calcutta merchant), Schiller's family home was in Switzerland. Schiller was educated at Rugby and Balliol, and graduated in the first class of Literae Humaniores, winning later the Taylorian scholarship for German in 1887. Schiller's first book, Riddles of the Sphinx (1891), was an immediate success despite his use of a pseudonym because of his fears concerning how the book would be received. Between the years 1893 and 1897 he was an instructor in philosophy at Cornell University. In 1897 he returned to Oxford and became fellow and tutor of Corpus for more than thirty years. Schiller was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1921, and was for many years treasurer of the Mind Association. In 1926 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy. In 1929 he was appointed visiting professor in the University of Southern California, and spent half of each year in the United States and half in England. Schiller died in Los Angeles either August 6, 7, or 9th of 1937 after a long and lingering illness.

Schiller was a founding member of the English Eugenics Society and published three books on the subject; Tantalus or the Future of Man (1924), Eugenics and Politics (1926), and Social Decay and Eugenic Reform (1932). In 1891, F.C.S. Schiller made his first contribution to philosophy anonymously. Schiller feared that in his time of high naturalism, the metaphysical speculations of his Riddles of the Sphinx were likely to hurt his professional prospects (p. xi, Riddles). However, Schiller's fear of reprisal from his anti-metaphysical colleagues should not suggest that Schiller was a friend of metaphysics. Like his fellow pragmatists across the ocean, Schiller was attempting to stake out an intermediate position between both the spartan landscape of naturalism and the speculative excesses of the metaphysics of his time. In Riddles Schiller both,

(1) accuses naturalism (which he also sometimes calls "pseudometaphysics" or "positivism") of ignoring the fact that metaphysics is required to justify our natural description of the world, and
(2) accuses "abstract metaphysics" of losing sight of the world we actually live in and constructing grand, disconnected imaginary worlds.
The result, Schiller contends, is that naturalism cannot make sense of the "higher" aspects of our world (freewill, consciousness, God, purpose, universals), while abstract metaphysics cannot make sense of the "lower" aspects of our world (the imperfect, change, physicality). In each case we are unable to guide our moral and epistemological "lower" lives to the achievement of life's "higher" ends, ultimately leading to skepticism on both fronts. For knowledge and morality to be possible, both the world's lower and higher elements must be real; e.g. we need universals (a higher) to make knowledge of particulars (a lower) possible. This would lead Schiller to argue for what he at the time called a "concrete metaphysics", but would later call "humanism".

Shortly after publishing Riddles of the Sphinx, Schiller became acquainted with the work of pragmatist philosopher William James and this changed the course of his career. For a time, Schiller's work became focused on extending and developing James' pragmatism (under Schiller's preferred title, "humanism"). Schiller even revised his earlier work Riddles of the Sphinx to make the nascent pragmatism implicit in that work more explicit. In one of Schiller's most prominent works during this phase of his career, “Axioms as Postulates” (1903), Schiller extended James' will to believe doctrine to show how it could be used to justify not only an acceptance of God, but also our acceptance of causality, of the uniformity of nature, of our concept of identity, of contradiction, of the law of excluded middle, of space and time, of the goodness of God, and more. In Riddles, Schiller gives historical examples of the dangers of abstract metaphysics in the philosophies of Plato, Zeno, and Hegel, portraying Hegel as the worst offender: "Hegelianism never anywhere gets within sight of a fact, or within touch of reality. And the reason is simple: you cannot, without paying the penalty, substitute abstractions for realities; the thought-symbol cannot do duty for the thing symbolized".

Schiller argued that both abstract metaphysics and naturalism portray man as holding an intolerable position in the world. He proposed a method that not only recognizes the lower world we interact with, but takes into account the higher world of purposes, ideals and abstractions. Schiller also developed a method of philosophy intended to mix elements of both naturalism and abstract metaphysics in a way that allows us to avoid the twin scepticisms each method collapses into when followed on its own. However, Schiller does not assume that this is enough to justify his humanism over the other two methods. He accepts the possibility that both scepticism and pessimism are true.

As early as 1891 Schiller had independently reached a doctrine very similar to William James’ Will to Believe. As early as 1892 Schiller had independently developed his own pragmatist theory of truth. However, Schiller's concern with meaning was one he entirely imports from the pragmatisms of James and Peirce. Later in life Schiller musters all of these elements of his pragmatism to make a concerted attack on formal logic. Concerned with bringing down the timeless, perfect worlds of abstract metaphysics early in life, the central target of Schiller’s developed pragmatism is the abstract rules of formal logic. Statements, Schiller contends, cannot possess meaning or truth abstracted away from their actual use. Therefore examining their formal features instead of their function in an actual situation is to make the same mistake the abstract metaphysician makes. Symbols are meaningless scratches on paper unless they are given a life in a situation, and meant by someone to accomplish some task. They are tools for dealing with concrete situations, and not the proper subjects of study themselves.

Both Schiller’s theory of truth and meaning (i.e. Schiller’s pragmatism) derive their justification from an examination of thought from what he calls his humanist viewpoint (his new name for concrete metaphysics). He informs us that to answer “what precisely is meant by having a meaning” will require us to “raise the prior question of why we think at all.”. A question Schiller of course looks to evolution to provide.

For more information, see Wikipedia entry at: .


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Welby, Victoria, Lady, 1837-1912 (1837-1912)

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Created 2015-10-29 by Anna St.Onge.


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