Bernard Bosanquet was born at Rock Hall, near Alnwick, Northumberland on 14 July 1848 and died in London on 8 February 1923. He was the youngest of five sons of the Revd Robert William Bosanquet and Caroline MacDowall. Bernard’s eldest brother, Charles, was one of the founders of the Charity Organization Society and its first Secretary; another brother, Day, was an admiral in the Royal Navy and served as Governor of South Australia (1909–14).
Bosanquet studied at Harrow (1862–7) and at Balliol College, Oxford (1867–70), where he was introduced to the idealist ‘German philosophy’ of Kant and Hegel by T.H. Green. Bosanquet obtained first class honours in classical moderations (1868) and literae humaniores (1870) and, upon graduation, was elected to a fellowship at University College, Oxford, over F.H. Bradley . In 1881, after receiving a small inheritance, Bosanquet gave up teaching, and moved to London. There, he became active in adult education and social work principally with the Charity Organization Society (COS) and the London Ethical Society. This period was also one of intense philosophical activity. Bosanquet joined the newly established Aristotelian Society in 1886, and served as its Vice-President in 1888 and its President from 1894 to 1898. During this time he met and married (in 1895) Helen Dendy, an activist in social work and social reform and, later, a leading member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws (1905–1909).
In 1903 Bosanquet returned to professorial life, as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, but his health was starting to fail and, in 1908, he retired to Oxshott, Surrey. He remained involved in the COS and in philosophy, and was elected Gifford Lecturer for 1911 and 1912. For his services to philosophy, Bosanquet was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1907, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, Birmingham, Durham and St Andrews. Bosanquet maintained an active philosophical profile until just before his death. His papers, with those of his wife, are held in the library of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Bosanquet’s philosophical writing began relatively late. His years as fellow at University College were occupied primarily in teaching, and his sole published work during this time was a translation of G.F. Schömann’s Athenian Constitutional History (1878). It was only after leaving Oxford that he was able to dedicate himself to writing.
Bosanquet’s first major philosophical publications were in logic. In 1883 he published ‘Logic as the Science of Knowledge’, in Essays in Philosophical Criticism, a collection edited by Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison and R.B. Haldane . This was soon followed by extensive work in the area – an edition and translation of two volumes of the work of the German philosopher, Hermann Lotze (1884), his own Knowledge and Reality (1885) and, three years after that, Logic, or the Morphology of Knowledge, in two volumes (1888). The principal elements of this latter work were recast in a short, but influential, book prepared for adult education courses, The Essentials of Logic (1895).
Bosanquet’s work on logic has affinities with both Hegel and Greek classical thought. A response to F.H. Bradley’s Principles of Logic (1883), Knowledge and Reality has sometimes been referred to as the longest book review in philosophical history. Here, Bosanquet reproaches Bradley for attaching himself to certain ‘reactionary’ views in contemporary German thought, and for allegedly failing to appreciate fully the contribution of Hegel. The second edition of Bradley’s Principles (1922) acknowledges the author’s debt to Bosanquet’s critique.
In his Logic, Bosanquet – following what he takes to be the view of Plato and Aristotle holds that logic is the science of knowledge and not (more generally) of thought. Logic is a study of the ‘morphology’ or forms of knowledge, and is concerned with describing the evolution of species of judgement and inference and with determining their interrelationships. According to Bosanquet, because judgements are expressed in sentences, the sentence (and not words) is ‘the real unit of language’.
Bosanquet argues that metaphysics cannot be distinguished from logic, the science of knowledge, any more than one can separate a result from the process which produces it. Still, although reality ‘is in our thought, it is not merely considered as our thought’ (Elements of Logic, 1895, p. 11). Despite the connection between logic and knowledge, however, Bosanquet denied that he was offering an epistemological view – in the sense that it implied a theory of cognition in which truth and reality are external to one another.
Bosanquet proposes a coherence theory of truth. Consistent with this, Bosanquet argued that truth and validity cannot be separated, since an inference (where validity applies) is a judgement whose ground or reason is explicitly set forth, and a judgement is really a conclusion. In contrast with the formal logic of J.S. Mill, then, Bosanquet favoured a dialectical logic, where ‘experience forces thought along certain lines from partial to more complete notions’.
By the late 1880s Bosanquet’s philosophical interests had shifted and broadened. While he retained an interest in logic throughout his life, Bosanquet began to write on aesthetics and social philosophy. His first foray into aesthetics appeared in 1886 – a translation and lengthy introduction to The Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art. This was followed by several articles on artwork and aesthetic experience, and led up to A History of Aesthetic (1892), the first such study in the English language.
Bosanquet placed a greater emphasis on art and aesthetics than any other major thinker in the early British idealist tradition. He does not conceive of art in a narrow sense; he saw (following John Ruskin and William Morris) the work of artisans as also reflecting the ‘mystery’ that is often associated with art. For Bosanquet, ‘art’ is important because it is revelatory of the ‘spiritual’ world. Thus, his History was not aimed at defining principles, but articulating an account of aesthetic consciousness and the development of aesthetic theory. Although there are similarities with Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art, Bosanquet’s approach is also influenced by Aristotle.
The most developed statement of Bosanquet’s aesthetics is his Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915). Here, Bosanquet is concerned with analysing the ‘aesthetic attitude’ which, he says, is an activity not of the mind alone, but of the whole person – ‘body-and-mind’. Art itself is an expression of spirit – and Bosanquet’s account is close to, but avoids some of the pitfalls of, the later ‘expression theory’ associated with Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood .
Bosanquet’s aesthetic theory reflects a number of principles found in his logic. For example, in art, as in logic, no element is ‘isolated’; starting from any particular, we are led to the ‘system’ – which he calls, in metaphysics, the ‘Absolute’. Thus, art allows access to the Absolute through ‘feeling’ or aesthetic consciousness. Other topics discussed by Bosanquet are the forms of aesthetic satisfaction and the different ‘kinds’ of beauty. Bosanquet suggests that nothing is genuinely ugly in art. Thus he speaks of ‘difficult’ beauty – cases where, because of some feature in the object or of some failure in the individual observer (e.g., of education, imagination or effort), one fails to appreciate the beauty of the object.
Bosanquet’s work in social and political philosophy parallels his activity in charity work and adult education. Like his tutor Green, Bosanquet believed that philosophers should address practical issues. He joined the COS in 1887 and, beginning in 1888, we find a number of articles on social reform and socialism, many of which were published in the Charity Organisation Review.
In his Essays and Addresses (1889) – a volume containing articles both on social reform and of a technical philosophical character – Bosanquet includes an essay, ‘The Kingdom of God on Earth’, wherein he begins to outline a moral philosophy based on Green and Bradley’s notion of one’s ‘station and its duties’. But Bosanquet’s concerns were not just theoretical. He challenged the proposals for social reform of Salvation Army General William Booth in a lengthy pamphlet, ‘In Darkest England’ On the Wrong Track (1891). In a later collection, The Civilization of Christendom (1893), Bosanquet criticizes the individualist account of liberty of J.S. Mill and advances an ‘ideal of modern life’ which he calls ‘Christian Hellenism’. Bosanquet’s interest in social reform and political theory also led to his edited translations of the German philosopher/ economist Albert Schäffle’s works The Quintessence of Socialism (1889) and The Impossibility of Social Democracy (1892), and, particularly, to a collection of essays to which he contributed five of seventeen chapters, Aspects of the Social Problem (1895). In this latter work, Bosanquet’s objective was to bring together ‘theory’ and practice in the area of social reform. He emphasized the development of character, which, he held, largely determined the influence of the environment. This has important implications for the relation of the individual to the community, but also for the role and specific responsibilities of the state.
Another of Bosanquet’s principal activities, during the 1890s, was his involvement in adult education, and many of his publications – such as The Essentials of Logic (1895), A Companion to Plato’s Republic for English Readers (1895) and Psychology of the Moral Self (1897) – are products of this work. Bosanquet enjoyed a good reputation as a teacher and was a popular lecturer, although he was demanding of his students and, it was said, he ‘had not naturally the born expositor’s gift’ (Helen Bosanquet, p. 49).
One of Bosanquet’s series of adult education lectures became the basis of The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899). Here, Bosanquet’s aim was to address problems in contemporary empiricist political thought – in particular, the problem of political obligation. Bosanquet developed Rousseau’s conception of the general will to explain the nature and justification of the state, its positive role in human freedom, and its limits. This same notion of the general or ‘real’ will enabled Bosanquet to provide an account of human rights that was based on identifying one’s ‘station’ or function in society and the duties that follow, and to explain the nature of punishment (which he saw as combining deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution).
Bosanquet maintained that, to provide a coherent account of the nature of state action, one must abandon some of the ‘individualist’ assumptions of liberalism, and he argued at length against the analysis of liberty and of law found in Bentham, Spencer and Mill. Bosanquet saw in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right a plausible account of the modern state as an ‘organism’ or whole united around a shared understanding of the good. Less frequently noted, but just as important for Bosanquet’s political thought, is the work of Kant. Bosanquet’s emphasis on the moral development of the human individual and on limiting the state from directly promoting morality clearly reflects both his own reading of Kant and the Kantian influences on T.H. Green. The function of the state, then, was fundamentally ‘the hindrance of hindrances’.
Within nations, Bosanquet held that the state itself is absolute, because social life requires a consistent coordination of individuals and institutions. Nevertheless, he also acknowledged that there was a movement in human consciousness towards a notion of ‘humanity’ which could give rise to international institutions and law, and he favoured the establishment of a ‘League of nations’.
Bosanquet’s political thought had a central place in the British idealist tradition; the classical criticism of this movement, Leonard Hobhouse’s The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918), is principally a critique of The Philosophical Theory of the State. Hobhouse took Bosanquet’s view to be virtually identical with, and at best only an extrapolation of, Hegel, and argued that Bosanquet adopts the putatively Hegelian view of the state as ideal, non-empirical and ahistorical, and leads to a mere defence of the status quo. While Hobhouse’s criticisms of Bosanquet were neither original nor unique, they were systematically and thoroughly presented.
In the second and third editions of The Philosophical Theory of the State (1910; 1919), and in later work, such as Social and International Ideals (1917), Bosanquet attempted to address several of these criticisms. While Bosanquet would not have denied the influence of Hegel, his political thought is better seen (as many of his contemporaries recognized) as growing out of classical Greek thought. This influence is particularly evident in his earlier Companion to Plato’s Republic, and his several essays on Plato, where he locates such notions as ‘my station and its duties’ in Plato’s concept of ergon (function). Bosanquet also discusses the conditions for effective international political organizations and the importance of addressing matters relating to charity and casework. Despite Hobhouse’s criticisms, recent studies have emphasized the progressive character of Bosanquet’s views. He held that there should be no a priori limitation on the state to promote social well-being, he was in favour of worker ownership, and his ‘theory as a whole’ has been said by some to be consistent with socialism. Indeed, Bosanquet was an active Liberal and, in the 1910s supported the Labour Party.
Another series of adult education lectures, more clearly intended as a textbook, was published as the Psychology of the Moral Self (1897). Here Bosanquet discusses a number of influential views in psychology, especially those of James Ward and William James. Opposed to the crude associationist and the ‘push and pull’ psychology of empiricists (such as Hume, Mill and Bain), Bosanquet argues that one cannot separate the individual from ‘everything that goes to make up its world’. He also presents an account of consciousness that underlies his theory of the ‘general will’.
During his tenure as Professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews, Bosanquet published little. It was only after his retirement that he could complete the second edition of his Logic (1911) and finish his long-promised ‘work on Metaphysic’. His Gifford Lectures (1911–12 and 1912–13), The Principle of Individuality and Value and The Value and Destiny of the Individual, are a thorough and systematic account of his metaphysics. His position has been called ‘absolute idealism’, to be distinguished from the ‘personal idealism’ of Hastings Rashdall , W.R. Sorley and others, whose work emphasized the fundamental distinctiveness and independence of human beings. For Bosanquet, the ultimate principle of reality and of value was ‘the Absolute’.
In the Gifford Lectures, Bosanquet focused on individuality – a principle underlying much of his philosophical thought and rooted in his earliest studies in logic. In the first series of lectures, Bosanquet’s object is to show ‘how the reality and value of all things in the universe depend[s] on the degree of their embodiment of the principle of individuality’ (The Value and Destiny of the Individual, p. xix). He argues that we see, in nature and thought, a ‘nisus towards a whole’ – a move from incoherence and an effort to self-completeness. It is by seeing a thing in its relation to this whole that it acquires not only greater meaning, but ‘universality’. Bosanquet describes this ‘whole’ as a ‘living world’, ‘positive individuality’, ‘the concrete universal’ or ‘the Absolute’.
The view that Bosanquet sketches here is ‘teleological’, though in a special sense. The remainder of this first series elaborates this account of reality, by showing how the ‘Absolute’ or ‘individuality’ is a principle of value, and by examining the nature of finite selves. The ‘nisus towards a whole’ which characterizes the universe is seen in the finite self: when ‘what we are’ conflicts with our sense of what we should be and, then, is harmonized with the ‘higher self’, ‘the self is at its best and fullest’. This is also seen when one speaks of a great experience pulling us outside of or beyond ourselves. This process or method of meeting and removing contradiction, characteristic of the growth of any thing, is what Bosanquet calls the argument a contingentia mundi.
Bosanquet explicitly rejects panpsychism – the view that nature has consciousness. Nevertheless, he allows that the ‘detail’ of the universe is brought into mind and, through it, to the Absolute. The finite mind serves, then, as a copula between nature and the Absolute. But Bosanquet’s arguments against panpsychism are inconclusive, and it would seem that his resistance to this conclusion was influenced already by his recognition of the value of the finite individual.
In the second series of Gifford Lectures, The Value and Destiny of the Individual, Bosanquet continues the account of The Principle of Individuality and Value by showing how the individual ‘works out its destiny and achieves its worth, by and through its membership in the universe’ (The Value and Destiny of the Individual, p. xix). Beginning with a general analysis of the finite mind, Bosanquet argues against dualism and the ‘exclusiveness’ of individual personality. Although there is a prima facie obvious distinction among human beings, at root there is a basic unity. What is important in selves is not their separateness or distinction from one another, but their ‘content’.
Bosanquet argues that if we can speak of a purpose to the universe, it is ‘the moulding of souls’. There is a natural and a social selection in nature, but there is also ‘self creation’. In his discussion of ‘the hazards and hardships of finite selfhood’, Bosanquet notes that individuals find themselves in a moral world of claims and counter-claims – of pleasures and pains, and of good and evil. But good and evil, he insists, are not opposites. Evil is necessary for the development of corresponding moral good, and the existence of both evil and good are evidence of the movement of the finite spirit towards perfection. The soul, then, is driven to what Bosanquet calls religious consciousness. Here, the finite self recognizes its own true nature, which involves self-surrender and an unselfish devotion to interests beyond itself. The destiny of the finite self, then, is that it recognizes itself as an element of the Absolute. But Bosanquet adds that this ‘goal’ is not a telos after which there is a stasis or rest.
Although a mature statement of his philosophical views, the Gifford Lectures brought to the fore several issues to which Bosanquet returned over the next decade. One issue was the relation of this theory to ‘philosophical realism’. In The Distinction between Mind and its Objects (1913), Bosanquet addresses the authors of The New Realism – R.B. Perry, W.P. Montague and E.B. Holt – arguing that, while they aim at providing a comprehensive view of reality, they restrict the place of mind and cut it off from physical reality. Bosanquet adds that the introduction of the realism of Samuel Alexander (with whom Bosanquet saw some affinity) requires reconfiguring the ‘idealism/materialism’ debate.
A second issue arising out of the Gifford Lectures concerned the nature of the finite (i.e. human) individual. In an important exchange with Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, G.F. Stout and R.B. Haldane on ‘Do Individuals Possess a Substantive or Adjectival Mode of Being?’ Bosanquet speaks of ‘selves’ as ‘provisional subjects’ and describes the ‘reality’ of finite individuals as ‘adjectival’ and not ‘substantive’. Yet Bosanquet also asserts that individuals characterize the world ‘as permanent qualifications’. Bosanquet’s objective, then, is not to reject the existence or reality of the self, but to emphasize its ‘co-existent’ identity as much as its ‘continuous identity’. Again, we find that the nature and value of the individual self cannot, then, be determined independently of its relation to other selves and to what it can become.
Some ethical implications of ideas sketched in his Gifford Lectures are found in Some Suggestions in Ethics (1918; 2nd edn, 1919). These essays are important because they reveal several differences in emphasis, if not in doctrine, from views found in Bradley. This volume provides a general account of the nature of ethical value, and addresses a number of issues that bear on Bosanquet’s philosophy of law – particularly on punishment. Bosanquet rejects the charge that ethical absolutism leads to moral indifference or suggests that evil is not real and that all will come out for the best, independently of human work. Moreover, here again, Bosanquet emphasizes a morality of ‘my station and its duties’ – that what one ought to do is determined by the roles or functions one has in social life.
But while the main root of individual morals is social function – one’s station and its duties – the conception of the good that is its base is related to ‘what a human being wants’ and is. Again, underlying many of Bosanquet’s concrete recommendations in social policy is his insistence that individuals have to ‘create themselves’. Still, this cannot be achieved by each person alone. While the state has an essential role in this, Bosanquet reminds us of the importance of voluntary (i.e. non-state) organizations. (This ‘mutual nourishing’ of part and whole is in keeping with Bosanquet’s views on logic, where there is a mutual dependence and implication of each proposition on all others.)
The ethic that Bosanquet presents is a teleological, but not a consequentialist, one. While he does not say so explicitly, It seems that what is ‘moral’ is what the Aristotelian ‘practically wise person’ (phronimos) would do – i.e. there is no ‘moral code’ from which one can derive one’s moral obligations. One is simply ‘to respond adequately to the situation’.
A further issue arising from the Gifford Lectures concerns the relation between metaphysics and religion. The most extensive description of Bosanquet’s views on religion are found in What Religion Is (1920), although he had written on the topic from almost the beginning of his philosophical career. Bosanquet’s account is typical of the humanistic demythologizing associated with many thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as David Strauss, Ferdinand Baur and, later, Rudolf Bultmann. Like Edward Caird, Bosanquet speaks of religion as having ‘evolved’ from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ forms towards what he calls ‘Absolute religion’. Just as ‘evolution’ is an inherent operation in the process of knowledge and thought, it is true of religious belief as well.
According to Bosanquet, religious dogma is distinct from faith; theology and dogma are the product of an intellectualization (usually by an authority) of a simple religious experience. Moreover, he understands religion or ‘faith’ in a broad sense, as ‘that set of objects, habits, and convictions, whatever it might prove to be, which [one] would rather die for than abandon, or at least would feel himself excommunicated from humanity if he did abandon’ (Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 33). Thus, Bosanquet suggests that particular religious beliefs are often ‘disguised’ metaphysical or ethical propositions.
Yet Bosanquet denied that religion could be ‘reduced’ to morality, and while he advised believers to scrutinize their religious beliefs – he challenged such notions as the personality of God and the existence of an afterlife – he held that faith itself was to be treated with respect. While much more critical of religion than Bradley, Bosanquet denied that his view was an agnostic one, and (in 1889–90) even led a class of working people in reading the New Testament.
Finally, following the Gifford Lectures, and continuing until the end of his life, Bosanquet returned to logic. Now, however, his work was challenged by a ‘new’ logic – that of Frege, as developed by Russell and Whttehead . But this new logic was, to Bosanquet’s mind, no more successful than the old, for it continued to separate judgement and inference, and emphasized ‘linear implication’ over his ‘systematic’.
In Implication and Linear Inference (1920) Bosanquet developed some logical issues raised in the Gifford Lectures and in the second edition of his Logic (1911), and related this to the work of a number of contemporary authors, including Husserl. Although there was little substantively new in this work, it incited a wide critical response. As he had argued earlier, logical principles are not part of some abstract real but are ‘the expression of the movement and life of the mind’ (Creighton, p. 52). Inference is not deductive (e.g., from general principles) or inductive (e.g., from ‘instances’) but ‘systematic’ – ‘it proceeds from within a whole or a system already apprehended as such’ (ibid., p. 53). Linear inference or syllogistic is only a limited form of inference and, he points out, it presents the world as a non-developing system. Our knowledge does not exist as a set of isolated formal propositions, but is found in ‘whole concrete systems or aspects of our experience, such as art, or religion, or philosophy’ (ibid., pp. 53–4). Moreover, like some contemporary philosophers, Bosanquet acknowledges that there is no neutral or external test by which we can determine truth.
Bosanquet’s last book published during his lifetime was The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy (1921). This title reveals a characteristic present throughout Bosanquet’s philosophy – the desire to show relationships among different schools of thought, rather than dwell on differences. Here, Bosanquet returns to a question raised in The Distinction between Mind and its Objects specifically, the relation between realism and idealism (here, that of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile).
Bosanquet argues that the terms ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ are not antithetical and that these ‘schools’ converge on such matters as the reality of time, progress and ethics. As each seeks a complete view, it is led to positions characteristic of its ‘opponent’. Bosanquet insists that with a more reasonable understanding of progress, and a correct understanding of the nature of ‘individuality’ and of the ‘unity’ of reality, these oppositions can be overcome.
A number of important texts appeared soon after Bosanquet’s death. His widow, Helen, took the three completed chapters of Bosanquet’s last manuscript, and published it as Three Chapters on the Nature of Mind (1923). Here Bosanquet directly addresses Russell’s account in the Analysis of Mind as being not so much wrong as ‘too narrow’, and he again insists that circumstances and history have to be taken into account if we wish to understand persons. In 1927 J.H. Muirhead and Bosanquet’s nephew, the archaeologist R.C. Bosanquet, prepared a collection of some of Bosanquet’s major published essays, Science and Philosophy and Other Essays by the Late Bernard Bosanquet. Finally, in 1935, Muirhead edited a volume of Bosanquet’s letters, Bernard Bosanquet and his Friends, that – together with Helen Bosanquet’s earlier biography of her husband, Bernard Bosanquet: A Short Account of his Life (1924) – provides essential background for understanding the development of his philosophical views.
At the time of his death, Bosanquet was arguably ‘the most popular and the most influential of the English idealists’ (Randall, p. 114), and in his obituary in The Times he was said to have been ‘the central figure of British philosophy for an entire generation’ (Muirhead, p. 19). He not only had written or edited some twenty books and over 200 articles and reviews, but was one of the leading public intellectuals. Bosanquet was one of the earliest figures in the Anglo-American world to appreciate the work of Edmund Husserl, Emile Durkheim, Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Moreover, he had been party and made significant contributions to many of the major philosophical debates of his time, and even with the shift, at the beginning of the century, from idealism to logical empiricism, Bosanquet continued to be actively engaged in debate. It is important to remember, for example, that Ludwig Wittgenstein complained to G.E. Moore in 1914 that much of Wittgenstein’s own (unsuccessful) Cambridge BA dissertation was ‘cribbed’ from Bosanquet’s logic. It is now generally recognized that the claim that idealists, such as Bosanquet, were a ‘sharp break’ in nineteenth-century British philosophy is highly exaggerated, and that Bosanquet was far from a marginal figure in the development of twentieth-century empiricist and phenomenological philosophies.
The Collected Works of Bernard Bosanquet , ed. with Introductions by William Sweet (Bristol, 1999), 20 vols. In addition to the books referred to in this article, the Collected Works contain two new volumes of selected essays.