Walter Terence Stace

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Walter Terence Stace
Born (1886-11-17)17 November 1886[1][2]
London, UK
Died 2 August 1967(1967-08-02) (aged 80)
Laguna Beach, California, US
Occupation Philosopher, academic, civil servant
Alma mater Trinity College Dublin
Subject Philosophy of mysticism
Notable works Mysticism and Philosophy (1960)

Walter Terence Stace (17 November 1886 – 2 August 1967) was a British civil servant, educator, public philosopher and epistemologist, who wrote on Hegel, mysticism, and moral relativism. He worked with the Ceylon Civil Service from 1910 and 1932, thereafter he worked at Princeton University till his retirement in 1955, as professor of philosophy, and subsequently remained professor emeritus of philosophy.[3] He is most known for his work in philosophy of mysticism, and books like Mysticism and Philosophy (1960) and Teachings of the Mystics (1960).

Early life and education[edit]

Stace was born into an English military family in London, with his great-grandfather General William Stace having served in the Battle of Waterloo, but chose a religious and philosophical path. He was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh and later Trinity College Dublin, with an aim to a career in the Anglican Church, having experienced a religious conversion in his teens, but here he developed interest in systematic philosophy of Hegel, deeply influenced by Henry S. Macran, and graduated in philosophy in 1908.[1][2][4]


Under family pressure he joined the British civil service, and between 1910 and 1932, he served in the Ceylon Civil Service (now Sri Lanka) then under British Empire, holding several positions in the Ceylonese government including that of Mayor of Colombo, the capital city. Even today, there is Stace Street in Colombo. It was here that he developed an interest in Hinduism and Buddhism, a subject which was to influence his subsequent studies of mysticism. Meanwhile he wrote on philosophy on the side and published books like A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (1920), The Philosophy of Hegel (1924), and The Meaning of Beauty (1929).[4] In 1929, he received a D.Litt. from Trinity College, Dublin.

Stace Road in Colombo is named after the city's former mayor, WT Stace

After 22 years of service, he was offered an option of retirement from civil services in 1932, which he took and moved to Princeton University in 1932 and became Stuart Professor of Philosophy at the university in 1935, he was president of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division) in 1949 and 1950.[5] Stace retired from his position as professor of philosophy at Princeton in 1955.[4][6]

He died on 2 August 1967, of a heart attack at his home in Laguna Beach, California.[2][3]


Stace's first three books, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, The Philosophy of Hegel, and The Meaning of Beauty were published in 1920, 1924, and 1929, while he worked as a civil servant in Ceylon. After these early works, his philosophy followed the British empirical tradition of David Hume, G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and H.H. Price. Empiricism for Stace did not need to be confined to propositions which it is possible to demonstrate. Instead, our common sense beliefs find support in two empirical facts: men’s minds are similar and they co-operate with the aim of solving their common problems.[7]

Stace can be considered a pioneer in the philosophical study of mysticism,[8] Mysticism and Philosophy is considered his major work. Stace was the dissertation advisor of John Rawls when Rawls was a graduate student at Princeton, though it is not clear that he had a strong influence on Rawls. Richard Marius attributed his loss of faith partly to his intellectual engagement with Stace's essay Man Against Darkness.

Phenomenalist philosophy[edit]

His work in the 1930s and 40s bears a strong influence of phenomenalism, a form of radical empiricism (not to be confused with phenomenology, which examines the structure and content of consciousness).[9] In his first book published while at Princeton, The Theory of Knowledge and Existence (1932), Stace proposes an empirical epistemology. He attempts to "trace out the logical steps by which the mind, starting with what is given, arrives at and justifies its belief in an external world".[10] The book can be seen as a criticism of pragmatism.[11] His paper Refutation of Realism (1934) acted as a response to G.E. Moore's famous refutation of idealism. Stace did not argue that realism is false, but that "there is absolutely no reason for asserting" it is true, so it "ought not be believed".[12] Turning from epistemology to ethics, in 1937 he considered whether morals were relative or subject to a general law in The Concept of Morals.

The public philosopher[edit]

In 1948, Stace wrote an influential essay, Man Against Darkness, for The Atlantic review in which he examined religion. He concluded that the spirit of scientific enquiry (rather than scientific discoveries themselves) has furthered religious scepticism by undermining the teleological presumption of an ultimate 'final cause'. Concern with divine purpose of events had been replaced by investigation into what had caused them; the new imaginative picture of the world was dominated by the idea that life is purposeless and meaningless. The effects of this change included moral relativity, the individualisation of morality, and the loss of belief in free will. However, for Stace, neither religion nor science could remedy the situation, only facing up to the truth will do – 'this means learning to live virtuously and happily, or at least contentedly, without illusions.'[13]

In the spring of 1949, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a forum called "The Social Implications of Scientific Progress—an Appraisal at Mid-Century."[14] Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, Vannevar Bush, Nelson Rockefeller were amongst those in attendance. Stace took part in a discussion called 'Science, Materialism and the Human Spirit' alongside Julius Seelye Bixler, Percy W. Bridgman and Jacques Maritain. He contributed an essay, The Need for a Secular Ethic, in which he concluded that although supernatural or metaphysical justifications for morality are in decline, this should not lead to a crisis of the moral faith if it is remembered that 'morals have a perfectly firm and objective foundation in the human personality'.[15] In 1954, he gave the annual Howison Lecture in Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley, where he spoke on "Mysticism and Human Reason".[16]

In the fall of 1957, two years after retiring from his post at Princeton, Stace was involved in a controversy surrounding the Princeton Roman Catholic chaplain Dr. Hugh Halton. The chaplain criticised the university's 'abusive liberalism' and Stace was the first of those singled out for censure. Halton stated that 'Stace is enthroning the devil' and that he was 'professionally incompetent', while his philosophy was described as a 'metaphysical mambo'. The Princeton president Dr. Robert F. Goheen stripped Dr. Halton of his title, an action which was supported by Jacques Maritain, the noted Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian and former Princeton professor.[17]

Theology and mystery[edit]

Professor James Ward Smith, a colleague and former student, has said that Stace's basic position was that empiricism does not require the confinement of belief to propositions that are in any strict sense demonstrable.

`'The boy who had experienced religious conversion [Professor Smith wrote] was never smothered by the mature clearly-reasoning empiricist. . . . 'Either God is a mystery or He is nothing at all,' Stace wrote. 'To ask for a proof of the existence of God is on a par with asking for a proof of the existence of beauty. If God does not lie at the end of any telescope, neither does he lie at the end of any syllogism. . . .'"[18]


Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 41, 1967 – 1968 (1967–1968), pp. 136–138". Retrieved 13 November 2006. 
  2. ^ a b c W. T. Stace
  3. ^ a b "DR. WALTER STACE, PHILOSOPHER, DIES; Author of Hegel Study Was Professor at Princeton". New York Times. 5 August 1967. 
  4. ^ a b c Overall, Christine, "The urge to know" University Affairs, 4 August 2009, retrieved 1 December 2009.
  5. ^ APA Divisional Presidents and Addresses (accessed 16 June 2014).
  6. ^ Princeton University | Department of Philosophy | Our History
  7. ^ Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 41 (1967–1968) pp. 136–138
  8. ^ Overall, Christine, (1982) Mysticism, Phenomenalism and W.T. Stace, Charles S. Peirce Society, Transactions, 18:2
  9. ^ Overall (1982)
  10. ^ Stace, W.T. (1932) The Theory of Knowledge and Existence, p.27, The Clarendon Press
  11. ^ F.C.S. Schiller Mind 1933 XLII(165):94–100
  12. ^ Brown, Patterson (March 1971) Stace's Refutation of Realism in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol:31 No.: 3
  13. ^ Stace, W.T. (1967) Man Against Darkness and Other Essays, p. 15, University of Pittsburgh Press
  14. ^ Burchard, John Ely ed. (1950) Mid-Century: The Social Implications of Scientific Progress. Verbatim Account of the Discussions Held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the Occasion of Its Mid-Century Convocation, 31 March 1 and 2 April 1949, Technology Press and Wiley, ASIN: B000ES40E0
  15. ^ Science, Materialism and the Human Spirit, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jun 1949, Vol. 5, No. 6, P. 198, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., ISSN 0096-3402
  16. ^ Howison Lectures in Philosophy
  17. ^ Princeton furor over a chaplain Life Magazine, 7 October 1957, Vol. 43, No. 15, P. 137, ISSN 0024-3019
  18. ^ "Stace, Walter Terence. From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).". Retrieved 26 April 2008. 
  19. ^ Stace, Walter T. (1937, Reprinted 1975 by permission of MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc., Also reprinted January 1990 by Peter Smith Publisher Inc). The Concept of Morals. New York: The MacMillan Company; and also reprinted by Peter Smith Publisher Inc, January 1990. p. 136. ISBN 0-8446-2990-1.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  20. ^ For a review see, for example [1] by W. Cerf Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 3, No. 3. (Mar. 1943), pp. 377–380.

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