F. S. C. Northrop

F. S. C. Northrop books and biography

F. S. C. Northrop

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Filmer Stuart Cuckow Northrop (Nov 27, 1893 in Janesville, Wisconsin – Jul 21, 1992 in Exeter, New Hampshire) was an American philosopher. After receiving a B.A. from Beloit College in 1915, and an MA from Yale University in 1919, he went on to Harvard University where he earned another MA in 1922 and a Ph.D. in 1924.

He was appointed to the Yale faculty in 1923 as an instructor in Philosophy, and later was named professor in 1932. In 1947 he was appointed Sterling Professor of Philosophy and Law. He chaired the Philosophy department from 1938 to 1940 and was the first Master of Silliman College from 1940 to 1947.

He was the author of twelve books and innumerable articles on all major branches of philosophy. Chapter-length studies of seven of these books can be found in Fred Seddon’s An Introduction to the Philosophical Works of F. S. C. Northrop.


Northrop’s major contribution to philosophy is in the area of epistemology, specifically his theory of concepts. He divides all concepts into two kinds: intuition and postulation. For Northrop, the source of the meaning of the concept is the source of its difference. This can be seen from the definitions of these concepts. A concept by intuition is one which denotes, and the complete meaning of which is given by, something which is immediately apprehended. Northrop gives blue in "the sense of the sensed color" as an example of a concept by intuition.

The other kind is concepts by postulation. A concept by postulation is one the meaning of which in whole or in part is designated by the postulates of the deductive theory in which it occurs. Blue in the sense of the amplitude of a wavelength in electromagnetic theory is a concept by postulation.

According to Northrop, these two types of concepts exhaust the available concepts (i.e., providing terms with meanings) from which any scientific or philosophical theory can be constructed and therefore provides a means to do comparative philosophy, analyze and solve the problem of world peace, tame nations, provide a philosophical anthropology, explain why economists from Smith to Marx were incapable of provide a dynamics to supplement their statics, and to ground art and religion as well as legal and ethical theory. Northrop substantiates these claims in his The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities.

There remains one crucial notion: what is the relationship between postulation and intuition. For Northrop the relation is epistemic correlation. Northrop provides the following definition:

An epistemic correlation is a relation joining an unobserved component of anything designated by a concept by postulation to its directly inspected component denoted by a concept by intuition.

The sensed color blue is related to theoretical color blue by an epistemic correlation. Note what this relation is not. It is not the relation of causality or identity. Concept-by-postulation blue does not cause concept-by-intuition blue. As Northrop reports in Science and First Principles, concept-by-intuition blue is a multivalued relation. One relata of concept-by-intuition blue is the angstrom number currently associated with concept by postulation blue. To assume that only one of the relata of a relation could cause that relation is as silly as assuming that the female (or the male) member of a marriage causes the marriage.

Nor is the proper relation between postulation and intuition "identity", as can easily been seen using "blue". Concept-by-postulation blue is not identical with concept-by-intuition blue, but is just one among many relata that go to form this complex secondary quality.

Neither identity nor causality is the proper relation between sensed blue and theoretic blue.

Note that the problem is: "what is the epistemic correlate of one's directly inspected visual image?" The problem is not what is really real. Unlike (certain interpretations of) Plato and Plotinus, there is in Northrop no propensity to degrade or downgrade the world-as-it-is-sensed in favor of the world-as-known by concepts-by-postulation. To experience the visual image of blue is as epistemically valuable and irreducible as knowing blue postulationally. The two sources of all our knowledge give information that is both complementary and supplementary. Without concepts-by-intuition we could never know the world in its particularity. Without concepts-by-postulation we could never know the world in its universality and necessity.

We now have enough information to give a name to Northrop's epistemology. He calls it "logical realism in epistemic correlation with radical empiricism." In other words, reason (in the form of concepts-by-postulation) epistemically correlated with the senses (in the form of concepts-by-intuition).

The consequences of this theory cannot be overestimated. It has ramifications for psychology, epistemology, religion, culture and philosophy. Not only will the world now come to be seen as something that can be known both by theory as well as by sense perception, but the knower can also be known by both methods. Humans are not only what the latest science has postulated them to be, but also what they sense themselves to be.


  • Science and First Principles, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931. Reprinted in 1979, Ox Bow Press.
  • The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946. Reprinted in 1979, Ox Bow Press.
  • The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1947. Reprinted in 1983, Ox Bow Press.
  • (ed.) Ideological Differences and World Order: Studies in the Philosophy and Science of the World's Cultures, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.
  • The Taming of the Nations: A Study of the Cultural Basis of International Policy, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952. Reprinted in 1987, Ox Bow Press.
  • With Gross, Mason W. (eds.) Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953.
  • European Union and United States Foreign Policy: A Study in Sociological Jurisprudence, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954.
  • The Complexity of Legal and Ethical Experience: Studies in the Method of Normative Subjects, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959. Reprinted in 1959, Greenwood Press.
  • Philosophical Anthropology and Practical Politics, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960.
  • Man Nature and God: A Quest for Life's Meaning, The Credo Series, Planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, paperback 1963. New York: A Trident Press Book, Simon and Schuster, December, 1962.
  • With Livingston, Helen H. (ed.), Cross-Cultural Understanding: Epistemology in Anthropology. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
  • The Prolegomena To a 1985 Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, OxBow Press, Woodbridge, Conn. 1985

[edit Further reading

  • Seddon, Fred, An Introduction to the Philosophical Works of F. S. C. Northrop, Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 1995. Includes seventeen page bibliography.

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