Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

The English sociologist and philosopher Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864-1929), one of the major theoreticians of liberalism in England before World War I, advocated a modified form of state socialism tempered by traditional liberal principles.

Born Sept. 8, 1864, at St. Ives, Cornwall, L.T. Hobhouse was the son of a prominent Anglican family. He entered Oxford in 1883 and later taught at Corpus Christi and Merton colleges until 1897. His many works in a variety of disciplines are unified by a commitment to the idea of social reform according to the criteria of morality and reason.

Hobhouse's first important work, The Labour Movement (1893), outlined his program to unite the forces of trade unionism with those of reform liberalism. The core of his program was the demand for collective control of industry and agriculture in order to secure efficiency and the equitable distribution of life's necessities. His next work, The Theory of Knowledge (1896), was a technical philosophical treatise opposing the philosophical idealism dominant at Oxford. He especially insisted upon the validity of rational knowledge, believing that to deny it meant denying the possibility of social reform.

In 1897 Hobhouse joined the staff of the Manchester Guardian, where he remained for the next 4 years, during which time he published Mind in Evolution (1901), recognized as one of the early classics of comparative psychology. Here he addressed himself to the claims of social Darwinists that social reform, by eliminating the struggle for existence, encouraged the survival of the unfit and thereby hindered the evolutionary advance of mankind. Hobhouse attempted to prove that, with man's discovery of science, random biological evolution had been replaced by directed, self-conscious development. Rational organization could now replace struggle as the means of preserving the species.

In 1902 Hobhouse moved to London, where he became actively involved in politics, serving as secretary of the Free Trade Union (1902-1905). In Democracy and Reaction (1904) he attacked the imperialist policies of the British government. In his most famous work, Liberalism (1911), he outlined his program for what he now called liberal socialism. This program attempted to harmonize the idea of collective control with that of individual liberty.

During this period Hobhouse began to devote himself primarily to sociology. He played an important role in establishing the Sociological Society and for a time served as editor of the Sociological Review. In Morals in Evolution (1906), perhaps his most impressive work, he attempted to classify the forms of human achievement, such as religion, morality, knowledge, and political institutions. He concluded that a general advance, though erratic and unequal, could be discerned in the forms of human creativity, and that mankind now possessed the ability to organize all of human life according to a rational system which would harmonize the claims and needs of individuals with those of society. Hobhouse became the first professor of sociology at the University of London, in 1907.

Hobhouse first opposed British involvement in World War I but eventually became a supporter of the war effort. In The World in Conflict (1915) and Questions of War and Peace (1916) he characterized the war as a civilizational struggle between the West, representing reason and morality, and Germany, representing violence and irrationality. In The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918) he attacked Hegelianism, which he considered responsible for the German intellectual spirit. Nevertheless, throughout the war he argued for a negotiated rather than an imposed settlement with Germany and suggested a league of nations which might be transformed into a world state.

After the war Hobhouse served on a number of boards of trade and wrote The Rational Good (1921), Elements of Social Justice (1923), and Social Development, Its Nature and Conditions (1924). His work had some influence in the United States during the 1930s but remains largely unread today. His political views underwent a change after the war, and his disenchantment with large-scale government institutions led him to advocate a modified form of guild socialism. In the last years of his life, illness, his wife's death, and disillusionment with liberal bureaucracy resulted in his retirement from political activity, although he retained his professorship at the University of London until his death, at Alençon, France, on June 21, 1929.


Further Reading on Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

The best secondary source on Hobhouse is J. A. Hobson and Morris Ginsberg, L. T. Hobhouse: His Life and Work (1931). Ginsberg also wrote a good, brief appraisal of Hobhouse's work in his introduction to Hobhouse's Sociology and Philosophy (1966). Hobhouse's sociological work is treated in Hugh Carter, The Social Theories of L. T. Hobhouse (1927), and in an essay in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948).

Additional Biography Sources

L. T. Hobhouse: his life and work, London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1993.