Thinking About Religion
Volume 3 (2004)

[ Home ] [ Officers ] [Membership] [ Meetings ] Journal ] Bylaws ]

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 scientific facts.

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. 45-6)

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 self-knowledge.

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 scientific concepts.

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 features?

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 alone.

Adams says:

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. 88)

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 teleology:

. . . 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 beginning.

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 structure.

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 consciously).

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 Aristotle.)

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 view.



  1. “Rethinking the Idea of God,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy (September 15, 2001).
  2. “The Meaning of Life,” The International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, 51 (2002).


  1. 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).
  2. Adams, E.M., The Metaphysics of Self and World: Toward a Humanistic Philosophy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1991).
  3. Green, Thomas Hill, Prolegomena to Ethics, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1883.

Thinking About Religion, Volume 3
Copyright © 2004
Posted 05/22/04

Site Contact: Dr. John Brooks
Site Designer: Cassaundra Mason
Last Updated: 05/22/04 11:32 AM