Josiah Royce was born in California 1855, the son of so-called Forty Niners at a gold mining camp at Grass Valley California. As a child he often heard his elders say that “this was a new country”‘ Looking at the “vestiges left by the former diggings of miners” he wondered what this could mean and decided to devote his life to finding out. Later he actually wrote a history of California, and his philosophy owes much to his childhood pondering on this question.
Royce studied science and literature at the new University of California in San Francisco and on receiving his Ph.D. (after studying in Germany) he became a lecturer in the English department there. But though there are many literary references in his philosophy, it was to philosophy that he wished to devote himself. Thus he wrote to William James at Harvard that there was no philosopher within some thousand miles or so (how many are there in California now?) as a result of which James found Royce first a temporary, and then a permanent, job at Harvard. Much in the philosophies of both James and Royce results from their friendly intellectual sparring.
What claim does Royce have on our attention today? There are so many things that are excellent, or at least challenging, in his thought that I can only mention a few. Metaphysically Royce was an absolute idealist, and as I am myself one of the currently rare breed of academic philosophers of this same persuasion, he has an immediate interest for me, which he may not so obviously have for others – until, as I see it, there is a movement in the right direction away from the metaphysical materialism which dominates our academies.
The absolute idealist believes that nothing which is not experienced can have genuine being, and believe that the cosmos as a whole is a self experiencing individual, of which every aspect of the physical world and every centre of individual consciousness, like ourselves,. is a component. Royce’s absolute idealism (with which I warmly concur on this) does not deny that there is a vast physical cosmos within which we exist as minute specks, but it does hold that everything within it is experienced from within, both individually by itself and, as one of its contents by a vast cosmic Mind which is what the physical universe really is. And tie believes, further, that each of us must play either a positive or a negative role. however minute, in the service of some hidden purpose which is what ultimately activates it. But though hidden, we can be clear that our contribution will only be positive insofar as we come to seek our satisfaction by playing a rule in something greater than ourselves. This may be a family, a state, humanity as a whole some great political cause, or, surely, with the general flourishing of the terrestrial biosphere (though Royce, writing then, does not seem much aware of environmental issues).
Royce’s spectacular proof of the existence of the Absolute, that is, of God conceived pantheistically or the Cosmic Mind just described, is first presented in his The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885). It turns on some reflections on how the individual mind can think about things which fall outside its own immediate consciousness. Royce raises here what has become known as the externalist/internalist debate about the content of thought. Internalists hold that what I am thinking at any moment must be simply a matter of the character of what is going on within my consciousness, while externalists say, that it is a matter just as much of how it relates us to what lies outside us. Thus the externalist will hold that qualitatively the same subjective experience might in one “possible universe” be the thought that X has property F (say, that Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian), while in another such universe, it may he the thought that Y has property G (say that George Bury was a futilitarian) since what our thought processes refer to and mean is to some great extent a matter either of what caused them, or what they cause. Royce sets up the problem quite similarly but argues that the dilemma can only be solved by realising that there is no sharp separation between what is inside and what outside us, because at the deeper level of our minds we are one with the Absolute. which includes both. Thus he synthesises internalism and externalism by having thought’s object external to it at a superficial level but internal to it at a deeper.
I shall move on here to what has an interest more separable from the details of Royce’s metaphysics, namely his ethical views. There were two phases of this, of which I prefer the earlier, so let me dwell on that first.
In The Religious Aspect Royce tells us that the basic problem of ethics is whether a moral judgement expresses a desire (or act of will or other pro-attitude) or whether it expresses a belief, that is, something which, unlike a mere desire, is capable of being true or false. If the former, it seems arbitrary with no logical obligation to conform to anything beyond itself, if the latter, it is unclear how it motivates. This is one of the main problems in ethics in subsequent moral philosophy, but no one seems to credit Royce with having put the problem so well and provided such a valuable answer all that time ago.
Royce’s answer (akin to what is called simulation theory today) is that one cannot have the idea of a desire without some participation in it. It follows that the greater one’s insight into what is going on in the minds of others, the more one will, other things being equal, wish to see their desires satisfied. And, more generally, in really taking in the fact that others have desires and longings quite as real and vivid as one’s own the more one will have a desire, other things being equal, that these, whatever they are, should be satisfied. One will, of course, have one’s own aspirations which one will especially cherish, but the more steady one’s grasp of reality the more one will see these as just some among the numerous aspirations which fill the conscious world. But the aspirations of different individuals are to a large extent contrary to one another. How can one deal with this, once one accepts the prima facie desirability of satisfying each? The only way is to form an over all aspiration that the behaviour of oneself, as of all others, should be such that the aspirations of all conscious beings are harmonised, through such modification of them as this requires. Thus the key principle of ethics is so to feel and act that one contributes to a universal harmony of effective aspiration.
And what is more, to feel the compassion which is basic to ethics is to see through the apparent distinction of oneself from other people, and indeed animals, to the underlying identity. Thus compassion rests upon, or even is, a form of knowledge, the knowledge that it is one’s own deeper self which suffers too in others. This leads necessarily to a readiness to help one’s fellows in their need and to refrain from what would harm them.
So egoism and malice rest on an illusion, the illusion that our own feelings, and in particular our own sufferings, have a kind of privileged reality in comparison with which the feelings of others have only a shadowy kind of existence.
Some may dislike the “thous” and ‘thees” in the following passage but note how it anticipates ideas to which people still react as to novelties in recent presentations of them.
Thou hast regarded his thought, his feeling, as somehow different in sort from thine. Thou hast said, ‘A pain in him is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear.’ Thou hast made of him a ghost, as the imprudent man makes of his future self a ghost. Even when thou has feared his scorn, his hate, his contempt, thou has not fully made him for thee as real as thyself. His laughter at thee has made thy face feel hot, his frowns and clenched fists have cowed thee, his sneers have made the throat feel choked. But that was only the social instinct in thee. It was not a full sense of his reality…Of thy neighbour thou hast made a thing, no Self at all…
Have done with this illusion, and simply try to learn the truth…Desire, bred in thee by generations of struggle for existence, emphasises the expectation of thy own bodily future, the love for thy own bodily welfare, and makes the body’s life seem alone real. But simply try to know the truth. The truth is that all this world of life about thee is as real as thou are. All conscious life is conscious in its own measure. Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere, even as in thee. The result of thy insight will be inevitable…Seeing the oneness of this life everywhere, the equal reality of all its moments, thou wilt be ready to treat it all with the reverence that prudence would have thee show to thy own little bit of future life. What prudence in its narrow respectability counseled, thou wilt be ready to do universally. As the prudent man, seeing the reality of his future self, inevitably works for it; so the enlightened man, seeing the reality of all conscious life, realising that it is not shadow, but fact, at once and inevitably desires, if only for that one moment of insight, to enter into the service of the whole of it.
So the illusion of selfishness vanishes for thy present thought (alas! not for thy future conduct, o child of passion!), when thou lookest at what selfishness has so long hidden from thee. Thou seest not the universal life as a whole, just as real as thou art identical in joy and sorrow …Selfishness says: I shall exist. Unselfishness says: The Other life is as My Life. To realise another’s pain as pain it to cease to desire it in itself…Unselfishness leads thee out of the mists of blind self-adoration, and shows thee, in all the life of nature about thee, the one omnipresent conscious struggle for the getting of the desired. In all the songs of the forest birds; in all the cries of the wounded and dying, struggling in the captor’s power; in the boundless sea where the myriads of water-creatures strive and die; amid all the countless hordes of savage men; in all sickness and sorrow; in all the exultation and hope, everywhere, from the lowest to the noblest, the same conscious, burning, wilful life is found, endlessly manifold as the forms of the living creatures, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, real as these impulses that even now throb in thine own little self heart. Lift up thy eyes, behold that life, and then turn away, and forget as thou canst; but, if thou has known that, thou has begun to know thy duty.
Royce, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, pp. 157-162.
I am less happy about a later development in Royce’s ethical thought.
The Philosophy of Loyalty was published in 19O8. Royce begins by claiming that the only satisfactory human life is one in which the individual is passionately devoted to some cause which unites him with other men.
We are socialised as children through the taming of our individual will in the interests of social conformity. This tends to produce an ever more exasperated personal will whose miserable condition can only be alleviated by its finding a cause in loyalty to which many kindred individuals are united into a greater individual. If my devotion to this cause sufficiently dominates my life, then my self-will is no longer in conflict with my social will. Indeed, it is only through developing loyalty to such a cause that one becomes a self proper at all, as opposed to a mere chaos of disorganised impulses.
Of course, many causes are bad causes, however helpful psychologically they are for their devotees, but the reason why they are bad (thinks Royce) is because they threaten the loyalties of others. For if my loyalty is what makes my life worthwhile it is equally true that what makes the lives of others worthwhile is their loyalties. Realising this, I should develop an over-arching loyalty to loyalty itself. Thus I should choose as my own particular object of loyalty a cause which does not threaten the cause of others.
A possible criticism here is that one may make someone more loyal to their cause by fighting against it, thus increasing the amount of loyalty in operation. Perhaps he confuses respect for someone’s loyalty with respect for its object.
Weightier objections to this moral outlook will spring to the mind of almost everyone, especially since the years since Royce’s day have faced us with a plethora of loyalties which are extremely harmful, and in many cases downright evil. In fairness to Royce it should be emphasised that he discusses such objections and refines his concept of loyalty in ways which he (at least) thinks meet them. Thus he considers at length the objections of an individualist who thinks it deeply damaging to submerge oneself in some movement onto which one puts the responsibility for all one’s decisions. His reply, chiefly, is that the loyalties compatible with loyalty to loyalty are one which one has clear sightedly chosen, and brought to the bar of the higher loyalty of loyalty to loyalty.
Whether one likes this viewpoint or not it is a position which deserves to be studied in one of its best expositions and this is certainly true of the relevant work of Royce. I should conclude by mentioning that Royce has much more to say on religious issues than can be mentioned here (his treatment of the problem of evil is particularly important) and that he played a seminal role in the development of modern formal logic in the U.S.A. (and indeed introduced C. I. Lewis to the subject).
All in all, I consider Josiah Royce a great philosopher who deserves an attention he seldom receives today.