Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (September 8, 1864 – June 21, 1929) was a British liberal sociologist and politician. He worked as an academic and a journalist, and was the first appointed professor of sociology in a British university. Hobhouse presented ideas of social change as based on cooperation rather than the Marxist view of struggle as the driving force. He regarded the development of human rationality and scientific advances as the foundation for human society in which individuals could achieve their potential, contributing through harmonious relationships to the good of the whole. His view of liberty regarded the taking of responsibility by the individual in their own development as key, and thus he opposed coercion. He advocated for the League of Nations as a step in establishing a world state, which he believed would operate according to such principles of harmony and justice. Unfortunately, events proved Hobhouse to be overly optimistic. Rational advances and external developments in science and technology have not led to the establishment of a peaceful, harmonious society.
Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse was born on September 8, 1864, in St. Ives, Cornwall, England, into the prominent Anglican family of Rev. Reginald Hobhouse and Caroline Trelawny. His sister, Emily Hobhouse, became a noted social worker and welfare campaigner.
Hobhouse was educated at Marlborough and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1890, he became assistant tutor at Corpus Christi, and in 1894 was elected fellow of the college. While there, he published his first two books The Labour Movement in 1893, and The Theory of Knowledge in 1896, which became immediate successes.
In 1897, Hobhouse joined the staff of the Manchester Guardian, where he stayed until 1901. He wrote his famous Mind in Evolution in 1901 and Democracy and Reaction in 1904.
In 1902, Hobhouse moved to London and became actively involved in politics. From 1902 to 1905, he was the secretary of the Free Trade Union. He then joined the staff of the Sociological Review where he served as the journal’s editor. In 1906, he started, together with J. L. Hammond, Henry Brailsford, and Philip Gibbs, a new Liberal newspaper called the Tribune. He also served as an active member of the Adult Suffrage Society.
In 1906, he published what is perhaps his most famous work, Morals in Evolution. Based on his achievements, in 1907, he was appointed the first professor of sociology at the University of London. He continued to publish articles in the Manchester Guardian and in 1911 became the paper’s director.
With the start of the World War I in 1914, Hobhouse together with two other important figures of British journalism, C. P. Scott and Charles Montague, urged the British government to remain neutral in the growing conflict in Europe. Nevertheless, once the war had already started, he gave his support to the government. He soon, however, became horrified by the devastation of the war, and called for negotiated peace.
After the war, Hobhouse wrote several other important works, among others The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918), The Rational Good (1921), The Elements of Social Justice (1922), and Social Development (1924). However, he became disillusioned with liberal bureaucracy and retired from political activity. He remained professor at the University of London until the very last days of his life.
Hobhouse died on June 21, 1929, in Alençon, France.
Leonard Hobhouse was influential both in the academic and political arenas. His philosophical views combined with his knowledge of the social sciences led him to develop a form of social liberalism and to promote ideas of social change that criticized simple biological notions of evolution. His political and economic views led him to propose economic and foreign policies opposing laissez-faire and imperialism and promoting cooperative efforts.
In his Theory of Knowledge (1896), Hobhouse opposed the philosophical idealism dominant at Oxford. He believed that human rationality and knowledge itself serve as the means of social change, and thus any restrictions in the development of that knowledge would lead toward obstruction of social progress.
Hobhouse’s work also presented a positive vision of liberalism in which the purpose of liberty is to enable individuals to develop. Hobhouse rejected classical liberalism, noting the work of other liberals who had pointed out the various forms of coercion already existing in society apart from government. Therefore, he proposed that to promote liberty the government must control those factors already existing that worked against it.
His Mind in Evolution from 1901 is often regarded as one of the early classics of comparative psychology. In it, he criticized social Darwinists who claimed that society progressed through the survival of the fittest social institutions. They rejected conscious social reforms, claiming that such reforms only hinder the evolutionary advance of humans. Hobhouse stood against such claims, arguing that with the discovery of science and with rational knowledge, humans surpassed the level of a sole struggle for existence. Biological evolution had thus been replaced by conscious development, and social reforms replace struggle as the means of preserving the species.
In his Morals in Evolution (1906), Hobhouse classified human intellectual achievement, including morality, religion, knowledge, and political, and economic institutions. He believed that people had reached the point where they could organize themselves into a harmonized social system that could be of benefit for all individuals that are part of that system.
Leonard Hobhouse was important in providing the foundation for the turn-of-the-century "New Liberal" movement of the Liberal party under leaders like Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George. In his first important work, The Labour Movement (1893), he urged for the unification of the forces of trade unionism and those of reform liberalism. He claimed that the collective control of industry and agriculture is needed in order to ensure more efficient and more equitable distribution of life's necessities.
He distinguished between property held "for use" and property held "for power." He also theorized that property was acquired not only by individual effort but by societal organization (meaning, those who had property owed some of their success and thus had some obligation to society), providing theoretical justification for a level of redistribution provided by the new state pensions. It is important to note, however, that Hobhouse disliked Marxist socialism, describing his own position as "liberal socialism," though today it would be called social democracy.
Hobhouse was often disappointed that fellow collectivists in Britain at the time also tended to be imperialists. Hobhouse opposed imperialism. He criticized the Boer Wars and had reservations about the First World War. He was an internationalist and disliked the pursuit of British national interests as practiced by the governments of the day.
After World War I, he argued that victorious nations needed to negotiate a settlement with Germany, rather than to impose severe punishment for the war. He also supported the establishment of the League of Nations, believing that it might be transformed into a world state.
In the history of political thought, Hobhouse is considered as one of the most important heirs of the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill. Hobhouse's Liberalism (1911) became a classic, probably the best twentieth-century statement of liberal ideals.
Additionally, Hobhouse was one of the founders of theoretical sociology in Britain and served as the first professor of sociology in Britain. His work had some impact on the sociological theory in the United States in 1920s and 1930s, but had very limited influence by the second half of the twentieth century.
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