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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


ROYCE

(1855 — 1916)

 

ABSOLUTE IDEALISM

Born in Grass Valley, California, Josiah Royce turned to philosophy after graduating in engineering from the University of California in 1875. He studied German philosophy at Leipzig and Göttingen and then carried out research under James and Peirce at Johns Hopkins, gaining his Ph.D in 1878. After teaching English literature at the University of California from 1878-82 he became lecturer and then professor of philosophy at Harvard (1892), finally occupying the Alford Chair in 1914. He was also Gifford lecturer at Aberdeen (1900/01).

 

KNOWLEDGE/ METAPHYSICS

[1] Royce's absolute idealism can be understood as arising from his response to scepticism and error [see 'Kant's Relation to Modern Philosophic Progress'; also 'The Possibility of Error' (in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy)]. We suppose there to be a real external world of facts — beyond our ideas or phenomena. But we recognise a 'gap' between this belief and the world; we cannot be sure the belief is correct. However, we are all aware of error — when our thought fails to conform to its intended object. In his early work he argued against the view that immediate and present data of sense are structured by 'subjective' forms or categories. The transformation of sensory data into objective knowledge requires transcendent principles validated ultimately by an 'Absolute knower' — in the framework of which alone our otherwise isolated actual and possible judgements can be situated, error distinguished from the true, and a totality of experience comprising past, present, and future be constructed. We also recognise that different individuals may hold different moral values and ideals. The Absolute must therefore be similarly invoked if moral relativism is to be overcome and the presence of evil and suffering in the world made explicable [a].

These themes were developed in his philosophy of Being [see The World and the Individual — especially 'The One, the Many and the Infinite'], which is concerned to address the question what the world must be like if we are to know it. As a first step Royce distinguished between two views of ideas. (1) Ideas as representations or cognitions are said to have external meanings. (2) But he also thinks of ideas as internal in the sense that they are to be understood as partially expressing and fulfilling 'purposes' or 'will' [b]. He regards the internal meanings of an idea as primary, in that our intentions and purposes determine what is to count as external or even constitute externality. Internally ideas are incomplete. However, in so far as in their external meaning they point beyond themselves they effect the development of the internal 'purpose' — the striving of the idea to situate itself in the wider context culminating in the Absolute — in which perfect fulfilment would be realized. Thus each idea, while an 'individual', yet already contains implicitly the totality. From a different standpoint we must think of truth and falsity only in terms of a relation (of coherence) to this total system of thought culminating in the Absolute [c]. As he says, "All reality must be present to the unity of the Infinite Thought" [The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, p. 433].

In support of his approach to Being Royce considers in turn what he considers to be the inadequacies of 'realism', 'mysticism', and 'critical rationalism' [d]. He understands realism as a dualist philosophy which is pluralistic but committed to the disconnection of the knower from the known (which is external), a view he thinks which cannot account for knowledge. According to mysticism there is only the One; all ideas and the knowing subject must therefore be regarded as illusory. Indeed, given this position, ideas and talk about the One itself must be similarly illusory. As for critical rationalism (he has in mind both Kant and Mill), Royce says this defines 'possible experience' in terms of what can be validated or verified (hypothetically, as it were) through reference to such universal 'conditions' or 'forms' as causal sequence, spatiality, temporality, and so on. However, he argues that this cannot define 'determinate individuality', for which we need actual experience.

How then is plurality reconciled with unity? In contrast to the realist's notion of individuality, Royce understands the individual as that which is fulfilling uniquely its ideas in the wider totality — working out its purpose, we might say. Royce refers to the individual's "life of experience" as pointing to the "absolute experience". But individuals are not isolated beings; we can know ourselves only in relation to others. Royce here introduces his central concept of inter-subjectivity. We are aware of others initially in a primitive way. As we acquire more experience we come to recognise and know others as utilizing the same external objects as we do in order to fulfil their purposes, and we see them as expressions of the same Absolute Purpose [e]. The Absolute is the real unity of one and many, a self-representative 'system', manifested as an actual recursive infinite series of the temporal events constituting the world (and known to the Divine consciousness) [f], through which its will or purpose (the 'form' of the system) is revealed (as, for example, a complete map of a country would have to include itself as a feature).

 

ETHICS/ PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[2] The achieving of a proper understanding of the self is essentially a matter for ethics. In so far as each finite individual will seeks the Absolute through its striving to fulfil its purposes or 'vocation', to achieve its ideals, it is 'defining', creating, realizing itself. The 'good' is defined in terms of a conscious uniting of our individual will with that of the Absolute [a]; and moral rules are those which if followed bring us closer to achieving that end. To the extent that we can will to recognise this obligation we are said to be free. Sin arises when we consciously forget the 'ought': but Royce also seems to suggest that we are nevertheless responsible for our own inattention [b]. The central concept in Royce's ethics is that of loyalty [see Philosophy of Loyalty]. This follows from his postulation of inter-subjectivity (the 'Great Community') in the context of which the individual can set out to fulfil his purposes — and achieve self-realization. He sees it as the State's role to encourage individuals' recognition of this as their common goal, thereby bringing about a unity [c]. To the extent that total fulfilment can be achieved only by reference to the Absolute Purpose or experience, Royce seems to be committed to some form of post-death survival of the individual [d].

His Absolute, understood as infinite thought, consciousness, will, and purpose, can be regarded as Divinity [The Religious Aspect of Philosophy] [e]. In his later work the Divine is identified with 'Spirit' or 'Interpreter' (this being identified with the third Person of the Trinity), whose function is to bind together in love the various communities in the State under the embracing and redemptive protection of the 'Beloved Community'. And he considers that individual members of the Community can themselves interpret and understand the meaningfulness and purpose of the universe by means of 'signs'. He thus rejects pragmatic approaches to religious belief [f].

Royce also attempts to deal with the problem of evil. He does not deny the existence of suffering and other evils in the world, but he says that because the world is a multiplicity in the Absolute Divine Unity God must suffer when individuals suffer. However, while for the individual evil is a necessary feature of the world to be overcome so that perfection might be achieved, from the standpoint of God the universe is already perfect [g].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Royce is important as the major representative of nineteenth century idealism in America. He postulates the Absolute, or Divinity as the solution to the epistemological problems associated with scepticism and error and the ethical problem of moral relativism. He sees the Absolute as that in which or though which the ideas and purposes of finite individuals are fulfilled. But notwithstanding the impressiveness and range of his thought his system is open to serious difficulties.

(1) He holds the view that ideas correspond to intended external objects, yet he seems to subscribe to a coherence theory of truth when considered from the standpoint of the Absolute or totality. These positions are not easily reconcilable. Some critics would also question his account of the 'gap' between our ideas and beliefs in externality, and his subordination of 'external meanings' of ideas to their 'internal meanings'.

(2) As for the Absolute, it is certainly debatable whether (a) Royce's arguments for it as the solution to error are valid, and (b) his ethics is satisfactorily grounded in such a questionable metaphysics. Moreover (c), there is an unresolved tension between the Absolute and finite individuality. Do individual personalities — if they can be supposed to survive death — remain distinct from the Absolute? Is the Absolute itself Personality? Can evil be real in a universe considered to be perfect from the standpoint of God? Finally (d), does Royce's Absolute Idealism successfully avoid both monism and dualism?

 

READING

Royce: [of many works] 'Kant's Relation to Modern Philosophical Progress' (1881); The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885); The World and the Individual (1901-2) (the Gifford lectures); Philosophy of Loyalty (1908). For a general anthology see J. J. McDermott (ed.), The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce, 2 vols.

Studies

J. Clendenning, The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce.

J. H. Cotton, Royce on the Human Self.

F. M. Oppenheim, Royce's Voyage Down Under: A Journey of the Mind.

F. M. Oppenheim, Royce's Mature Philosophy of Religion.

F. M. Oppenheim, Royce's Mature Ethics.

J. E. Smith, Royce's Social Infinite.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Royce

 

Note: The listed Connections to Hegel are representive. Royce was critical of Bradley's later thought. Earlier parallels may in fact be the consequence of a common response to Hegel.

 

[1a] Absolute knower needed for overcoming scepticism and moral relativism, and validating knowledge (as totality of judgements grounded in transformed immediate sense experience); appeal to 'subjective' categories inadequate

   Kant

   Hegel

James

   Bradley

[1b 2d 4a]

[1c 5c]

[1c e i]

[3b]

 

[1b; cf. 2a] Philosophy of Being: ideas as external (representations) and internal (expression of rational will/ purpose — and primary)

   Hegel

   Schopenhauer

James

[5c 6f]

[1c 1d]

[1i f h]

 

[1c] Truth in coherence: relation of system of thought to the Absolute; individual ideas implicitly universal

   Hegel

James

   Bradley

[2c]

[1b f h]

[1c 6a]

 

[1d] Inadequacies of 'realism' (dualist), mysticism (monist), & 'critical realism'

   Kant

   Mill

[2d 4a]

[2b]

 

[1e; cf. 2c] One and many reconciled through 'intersubjectivity'; knowledge of selves in relation to others — all express same Absolute purpose    Hegel [5e]

 

[1f] Absolute as actual infinite, system (infinite series of events known to Divine consciousness); real unity of one and many

   Aquinas

   Hegel

James

   Bradley

[3a 3f]

[1c 8d]

[1f h]

[3a 5b]

 

[2a; cf. 1b] Individual defines, realizes itself (its vocation) through quest for Absolute; 'good' in terms of uniting individual will with Absolute will; rejection of categorical imperative and utilitarian theories

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schopenhauer

   Mill

James

   Bradley

[6a-e]

[7b]

[3f]

[3b]

[3a c]

[7b]

 

[2b] Freedom, autonomy of will, in recognising obligation; responsibility for inattention to this?

   Plato

   Kant

[9d 13a]

[7a]

 

[2c; cf. 1e] Loyalty — follows from concept of intersubjectivity; State's function to facilitate common unity of purpose

   Kant

   Hegel

[6f]

[6d 7a c]

 

[2d] Personal immortality needed for moral fulfilment

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schopenhauer

   Bradley

[8b]

[5b]

[3g]

[5d]

 

[2e; cf. 2f] Absolute infinite thought, consciousness, rational will as Divine

   Hegel

James

   Bradley

[1c 8c]

[3a]

[5e]

 

[2f] The Divine as 'Spirit' and 'Interpreter'; individuals as interpreters of cosmic purpose by means of 'signs'; rejection of pragmatic approach to religious belief

   Hegel

   Peirce

James

[8c]

[1a e]

[3c]

 

[2g] Evil — real for individual; necessary feature of world but from Divine standpoint universe perfect

   Hegel

James

   Bradley

[6f]

[3b]

[7h]