WOOD SELLARS: PHILOSOPHER OF RELIGIOUS HUMANISM
W. Preston Warren of Bucknell University
Originator of critical realism, emergent evolutionist
anteceding Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander, proponent
of a double knowledge and identity theory of the
brain-mind relationship, and original American writer
on religious humanism and drafter of the Humanist
Manifesto, Roy Wood Sellars was born in Seaforth,
Ontario, in 1880. The second son of Ford Wylis and
Mary Stalker Sellars, he had a notable, predominantly
Scottish ancestry. The Sellars came originally from
the Glasgow region of Scotland, migrating first
to Nova Scotia and then to Upper Canada (Ontario).
They married into the distinguished Wood family.
Roy grew up quite happily in very rural Pinnebog
with much outdoor life: skating, swimming, playing
baseball and tending the garden. There were Norwegian,
Anglo-Canadian and French Canadian boys. ''It was
a rather egalitarian situation...religious differences
were taken for granted and ignored." A two-culture
background disposed him to be international in outlook.
Although he had friends in the village and countryside,
he had no intellectual competitors. He went to the
village school; and on completion of the eight grades
at Pinnebog, he was sent to the Ferris Institute
at Big Rapids to prepare him for the university.
"There, he said, "I began to stand out
and gained the friendship of both Mr. and Mrs. Ferris.''
W. D. Henderson, his teacher in physics and chemistry,
once visited Sellars's home and saw his father's
library. "Now I know," he said, "why
Sellars has stood out."
The Ferrises in turn gave Roy the run of their private
library. Here he found and read Edward Bellamy's
Looking Backward, following this later with
Morriss News from Nowhere and John
Balls Dream. The result was a critical
attitude toward nation-states and wars. "The
Spanish-American War was on," he said, "and
I became skeptical of it.... I remember that some
of the students drilled, but I did not."
A year at the Ferris Institute prepared him for
the university, but he taught in a rural one-room
school for a yearall eight gradesand
had more pupils than usual pass the county examinations.
He himself passed an examination for a first-class
lifetime teaching certificate. Earning twenty-eight
dollars a month, he saved most of it.
Roy entered the University of Michigan in 1899.
He washed dishes for his board during his first
year, and then, with his brother, cooked his own
meals. He states that he was not well prepared for
the university, yet his selection of courses threw
him in with the class ahead of him. Still, he says,
he "made a go of it," so much so indeed
that on graduation his class voted him one of the
two most scholarly of its members. This opinion
was evidently shared by Professor Wenley of the
philosophy department, who recommended him for a
fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and then
invited him back to teach at Michigan while he himself
was on sabbatical leave.
In 1904 he was offered a teaching fellowship in
philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.
The academic year of 1909-1910 Sellars spent in
Europe. Sellars discussed with Bergson the possibility
of a naturalistic emergent type of evolution. But
Bergson referred him to the scientifically trained
vitalist, Hans Driesch, with whom he then studied
in Heidelberg. Sellars' recollections of Driesch
are not indicated in his records; but he did have
personal discussions with him and there seems little
doubt that Driesch pointed him to relevant specifics
Sellars returned to teaching with a notable course
in the philosophy of science." We sometimes
used Ward's Naturalism and Agnosticism but
also used Huxley, Mach, Poincare, and Pearson,"
Sellars recalled. Many of his students were graduate
students in physics, chemistry, and biology.
Three important developments had meanwhile occurred.
In 1911 he married his cousin, Helen Maud Stalker,
an intelligent and beautiful woman who was a great
helpmate until her death in 1962. In the early years
of their marriage, Helen translated Bougle's Evolution
of Values for which Roy wrote a preface. In
1912 and I913 their two children were born: Wilfrid,
who was to become a most eminent philosopher, and
Cecily who became a minister's wife and a psychologist.
His social concern gained force from the progressivism
of LaFollette during Roy's year in Wisconsin, and
social philosophy became indeed the crowning or
completion of his thinking.
In 1918 Sellars published The Next Step in Religion.
The next step in religion was an outright humanism.
According to Sellars, religious thought historically
has been prescientic and hence mythopoetic. The
time had arrived for a religion which comes to terms
with the world disclosed through science. The universe
of science shows no evidence of being deiform, but
it does hold human values which should be cherished
by both the individual and society; and it does
present the option of living from the viewpoint
of the whole and the long run, and this is what
constitutes religion. Let men therefore live as
citizens of a world to be made the most of.
In 1922, Sellars published his Evolutionary Naturalism.
The major content of this book went back to his
doctoral thesis. It was an epochal publication.
Both Lloyd Morgan's Emergent Evolution and
Samuel Alexander's first statement of emergent evolution
were published a year later. Morgan added an appendix
to his volume distinguishing his position from that
of Sellars. "Mine," said the latter, "was
more systematically empirical and naturalistic."
There was no introduction or a mysterious nisus
or or extra-natural control. Material organization
was the key concept. Morgan told Sellars that to
his knowlege, he (Sellers) was the first to publish
on emergent evolution.
Sellars retired in 1950 from his teaching activities.
In 1954 a tragedy occurred in Sellars's life. His
daughter, Cecily, a state psychologist in North
Dakota, was killed in an auto accident. The repercussion
from this tragedy affected Sellars's publications,
though he remained an incessant scholarly writer.
In his nineties, he was catching up with papers
he had been working on at the time of the tragedy.
Notre Dame University has the distinction of providing
a capstone to Sellars's career. In September, 1970,
the Notre Dame Philosophy Department honored Sellars'
ninetieth year with a symposium on his philosophy.
The symposiasts included: Andrew J. Reck of Tulane,
Wilfrid Sellars of Pittsburgh, and C. F. Delaney
of Notre Dame. Having a son who is a philosopher
with his own extension of his father's philosophy
is the greatest of capstones. Professor Sellars
died on September 5, 1973, leaving behind a distinguished
body of writing and a distinguished son to keep
the name of Sellars bright in the world of philosophy.
What, if anything, has reformed materialism to offer
in religion? Professor Sellars has written extensively
on religion, not always on the basis of reformed
materialism, yet always on the basis of a cultural
naturalism. Religion he found to be a function of
the precariousness of the human situation, with
its diverse forms as expressions of diverse types
of culture. Historical religions are prescientific
and mythological in their explanations. But religion
itself is concerned with man's life, in view of
the far-flung nature of things. It is therefore
a natural and exceedingly important ingredient of
human existencedespite its unnaturalistic
forms. It is man's sense of cosmic citizenship in
the light of his informed or uninformed thinking
about the order of things.
From the humanistic standpoint, Sellars has been
a leader. His Next Step in Religion (1918)
was a pioneer American work in this field and was
rated by the New York critic, James G. Hunecker,
as one of the two most notable books of that year.
(Conrad's Arrow of Gold was the other.) And
the reviewer in the Old Orchard News wrote:
"Perhaps no bigger book in point of view of
usefulness to the human race has appeared in many
moons than The Next Step in Religion.
In 1928 Sellars published Religion Coming of
Age and was soon afterwards selected to draft
the Humanist Manifesto. Published in the
New Humanist (1933), the Manifesto was
signed by some thirty humanists. Sellars both preceded
and followed the publication of the Manifesto with
a number of brief articles in clarification of humanism
as a religion. Then, in the 1940's, he was invited
to contribute chapters to Religious Liberals
Reply and Religion in the Twentieth Century.
The outcome was two papers: "Accept the Universe
as a Going Concern" (1947) and "Naturalistic
Humanism" (1948). A significant addition to
these writings came in the late 1960's in a chapter
on "Religious Existentialism" in Reflections
on American Philosophy from Within. Other unpublished
papers have been compiled by Professor Sellars himself
for a final rounding out of his thought.
Sellers philosophy taken overall is a philosophy
of the human scene in its cosmic context. He writes:
"I see this little planet spinning in space
and marvel at its history. This is not a story-book
tale but one of struggle and tragedy and accomplishment.
Stubbornness mixed with kindliness will achieve
much but intelligence must be added. Out of these
ingredients should come wisdom. Thus I triangulate
and extrapolate. It is obvious that I am concerned
with participative democracy in the masses, and
with the growth of international institutions. Patriotism
is not enough. There must be resolutions of conflicts.
And this is made possible by some openness of mind
and by some recognition that it is tactically wise
to agree to disagree, and wait on time."
-From Roy Wood Sellers by
W. Preston Warren, Twayne Publishers, 1975
Edwin H. Wilson
Executive Director of The Humanist
B. Bragg, as the associate editor of The New
Humanist, initiated the project that resulted
in the 1933 publication of "A Humanist Manifesto."
In a letter dated February 17, 1970, reminiscing
about the early stages, Bragg wrote: "The fact
is that my job as Secretary of the Western Unitarian
Conference allowed me to move about to see people
and to talk with them. It was a convenient post
under the circumstances."
As he traveled about on his work for the conference,
a number of people urged him to issue a definitive
statement about humanism. Bragg writes in the same
letter: "I believe the first person to discuss
with me the importance of some kind of humanist
blast was L. M. Birkhead. Charles Francis Potter
was also insistent that something be done, though
he had in mind a more popular thing, such as appeared
in his book. I believe it was in 1931 when I appeared
at his first and last Annual Humanist Conference
[in New York] that he discussed the matter with
me. Once discussed, you may recall, some of us felt
that something ought to be done about it."
fact is that in academia there was fear of a merely
journalistic or promotional approach. I can remember
a crass example of commercialism with a man named
Howard Kraus, who appeared in Minneapolis and wanted
to promote humanism on a commission basismuch
the same as the Ku Klux Klan had been promoted.
Harold Buschman responded to Klaus's proposal by
remarking, "That stinks!" Raymond Bragg
also remembered being visited by Kraus at his Chicago
office. "He talked about promoting humanism
by endorsing various commodities, including contraceptives,"
We may judge that fear of a shallow, unethical,
or insensitive approach by someone was no small
part of the motivation that led Bragg and others
to start the project. Within the humanist movement,
there was none of the drive or opportunism of the
fundamentalist spell-binders described by Alan Bestic
in Praise the Lord and Pass the Contribution.
The televangelists of the 1980s had their prototypes
from some years before.
When Raymond Bragg undertook the organizing of "A
Humanist Manifesto," he was only thirty years
old. He had been educated at Bates College in Lewiston,
Maine, where there was a Unitarian geology professor
who was successfully opening his students' eyes
to the primacy of scientific inquiry. Having explored
Unitarianism himself, Bragg decided to enter the
theological school at Meadville, Pennsylvania. In
1926, he moved with the school to Chicago, where
he became exposed to humanism under the tutelage
of Dr. A. Eustace Haydon, Curtis Reese, and others.
Bragg graduated from Meadville in 1928 and went
on to a two-year ministry in Evanston, Illinois.
He then moved back to Chicago to take the post as
secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference.
Further recollections of the start of the project
are found in a letter from Dr. Bragg to Dr. A. E.
Haydon, dated March 3, 1971: "When I was Secretary
of the Western Unitarian Conference, driving from
one end of the land to the other, several individuals
talked to me about issuing a resounding statement
that would put the Humanist position on the line.
As an itinerant, it was thought that I could stop
off here and there, seeking light and leading. There
was also, I suspect, the fact that I had a full-time
secretary when such a commodity was rare. There
was a negative aspect to the enterprise. Charles
Francis Potter was talking rather loudly about such
a statement. Some had doubts as to whether the description
of the movement should be left to him. Charles,
as you recall, had some slap-dash quality regretted
by not a few. In fact, I think you cautioned me
against drawing too heavily on Potter."
be fair, it should be stated that I did not fully
share these apprehensions about Charles Francis
Potter. After years in Unitarian churches, Dr. Potter
gave his time and effort for still more years to
lecturing at the First Humanist Society of New York
without recompense; he earned his living by lecturing
and writingno small achievement. On occasion
he protested to me against being considered a popularizer
just because he could write so that the layperson
could understand him. My respect for him grew with
years of association, and before Potter died, he
pointed to a shelf of books and documents and told
his wife Clara "not to let anyone touch them
until Ed Wilson took what he wanted for his library."
Moreover, Potter cooperated fully with the project
Bragg initiated and gave helpful advice on press
releases and other publicity. By indicating that
Dr. Potter was a catalyst, building fires under
the meticulous academic men and stirring them to
action, no disrespect is intended for his memory
nor lack of appreciation for his unquestioned and
unique contribution to the humanist movement. He
put humanism in the headlines before "A Humanist
Manifesto" was written.
Twenty years after the publication of the manifesto,
Bragg wrote "An Historical Note," which
appeared in the March/April 1953 issue of The
Humanist as part of a symposium. He said: "For
a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist
Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional talk
of its preparation. In January of that year the
talk reached the project stage. The Chicago group,
once it had agreed on publication, realized the
difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously
it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars to prepare
a draft that the undertaking might be launched."
in the March 3, 1971 letter to Dr. Haydon, Bragg
remembered it this way: "Three of us who discussed
the project had some hesitation about a committee
sitting down cold to launch the matter. Better,
it was thought, if someone drew up an initial draft
to be maturely considered by several. . . . The
certainty in me is that we wanted some one person
to set down the propositions. In the autumn of 1932,
Roy Wood Sellars lectured at the University of Chicago.
Afterward I talked with him at some length about
the need of a formulation. I asked him if he would
be willing to set things down as a starter. It was
agreed that I would write him in some detail as
to what several of us had in mind. That I did."
was asked and, using the foundation of his work,
the collating of views and editing was begun. As
time passed and with aging, Dr. Sellars began to
believe that he had single-handedly produced "A
Humanist Manifesto." In fact, his initial draft
was the basis of much input, editing, and revision,
ending with a consensus declaration.
of a Humanist Manifesto
Roy Wood Sellers
without saying in detail that I have read and thought
much about religion in the abstract and in the concrete
since those already far-off days when I first sought
to make explicit to myself and others the perspective
called religious Humanism.
Much has happened since the formulation and the
publication of the Humanist Manifesto. Under
able and vigorous leadership in this and other countries,
Humanism has become an international stream of thought
and commitment aiming at a basic revision of the
human outlook and a revaluation of values. I still
think the adjective, naturalistic, best symbolizes
the perspective of religious Humanism since it calls
attention to its rejection of supernaturalism. Modern
naturalism is, inevitably, evolutionary in its premises.
And I can quite understand why the distinguished
English biologist, Julian Huxley, selects this latter
term and speaks of evolutionary Humanism. As I see
it, it is all a matter of accent. The essential
thing is to have a common framework.
Is Humanism a religion, perhaps, the next great
religion? Yes, it must be so characterized, for
the word, religion, has become a symbol for answers
to that basic interrogation of human life,
the human situation, and the nature of thingswhich
every human being, in some degree and in some fashion,
makes. What can I expect from life? What kind of
universe is it? Is there, as some say, a friendly
Providence in control of it? And, if not, what then?
The universe of discourse of religion consists of
such questions, and the answers relevant to them.
Christian theism and Vedantic mysticism are but
historic frameworks in relation to which answers
have in the past been given to these poignant and
persistent queries. But there is nothing sacrosanct
and self-certifying about these frameworks. What
Humanism represents is the awareness of another
framework, more consonant with wider and deeper
knowledge about man and his world. The Humanist
movement is engaged in formulating answers, with
what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions.
Raymond B. Bragg
a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist
Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional
talk of its preparation. In January of that year
the talk reached the project stage. The Chicago
group, once it had agreed on publication, realized
the difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously
it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars (Professor
of Philosophy, University of Michigan) to prepare
a draft that the undertaking might by launched.
The frame of the Manifesto as finally published
is essentially what it was when received in the
first draft. The correspondence, however, makes
clear the extent of revision in terminology and
order of the theses.
The committeeReese, Wilson, Haydon, Braggspent
unnumbered hours in successive sessions culling,
refining, reordering the statement. Then it was
returned to Sellars whose rejoinder was in effect:
"You fellows have done a good job."
Wood Sellers by W. Preston Warren (Boston:
Twayne Publishers, 1975).
Religion Coming of Age by Roy Wood Sellers
(New York: Macmillian 1928).
The liberal religious confluence of two philosophies
is suggested by the conclusion of the essay by
Sellars, a Unitarian, in his chapter of The
Philosophy of Alfred
other writer of recent times has so forced me to ask second
questions as has Professor Whitehead."
was a member of the First Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, having joined in 1934.