Invited Article

Mark J. Porrovecchio

The history of ideas is a history of rediscovery.  We chance upon a concept, startling in its novelty, only to find with continued consideration that its origins are far older, and far more complex, than we initially thought.  Such is the case with Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1864-1937).  His contributions to philosophy and his support of psychical research remain underappreciated.  The reasons have as much to do with how intellectual history is written as they do with Schiller’s approach to both.  They are the result of reading philosophy too narrowly and treating psychical research as beyond the scope of a love of knowledge.

Schiller’s biography certainly suggests a figurative claim to immortality.  The son of a father with business interests in India, Schiller was treated to a top flight education: Belsize Manor, the University College School at Hampstead, London; the Rugby School; and Balliol College.  After a brief stint teaching German at Eton, he received his M.A. in October 1891. After teaching and studying at Cornell in the mid-1890s, he settled into a position at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, until 1926.  Due to poor health, Schiller retired from Corpus Christi and began a relationship with the University of Southern California (USC), where he taught off and on before retiring there in 1935.  He published over a dozen books, penned hundreds of essays and reviews, and was discussed by the leading minds of the time.  Figures from British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) to American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) count as correspondents with Schiller.  He was celebrated in philosophical as well as popular publications, as inclined to ply his wares in the Fortnightly Review as the more staid Journal of Philosophy.  Schiller’s career was also marked with points of distinction: honorary member of Rome’s Circolo di Filosofia (1909); president of the Aristotelian Society (1921); elected fellow of the British Academy (1926); honorary treasurership and membership in the Mind Association; and honorary LL.D. from USC (1930).

Taking these cursory life details further, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Schiller was the driving force behind pragmatism[1] in Europe and a central figure in the first generation development of the same.  While at Cornell, he met the American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910).  James was to have a lasting impact on Schiller. In James, he found the foundation from which to launch his most insistent broadsides: the paucity of formal logic, the bareness of Absolute Idealism, the possible rapprochement of faith and reason (being the first modern scholar to suggest the phrase “intelligent design”), and the necessity of consequences over the foolishness of a priori abstractions.  In Schiller, James found a foil acclimated to the tendencies with which pragmatism would fight.  Aggressive where James was amicable, blunt where James was ambivalent, Schiller sought to root out the challenges to pragmatism at their source.  Over the span of years, he sought to lay low the smug prognostications of British idealist Francis Herbert Bradley (1846-1924), to challenge the neo-Hegelian gymnastics of family friend John [McTaggart Ellis] McTaggart (1866-1925), and to box the ears of James’s former student Dickinson Miller (1868-1963).  He razed the machinations of logic divorced from meaning in Formal Logic (1912) and sought a useful alternative in Logic for Use (1929).  Schiller also attempted to expand pragmatism beyond philosophy proper, suggesting that pragmatic humanism[2] was Jamesian thought writ large.  Between two world wars, he posited a world predicated on pragmatic goals yet forged in eugenical principles. In works such as Eugenics and Politics (1924) and Social Decay and Eugenical Reform (1932) Schiller detailed both positive and negative eugenical schemes for reworking the political, religious, and familial aspect of society.  He was also an active member of the British Eugenics Society and a contributor to their journal, the Eugenics Review.

Schiller’s involvement in psychical research predated his work in support of pragmatism, even as the latter helped frame the former.  His unpublished journals suggest that he, his brothers Ferdinand Philip Maximilian and Ferdinand Nassau, and his sister Lisabeth engaged in paranormal research from an early age, even if the official published date that Schiller gives of his conversion to psychical research is 1882.  He also notes his membership while in college in the Oxford Phasmatological Society, which was soon to be absorbed into the Society for Psychical Research.  Dating aside, it would only be a few years later when Schiller would start to engage in exchanges with members of the Society.  One of the first of these was initiated in the January 1887 Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.  In “Automatic Writing,” Cambridge classics professor Frederic William Henry Myers (1843–1901) suggests that cases of automatism point to multiple states of consciousness.  One of the pieces of evidence that Myers uses for his argument is a letter from Schiller and his siblings relating an instance of automatic writing.  The discussion spilled over into the Journal of Psychical Research and grew to include personalities such as Thomas Barkworth and St. George Lane-Fox[-Pitt] (an early inventor involved in the development of incandescent light; 1856–1932).  Through it all, Schiller maintained a position informed by his approach to pragmatism: the centrality and persistence of personality, in life and potentially in death as well.  Schiller also bristled at those haughty enough to cast off psychical research without reflection. In January 1899, Harvard psychologist and notorious self-promoter Hugo Munsterberg (1863–1916) published “Psychology and Mysticism” in the Atlantic Monthly.  In a tone laced with contempt, he dismisses psychical research as a realm of the delusional.  Later that year in the Proceedings, Schiller delights in pointing out the contradictions and prejudices put forth by “the lord of I don’t know how many thousands of dollars worth of psychological machinery.”  James takes notice, complimenting Schiller in a letter on his destruction of Münsterberg’s “unimaginably asinine rot.”  The two share yet another bond that highlights the bonds between pragmatism and psychical research.  Four years after James’s death, in 1914, Schiller assumes the presidency of the SPR (his inaugural statement, “Philosophy, Science, and Psychical Research: A Presidential Address,” is published in the July edition of the Proceedings).  It is a position his mentor held in 1894-1895. 

One reason that Schiller’s contributions to both philosophy and psychical research remain obscured is a matter of style.  To his credit, Schiller was a witty polemicist.  Russell called him the “literary” wing of pragmatism.  His essays and reviews are filled with humorous asides and retorts.  That humor, though, often carried an edge.  Schiller could lapse into mocking those who took issue with his positions.  Early in his career, this scorn was directed at those who challenged pragmatism; later in life, it was directed towards those pragmatists who sought to reduce or revise the importance of Schiller and James.  Schiller’s style also framed a strategically risky approach to argument.  More often than not, he worked to destroy the positions of his opponents.  He took the position that British idealism needed to be removed root and branch.  He stood his ground in arguing that second generation pragmatists, such as Ralph Barton Perry (1876-1957) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), were warping pragmatism to suit their slavish obeisance to pragmatists like John Dewey (1859-1952) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).  Rarely in these exchanges would he show an inclination to provide a productive alternative, or to move beyond reiterating the features of Jamesian pragmatism and his own pragmatic humanism.

But another issue that has checked past attempts to reintroduce Schiller to a larger public relates to the topics he pursued.  He understood philosophy as inquiry with permeable borders.  Schiller was, in contrast with some of his peers, as comfortable promoting his views in the popular press as he was in the recognized philosophical journals.  He suspected, with some justification, that lurking behind jargon and abstraction were writers with a fear of being understood.  And this willingness to speak clearly and test almost everything led him to endorse the study of psychical research and the pseudo-science of eugenics.  The latter topic rightly earns him scorn.  That said, two caveats are in order: several of the topics that eugenicists studied in Schiller’s time are even now being considered if only under other labels; his approach to eugenics is far more complicated than the narrative that developed in the repulsive wake of World War Two.[3]  But the topic of psychical research yields no fewer complications when it comes to renovating Schiller’s reputation.  Then as now, many philosophers take positions ranging from genial annoyance to outright dismissal when the topic is brought up.  So, in the case of James and his involvement in psychical research, the narrative is revised; in the case of Schiller, he is simply removed.  Psychical research, like religion, is treated as taboo or, worse, an unfortunate vestige of a foolish and superstitious era.

It needn’t be this way.  As regards the rediscovery of Schiller, the facts are too numerous to ignore.  His was an important and neglected story in the development of pragmatism.  To reinsert Schiller into the intellectual history of pragmatism is not necessarily to agree with his positions or overemphasize his significance.  As regards the issue of psychical research, the issue relates to what counts as a love of knowledge.  Philosophy is flush with –isms and –ologies, post-this and neo-that.  Pragmatism is, as Schiller suggested, a flexible method that can be applied beyond the scope of philosophy.  That the range of inquiry will differ to the degree that the interests of the inquirers differ should be less than a revelation.  That some should choose psychical research just as others might choose a focus on law or politics should be no less the same.  In short, the rediscovery of Schiller speaks to the honest impulses of both philosophers and psychical researchers, to questions that persist and answers that remain elusive.

--Mark J. Porrovecchio,

Oregon State University


Further Reading:

Abel, Reuben.  The Pragmatic Humanism of F. C. S. Schiller.  New York: King’s Crown Press, 1955.

--------.  Humanistic Pragmatism: The Philosophy of F. C. S. Schiller.  New York: Free Press, 1966.

Porrovecchio, Mark J.  F. C. S. Schiller and the Dawn of Pragmatism: The Rhetoric of a Philosophical Rebel.  Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.

Shook, John R., and Hugh McDonald, eds. F. C. S. Schiller on Pragmatism and Humanism: Selected Writings, 1891–1939.  Amherst: Humanity Books, 2008.

Winetrout, Kenneth.  F. C. S. Schiller and the Dimensions of Pragmatism.  Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1967.

[1] James placed the origins of pragmatism (or the now nearly forgotten alternative term, practicalism) at the feet of the brilliant, if erratic, Peirce.  Schiller held that this was a slightly dubious lineage, preferring to instead follow the “broader” definition that James set forth in Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results (1898): “the effective meaning of any philosophic proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience.”

[2] Schiller offered one of the clearest explanations of this extension of pragmatism in Studies in Humanism (1907); pragmatic humanism, in short, “demands that man’s integral nature shall be used as the whole premise which philosophy must argue from wholeheartedly, that man’s complete satisfaction shall be the conclusion that philosophy must aim at.”

[3] The range of ideas which fell under the “eugenic” moniker in Schiller’s time might shock the contemporary reader.  The need to train women in matters of birth control?  A eugenical idea.  The necessity of not coddling the children of the wealthy?  Also a eugenical theme.  The need to counteract strains of thought in eugenics that promoted “racial purity” as the overriding goal? An issue that Schiller and other eugenicists saw as essential if they were to be given a fair hearing.  That these and other ideas are now carried forward in social, scientific, and political settings—under awnings such as family planning, capitalism, and genetics—is not to endorse eugenics.  Schiller’s approach to the same carried with it clear and repugnant strands of classist, racist, sexist thinking.  It is, however, a reminder that many concepts are more complicated than they might first appear, that the distance of time can both liberate us from our errors and obscure from us the nuance of the past.