Liberal naturalism

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Liberal naturalism is a heterodox form of naturalism that lies in the conceptual space between scientific (or reductive) naturalism and supernaturalism. It allows that one can respect the explanations and results of the successful sciences without supposing that the sciences are our only resource for understanding humanity and our dealings with the world and each other.


For a liberal naturalist many things in our everyday world that are not explicable (or not fully explicable) by science are, nonetheless, presupposed by science—e.g. tables, persons, artworks, institutions, rational norms and values. Explaining such things might require non-scientific non-supernatural resources according to this form of naturalism. So, rather than tailoring their ontology to the posits of the successful sciences, as scientific naturalists do, liberal naturalists recognise the prima facie irreducible reality of everyday objects that are part of what Wilfrid Sellars called "the manifest image".[1]

Liberal naturalism is a "liberal"[2] or "catholic"[3] naturalism for several reasons each of which contrasts with scientific naturalist orthodoxy:

  1. As we have seen, it does not limit its ontological commitments to the explanatory posits of the successful sciences.
  2. It acknowledges the existence of non-scientific modes of knowing and/or understanding such things as the value of artworks, the moral dimension of persons, and the relations between reasons of different kinds;[4]
  3. It allows for distinctively 1st-personal aspects of rational agency such as making up one's mind, taking responsibility for one's actions, and self-consciousness;[5]
  4. It attempts to provide a non-reductive non-supernatural account of the rational or conceptual normativity to which we are responsive in theoretical and practical reasoning, e.g., by appeal to the Hegelian or pragmatist idea of mutual acknowledgement in a community;[6]
  5. It challenges the widely influential Quinean thesis that philosophy, when properly naturalized, must limit itself to the methods of the successful sciences.[7][8]

Representative liberal naturalists include Mario De Caro, Jennifer Hornsby,[9] David Macarthur, John McDowell, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty,[10] Thomas Scanlon,[11] Peter Strawson, Barry Stroud, Stephen L. White, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.[12]


  1. ^ Sellars, W. Science, Perception & Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963) ch.1
  2. ^ McDowell, J. Mind, Value and Reason (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998) ch.9
  3. ^ Strawson, P. Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)
  4. ^ Putnam, H. "Pragmatism and Nonscientific Knowledge" in Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism, ed. Urszula M. Zeglen and James Conant (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 14-24
  5. ^ McDowell, J. Mind and World (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004)
  6. ^ Macarthur, D. "Pragmatism, Metaphysical Quietism and the Problem of Normativity" in Philosophical Topics, vol 36 no. 1, (2008)
  7. ^ Quine, W.V.O. Theories and Things (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981) ch.7
  8. ^ De Caro, M. & Macarthur, D. Naturalism in Question, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004)
  9. ^ Hornsby, J. Simple Mindedness: A Defense of Naive Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001)
  10. ^ Rorty, R. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
  11. ^ Scanlon, T. "Metaphysics and Morals" in De Caro & Macarthur eds Naturalism and Normativity
  12. ^ Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell: Oxford, 1953)