E.M. Adams’s Realistic Humanism
Maurice F. Stanley
University of North Carolina, Wilmington
In two recent articles, “The Meaning of Life” and “Rethinking the
Idea of God,” E.M. Adams offers his views on these two topics – views
which have grown out of his systematic philosophy. This philosophy,
which Adams has developed over many years, in many books and articles,
he has come to call “realistic humanism.”
In approaching the work of a systematic philosopher such as Adams,
different critics and expositors will focus on different aspects of
his philosophy; but they must keep in mind that the short articles
draw on a central reservoir of ideas to be found in his books.
In “The Meaning of Life” (International Journal for Philosophy
of Religion, 2001), Adams argues that two of the main cultural
problems of our time are 1) the demise of meaning and 2) moral
relativism. Adams sees these cultural problems as the result of what
he calls naturalism, which is the philosophical conviction, or
attitude, that all knowledge springs from a world that is entirely
material, physical. It is not hard to see that our present culture
looks only to science rather than to ethical codes or religious values
for answers to the deepest questions of life. Many philosophers, among
them Hobbes, Locke, Hume, the Logical Positivists, W.V.O. Quine, and
Daniel Dennett, take for granted that there is no value or meaning in
the universe. There are only scientific facts about physical things.
Naturalists adopt the view that beliefs about human value and meaning,
which in past centuries have been the subject matter of ethics and
religion, are subjective and are relative.
Culturally this naturalism comes out in our actual lives in greedy
materialism, moral relativism, and a deep sense of meaninglessness.
There is nothing, it seems, that we ought to be and do, and our lives
have no meaning apart from our jobs, our “lifestyles,” our material
possessions, and so forth. No wisdom is possible in such a culture.
Adams thinks naturalism is a deep and dangerous mistake, but his
philosophy is not just a rejection of it but a systematic,
all-encompassing alternative world view. Adams calls his view
“realistic humanism” because, to put it briefly, he thinks that value
and meaning are real features, part of what he calls the categorial
structure, of the world. That is, he thinks that the category of
factuality (a category is simply one of the most general kinds
of being) is not the only category of reality, but that there are
other categories. He thinks that values are real and objective and
that we can and do have knowledge of them, and he argues that meaning
is also a real category of Being. There is more to the world than
It seems strange that anyone could ever have thought otherwise; but
in the face of the pervasive materialism and scientism of contemporary
culture, Adams has had to argue his case. He has not chosen to set
himself up as a prophet. Unlike a moralizer or a political pundit, or
a religious authority whose dicta come from on high, Adams gives his
arguments – his reasons are that we can experience and gain knowledge
of value and meaning – that we can know right from wrong and the
meaning of life, that ethics and religion have bases in the
categorical structure of the universe. Even the concept of God can be
understood in terms of Adams’s humanism. But Adams’s fundamental
insight is the concept of what the person is.
One of his clearest expressions of this insight is found in his
1975 book Philosophy and the Modern Mind:
Man is what he is because he knows himself in terms of this
[humanistic] image. Moral concern … is awareness of what is required
of one and what one is entitled to as a human being in the various
situations of life. Without the humanistic self-image one would not
be capable of moral consciousness and therefore would not be the
moral, social, and political being that he is; one could not seek
self-expression and understanding of the human condition in art and
literature; one could not have religious concern about the meaning
and worth of human existence; indeed one could not have any of our
distinctively human needs, aspirations, and achievements. In short,
… he would not be a man at all, but some other kind of being. (p.
Adams sounds almost like an existentialist here, but, although he
insists we are free, as no purely physical being could be, he thinks
one’s self-image is not based on any arbitrary decision, as, e.g.,
Sartre thought. He argues that, since one can, for example, have a
mistaken self-image and one can actually be mistaken about what
one ought to be and do, thereby botching one’s life, then there must
be something to which both self and self-image are responsible
– something non-subjective, something outside the mind. This is the
categorial aspect of the conceptual structure inherent in normal human
But science looks at man as purely physical. Science sees us as
things. We cannot be surprised at this. Science conceives all
knowledge as empirical. We cannot see moral responsibility or
meaningfulness, so the naturalists conclude, we can have no knowledge
of value or meaning, we can have no knowledge of the humanistic
categories, except to the extent that they can be somehow reduced to
To deny or try to explain away these aspects of reality, Adams
says, is to blind ourselves to human value and religious meaning in
favor of mere factuality. For naturalism there is no human value or
meaning beyond the observable facts. In our science textbooks we find
no talk about, for example, “a human life” – a good life or a bad
life, a happy life, a fulfilled life, a frustrated life – merely
biological life, life as purely biological, physical, factual. But
there is more to a person’s life than the biological. A person is more
than merely a fertilized egg. A real person (not just a merely human
being) is one born into a particular family, culture, etc., and is
nourished in meaning and value. And for Adams these structures of
value and meaning are real, and we discover them as we grow. Adams
does not think that these categories of reality are subjective, or
that they are a matter of choice.
Adams understands that the concept of person is much more
sophisticated than that of human being. He conceives personhood as a
social office involving rights and moral responsibilities, structures
of value and meaning, etc., which a mere physical object could never
have. Personhood necessarily involves a structure of value
requiredness. There is a way a person ought to be to satisfy the moral
requiredness of the office of personhood. To be a person one must know
what that concept involves – one can be mistaken about it – this means
that there must be something – something real, not just
conceptual – to which both self and self-concept are responsible.
There must be something outside the mind, a part of reality itself.
To be a policeman, for example, one must know what the office of
policeman requires, what one’s duties are. In an analogous way the
office of person requires one to have a correct concept of personhood.
Adams understands these humanistic concepts/categories in very much
the same way as do the idealists, especially Bradley and Green. But
for the idealists, especially Royce, the ultimate reality is the
community, and is intersubjective. Adams sees these aspects of the
world as real and independent of us.
Adams says that one cannot really be a full-fledged person without
having a self-concept of one’s office (Bradley’s term for this
was station) as having responsibilities, rights, etc., whereas
a frog is a frog without having a self-concept of a frog.
A universe in which there is only factuality could not give rise to
persons; so if there are persons in this moral sense the world must
somehow provide that aspect of reality. You can’t get a person (in the
whole, humanistic sense, with value and meaning) out of a purely
physical soup of protons and neutrons. Cosmology and evolution cannot
tell the whole story.
If the world, the universe, were merely physical and factual, Adams
argues, then it would have no room within it for people in the
categorial sense – that is, for human value and meaning. There could
be no “conceptual space,” as Adams puts it, for people. There would be
no human dimension to the world.
To appreciate how monstrous such a world would be, imagine no
longer being able to use such words as “father” and “mother” in any
sense except the biological! We’d have to give up all such language
(as the naturalists ought to have done already). There could be no
“right,” no “wrong,” no “good,” no “evil,” and so forth. Such
humanistic words would have at best relative meanings, and the
real human aspects of the universe would be lost to us.
So Adams wants to use philosophy to renew humanistic culture. That
would involve insisting that science cannot have all the answers, and
that it makes sense to talk about and think about and act upon ethical
values and religious meaning. The humanistic concept of person cannot
be understood in naturalistic concepts.
In “Rethinking the idea of God,” Adams suggests that we might think
of God as the value structure of the universe, as a real Being (not a
being in the world) that pervades the world, or indeed a whole aspect
or dimension of the world. He speaks of the universe as perhaps having
such features as “maturation of being,” “order of goodness,” etc. How
could we ever tell if the universe has such humanistic categorial
For one thing, there are humans in the universe, and humans must be
understood in humanistic terms. That is, we can see in ordinary
language the concepts and categories of the human. There is no
justification for shutting down the language of value and meaning or
trying to explain ethics and religion in purely physicalistic terms.
Adams builds his realistic humanism in a very rational way to make
sense of ethics and religion. His concept of God as the normative
structure of the universe develops quite naturally out of his most
fundamental premises – that we can know right from wrong, that we can
know how we ought to be and what our lives mean.
The naturalists cannot reduce humanistic concepts to
scientific-factual concepts. Brain matter, as matter, as physical
stuff, is not much different from a piece of sausage or a blueberry
muffin. A person can think of springtime in England and that thought
has semanticity, it is about something. The thought might be that it’s
a great time to be in England. But semanticity or truth cannot be
found in a muffin or even in a brain. It is hard to imagine how a
thought could ever be reduced to some aspects of brain matter. Until
that is done the burden of proof would seem to be on the naturalists.
The naturalist says that thought is a purely natural,
physical fact, a brain activity. But a brain activity can have no
truth, no meaning. A thought, to be a thought, must be
about something (is semantic); it must be true or false. If the
naturalist is right, if his/her thought about thought is
true, then it can be neither true nor false! Truth is a
non-physical thing, and has a semantic structure. No subject
matter involving (semantic) meaning can be explained in terms of facts
Rational appraisal language, including moral discourse, is
especially problematic for materialistic functionalists. It
generates for them what I have called “the antinomy of the mental.”
The appraisal of human behavior as rational or irrational, moral or
immoral, correct or mistaken, right or wrong, justified or
unjustified, or the like seems to be inappropriate when behavior is
described and explained in scientific factual and causal terms. Each
of these ways of talking seems to crowd out the other. As people
come to understand and to think about the happenings in nature in
scientific terms, they stop looking for justifications as they did
when they thought of such events as acts of God. It seems totally
unacceptable to most people in our scientific culture to think of a
drought, an earthquake, or an epidemic of AIDS among homosexuals as
punishment, for the punishment thesis explains in terms of
justifying reasons, which are relevant only to acts – to events with
an identity and unity constituted by an intention, an inherent
structure of meaning. And the same process seems to be at work as we
think about and try to understand human behavior in scientific
categories. (The Metaphysics of Self and the World, 1991, p.
How could we ever tell if there is such a feature of the universe
as “maturation of Being”? Can we be part of an “order of goodness”?
How can one tell that one is a help or a hindrance to the progress of
the universe? Such talk is nonsensical to the naturalists.
Adams has answers to these questions, in his arguments about how we
can know what a person is and what a person ought to be. If one can
know what one ought to do in life, then that is what one must not
fail to do. Adams thinks we can know such things. He thinks
value and meaning are built into reality, the world, the universe (but
not just the physicists’ universe). He goes so far as to affirm
. . . what does a belief in God amount to philosophically? I
venture to say that minimally it involves believing that there is an
objective value structure in the world and that values are involved
in what things are and why things are the way they are; that change
is value oriented; that the natural forces of the world work toward
the realization of what is good; that causality is teleological;
that the dynamic forces of reality are normative requirements. . . .
(Philosophy and the Modern Mind, p. 33)
Our modern western culture is so materialistic, so dominated by
science and technology, that we have no room left for the human
categories of semantic meaning, values, normativity. Our lives in fact
do seem adrift in the scientist’s world of purely physical factuality.
There seem to be no ultimate answers as to what we ought to be or what
our lives mean.
But when human beings developed cultures, we ceased to be merely
physical and biological beings. We found ourselves as persons, as
members of families, communities, societies, with moral obligations,
freedom, rights, and so forth, which science is not able to explain or
explain away. We have ethics, religion and spirituality.
Where did these humanistic categories come from? From a purely
factual universe? If factuality and the physical is all you start out
with, if our origins are no more than certain physical-chemical states
of the universe, it seems impossible that we should exist at all in
the humanistic sense, as people. But we do.
To try to reduce talk about people in the full moral sense
(in which one is father, son, neighbor, employee, police officer,
etc.) to scientific terms would be hopeless, Adams thinks, because to
be a person is to have a kind of office (what Bradley called
station), the rights and responsibilities of which cannot be
captured at all in a purely physical vocabulary (ontology). Those of
us who have only factual/physical aspects are not people,
though they might be called “humanoid.” A robot or a zombie might be
biologically human, have a certain weight and age, etc., but could
hardly be a mother or other morally responsible being. Such a
reduction of people to the physical is absurd–although such
philosophers as Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan and others want to do
this at one level of sophistication or another.
Are we supernatural, then? We are mortal, and physical, and we
think abstractly, which requires brain processes. But we are also
partly spiritual–constituted by semantic and normative structures.
There is that which a person ought to be, there is that which
our actions and our lives mean. If naturalism denies that, so
much the worse for naturalism.
Adams suggests we rethink nature by reintroducing humanistic
categories (of ethics and religion). He suggests that the universe
must have had value and meaning somehow in it from the
The naturalist might object: Water has wetness but hydrogen and
oxygen do not. So perhaps the humanistic features of the universe
spring forth out of the purely physical. But chemistry explains how
water comes from hydrogen and oxygen. Chemistry cannot, however,
explain the development of value and meaning out of
atoms, etc.–out of factuality, the physical-chemical.
Adams poses this challenge: Rather than stubbornly insist that the
physical must somehow, someday be proved to include the human, why not
drop naturalism in favor of humanism? Why insist that value and
meaning are unreal? Why not try to explain the universe in
humanistic terms, not just scientific ones?
Naturalists, especially pragmatists, have said that truth has no
positive value, but is a matter of some belief’s being useful (toward
some scientific purpose). But usefulness is a normative
quality, and there are purposes other than the scientific “search for
truth.” There is more to truth than the facts.
To proceed, about God: It seems reasonable to reinstate the human
categories, then, for otherwise we have an unintelligible universe
which contains the human but cannot. If the universe has
these categories, then its evolutionary development must have been
guided by a normativity, Adams argues, an “ought”– the
way it ought to develop, the way it ought to be, the
direction of things. One might see the evolution of the universe
as a growing toward fullfillment. A filling out of its normative
Adams says the mind is a better model for the universe than a
machine, and that furthermore, the unconscious mind might be an
even more useful model. He argues that, for example, we sometimes
discover that we have driven home through town without remembering it.
Our minds work even when “off.” When the body is active it needs more
oxygen, and the heart rate increases to provide it (but not
Adams thinks that the whole universe has a transcending normative
structure that gives organization and direction to
nature and brings about what ought to be–goodness (in a cosmic
sense)–a maturation, a fulfillment. (This harks back to
I think it is interesting to see what T. H. Green says on the
general topic of the inestimable value of a person:
Our ultimate standard of worth is an ideal of personal worth. All
other values are relative to value for, of, or in a person. So speak
of any progress or improvement or development of a nation or society
or mankind, except as relative to some greater worth of persons, is
to use words without meaning. (Prolegomena to Ethics, p.193 )
Adams’s view has much in common with Green’s idealism. The
idealists, especially the British idealists, think of the person as
central to philosophy, and they and Adams work on similar
problems–ethics, metaphysics, and social issues. Both Adams and the
idealists are humanists, as opposed to the naturalists (for
example David Dennett and Owen Flanagan).
But Adams is a realist in that he thinks value and meaning are
discovered, not posited or chosen. That is, we come into a world that
is already structured with value and meaning. It is not the
individual’s arbitrary choice, or the Absolute which provide us the
meaning and purpose – nor indeed even scientific truth. As Adams
appreciates, scientific facts have truth and meaning only for people …
not for a senseless universe. The language of value, which is anchored
in the very real structures of the universe, would have to be dumped
if naturalism were true. For Adams, such a development would eliminate
religious language and ethical language – which is in fact going on in
Western culture now.
This suggests that Adams’s realistic humanism is not far from
idealistic humanism. Both Adams and Green think that human
categories are no less real than the naturalistic one of factuality.
The difference lies in that Adams takes value and meaning, expressed
culturally in morality and religiosity to be quite as real as facts,
while the idealists take facts to be no less ideal than human values.
The naturalists should realize that even scientific facts are facts
for human beings, for people.
Without the language of ethics and religion there might as well be
no value or meaning. We could talk about how much, how many,
etc.–physical stuff, and that’s all. Our lives would be meaningless
and valueless, except in terms of size, shape, and number.
While there is much more to be said about Adams’s realistic
humanism, perhaps this will serve to generate more attention to his
work. It can be recommended as an antidote to the pervasive
materialism and moral relativism of our time. Indeed, I know of no
other philosopher in these times with such a powerfully all-inclusive
- “Rethinking the Idea of God,” The Southern Journal of
Philosophy (September 15, 2001).
- “The Meaning of Life,” The International Journal for the
Philosophy of Religion, 51 (2002).
- Adams, E.M., Philosophy and the Modern Mind, A Philosophical
Critique of Modern Western Civilization (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1975). Reprinted (Lanham,
Maryland: University Press of America, 1985).
- Adams, E.M., The Metaphysics of Self and World: Toward a
Humanistic Philosophy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple
University Press, 1991).
- Green, Thomas Hill, Prolegomena to Ethics, Oxford at the
Clarendon Press, 1883.