Josiah Royce

The American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was the last and the greatest spokesperson for systematic philosophical idealism in the United States.

Josiah Royce was born on Nov. 20, 1855, at Grass Valley, Calif. His forceful mother gave him his early education. He attended school in San Francisco, where the family moved when he was 11 years old. At the University of California the precocious youth's interests shifted from mining engineering to literature and philosophy.

When Royce graduated in 1875, his burgeoning intellectual powers won him a year of graduate study in Germany, where he immersed himself in philosophical idealism. On his return to the United States in 1876, he accepted a fellowship to Johns Hopkins University and took his doctorate in 1878. After teaching literature and composition at the University of California for 4 years, Royce was invited to teach philosophy at Harvard in 1882. The rest of his life as teacher and philosopher centered at Harvard.

His mother had impressed on Royce a concern for basic religious issues; his youth in California and his own solitary disposition had posed the problem of the relationship between the individual and the community. All of his philosophical writings revolved around these issues. His first major work, significantly entitled The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), presented the central ideas that his later writings elaborated and refined. He developed this philosophy in a series of major works, the most important of which were The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), The Conception of God (1897), Studies of Good and Evil (1898), The World and the Individual (2 vols., 1900-1902), and his summary statement, The Problem of Christianity (2 vols., 1913).

Royce's philosophy rested on the conviction that ultimate reality consisted of idea or spirit. "The world of dead facts is an illusion," he wrote. "The truth of it is a spiritual life." His central conception was the Absolute. The world exists in and for an all-embracing, all-knowing thought, Royce explained. This amounted to a philosophical conception of God, the Absolute which united all thought and all experience. Given this reality, the individual's task is to understand the meaning of the Absolute and to adopt its purposes freely.

Royce's ethical theory rested on his striking principle of loyalty, which he presented most effectively in The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908). He argued that loyalty was the cohesive principle of all ethical behavior and of all social practice. The moral law, he thought, could be reduced to the precept "Be loyal." Loyalty also linked the individual to the community. The loyal man was one who gave himself to a cause, but each individual must choose his cause so that it would advance the good of all. He should act to further loyalty to the very principle of loyalty.

In his later years Royce's increasing concern about the practical bearings of philosophy was reflected in his War and Insurance (1914) and The Hope of the Great Community (1916). By the time of his death on Sept. 14, 1916, Royce had become one of America's most important philosophers. His influence on his contemporaries was a tribute to his intellectual power and to his concern with fundamental religious issues.

Further Reading on Josiah Royce

The Letters of Josiah Royce, edited by John Glendenning (1970), is the companion volume of Royce's Basic Writings (2 vols., 1969). Stuart Gerry Brown edited two collections of Royce's writings and provided excellent introductory essays: The Social Philosophy of Josiah Royce (1950) and The Religious Philosophy of Josiah Royce (1952).

A fine presentation of Royce's complete ethical philosophy, using Royce's unpublished papers, is Peter Fuss, The Moral Philosophy of Josiah Royce (1965). Thomas F. Powell, in Josiah Royce (1967), argues that Royce's philosophy is relevant to contemporary religious thought. Vincent Buranelli, Josiah Royce (1964), gives considerable attention to Royce as a literary figure. For background see also Clifford Barrett, Contemporary Idealism in America (1932); and for a description of the rise of scientific methodology of inquiry during Royce's time at Harvard see Paul Buck, ed., Social Sciences at Harvard, 1860-1902: From Inculcation to the Open Mind (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Clendenning, John, The life and thought of Josiah Royce, Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Hine, Robert V., Josiah Royce: from Grass Valley to Harvard, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Kuklick, Bruce, Josiah Royce: an intellectual biography, Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co., 1985.