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Portrait of David Hume (detail) by Allan Ramsey (1754)

Ralph W. Church (1900–1969)

Ralph Withington Church was born in Toledo, Ohio on August 19, 1900. He was the son of a successful Los Angeles businessman, and the grandson of Charles B. Withington, inventor of the wheat binder attached to the McCormick reaper. Church earned the B.A. in economics (1923) and the M.A. in philosophy (1924) at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by the Ph.D. at Oriel College, Oxford (1930). His thesis, A Study in the Philosophy of Malebranche, was published in 1931, the year he joined the faculty at Cornell University. In 1942 he interrupted his academic career for wartime service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, returning to Cornell for only a brief period following the war. In retirement he endowed the Ralph W. Church Fellowships for philosophy graduate students at UC Berkeley, and at UC Santa Barbara. He died in Santa Barbara in August 1969.

In addition to writing books on the philosophies of Malebranche and Hume, Church published a book on Bradley. Many of his published papers, and a final book in 1952, focused on the theory of relations, particularly identity and resemblance. An early interest in aesthetics led to his 1938 book, An Essay on Critical Appreciation. He also wrote, though did not publish, his reflections on his early associations in Paris with Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.

Ralph Church’s Hume’s Theory of The Understanding (Allen & Unwin, 1935; reissued 1968; and Greenwood Publishing, 1980) was based on a series of lectures given at Balliol College. In it he shows, by analysis of Hume’s theory of relations, especially the relation of resemblance, and “the gentle force” of association, that the then received reading of Hume’s philosophy as “total scepticism” deriving from his reduction of the contents of consciousness to impressions and ideas is unfounded. “Hume’s chief innovation in associationist theory,” writes Church, “is his inclusion of cause and effect among the natural relations, or modes of association. La Forge, Cordemoy, and Malebranche had anticipated Hume’s critical analysis of causation without coming to this conclusion as to the nature of the causal relation; a fact which indicates at once that the conclusion itself is the result of Hume’s own analysis of the matter, and that his analysis, in so far as it is merely sceptical, does not depend for its validity on his theory of impressions and ideas.”

This analysis of certain issues in the Treatise of Human Nature claims, specifically, to refute two generally accepted fallacies: that Hume’s philosophy is primarily negative and that his consequent total skepticism “derives exclusively from, and wholly depends upon, his views about impressions and ideas.” The work, however, is not polemical in tone. It rather presents a sympathetic and compactly reasoned exposition of Hume’s fundamental doctrines, and so permits the philosopher to defend himself. In fact, Dr. Church’s commentary not only refutes errors in interpretation but reveals Hume to be a systematic philosopher worthy of more fame and study than the man who merely gave the coup de grace to atomistic empiricism.

There is no space further to discuss Dr. Church’s exposition of the theory beyond pointing out its great value in showing Hume's constructive theory to be, in the main, consistent with his principles and much nearer to Kant's view than I, for one, had thought it.

–Warner A. Wick, Ethics (July 1936)


Most interesting is Professor Church’s treatment of belief as the real content of the human understanding, the impressions and ideas being simply the elements in a philosophical analysis and explanation. Belief involves habit and association: it is “synthetic,” and yet it is the “normal experience” of mankind. On this interpretation, to use later language, “experience” is relational (201). It is not a mere succession of impressions and ideas.

–C.W. Hendel, The Philosophical Review (January 1937)

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