William Ernest Hocking

The American philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) related idealism and pragmatism in an Absolute Idealism grounded in human experience.

William Ernest Hocking was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1873. After work as a surveyor, "printer's devil, " map maker, and illustrator he entered Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1894, intending to become an engineer. A chance reading of William James' Principles of Psychology determined him to go to Harvard to study with James. He spent four years—first as a teacher of business mathematics, then as a public school principal—before the funds were in hand to enter Harvard in the fall of 1899. He managed a trip to the Paris Exposition in 1900 by hiring on as a cattleman. He received his A.M. degree from Harvard the following year.

Hocking spent 1902-1903 studying in Germany at Göttingen, Berlin, and Heidelberg. He was the first American student to study with Edmund Husserl in Göttingen, which he did in the fall of 1902. He returned to Harvard to take his Ph.D. in 1904. In the fall of 1904 he became instructor in comparative religion at Andover Theological Seminary, following George Foot Moore, who had resigned from Andover to teach at Harvard. On June 28, 1905, he married Agnes O'Reilly, third daughter of John Boyle O'Reilly, a poet and leading Roman Catholic layman in Boston.

In 1906 Hocking joined the Philosophy Department of the University of California under George Howison. During this time he took part in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the great earthquake and subsequent fire. After two years at Berkeley he was called to Yale, where he served for the next six years as assistant professor of philosophy. The Meaning of God in Human Experience, Hocking's major work, was published in 1912. Two years later he was called to Harvard, where he eventually became Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity. In the summer of 1916 he enlisted with the Civilian Training Camp at Plattsburgh, New York, and in 1917 he went to England and France as a member of the first detachment of American military engineers to reach the front. In 1918 his appointment as inspector of "war issues" courses in army training camps in the northeastern United States led to the publication of his book on Morale and Its Enemies. He returned to Harvard after the war.

From 1930 to 1932 Hocking was largely occupied with the chairmanship of the Committee of Appraisal—a study of the foreign mission work of six Protestant Christian denominations in India, Burma, China, and Japan. The commission report, Re-Thinking Missions, produced a lively debate. Hocking went abroad again in 1936 to give the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford and Cambridge, later published as Living Religions and a World Faith. During 1936 and 1937 he was also Gifford Lecturer in Scotland. Those unpublished lectures were entitled "Fact and Destiny" and represented his mature metaphysics. After his retirement from Harvard he served several guest lectureships, notably at Dartmouth College and the University of Leiden, Holland.

Hocking's early interest in the philosophy of William James reflected his conviction that human experience is the fundamental context for all knowing, including knowledge of God. His graduate study with Husserl had presented new subtleties in the theory of knowledge, however, and his study with Josiah Royce at Harvard persuaded him that we can have a true idea of God. This truth is not established by some authority external to our experience, however, such as a church hierarchy, a tradition, or a transcendental form of knowing such as revelation. All these forms of religious knowledge are verified in the context of human experience. He did not believe in the pragmatist's positive principle that the truth of an idea can be determined by whether it works in our experience or not. He did believe, however, in a "negative pragmatism" which said that an idea which doesn't work can't be true. He was perhaps the last American practitioner of "philosophy in the grand manner." He believed that all of life was grist for the philosopher's mill. His major work was in the philosophy of religion, but his 22 published books include work on the philosophy of law and human rights; freedom of the press; world politics; a philosophical psychology of human nature; education; culture; morale and morality, and much more.

He is less well known today than his colleagues Royce and Whitehead, but his classic study of The Meaning of God in Human Experience, first published in 1912, went through 14 editions, and The Coming World Civilization (1956) which he described as "a conspectus of a life's thought" was still in print in the 1980s. He combined theoretical subtlety in philosophical reflection with concern for concrete issues of contemporary human life.

Further Reading on William Ernest Hocking

The Hocking Festschrift, Philosophy, Religion and the Coming World Civilization (1966) contains essays on Hocking's work by colleagues in various fields. The only book length study of Hocking's philosophy is Leroy S. Rouner, Within Human Experience (1969). For a collection of some of Hocking's shorter writings see John Howie and Leroy S. Rouner, The Wisdom of William Ernest Hocking (1978).

Additional Biography Sources

Furse, Margaret Lewis, Experience and certainty: William Ernest Hocking and philosophical mysticism, Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988.