American, b: 10 November 1855, Grass Valley, California, d: 14 September 1916, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cat: Absolute idealist. Ints: Metaphysics. Educ: University of California, Berkeley, AB 1875; Universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, 1875–6; Johns Hopkins University, PhD 1878. Infls: Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley, James and Peirce. Appts: 1878–82, Instructor in English, University of California, Berkeley; 1882–1916, Visiting Professor to Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University.
The son of pioneer parents, Josiah Royce brought to his philosophical career as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism the flair of a Westerner. Already a Harvard University professor of philosophy, Royce published a history focused on the first decade of the Americanization of California, California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886). He exposed the chicanery of General John Charles Fremont, the principal figure in the American seizure of the Mexican province. Pursuing his analysis of American character as susceptible to false ideals, Royce also published a realistic Western novel, The Feud of Oakfield Creek (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1887). The novel depicts a feud between a San Francisco millionaire against a populist settler over the possession of land. Royce’s philosophical idealism dawned early in his career. Kant and Hegel were his philosophical idols, and the problems of knowledge his earliest philosophical concerns. In Germany he attended the lectures of H.Lotze, and at Johns Hopkins he studied under G.S. Morris. The first major fruition of his idealism was The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), a work which contains a unique argument for the existence of God as the Absolute Knower. The argument proceeds from the existence of error. Since truth consists in the correspondence of a judgement to its object, and since all judgements refer to the objects they intend, no judgement could be deemed false, so that error would not exist. But error, the discrepancy of a judgement with its real object, does exist. The possibility of error requires the supposition of further judgements transcending the error. Such further judgements culminate in an all-inclusive system of thought, or the Absolute Knower. Royce’s argument for the absolute from the possibility of error persuaded few thinkers, although William James at the time fell under its spell. Major challenges, most notably in the debate arranged by George Holmes Howison at the University of California in the summer of 1895, later published in The Conception of God (1997), confronted Royce with the objection that his absolutism swallowed up personality and moral responsibility. Royce’s next approach to the absolute was The World and the Individual (1899–1900). Based on Royce’s Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Aberdeen, it identifies as the ‘world knot’ the double-barrelled question: What is an idea and how is an idea related to reality? Royce distinguished the internal meaning of an idea from its external meaning. The internal meaning is the purpose in the mind having the idea; the external meaning is the object to which the idea refers. In the first volume of The World and the Individual Royce distinguished four answers to the question, each generating a conception of being: realism, mysticism, critical rationalism and constructive idealism. As a result of Royce’s dialectical examination, only the fourth—constructive idealism—is left standing as the sole conception that bridges the gap between idea and reality. The idealist conception regards the purpose in the individual mind as an expression of the same Will that expresses itself in the world. Idealism, according to Royce’s argument, further guarantees the reality of finite individuals embraced in the Absolute Individual. To make his case Royce utilized conceptions derived from modern mathematics and mathematical logic, and in particular sought to respond to the absolutism of F.H. Bradley, who had denied the possibility of knowledge of the absolute. Thus the first volume contains, in addition to the lectures, a supplementary essay, ‘The one, the many, and the Infinite’. Hence Royce was a pioneer in the use of mathematical logic in the formulation of philosophical argumentation. Bradley’s positive influence on Royce is evident in Royce’s use of the term ‘experience’ instead of the term ‘thought’ in his later philosophy. Meanwhile, Royce’s colleague William James, with whom he had team-taught courses, was developing his own philosophy of radical empiricism, pragmatism and pluralism, and the debates continued on home ground. In addition, younger philosophers, such as Ralph Barton Perry, took issue with Royce’s treatment of realism, and the movement of new realism was launched. Royce entered the fray. He insisted that his own conception of ideas as purposes was a form of pragmatism, which was tenable only if it was absolute. James’s reduction of absolute idealism pragmatically to signifying merely that, since the world is conceived to be perfect, we may take ‘moral holidays’ had irritated the morally conscientious Royce. After all, one of Royce’s arguments for personal immortality had pivoted on his acceptance of the Kantian idea that the finite individual self needs all eternity to fulfil his moral obligation. But Royce retorted in kind to James’s strictures. He construed James’s conception of truth to mean ‘truth’ is equivalent to the ‘expedient’, and he translated the oath of the witness in the jury box in court as follows: ‘I swear to tell the expedient, the whole expedient, and nothing but the expedient, so help me future experience.’ And he persisted in his dismissal of realism as an epistemology, charging that it placed an unbridgeable gulf between ideas and reality. But Royce’s indulgence in polemics did not deter him from constructive philosophical work. In the wake of pragmatism, his thought turned practical. In The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), he grounded morality, first, in the principle of loyalty as the commitment of the individual to a cause, and, ultimately, on the principle of loyalty to loyalty. The relation of the finite individual to the absolute persisted as Royce’s most crucial philosophical problem. The Problem of Christianity (1913), esteemed to be Royce’s greatest work, was his last major attempt to solve the problem. Borrowing from Charles Peirce the theory of interpretation as a triadic relation, he construed interpretation to be a cognitive social process distinct from perception and conception, and designated its three terms as (i) the consciousness being interpreted, (ii) the interpreting consciousness, and (iii) the consciousness to whom the interpretation is addressed. Individuals participating in interpretation are bound together to form a community, thereby exemplifying how many finite individuals can become one community. Royce pointed to Pauline Christianity as the exemplar of the principle of the community of interpretation. As individuals have the capacity to extend themselves to embrace common events in the past and common deeds in the future as their own, they are capable of forming communities of memory and of hope. Add to this capacity the principle of loyalty, or love, shaped by the Will to Interpret, and humankind is destined to form the invisible Church, the Community of Interpretation, the Beloved Community. In a basic sense, Roy ce’s last major work transformed the absolute into a community. Royce was intellectually and emotionally shaken by the outbreak of the First World War. He responded, hastily, to propose a visionary scheme of international insurance to safeguard nations against war. When insurance experts criticized the proposal as impractical, he offered a revision that did not allay the criticisms.
Sources: DAB; Edwards; J.Clendenning (ed.) (1970) The Letters ofJosiah Royce, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press; EAB.