The Approach to Philosophy Informative Summary.


Ralph Barton Perry’s “The Approach to Philosophy” aims to demonstrate the relevance of philosophical inquiry to ordinary human experiences. He begins by arguing that philosophy stems from the fundamental human need to understand and justify one’s life choices and ideals. Just as individuals reflect upon their goals and the nature of reality in order to make decisions, philosophy systematically examines these questions in a broader and more rigorous manner. Perry then explores how poetry reflects philosophical ideas by conveying worldviews and interpretations of human experience. He highlights examples from Whitman, Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam, Wordsworth, and Dante to showcase the interplay between poetic appreciation and philosophical understanding.

The book then delves into the relationship between religion and philosophy. Perry posits that religion, like belief, is a “total reaction” to a perceived disposition of the universe towards humanity. This disposition, often personalized as God, evokes practical expectations and influences individual behavior. The truth of religion, therefore, lies in the ethical and metaphysical validity of these expectations. Drawing on examples from diverse religious traditions, Perry shows how religious beliefs are subject to philosophical scrutiny and evolve in response to changing intellectual and moral contexts. He concludes by outlining the core problems of philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, ethics, theology, and psychology – and their interconnectedness, setting the stage for a deeper exploration of philosophical systems.

Key Findings:

  • Philosophy’s Connection to Life: Philosophy is not a purely academic exercise but stems from the fundamental human need to understand and justify one’s life choices and ideals.
  • The Philosopher-Poet: Certain poets, such as Wordsworth and Dante, embody philosophical perspectives through their artistic interpretations of life and the universe.
  • Religion as Belief: Religion is a “total reaction” to a perceived disposition of the universe towards humanity, often personalized as God, and involves practical expectations that influence behavior.
  • Truth of Religion: The validity of religious beliefs rests on the ethical and metaphysical soundness of the expectations they generate about the universe and one’s place in it.
  • Science’s Abstract Nature: Natural science, while offering valuable insights, provides an abstract view of reality, limited by its focus on measurable properties and predictable events.
  • Philosophy’s Critical Role: Philosophy critically examines the foundations and limitations of science, contributing to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of reality.


  • Nature of Philosophy: The reader will gain an understanding of philosophy as a critical inquiry into the fundamental questions of being, knowledge, values, and human experience.
  • Philosophy in Everyday Life: The book highlights how philosophical reflection is an integral part of decision-making, the pursuit of ideals, and the formation of worldviews.
  • Interplay of Disciplines: The reader will learn about the complex relationship between philosophy, poetry, religion, and science, appreciating their overlapping domains and mutual influences.
  • Types of Philosophical Problems: The book outlines the core problems of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, ethics, theology, and psychology, and their interconnectedness.
  • Importance of Critical Thinking: The text emphasizes the value of philosophical scrutiny in evaluating knowledge claims, religious beliefs, and scientific theories, fostering intellectual independence and open-mindedness.

Historical Context:

Written in 1905, “The Approach to Philosophy” reflects a time of significant intellectual ferment marked by the growing influence of natural science and the challenges it posed to traditional philosophical and religious views. The rise of Darwinism, the development of mechanics and physics, and the increasingly secular outlook of Western society prompted a re-examination of fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality, the human self, and the place of humanity in the universe. Perry’s book engages with these currents of thought, attempting to bridge the gap between the rigorous methods of science and the enduring human quest for meaning and purpose.


  1. Philosophy and Life: Philosophy arises from the human need to understand and justify one’s life choices and ideals. This is because individuals naturally reflect upon their goals and the nature of reality when making decisions.
  2. Poetry as Interpretation: Poetry offers an interpretation of life by selecting and portraying values in human experience. It speaks a language of human pleasures and ideals, expressing them through aesthetic means.
  3. Sincerity in Poetry: Poetry relies on the poet’s sincere and truthful expression of their own experiences or their empathetic understanding of others’ lives.
  4. Shakespeare’s Universality: Shakespeare’s genius lies in his universal knowledge of human nature, enabling him to create realistic and diverse characters, but he does not offer a unifying philosophical viewpoint.
  5. Wordsworth’s Spirituality: Wordsworth finds a unifying spiritual presence in nature, believing in a “gracious spirit” that presides over the earth and human hearts.
  6. Dante’s Philosophical System: Dante’s “Divine Comedy” embodies a specific philosophical system based on medieval Christian theology, portraying the journey of the soul towards God through sin, knowledge, and grace.
  7. Religion’s Practical Nature: Religion is fundamentally a practical matter, focusing on the perceived disposition of the universe towards humanity, rather than abstract theoretical doctrines.
  8. Belief as Total Reaction: Religious belief, like all belief, involves a “total reaction” of the personality, encompassing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to an accepted situation.
  9. God as Attitude: The religious conception of God centers on a perceived attitude of the universe towards human interests, prescribing a certain way of living in response to this disposition.
  10. Conversion as Adjustment: Religious conversion often occurs during adolescence, a time of expanding awareness and self-consciousness, marking a fundamental adjustment to the universe and its perceived attitude.
  11. Piety as Unity: Piety is characterized by a sense of unity with the universe or God, but this unity is not a simple merging but involves a recognition of distinct attitudes and a sense of positive sympathy.
  12. Religious Instruments: Religion employs various instruments, such as symbols, rituals, and personalities (prophets, priests, etc.), to cultivate and perpetuate the sense of a divine presence and attitude.
  13. Primitive Pantheism: Primitive religions, while lacking a developed notion of a unified cosmos, exhibit a pantheistic sensibility, perceiving a pervasive divine force present throughout nature.
  14. Buddhist Acceptance: Buddhism, often considered atheistic, emphasizes the impermanence of all things and encourages detachment from desire, guiding believers towards the peace of Nirvana.
  15. Religion’s Cognitive Core: At its core, religion centers on a practical “secret of the universe,” a belief in a specific correlation of moral and factual forces that determines the effectiveness of a certain way of living.
  16. Imagination’s Role: The religious imagination, through myths, rituals, and poetic language, aims to make the transcendent and spiritual aspects of religion more vivid and accessible to human experience.
  17. Literal and Metaphorical: Not every expression in religion is intended literally. The degree to which a religious utterance is understood as metaphorical or literal depends on its practical impact on the believer’s expectations and actions.
  18. Science’s Selective Interest: Natural science is driven by a selective interest in describing predictable events and quantifiable properties, making it an abstract representation of reality.
  19. Abstract Truth’s Validity: The abstract nature of scientific concepts does not render them untrue. Scientific laws are valid within their limited scope, providing verifiable descriptions of certain aspects of reality.
  20. Philosophy’s Practical Value: Philosophy, while often criticized for its lack of tangible results, plays a crucial role in providing ideals, interpreting knowledge, and promoting critical thinking, contributing to a wiser and more reflective understanding of life and the universe.


  1. Philosophy: A critical inquiry into fundamental questions of existence, knowledge, values, and human experience, aiming to understand reality as a whole.
  2. Metaphysics: The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality, first principles, and the ultimate constitution of the universe.
  3. Epistemology: The branch of philosophy that investigates the nature, possibility, and limits of knowledge, examining how we come to know what we know.
  4. Materialism: A philosophical position that holds that matter is the fundamental substance of reality and that all phenomena, including consciousness, can be explained in terms of material interactions.
  5. Naturalism: A philosophical perspective that emphasizes the methods and findings of natural science, seeking to understand all aspects of reality in terms of natural laws and processes.
  6. Idealism: A philosophical view that maintains that reality is ultimately mental or spiritual in nature, and that the material world is dependent on or constituted by mind or consciousness.
  7. Religion: A “total reaction” to a perceived disposition of the universe towards humanity, often involving belief in a supernatural power (God) and practices aimed at achieving harmony with this disposition.
  8. Belief: A psychological state involving cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to an accepted situation or proposition, which is taken for granted and influences actions.
  9. Science: A systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.
  10. Poetry: An artistic form of expression that uses language to evoke emotions, convey experiences, and offer interpretations of life and the world.


  1. Centipede Allegory: Perry uses the allegory of a centipede who loses its natural skill after becoming self-conscious to illustrate the challenge and significance of human self-awareness and the need for reflection in guiding one’s actions.
  2. Whitman’s Particularism: Walt Whitman’s poetry, while sincere and evocative, lacks a comprehensive philosophical perspective, focusing on the appreciation of individual experiences rather than a unifying worldview.
  3. Shakespeare’s Character Creation: Shakespeare’s ability to construct consistent and diverse characters, such as Hamlet and Lear, demonstrates his deep understanding of human nature, although he does not offer explicit philosophical interpretations.
  4. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth describes his experience of nature as a source of spiritual insight and a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused,” illustrating his belief in a unifying spiritual presence in the world.
  5. Dante’s “Inferno”: Dante’s portrayal of hell in the “Inferno” exemplifies how his poetic vision embodies a specific philosophical system, illustrating the consequences of sin and the justice of divine retribution according to medieval Christian theology.
  6. Theodore Parker’s Fear of Damnation: Theodore Parker’s childhood terror of eternal damnation exemplifies the powerful influence of religious beliefs on individual emotions and actions, reflecting a perceived disposition of the universe as hostile and demanding.
  7. Stevenson’s Faith in Kindness: Robert Louis Stevenson’s belief that “God, in the long run, means kindness by you” showcases a contrasting religious perspective, perceiving the universe as ultimately benevolent and encouraging a life of kindness in response.
  8. Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: The biblical story of Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal illustrates how religious beliefs are subject to practical tests, with their validity resting on the effectiveness of the expectations they generate about divine intervention.
  9. Lucretius’s Atomic Universe: Lucretius’s poetic exposition of atomism, explaining the world in terms of the motions and collisions of material particles, exemplifies a thoroughgoing naturalistic perspective that seeks to exclude any non-physical causes.
  10. Herbert Spencer’s Evolutionary Cycles: Herbert Spencer’s theory of alternating cosmic cycles of evolution and devolution exemplifies a naturalistic attempt to account for the origin and development of the universe using scientific principles.


“The Approach to Philosophy” invites readers to recognize the philosophical implications inherent in their everyday lives, poetic experiences, religious beliefs, and scientific understandings. Perry demonstrates that philosophy is not an isolated academic pursuit but a critical inquiry stemming from the human need to make sense of reality and find meaning in existence. By exploring the interplay between philosophy, poetry, religion, and science, the book encourages a more reflective and comprehensive understanding of human experience and the universe. While acknowledging the abstract nature of scientific knowledge and the potential limitations of philosophical systems, Perry emphasizes the crucial role of philosophy in evaluating knowledge claims, interpreting experience, and shaping a wise and meaningful approach to life.

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