From The Philosopher,  Volume LXXXXVII No. 2

Timothy L. S. Sprigge - 

The Last Idealist?

Leemon McHenry

This is an edited version of the paper presented to the Philosophical Society's 2009 Conference in honour of the British philosopher, Timothy Sprigge.

Timothy Sprigge was the last of the great British Idealists beginning with George Berkeley and continuing into the nineteenth century with F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird and T. H. Green. I say the 'last idealist' of this tradition because Sprigge was certainly an anomaly in the twentieth century. His actual birth date of 14 January 1932 was just exactly a hundred years off the mark, for his thought and character were distinctively that of a nineteenth century English gentleman who wrote philosophy in the grand style of an Absolute Idealist. He also appreciated and was much influenced by American philosophers of this period as well. William James and Josiah Royce figure prominently in his idealist metaphysics, both in terms of methodology and content. Charles Hartshorne enthusiastically said of Sprigge that he was the leading expert on American philosophy in England and had very few competitors in this specialty. 

Given that the Anglo-American orthodoxy of the twentieth century regarded idealism as an antiquated relic thoroughly abandoned with the critiques of Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Sprigge's own teacher, A. J. Ayer, Sprigge choose as a title for his magnum opus one that would almost certainly guarantee failure--The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983). For the most part, it attracted attention for his bold affront to philosophical fashion and gained a following with those who sought a third way between the banality of analysis and irrationality of Continental trends. His other major works include the large scale studies: James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality (1993) and The God of Metaphysics: Being a Study of the Metaphysics and Religious Doctrines of Spinoza, Hegel, Kierkegaard, T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, Josiah Royce, A. N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Concluding with a Defense of Pantheistic Idealism (2006). At the time of his death he was working on The Phenomenology of Thought and a concluding chapter of a Festschrift responding to critics. Always the philosopher, on his deathbed he said that the experience provided the opportunity to write a phenomenology of dying. 

Against the Flow

In an age devoted to bite-sized analytical problems and unquestioned scientific materialism, the last idealist constructed his philosophical system at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland--a stronghold against the orthodoxy established by Oxford and Cambridge. Edinburgh was one of the few places in the United Kingdom where one could study the history of philosophy and particularly the idealism of Plato, Leibniz, Kant and F. H. Bradley. It was in this connection that Alfred North Whitehead referred to the city as "the capital of British metaphysics, haunted by the shade of Hume." Sprigge occupied the Regis Chair of Logic and Metaphysics following in the footsteps of Norman Kemp Smith, A. D. Richie and W. H. Walsh. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in a city that he described as a "breath of life to a metaphysician."

In contrast to the analytical philosophy bereft of wisdom, or a purely academic and professional approach that treats philosophy as a sort of technical problem-solving, Sprigge's system was constructed not only as a quest to find a satisfactory view of the universe but also as a search for the principles by which one could live in the world. He argued that the only reality is consciousness and developed his views in opposition to the dominant trends of the twentieth century. While the physical sciences construct theories about the phenomenal world, it is only by way of introspection and empathy that we grasp the true nature of reality as consciousness in all of its manifestations in nature. 

The noumenal world, or the world as it is in itself, stands behind the phenomena as the true reality. This, for Sprigge, consists of innumerable interacting centres or streams of consciousness. But consciousness is a matter of degrees beginning with sentient experience of the most basic units of reality to the conscious experience of human beings and ending with the all-embracing Absolute. Our ordinary common sense, he thought, was too incoherent to grasp the true nature of the universe. It serves our practical purposes and allows us to interact and communicate about the most mundane things, but ultimately fails as a satisfactory metaphysics. Similarly, what Sprigge called the "world of science," serves practical purposes to a much higher degreeóphysics, engineering, chemistry, biology, medicineóbut only gives us abstract structures of the phenomenal world. So, for Sprigge, the speculative metaphysician seeks the reality behind the appearances, a world of direct acquaintance, and the scientist who refines common sense seeks an account of the world of description.

A Metaphysics of Consciousness

Sprigge's methodology borrows much from James and Royce who began the philosophical quest by an analysis of the specious present of one's own consciousness. As he made the point 

"if a philosopher would grasp reality in its concreteness, and arrive at a philosophic position adequate to such grasp, he must take the flow of his own experience as his paradigm example of the true pulse of existence, and continually check the results of his reasonings by reference back to it."

- Two Centuries of Philosophy in America,  ed. P. Caws (1980)

He believed that James's Principles of Psychology (1890) provided the finest analysis of concrete experience particularly through the development of the concepts of the specious present and the stream of consciousness. From this pivotal work, he saw that James, Royce and Whitehead all produced metaphysical systems that generalized from the psychological concept of the specious present. So, the basis of Sprigge's ontology, namely the momentary centres of experience, has an affinity to James's drops of experience as one finds in his Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) and Whitehead's actual occasions in Process and Reality (1929). He also notes that in Royce's The World and the Individual (1899) the specious present plays a much grander role as the unifying experience of the Absolute. Once one has a grasp of the intrinsic essence of a moment of consciousness, one has the clearest conception of what it is to be a noumenal reality, and by empathy one develops a sense of what it is like to be another organism. Such a grasp of concrete reality is far greater than any conception one might form of what is thought to be purely physical or abstract reality. Sprigge initially developed this idea in his paper "Final Causes" which was made famous in Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Thus, whereas others flirt with panpsychism as a possible solution to the mind-body problem and the problem of emergence, Sprigge embraced it unabashedly for forty years of his career.

The monistic metaphysics that Sprigge espoused owes much to Spinoza, for his views on the unity of God and Nature accord closely with the Rationalist master. It was, however, Bradley's analysis of relations that formed the basis of Sprigge's acceptance of the notion of a final unity. Whereas Bradley argued that all thinking about plurality and relations distort the true nature of reality, Sprigge developed the concept of holistic relations as a means of understanding whole-part relations. Working from within the stream of experience, Sprigge argued that the relation of momentary durations is felt to be stronger at one end of the relation rather than the other thus giving us the experience of asymmetrical relations in temporal passage, but that any such stream also feels itself as part of a whole. (Sprigge, 1983, pp 241) Neither spatial, temporal nor causal relations provide the model for the sort of relation that Sprigge believes fundamental. Instead, he viewed the specious present of a moment of consciousness as his paradigm of a holistic relation and of how parts form wholes. Ultimately, he argued that the plurality of finite centres of experience culminates in one final whole, which occurs as one grand epochal moment or frozen specious present. This is quite close to what Spinoza called 'God' or Bradley called 'the Absolute.'

Eternal vs. Temporal: Critique of Process Philosophy

While Sprigge admired Whitehead's panpsychism, he was one of the most acute critics of process philosophy. His main line of attack focused on process philosophers' attempts to explain becoming and perishing in the world and the development of novelty in a creative universe as in, for example, Whitehead's Process and Reality . Sprigge also criticized the process philosopher's notion of time and the central idea of process theologyóthat God is in process with the world. His central objection to Whitehead centers on the notion of the perishing of subjective immediacy. Whitehead's explanation of process involved a mechanism of prehension and objectification whereby an earlier moment must lose the immediacy of subjective experience in order to be prehended by a successor moment and thereby be objectified by the successor. Sprigge argued that he could make no sense of a later experience containing an earlier one as opposed to some manner of simply echoing it and that it was unintelligible how an experience that has lost subjective immediacy could be the same particular as an element in a successor. (The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, 1983) For him, this is because all moments of time are ontologically fixed within the experience of the Absolute, and there is in reality no loss of subjective immediacy. This involves a revisionary conception of time beginning with Parmenides and Plato and continuing through to Spinoza, Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart.

For Sprigge, time is unreal. This means our ordinary common sense conception of time as perpetually perishing and divided up into a determinate, non-actual past, a determinate, actual present, and a non-determinate, non-actual future is seriously flawed. In other words, from our limited, finite perspective in time, sub specie temporis, the present is real, the past fixed but quite gone, and the future to be decided, but from the perspective of the final reality of the Absolute, sub specie aeternitatis, all of time happens at once. Sprigge thus argued for an eternalistic theory of time that combines the views of Spinoza, Bradley and McTaggart with Santayana. 

Each moment of time, each present conscious experience, is intrinsically present and only relatively past or future. In this regard, the moments of time are more akin to points in space. Sprigge fully accepted Santayana's argument on the reference of propositions. For what makes propositions about time true or false is a reality to which they correspond or fail to correspond. So, for example, if the proposition that "Timothy Sprigge died on 11 July 2007" is true, it is because the reality of Sprigge's death on that day makes the proposition true and this reality does not fade or perish as time passes. In fact, for Sprigge, his whole life from birth to death forms a space-time worm within the Absolute and is just "eternally there" as he liked to say. In this connection, he found Whitehead's notion of objectification in God to be wholly unsatisfactory since it amounted to claiming that our past lives, and indeed the whole past universe, become nothing but a kind of cosmic memory in the mind of God rather than the intrinsic presence of subjectivity eternally part of the Absolute. 

Ethics Reconsidered: Against Anthropocentricism

Part of Sprigge's aim to construct a satisfactory theory concerned the ethical implications of the metaphysical principles. The panpsychism he developed has far-reaching consequences for how we should respect the noumenal worlds of sentient creatures, including, of course, human beings but extending far beyond our traditional ethical thinking. Sprigge's ethics stands opposed to Christian thought or Kantian deontology, according to which we only have direct moral obligations to other human beings or, more generally, rational agents. His realm of moral obligation includes non-human animals and even the environment, for sentience spread through the universe, requires that we treat it with the respect due to noumenal experience. He called his view, "way of life utilitarianism," primarily developed in his Rational Foundations of Ethics. Sprigge owes much to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in that it was Bentham who argued that the basis of moral consideration was sentience rather than the capacity to speak or think. In accordance with Bentham, Sprigge makes a case for the role of pleasure and pain in the determination of value but rejects any utilitarian cost/benefit analysis whereby certain intrinsically bad actions might turn out to be morally permissible.

Sprigge was convinced that the focus on a materialist or physicalist metaphysics had produced a distortion of our moral sense, and, at its worst, a justification for cruel and callous practices such as factory farming, vivisection and the destruction of eco-systems. It is here that common sense, science, industry and government are allies in immorality. Descartes' conception of non-human animals as mindless machines allowed the early vivisectionists to dismiss any qualms they felt about the suffering of such creatures in laboratories. This coupled with biblical views about man's God-given place in the hierarchy has produced the dominant tendency to treat non-human animals merely as objects to be manipulated, eaten or exploited for any purpose. Sprigge fought back with a system of thought that exposed the blatant anthropocentricism and he practised what he preached. He converted to vegetarianism and became chairman for Advocates for Animals, a group in Edinburgh that was involved in campaigns against animal experimentation. In this role, Sprigge also participated in international conferences devoted to exploring alternatives to the use of animals in medical research. 

Sprigge found religion in the Absolute, but religion stripped of mythology, superstition and intolerance. Late in life he became a member of the Unitarian Church, first in Edinburgh and then in Brighton, near his home in Lewes. Here he seemed to have found some sort of spiritual community among heterodox theists who sought a less dogmatic form of religious belief. He re-wrote the Lord's Prayer along Spinozistic lines while believing that it was pointless to pray to a God that was identical to the universe and could not alter the course of time that was already fixed. In his final illness, he requested that no animal parts be used in a heart valve operation. One is reminded of George Bernard Shaw who said that his will should contain directions for his funeral: his coffin was to be followed not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow creatures.

Final Assessment

Idealism is much less an option today than it was in the nineteenth century because of its association with universal, absolute religious principles and totalitarian, imperialistic political ideas. The decline of such thinking, especially in England, was also marked by the skepticism generated after the senseless carnage of World War I. For Sprigge, all of this was irrelevant to his quest for a satisfactory metaphysics. 

Today, the idealistic doctrines are generally regarded as historically interesting but philosophically inconsequential. Idealism is largely viewed as implausible because of its disregard for the physical and biological sciences. Sprigge could rightly be accused of sidestepping science in his attempt to arrive at first principles, and he was well aware that his ignorance of science was a shortcoming of his philosophy. How far metaphysical thinking could get at first principles without the aid of detailed empirical studies was a great source of concern. He admired Spinoza and Whitehead for their scientifically informed metaphysics. 

Moreover, while Sprigge followed Bradley and Royce in defending the sharp distinction between appearance and reality, or between the investigations of structural phenomena undertaken by physical science and those of introspective psychology, it is unlikely that physicists, chemists and biologists see themselves as engaged in anything less than a quest to know reality. Scientists do not see themselves as investigating what is merely abstract or phenomenal but rather an underlying reality. As far as the critiques of Russell, Moore and Ayer are concerned, the charge that metaphysical construction is a sort of Hegelian megalomania has not quite the force it had in the first half of the 1900s. The anti-metaphysical, linguistic methodologies ran their course and eventually faced fatigue, but the idea that idealism could serve as a metaphysical foundation for any system adequate for the sciences is upheld by relatively few. 

Sprigge's contribution to philosophy is difficult to access given the neglect of his fellow countrymen. He is more widely appreciated in the United States as an interpreter of classical American philosophy, especially James, Royce and Santayana, and in the European continent as a scholar of Spinoza and Bradley. What is little understood is the highly original manner in which he constructed his own system of metaphysics, which contains a penetrating and insightful grasp of consciousness and the upshot of this for moral behavior. While Sprigge's philosophy might seem oddly out of place in history, it has enduring value for the manner in which he challenges our common sense views of mind, matter, time and our treatment of non-human animals. On this last point, his ethics is clearly in sync with a progressive movement that aims to reverse the disastrous course that has resulted from viewing the world as mere matter in motion.

Conference details and links to all the Papers here


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