Herbert Wildon Carr (1857–1931)

1. Brief Vita

Herbert Wildon Carr was born in London in 1857; originally trained for a career in business, he studied philosophy as a mature student at King’s College, where he became Professor of Philosophy in 1918. In 1925, at the age of 68, he accepted a position at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, which he held until his death in 1931. Carr’s name is today remembered for his industrious and successful activity as a Secretary of the Aristotelian Society, which under his guidance achieved the status of a national institution, and for his books and translations of the philosophers who most influenced his thinking—Bergson, Leibniz and the Italian Idealists Croce and Gentile. Carr’s own idealistic metaphysics, on the other hand, has been entirely forgotten. In what can be regarded as his philosophical testament—Cogitans Cogitata (1930), a small book whose terse paragraphs are styled and numbered after the manner of Leibniz’s Monadology—he characterises his philosophical outlook as follows:

My philosophy is a Monadism […] I think the world consists of active, living, individual subjects of experience. I call them monads. They alone are real. Material objects in space and time are not monads nor composed of monads; they are appearances or phenomena and exist only in the perceptions of the monads (1930a, ix).

This passage clearly defines Carr’s philosophical position. On the one hand, material objects are not real in the most fundamental sense of the term: since all there is to reality are experiencing subjects, both materialism and dualism are false. On the other hand, there is a plurality of real entities, so that the form of idealism advocated by Carr is not of an absolute, Spinozistic one, but of the personalistic sort.

Alfred Jules Ayer’s neo-positivistic Language, Truth and Logic was to appear only a few years later in 1935, but it would be a mistake to dismiss as anachronistic a philosophy that takes Leibniz’s metaphysics as its starting point. Many philosophers (including Whitehead) believed that a renewed effort of constructive metaphysics was needed to shed light on the ontological foundations of the natural sciences. “The old materialism,” Carr wrote, “is gone. Science has outgrown it. Whether it will return in some new form we cannot say, but certainly we can point to nothing in modern physics or in biology which seems to be heralding its approach” (1929, 21). The traditional materialistic and mechanistic conception of nature had collapsed under the combined effect of evolutionary theory, quantum theory and the theory of relativity. Carr’s appeal to the Leibnizian concept of the monad is an attempt at solving one of the main problems of contemporary philosophy: what is the nature of physical existence?

Although philosophically much less distinguished, Carr’s speculation was probably instrumental in helping Whitehead to achieve his philosophical synthesis. When Whitehead joined the Aristotelian Society in 1915, Carr was one of its most prominent members. Since they shared the same philosophical concerns, he must have been an important interlocutor for Whitehead, one with whom it was also possible to discuss ideas of past and contemporary philosophers. Apart from Leibniz, this is especially true of the philosophy of Bergson, of which Carr was an enthusiastic admirer. The encounter with the philosophy of Bergson was for Carr more than a mere intellectual affair. The following autobiographical passage deserves to be quoted at full length:

In 1907 I was fifty years old […] I was well read in philosophy […] but beyond general and continuous interest in philosophical theories, I had no direct intention of devoting the remainder of my life to the profession of philosophy. There occurred to me at this time, however, an experience which had an effect on my future of which at the time I had no suspicion. It was almost accidental. I was walking in Paris and in passing a book-shop was attracted by Bergson’s Evolution Créatrice. I had heard of Bergson; I had seen his earlier books in the library of a friend and been told of their striking originality, but as yet I had not read one of them. I brought the book and read it in my hotel, and it produced the experience of a new conversion. The whole philosophical problem was transformed, irradiated with light. I found myself possessed with a new enthusiasm (1924, 103-104).

2. Scientific Revolutions and the Nature of Metaphysics

Carr’s understanding of the nature of philosophical inquiry is very different from the linguistic approach that has been dominant in twentieth century British philosophy. Metaphysical problems are not meaningless perplexities generated by a misapprehension of the logic of our language, and the task of the philosopher is not that of dispelling such illusions by showing how they originate. Rather, metaphysical investigations are made necessary by scientific progress: new theories generate conflicts between novel and old ways of thinking, and sometimes between the novel theories themselves. As Carr puts it:

It is only when some new scientific discovery revolutionizes our mode of thinking that we are suddenly brought back to first principles, physics is found to depend on metaphysics, and philosophy and science are joined together (1924, 106).

Understood as the attempt at providing a unified foundation for the natural sciences, metaphysics cannot be regarded as a misguided enterprise nor as impossible in principle: it is (just) a very difficult task. The main polemical target of Carr’s philosophy is what he refers to as the “old materialism,” the conception of nature as constituted by thing-like atoms, existing within the framework of an absolute time and an absolute space and related by external relations. Since these are relations that do not alter the nature of the terms between which they hold, the basic constituents of reality can exist unchanged in a variety of different configurations. Carr believes that all the basic elements of this conception are inconsistent with the most recent scientific developments.

In the first place, Carr emphasizes that the mind must have emerged in the course of evolution, and yet nothing alive and sentient could possibly emerge by merely rearranging a multiplicity of insentient atoms: “if the intellect is a product of evolution the whole mechanistic conception of the nature and origin of life is absurd, and the principle which science has adopted must clearly be revised” (1922, 5). Moreover, the teleological categories of “choice,” “end” or “purpose” are widely appealed to in biology to explain animal behaviour, yet they find no place in a purely mechanistic conception of the universe: “Life can only be interpreted by positing a substance which is not material and a cause which is not mechanical” (1922, 305). Secondly, Carr criticizes the conception of the basic building blocks of reality, the atoms, as “thing-like” substances. Bergson had argued that the primary purpose of the intellect is not knowledge, but action in view of adaptation to the environment. Following his teaching, Carr contends that our ordinary concepts are shaped on the model of the macroscopic objects we have to deal with in ordinary life and that it is therefore not surprising that they are wholly inadequate when applied at the microscopic level. The human intellect works with categories which are descriptive of static realities; the fact philosophers must recognise, however, is that the ultimate constituents of reality are not “things”: “the universe of modern physics,” he writes, “consists of events” (1929, 20). Thirdly, Carr holds that the theory of relativity forces us to think of spatial and temporal relations as dependent upon given frames of reference. This involves a shift from a realistic to an idealistic conception of reality: the notion of the subject as an external spectator, whose mind mirrors relations objectively existing between occurrences in nature, has to be abandoned in favour of an idealistic view of relations as existing only for a perceiving subject (1929, 2).

Once materialism has been rejected, however, how is physical existence to be conceived? According to Carr, Leibniz’s monadology—interpreted idealistically as the theory that reality is constituted by a plurality of subject-like entities—provides the most adequate foundation for modern science: “It is only today when the fundamental concepts of physics are undergoing a radical revision that the full significance of the Leibnizian theory is appearing” (1929, 10).

3. Between Leibniz and Bergson

The relevance of Leibniz’s theory of monads should be clear on the ground of what has been said above. In the first place, evolutionary theory suggests that the ultimate constituents of reality cannot be bits of inert matter: they must be sentient to start with. Secondly, modern physics requires that such constituents be conceived of as events: a monad’s inner life is an incessant flow of experiences. Thirdly, each monad embodies a perspective upon the world and is attached to its own frame of reference, which for Carr is consistent with the principle of relativity. Methodological considerations are also important: how are we to conceive of the inner nature of the events that science posits at the ultimate level of reality? The only real event we are acquainted with is our own mind, and the basic constituents of reality must be of the same general kind: “if I know by my own experience what a real is I know what other reals are” (1929, 14).

One question that the advocate of a theory of monads has to answer is why, if reality is constituted by subject-like centers of experience, we naturally think of the world in dualistic terms as consisting of spiritual as well as of material substances. Carr argues that it is simply not true that dualism is the most natural way of conceiving reality. Historically the most primitive view of the natural world is animism, and it is only our cultural heritage that makes dualism seem so natural and uncontroversial. According to Carr, moreover, this does not mean that dualism is entirely false. Even though the distinction between mind and matter does not correspond to a real distinction in the ultimate nature of things, it corresponds to an epistemic distinction within our experience. At any one moment, our total state of mind embraces a relation between a subject knowing and an object known. The subject and the object exist within the whole and to conceive them as independent substances is to mistake abstractions for real facts—the only real fact being the unity and the immediacy of the apprehending mind.

Nevertheless, an explanation is needed of how the appearance of inert matter could arise in a world of active monads. Carr appeals to Bergson’s idea that matter is nothing positive in itself, but merely arrested development. And indeed, the most characteristic feature of Carr’s philosophy is his peculiar combination of Leibniz with Bergson. Carr rejects Leibniz’s conception of God as the supreme monad, as well as the notion of God as a transcendent creator. The fundamental metaphysical notion is that of creative evolution, an immanent force pervading all being which manifests itself in the incessant activity of the monads (1922, 318). As Carr puts it, “[t]he basis of existence is process” yet “the real plurality is that of the monads, each the active centre of the one universal principle” (1922, 320). Inertness is to be found where the universal principle of creative urge is impeded in its advancement.

Upon the whole, there is nothing really new in Carr’s metaphysics, which is the product of an intelligent eclecticism rather than of an original speculation. Most of the points he makes in critique of mechanistic materialism had already been advanced by others, nor is he the first philosopher to appreciate the significance of Leibniz and Bergson for modern philosophy: Ward and James are two notable examples. At the same time, the similarities between the above sketched ideas and some of those held by Whitehead, who explicitly refers to his metaphysics as a theory of monads (PR 80), barely need to be emphasized. Interestingly, in 1930 Carr wrote a review of Process and Reality, where he expresses his sympathy and admiration for Whitehead’s book, but at the same time clearly rejects the system that is there presented. Carr is skeptical of Whitehead’s identification of sense-data with Platonic ideas, of his doctrine of experience, and of his free use of traditional philosophical vocabulary. However, the main motive of dissatisfaction is Whitehead’s appeal to God to explain emergent evolution—a move which Carr regards as a disappointing recourse to a deus ex machina (1930b, 162).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Books and Translations

1911. Henry Bergson (London and Edinburgh, T. C and E. C. Jack and T. Nelson & Sons).

1912. The Problem of Truth (London and Edinburgh, T. C and E. C. Jack and T. Nelson & Sons).

1914. The Philosophy of Change: A Study of the Fundamental Principle of the Philosophy of Bergson (London and New York, Macmillan).

1917. The Philosophy of Benedetto Croce: The Problem of Art and History (London and New York, Macmillan).

1920. Mind Energy: Lectures and Essays, a translation of Bergson’s L’Energie spirituelle) (London, Macmillan).

1920. The Principle of Relativity (London and New York, Macmillan).

1922. A Theory of Monads: Outlines of the Philosophy of the Principle of Relativity (London and New York, Macmillan).

1922. Theory of Mind as Pure Act, a translation of Gentile’s Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro (London, Macmillan).

1924. The Scientific Approach to Reality (London and New York, Macmillan).

1927. Changing Backgrounds in Religion and Ethics: A Metaphysical Meditation (London and New York, Macmillan).

1928. The Unique Status of Man (London and New York, Macmillan).

1928. The Freewill Problem (London, E. Benn).

1929. Leibniz; “Leaders of Philosophy” (London, E. Benn).

1930a. Cogitans Cogitata (London, Favil Press).

Selected Articles

1919. Co-authored with A. N. Whitehead, O. Lodge, J. W. Nicholson, H. Head, A. Stephen. “Time, Space and Material: Are they, and if So in What Sense, the Ultimate Data of Science?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume No. 2, 44-108.

1921-22. Co-authored with T. P. Nunn, A. N. Whitehead, D. Wrinch.

“Discussion: The Idealistic Interpretation of Einstein Theory,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XXII, 123-38.

1924. “Idealism as a Principle in Science and Philosophy,” in Contemporary British Philosophy. Personal Statements, First Series (London and New York, Macmillan), 100-126.

1929. “Real and Ideal Relations,” The Philosophical Review, I, XXXVIII, 1-22.

1930b. Review of A. N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality, The Personalist, XI, 3, 157-63.

Author Information

Pierfrancesco Basile
Institut für Philosophie
Universität Bern, Länggassstrasse, 3000 Bern 9

How to Cite this Article

Basile, Pierfrancesco, “Herbert Wildon Carr (1857–1931)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/contemporaries/herbert-wildon-carr/>.