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Ralph Barton Perry

Edgar Pierce Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Harvard University
1876 to 1957

American educator Ralph Barton Perry a leader of the New Realist movement was born on 3 July 1876 in Poultney, Vermont to George Adelbert Perry and Susannah Chase Barton, both teachers.

After attending private school in Philadelphia, Perry went to Princeton University and graduated in 1896 with a B.A. He then studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he studied under Josiah Royce, William James and George Santayana. Perry received his M.A. in 1897 and his Ph.D. in 1899. After teaching at Williams College (1899–1900) and Smith College (1900–1902) Perry became an instructor at Harvard in 1902. In 1905 he was promoted to assistant professor and married Rachel Berenson with whom he would have two children. He served as department head from 1906 to 1914.

Perry was coauthor of both ‘The Program and First Platform of Six Realists’ in the Journal of Philosophy (1910) and The New Realism (1912). He also wrote the critical historical study Present Philosophical Tendencies in 1912. The New Realist movement which flourished in the first twenty years of the twentieth century opposed idealism by claiming that the world is not dependent on the mind and that the knowledge relation is accidental or external to the object known.

Perry was elected Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1913 a post he would retain until his retirement in 1946. He joined the Army after America entered the First World War. He rose to the rank of major and served as Executive Secretary of the War Department’s Committee of Education and Special Training. From 1921 to 1922 Perry lectured in France. During the Second World War he chaired the Committee of American Defence Harvard Group (1940–1945) and the Universities’ Committee on Postwar International Problems (1942–1945) explaining war goals and postwar problems in pamphlets to soldiers and civilians. His wartime propaganda Our Side Is Right was published in 1942.

Other writings include a revision of Alfred Weber’s History of Philosophy (1925) General Theory of Value (1926) in which he first summed up his thinking on value. He edited the works of William James and in 1936 won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his two-volume The Thought and Character of William James (published 1935). In 1944 Puritanism and Democracy was published followed ten years later by Realms of Value consisting of an expansion and revision of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1946–1947 and 1947–1948.

Active in the American Philosophical Association Perry was elected its president in 1920. He was an honorary member of the Class of 1896 at Harvard as well as an honorary doctor of letters at both Princeton and Harvard.

Ralph Barton Perry died in Boston Massachusetts on 22 January 1957.

  • Benedikt Bock, University of Glasgow