F. S. C. Northrop

F. S. C. Northrop

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Filmer Stuart Cuckow Northrop (Nov 27, 1893 in Janesville, Wisconsin
Janesville, Wisconsin
Janesville is a city in southern Wisconsin, United States. It is the county seat of Rock County and the principal municipality of the Janesville, Wisconsin Metropolitan Statistical Area. As of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 62,998.-History:...

 – Jul 21, 1992 in Exeter, New Hampshire
Exeter, New Hampshire
Exeter is a town in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, United States. The town's population was 14,306 at the 2010 census. Exeter was the county seat until 1997, when county offices were moved to neighboring Brentwood...

) was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 philosopher. After receiving a B.A. from Beloit College
Beloit College
Beloit College is a liberal arts college in Beloit, Wisconsin, USA. It is a member of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and has an enrollment of roughly 1,300 undergraduate students. Beloit is the oldest continuously operated college in Wisconsin, and has the oldest building of any college...

 in 1915, and an MA from Yale University
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

 in 1919, he went on to Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 where he earned another MA in 1922 and a Ph.D. in 1924.

He was appointed to the Yale faculty in 1923 as an instructor in Philosophy, and later was named professor in 1932. In 1947 he was appointed Sterling Professor of Philosophy and Law. He chaired the Philosophy department from 1938 to 1940 and was the first Master of Silliman College
Silliman College
Silliman College is a residential college at Yale University. It opened in September 1940 as the last of the original ten residential colleges, and includes buildings that were constructed as early as 1901...

 from 1940 to 1947.

Northrop was personally acquainted with and close to a great number of leading figures in philosophy, politics, and science. These included G. H. Hardy
G. H. Hardy
Godfrey Harold “G. H.” Hardy FRS was a prominent English mathematician, known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis....

, Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these things...

, Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947...

, Erwin Schroedinger, Hermann Weyl
Hermann Weyl
Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl was a German mathematician and theoretical physicist. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.His...

, Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener was an American mathematician.A famous child prodigy, Wiener later became an early researcher in stochastic and noise processes, contributing work relevant to electronic engineering, electronic communication, and control systems.Wiener is regarded as the originator of cybernetics, a...

, Mao Tse Tung, John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959. He was a significant figure in the early Cold War era, advocating an aggressive stance against communism throughout the world...

 and Mohammed Iqbal, among many others. For instance, see the dedication to "Man, Nature, and God."

He was the author of twelve books and innumerable articles on all major branches of philosophy. Chapter-length studies of seven of these books can be found in Fred Seddon’s An Introduction to the Philosophical Works of F. S. C. Northrop.


Northrop’s major contribution to philosophy is in the area of epistemology, specifically his theory
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

 of concepts. He divides all concepts into two kinds: intuition
Intuition (knowledge)
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. "The word 'intuition' comes from the Latin word 'intueri', which is often roughly translated as meaning 'to look inside'’ or 'to contemplate'." Intuition provides us with beliefs that we cannot necessarily justify...

 and postulation. For Northrop, the source of the meaning of the concept is the source of its difference. This can be seen from the definitions of these concepts. A concept by intuition is one which denotes, and the complete meaning of which is given by, something which is immediately apprehended. Northrop gives blue
Blue is a colour, the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm. It is considered one of the additive primary colours. On the HSV Colour Wheel, the complement of blue is yellow; that is, a colour corresponding to an equal...

 in "the sense of the sensed color" as an example of a concept by intuition. (The Logic of Science and Humanities, p. 82.)

The other kind is concepts by postulation. A concept by postulation is one the meaning of which in whole or in part is designated by the postulates of the deductive theory in which it occurs. Blue in the sense of the frequency
Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency.The period is the duration of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency...

 or wavelength
In physics, the wavelength of a sinusoidal wave is the spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats.It is usually determined by considering the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase, such as crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a...

 in electromagnetic
Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation...

 theory is a concept by postulation. (The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, p. 83.)

According to Northrop, these two types of concepts exhaust the available concepts (i.e., providing terms with meanings) from which any scientific or philosophical theory can be constructed and therefore provides a means to do comparative philosophy, analyze and solve the problem of world peace
World peace
World Peace is an ideal of freedom, peace, and happiness among and within all nations and/or people. World peace is an idea of planetary non-violence by which nations willingly cooperate, either voluntarily or by virtue of a system of governance that prevents warfare. The term is sometimes used to...

, tame nations, provide a philosophical anthropology
Philosophical anthropology
Philosophical anthropology is a discipline dealing with questions of metaphysics and phenomenology of the human person, and interpersonal relationships. It is the attempt to unify disparate ways of understanding behaviour of humans as both creatures of their social environments and creators of...

, explain why economists from Smith
Adam Smith
Adam Smith was a Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations...

 to Marx were incapable of providing a dynamics to supplement their statics, and to ground art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

 and religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 as well as legal and ethical theory. Northrop substantiates these claims in his The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....


There remains one crucial notion: what is the relationship between postulation and intuition
Intuition (knowledge)
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. "The word 'intuition' comes from the Latin word 'intueri', which is often roughly translated as meaning 'to look inside'’ or 'to contemplate'." Intuition provides us with beliefs that we cannot necessarily justify...

. For Northrop the relation is epistemic correlation. Northrop provides the following definition:

(The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, p. 119.)

The sensed color blue is related to theoretical color blue by an epistemic correlation. Note what this relation is not. It is not the relation of causality
Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

or identity. Concept-by-postulation blue does not cause concept-by-intuition blue. As Northrop reports in Science and First Principles, (pp. 251-252) concept-by-intuition blue is a multivalued relation. One relata of concept-by-intuition blue is the angstrom
The angstrom or ångström, is a unit of length equal to 1/10,000,000,000 of a meter . Its symbol is the Swedish letter Å....

 number currently associated with concept by postulation blue. To assume that only one of the relata of a relation could cause that relation is as silly as assuming that the female (or the male) member of a marriage causes the marriage.

Nor is the proper relation between postulation and intuition "identity", as can easily been seen using "blue". Concept-by-postulation blue is not identical with concept-by-intuition blue, but is just one among many relata that go to form this complex secondary quality
Primary/secondary quality distinction
The primary/secondary quality distinction is a conceptual distinction in epistemology and metaphysics, concerning the nature of reality. It is most explicitly articulated by John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, but earlier thinkers such as Galileo and Descartes made similar...


Neither identity nor causality is the proper relation between sensed blue and theoretic blue.

Note that the problem is: "what is the epistemic correlate of one's directly inspected visual image?" The problem is not what is really real. Unlike (certain interpretations of) Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Plotinus
Plotinus was a major philosopher of the ancient world. In his system of theory there are the three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition...

, there is in Northrop no propensity to degrade or downgrade the world
World is a common name for the whole of human civilization, specifically human experience, history, or the human condition in general, worldwide, i.e. anywhere on Earth....

-as-it-is-sensed in favor of the world-as-known by concepts-by-postulation. To experience
Experience as a general concept comprises knowledge of or skill in or observation of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event....

 the visual image
An image is an artifact, for example a two-dimensional picture, that has a similar appearance to some subject—usually a physical object or a person.-Characteristics:...

 of blue is as epistemically valuable and irreducible as knowing blue postulationally. The two sources of all our knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 give information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

 that is both complementary and supplementary
The term supplementary can refer to a number of things:* Supplementary angles* Supplementary Benefit - a former benefit, payable in the United Kingdom* Supplementary questions asked during Prime Minister's Questions...

. Without concepts-by-intuition we could never know the world in its particularity. Without concepts-by-postulation we could never know the world in its universality
Universality (philosophy)
In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe...

 and necessity
In U.S. criminal law, necessity may be either a possible justification or an exculpation for breaking the law. Defendants seeking to rely on this defense argue that they should not be held liable for their actions as a crime because their conduct was necessary to prevent some greater harm and when...


We now have enough information to give a name to Northrop's epistemology. He calls it "logical realism in epistemic correlation with radical empiricism
Radical empiricism
Radical empiricism is a pragmatist doctrine put forth by William James. It asserts that experience includes both particulars and relations between those particulars, and that therefore both deserve a place in our explanations...

." In other words, reason
Reason is a term that refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, ...

 (in the form of concepts-by-postulation) epistemically correlated with the senses (in the form of concepts-by-intuition).

The consequences of this theory cannot be overestimated. It has ramifications for psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

, epistemology, religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 and philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

. Not only will the world now come to be seen as something that can be known both by theory as well as by sense perception, but the knower can also be known by both methods. Human
Humans are the only living species in the Homo genus...

s are not only what the latest science has postulated them to be, but also what they sense themselves to be.

One early claim by Northrop in Ch. 2 of "The Meeting of East and West" was that Eastern Thought in general (really most applicable to Chinese thought) is that Eastern Thought deals with the world as an “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.” That is, reality is all connected and unified, not separated into distinct objects (undifferentiated continuum) and is in reality qualitative as perceived (aesthetic = perception, but later related to theory of art). Some Chinese have dismissed this as racist and simple-minded. Others have embraced it as a correct characterization. What Northrop contrasts with it in the west is an abstract, mathematical or formal conception of reality along with an atomistic conception of reality as fundamentally separate objects. Concepts are in the west “by postulation,” while in the East “by intuition.”

Further reading

  • Seddon, Fred, An Introduction to the Philosophical Works of F. S. C. Northrop, Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 1995. Includes seventeen page bibliography.