Josiah Royce

From New World Encyclopedia

Josiah Royce (November 20, 1855 – September 14, 1916) was an American objective idealist philosopher. He was one of the most influential philosophers of the “period of classical American philosophy,” which lasted from the end of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Along with the British philosopher F.H. Bradley, he was also one of the two important English-speaking philosophers of that period who defended idealism. Born in a California mining town, he studied the German idealists and later taught at Harvard for three decades. Royce's key works include The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), The Conception of God (1895), The World and the Individual (1900-01), The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), and The Problem of Christianity (1913).

Royce is relatively unknown today, but he contributed in introducing German idealism into America, thereby building philosophical communities in America.


Josiah Royce was born November 20, 1855, in the remote mining town of Grass Valley, California, to Josiah and Sarah Eleanor Bayliss Royce. His mother was a devout Christian and head of a primary school in Grass Valley. After being educated by his mother and older sisters, at the age of eleven Royce entered school in San Francisco.

He received his B.A. in Classics from the University of California in 1875. He spent a year in Germany, where he attended philosophy lectures in Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Göttingen, mastered the language and came to admire Hermann Lotze. In 1878, the new Johns Hopkins University awarded him one of its first four doctorates, in philosophy. He then taught composition and literature at the University of California from 1878-1882, publishing a number of philosophical articles and Primer of Logical Analysis. He married Katherine Head in 1880; the couple had three sons.

In California, Royce felt isolated from the intellectual life of the East Coast, and sought an academic post there. Through the recommendation of William James, Royce's friend and philosophical antagonist, he was offered the opportunity to replace James when he took a one year sabbatical at Harvard University. Royce accepted the position at half of James’ salary, and in 1882, brought his wife and new-born son across the continent to Cambridge. There, he began to develop his interests in several areas. In 1885, he published his first major philosophical work, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, proposing that in order for ordinary concepts of truth and error to have meaning, there must be an actual infinite mind, an Absolute Knower, that encompasses all truths and all possible errors. The same year, he received a permanent appointment as assistant professor at Harvard, where he continued to teach for thirty years; among his students were T.S. Eliot, George Santayana, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Royce published History of California in 1886, and a novel the next year. In 1888 he suffered a nervous breakdown, from which he recovered after a voyage of several months at sea. In 1892, Royce was appointed Professor of the History of Philosophy at Harvard, and he served as Chair of the Department of Philosophy from 1894-98. He published many articles, reviews and books, including The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892) and The Conception of God (1895). In 1899 and 1900, he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, taking this opportunity to consolidate his thought and produce a statement of hs metaphysics in the two volumes of The World and the Individual (1899-1901).

The Gifford Lectures seemed to be the culmination of Royce’s work, but in fact they marked a turning point in Royce's life and a new departure in his thought. In The World and the Individual Royce had worked out his philosophical theories in complex detail. Reviews of the book praised his perspicacity but raised objections to his conclusions. Peirce, in particular, criticized his use of logic, motivating Royce to undertake a serious study of mathematical logic and to reconsider his central arguments. After 1900, his teaching and his writing showed a growing reliance on the use of formal logical and mathematical concepts as the basis for his metaphysics. He also developed an emphasis on the practical applications of philosophy in understanding the nature of human society, ethical behavior, religious experience, suffering and the problem of evil.

Royce was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1902, and of the American Philosophical Association in 1903. In 1907, he and his wife experienced personal tragedy when their eldest son, Christopher, who had graduated from Harvard at the age of eighteen, began to suffer from severe depression and psychotic delusions. The next year they committed him to a mental hospital with little hope for his recovery. In August of 1910, Royce lost his closest friend and colleague with the the death of William James, and the next month his son Christopher died of typhoid fever. Royce, who had previously sought metaphysical truth in an abstract and formal way, now turned to practical philosophy in search of wisdom and understanding. His work on ethics, The Philosophy of Loyalty, appeared in 1908. That year he also published a collection of essays under the title Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems; another collection, entitled, William James and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Life, appeared in 1911. Four of the six essays in The Hope of the Great Community, written in the last year of his life and published posthumously in 1916, directly concerned global politics and the Great War.

Royce had always disagreed with William James concerning the understanding of religious phenomena in human life. Royce felt that James put too much emphasis on extraordinary religious experiences, while he sought an explanation for the phenomena of ordinary religious faith as experienced by ordinary religious communities. In 1912, he published his responses to James’ Gifford Lectures of 1901, as The Sources of Religious Insight, combining the theoretical and practical aspects of his later thought. Royce himself said of The Sources: "It contains the whole of me in a brief compass" (Clendenning 1970, 570). In 1912, Royce suffered a stroke. While recovering, he began exploring how to adapt the philosophy of religion outlined in The Sources, specifically to Christianity. He returned to Peirce's writings, seeking the solution to certain problems in his own metaphysics, and found in Peirce's semiotic, or theory of signs, the tools he needed. The Problem of Christianity presents, in place of the earlier Absolute Knower, the concept of an infinite community of interpretation, guided by a shared spirit of truth-seeking. This Universal Community constitutes reality, and its understanding increases over time, through its members' continual development of the meaning of signs. Royce used this framework in an attempt to reconcile and explain many key Christian doctrines and experiences.

Other late works by Royce include The Hope of the Great Community, his last Harvard seminar on Metaphysics (1915-16), and a series of lectures given at the University of California at Berkeley. These lectures at his alma mater were to have ended with a talk entitled "The Spirit of the Community," but when the Great War broke out, Royce instead devoted his energies to a practical proposal to use the economic power of insurance to mediate hostilities among nations, and reduce the attraction of war in the future. War and Insurance (1914) was a daring political and economic proposal on behalf of the Universal Community.

Royce died on September 14, 1916, before he had adequate opportunity to answer his critics or publicize his newest philosophical insights. Other philosophers used Royce's earlier writings as a foil in developing their own doctrines of pragmatism, realism, empiricism, and logical analysis, while ignoring his later works. While intellectual scholars have always acknowledged the historical importance of Royce's influence, it is only recently that his works have been revisited by theologians and philosophers interested in metaphysics, practical and theoretical ethics, philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of community.

Thought and works

Josiah Royce was one of the most influential philosophers of the “period of classical American philosophy” which lasted from the end of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Along with the British philosopher F. H. Bradley, he was also one of the two important English-speaking philosophers of that period who defended Hegelian absolute idealism. Royce developed many of his ideas in response to the challenges of his friend and colleague, the pragmatist William James, and the criticisms of Charles Peirce, another pragmatist.

Royce's key works include The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), The Conception of God (1895), The World and the Individual (1900-01), The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), and The Problem of Christianity (1913), many of them based on previous lectures. His philosophical work as a whole may be seen as the efforts of a committed idealist to understand and define the position of finite individuals in an infinite universe. Until 1901, his work was mostly abstract and theoretical; his later works were more concerned with a practical application of philosophy and ethics, and with the development of the concept of “community.”

In a sense, Royce can be regarded as the founder of the Harvard school of logic, Boolean algebra, and foundation of mathematics. His students at Harvard included Clarence Irving Lewis, who went on to pioneer modal logic, Edward Vermilye Huntington, the first to axiomatize Boolean algebra, and Henry M. Sheffer, known for his eponymous Sheffer stroke. His own ideas on logic, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mathematics were influenced by Charles Peirce and Albert Bray Kempe. Philosophers influenced by Royce include Brand Blanshard in the United States and Timothy L.S. Sprigge in the United Kingdom.

Absolute mind

In The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), Royce started with a novel defense of absolute idealism, the “argument from error,” and arrived at the concept of an actual infinite mind, an Absolute Knower, that encompasses all truths and all possible errors. The correspondence theory of knowledge declares that an idea or a judgment is true if it correctly represents its object; when an idea does not correctly represent its object, it is an error. The human mind often makes such errors. In such cases, Royce pointed out, the mind contains the erroneous idea and its false object, while at the same time intending, or “pointing toward” the idea’s true object. The occurrence of these errors indicates that the true object of any idea must exist, in a fully determinate state, in some actual infinite mind with which the particular human mind may or may not be connected. This actual infinite mind is the Absolute Knower.

Royce agreed with Kantian critical rationalism that a true idea is one that may be fulfilled or validated by a possible experience, but argued further that such a possibility of experience required the existence of an actual being, "the essential nature of Being," as the true object of the experience. This "fourth conception of being," detailed in The World and the Individual, became the metaphysical background for the remainder of Royce's thought. It presented a view of the totality of Being as an actual Infinite Individual, timeless and encompassing all valid past, present, and future possible experience of fact, of which finite beings were only fragments.

Community of interpretation

Under the influence of Charles Peirce's theory of signs, Royce came to appreciate that representation was not a static, one-time experience, but had creative, synthetic, and selective aspects. In the chapter of The Problem of Christianity entitled "Perception, Conception and Interpretation," he explained that knowledge was not just the accurate and complete perception of an object or the accurate and complete conception of an idea, but a process of interpretation. A true idea selects, emphasizes, and re-presents those aspects of an object that will be meaningfully fulfilled in subsequent experience. This understanding of knowledge as interpretation required a change in Royce’s concept of the Infinite Mind. Instead of containing the totality of all facts and ideas, the Infinite Mind became the mind that carried forward the process of interpretation. He replaced the Absolute Mind with an infinite Community of interpretation, the totality of all minds, which are capable of representing aspects of Being to one another, with the ultimate goal a complete representation of Being.

Philosophy of loyalty

The infinite is manifested in the realm of individual, finite beings, bound by time and space. Ethics and religion concern the relationship of the individual to the infinite, real world. Royce characterized this relationship in terms of “loyalty.”

Human life taken merely as it flows, viewed merely as it passes by in time and is gone, is indeed a lost river of experience that plunges down the mountains of youth and sinks in the deserts of age. Its significance comes solely through its relations to the air and the ocean and the great deeps of universal experience. For by such poor figures I may, in passing, symbolize that really rational relation of our personal experience to universal conscious experience… (Royce 1995 [1908], 179-80).

Royce defined “loyalty” as a morally significant commitment to the shared cause of a community. In order for a person’s actions to be morally significant, they must express a self-consciously asserted will and contribute toward realizing a plan of life. The moral life could be understood in terms of the multiple loyalties exhibited by a person and whether they tended to fulfill the community's intended aim. Royce's definition of "true loyalty" ruled out loyalty to morally evil causes and the communities that serve them. “True loyalty” supported ideals that promoted the formation and expansion of communities of loyalty. Loyalty directed exclusively to a particular group and destructive of the conditions for others' loyal actions was "predatory" or vicious loyalty.

Royce placed particularly high value on the phenomenon of loyalty to “lost causes,” causes that could not be fulfilled within the actual lifetime of the community because of their scope and magnitude. These “lost causes” established ideals capable of evoking the highest hope and moral commitment. Most important among these “lost causes” were the universal causes of the full attainment of truth; the complete determination of the nature of reality through inquiry and interpretation; and the establishment of universal loyalty to loyalty itself. In practice, the concept of "loyalty to loyalty" demanded that each individual's moral and intellectual sphere become ever broader and remain critical at all levels, constantly reevaluating its purpose and direction.


The concept of community was central to Royce’s ethical theory and his metaphysics. A “community” was an association of individuals who were in communication with one another so that they shared, in some relevant aspect, a common feeling, thought, and will. The basis for loyalty to a community were the past events and expectations of future events, which all members held in common as parts of their individual lives.

A community constituted by the fact that each of its members accepts as a part of his own individual life and self the same past events that each of his fellow-members accepts, may be called a community of memory … A community constituted by the fact that each of its members accepts, as part of his own individual life and self, the same expected future events that each of his fellows accepts, may be called a community of expectation or…a community of hope (PC 248).

Based on his concept of “loyalty,” Royce’s ethical theory distinguished several types of “communities.” “Communities of grace,” or “genuine communities,” were defined by true loyalty, or adherence to a cause that harmonized with the universal ideal of "loyalty to loyalty." Communities defined by a vicious or predatory loyalty which tended toward the destruction of others' causes and possibilities of loyalty were termed “natural communities.” Beyond the actual communities existing in ordinary life, there was an ideal "Beloved Community" of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth, and reality itself.

Royce emphasized that the sharing of individuals' feelings, thoughts, and wills that occurred in any community did not imply a loss of personal identities. Individuals remained individuals, but in forming a community they became part of an existence which extended beyond any of their own individual lives. Royce rejected the ethical visions of William James, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson because of their extreme individualism.

There is only one way to be an ethical individual. That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady,—in the spirit of all the loyal (Royce 1995 [1908], 47).

My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community (Royce 2001 [1913], 357).

Evil, suffering, and atonement

Royce rejected the idealist tendency to regard the evil, sorrow and pain of human life as illusory and to be reconciled in the final perspective, and the experience of suffering as a means to attaining positive human development. He maintained that evil was a real force, which should be confronted as evil; and that suffering was an irreducible fact of experience. Since God was not a separate being, human suffering and grief was God’s own suffering and grief. All the events of life, joyful and sorrowful, were both the experiences of individuals and God’s own experiences.

Though Royce believed that all events collectively tended toward an ultimate reconciliation in the eternal perspective of the Beloved Community, but that no event would be erased even in that ideal perspective. Evil could not be eradicated, but finite beings could respond to it by adopting an attitude of loyalty to goodness and truth. Royce defined sin as treason, the willful commission of an act which betrays one’s own cause and undermines the community which serves it. The traitor and the betrayed community could be reconciled through atonement, an act of will in which the traitor recognizes and regrets his betrayal and the community forgives him. Atonement cannot return the community to its previous state, which has been irrevocably changed by the betrayal, but the community and the traitor achieve a new understanding and a fresh commitment to their unifying cause.


Royce's early education was influenced by a strongly Protestant world view. He always retained a respect for the conventions of organized Christianity, and his writings exhibited a consistent familiarity with Scripture. In 1901 and 1902, William James delivered the Gifford Lectures, directing many arguments against idealism. Published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, these lectures were a popular and academic success. Royce believed that James, who had never been regularly affiliated with an established church or religious community, had placed too much emphasis on the extraordinary religious experiences of extraordinary individuals. In 1912, after James’ death, Royce published his response, The Sources of Religious Insight, followed by, The Problem of Christianity, in which he worked out his own religious thought and his theories on Christianity.

Royce viewed the Christian church’s primary importance as a paradigm of community, saying that, "the Church, rather than the person of the founder, ought to be viewed as the central idea of Christianity" (Royce 2001 [1913], 43). Royce was critical of many historical churches, which he felt had lost sight of the spirit that ought to guide them, and he identified many “communities of grace” that were non-Christian, or not self-consciously religious. He had great respect for Buddhism and even learned Sanskrit in order to study it. However, he maintained that only the Christian model of the “loyal community” successfully combined the true spirit of universal interpretation with an appreciation of the "infinite worth" of the individual as a unique member of the ideal Beloved Community, the Kingdom of Heaven (Royce 2001 [1913], 193).


  • The Royce School, which later merged with Anna Head's School for Girls to become the Head-Royce School, was named after Josiah Royce. Anna Head, founder of the School for Girls, was Josiah's sister-in-law.
  • Royce Hall, one of the original four buildings at UCLA, is named for Josiah Royce.

Partial bibliography

  • 2001 (1912). The Sources of Religious Insight. Catholic Univ. of America Press. ISBN 0813210739
  • 2001 (1913). The Problem of Christianity. Catholic Univ. of America Press. ISBN 0813210720
  • 1914. War and Insurance. Macmillan.
  • 1916. The Hope of the Great Community. Macmillan.
  • 1919. Lectures on Modern Idealism. Ed. by J. Loewenberg. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300094663
  • 1920. Fugitive Essays, ed. J. Loewenberg. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0820112976
  • 1951. Royce's Logical Essays: Collected Logical Essays of Josiah Royce. Ed. by Robinson, D.S. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown Co.
  • 1961. Principles of Logic. Philosophical Library.
  • 1963. Josiah Royce's Seminar 1913-1914: As Recorded in the Notebooks of Harry T. Costello. Ed. by G. Smith. Rutgers University Press.
  • 2005 (1969). The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce, 2 vols. Ed. by J. J. McDermott. Fordham University Press. ISBN 0318762749
  • 1970. The Letters of Josiah Royce. Ed. by J. Clendenning. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 226730662X
  • 1998. Metaphysics / Josiah Royce: His Philosophy 9 Course of 1915-1916. Ed. by Hocking, W. E., R. Hocking, and F. Oppenheim. State University of New York Press.
  • 2001. Josiah Royce's Late Writings: A Collection of Unpublished and Scattered Works. Ed. by Oppenheim, F. Thoemmes Press. ISBN 1855069113

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Auxier, R., ed. 2000. Critical Responses to Josiah Royce, 1885-1916. Thoemmes Press. ISBN 1855068338
  • Clendenning, J. 1999. The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce. Vanderbilt University Press. ISBN 0826513220
  • Grattan-Guinness, Ivor. 2000. The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870-1940. Princeton Uni. Press. ISBN 069105858X
  • Irving Lewis, Clarence. 1916. "Types of Order and the System [Sigma]," Philosophical Review 25: 407-19.
  • Kuklick, Bruce. 1985. Josiah Royce: An Intellectual Biography. Hackett. ISBN 0872200019
  • Oppenheim, F. M. 1980. Royce's Voyage Down Under: A Journey of the Mind. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813113946
  • —. 1987. Royce's Mature Philosophy of Religion. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 026801633X
  • —. 1993. Royce's Mature Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0268016429
  • Trotter, G. 2001. On Royce. Wadsworth.

External links

All links retrieved September 7, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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