Bernard Bosanquet

The English philosopher Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923) was probably the most eminent member, certainly the most prolific writer, of the idealist school of philosophy which flourished in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bernard Bosanquet was born on June 14, 1848, at Alnwick in Northumberland. He attended Harrow and continued his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, in classical literature and ancient philosophy. T. H. Green, a fellow and tutor of Balliol, was introducing philosophical ideas derived from the German philosopher Hegel, and Bosanquet came immediately under his influence and remained so for the rest of his life.

Hegelian Idealism

Green, like Bosanquet, came from an Evangelical Protestant background and, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply disturbed by the challenge of natural science to religion. In Hegelian idealism he found a system of thought which enabled him to reconcile the claims of religion and morality with science. Green, however, did not slavishly adopt Hegelianism. In particular, he propounded a more liberal social philosophy than he found in Hegel and insisted that the state could not claim absolute obedience from the individual. Its role was to "remove hinderances, " such as poverty or ignorance, and to provide the individual with a social environment which would enable him freely to develop into a mature, moral person. In following up the implications of this position, Green can justifiably be regarded as one of the founders of the welfare state.

Although Bosanquet accepted the same fundamental philosophy as Green, he followed Hegel more closely and gave to idealism a more conservative bias, probably because he brought to these issues a mind deeply immersed in ancient philosophy, particularly Aristotle. His first published work in 1878 was a translation of Schömann's Constitutional History of Athens. Furthermore, his classical training made him one of the few English philosophers interested in esthetics, and he wrote some of his best works on this subject.


Charity Organization Society

In 1881 Bosanquet resigned his post as fellow and tutor at University College, Oxford, which he had occupied for 10 years, and moved to London. In 1869 his half brother, Charles Bosanquet, had been one of the founders of the Charity Organization Society (COS) and had been its first secretary. The aim of the organization was to administer charitable funds to the poor, basing its support on the principle that the recipients should be in need owing to circumstances beyond their control—due to loss of occupation or sickness and not due to bad habits such as heavy drinking or other irresponsible behavior. This involved setting up a system of casework investigation by district committees in the deprived urban areas in order to examine and adjudicate on claimants for aid. Bosanquet played a notable part in setting up and serving on these bodies. Under his influence the COS constantly stressed the principle that aid should always be selective and be given in such a way that it never undermined individual responsibility.

Consistent with this principle, the COS opposed all efforts to induce the state to provide aid, and in the famous Poor Law Commission of 1910 C. S. Loch, who succeeded Charles Bosanquet as secretary of the COS, opposed the proposal (advocated by the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb and afterward adopted by Lloyd George) to introduce old-age pensions.


Freedom of the Individual

Bosanquet's most important work, The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), made him the target of considerable criticism. Its basic argument is a revival of Rousseau's concept of the General Will and a reformulation of Rousseau's paradox about "forcing" men to be "free." Freedom, it is argued, does not lie in doing what a man wants to do but in doing what the General Will imposes upon him. Bosanquet's extension of this led him to argue that freedom lies not in the pursuit of self-interest or sectional interests but in the identification of personal with social interest as expressed by the state. This would appear to subordinate the individual to the state, and during the 1914-1918 war he and other idealists were blamed for advocating ideas which justified a totalitarian political system. These criticisms were grossly unfair and were often based on statements taken out of context and misconstrued. Fundamentally Bosanquet was concerned with establishing a relationship between the state and the individual that would enable the individual to develop his full stature as a responsible moral agent.

In the pursuit of this ideal he spent much time and energy in developing and encouraging various educational ventures, particularly adult education. He helped found the London School of Ethics and Social Philosophy, which in 1902 became the London School of Economics. He returned briefly to academic life in 1903 as professor of philosophy at St. Andrews University, Scotland, but retired in 1908. Bosanquet died in Hampstead, London, on Feb. 8, 1923.


Further Reading on Bernard Bosanquet

The best and most sympathetic work on Bosanquet, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends: Letters Illustrating the Sources and the Development of His Philosophical Opinions, was edited with biographical comments by his close friend and fellow idealist J. H. Muirhead (1935). Helen Bosanquet, Bernard Bosanquet: A Short Account of His Life (1924), is a brief and interesting work by Bosanquet's wife. For the background of Bosanquet's life and work the best book is Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (1964). For an account of the COS see Charles Loch Mowat, The Charity Organisation Society, 1869-1913: Its Ideas and Work (1961).