Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawney (1864–1929)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawney (1864–1929)

Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawney (1864–1929)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0170

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L.T. Hobhouse was born in St Ive, a village near Liskeard in Cornwall, on 8 May 1864 and died in Alençon, Normandy on 21 June 1929. He was the son of Reginald and Caroline Hobhouse. His father was Archdeacon of Bodmin (1877–92). He was educated at Malborough School and then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He acquired first class Greats in 1887 and after graduation returned initially to Merton College as a prize fellow, then, in 1894, went as tutorial fellow to Corpus Christi. He married Nora Hadwen in 1891. In 1897 Hobhouse left Oxford to write for the Manchester Guardian. This whole period, between 1890 and 1914, was one of enormous social and political ferment in Britain, and Hobhouse was fully committed to the liberal cause in British politics. He became directly associated with the ‘new liberalism’. In 1902 he left Manchester for London, although he continued writing for the Manchester Guardian. In 1907, after a series of journalistic posts, including editorship of The Tribune (a liberal daily newspaper), he took up the first chair of sociology in Britain (the Martin White Chair of Sociology at the University of London). He also became fully involved in editing a new journal, the Sociological Review. In 1925 he was elected a member of the British Academy.

Hobhouse often felt deeply uncomfortable with academic life and was initially also doubtful about the whole occupation of being an academic philosopher. Further, his main academic concerns were, as he saw them, in sociology. His later academic career, between 1907 and 1928, was spent in the first chair of sociology in Britain. This was, in fact, the only chair of sociology in Britain until the mid 1940s. However, if one examines his better-known theoretical works, one would be hard put to classify them immediately as sociology – certainly as it is now generally understood. Yet, his sociological work was, in his own mind, integral to his philosophy. The relation between the two disciplines was syncretic.

There were four main formative influences on his theoretical work from the 1890s: primarily, evolutionary theory in general, and more specifically, the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer; further, the philosophy of Hegel and particularly British Hegelianism. In the latter movement, T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet were of particular significance. In addition, the positivist ideas of Auguste Comte were of importance, and, finally, the ideas of the utilitarian tradition, specifically those of J.S. Mill.

His intellectual preoccupations can be divided into four main areas: first, his initial work was done in epistemology. His first systematic philosophical work was the Theory of Knowledge (1896). This substantial treatise was concerned with the validity of the postulates of empirical knowledge and the possibility of a rational reconstruction of experience. It argued for an idiosyncratic organic view of rationality which was to underpin all his subsequent work. The key theme was that human thought was seen as an organic structure held together by a mutual support of parts, undergoing change as it developed, but maintaining its identity through all its modifications. The entire system of human knowledge was thus envisaged as an evolving system of empirical growth or development, utilizing the data of accumulating experience and the method of critical rational reconstruction. The same themes of rationality and knowledge, as a gradual harmonious rational integration of experiences, underpinned his conceptions of philosophy, sociology, comparative ethics, social psychology, and indeed his philosophy of the new liberalism. This particular notion of organic rationality contains many resonances of Bosanquet’s idealist philosophy.

However, a lot of the discussion in the above book was also taken up with criticism of idealist arguments. The book, overall, can be characterized as an early contribution to the school of ‘critical realism’. His main objection to idealism was that it tended to regard concepts as independently real and unitary entities. For Hobhouse, this was fundamentally mistaken. Concepts had to be referred back to real experiences. This did not mean that he totally abandoned idealism. He was also equally critical of naive forms of realism and phenomenalism. He aimed at a via media between idealism and naive realism. Essentially, he wanted to ‘empiricize’ idealism, to make many of the idealist themes more directly applicable to the worlds of scientific evolution and social psychology. Thus, for example, his conception of evolutionary developmental harmony was basically a fuller empirical amplification of the idealist notion of self-realization in relation to the common good. His ambiguous, yet often highly critical relation with idealism was taken up again, however, in a more passionate and polemical tone, in his vigorous critique of Bosanquet’s social and political philosophy in The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918). Essentially the latter book is an extended complaint against giving the concept of the state too independent and unitary an existence.

His second preoccupation focused on the examination of the mass of empirical detail on mental evolution, initially in the animal world and then in humanity. This led him initially to lifelong interests in animal psychology, comparative psychology, anthropology and comparative ethics – that is, ethics treated from an evolutionary perspective. In this area he developed his evolutionary conception of development. He proceeded to trace the main forms and stages of animal and human development. This work formed the core of his psychological and sociological writings. His work on the study of mental evolution and development in the animal and human worlds culminated in his book Mind in Evolution (1901). Five years later he developed his ideas on comparative ethics and religion, as part of this evolutionary sociological perspective, in Morals in Evolution (1906).

Hobhouse’s third preoccupation focused on social and political philosophy. His work here was also reinforced by his practical commitments to Edwardian new liberal politics. He wrote, for example, a seminal popular treatise on Liberalism for the Oxford Home University Library series in 1911. This latter work became a widely admired statement of the general position of the new liberalism in Britain. This was one of a number of more popular political works that Hobhouse wrote throughout his working life, addressed to particular issues or events. The better known are The Labour Movement (1893), Democracy and Reaction (1904), The World in Conflict (1915) and Questions of War and Peace (1916). Further, it is important to note that Hobhouse saw no divorce between his evolutionary sociology, general philosophy and his more practical conception of the new liberalism -a point which has been systematically explored in more recent scholarship, particularly by Michael Freeden (1976, 1978). The goal of evolutionary development for humanity (and liberalism) was the ultimate rational harmony of human experience. This implied a limited empirically orientated conception of teleology. The more systematic philosophical work in this areas culminated in his book the Rational Good (1921). The conclusions of the latter work were then focused on the structures and processes of social and political organization in his work The Elements of Social Justice (1922).

His fourth and final preoccupation was the process of metaphysical synthesis, that is his attempt at an overarching philosophical system, in which he tried to bring together all his principal philosophical, psychological, evolutionary and sociological concerns. Essentially, he wanted to try to resolve the position of mind within the whole evolutionary structure of reality and then to apply this notion of development to all social phenomena. This project has resonances with Herbert Spencer’s work. His initial attempt at synthesis was contained in the first edition of his Development and Purpose (1913). He then attempted a generic summary of all his sociological and psychological work in his Social Development (1924), Finally, he engaged in a substantial revision of his earlier Development and Purpose, which was finally published in 1929.

Hobhouse made wide-ranging contributions to the early development of social science, comparative ethics and social psychology in Britain. In his sociology he provided an extensive social morphology and theory of social evolution which is now usually regarded with considerable scepticism. The unabridged application of evolutionary theory to mental or social phenomena no longer has the following it had in Hobhouse’s time. However, any revival of interest in social Darwinism will no doubt resurrect his ideas at some point in this next century. He was also a somewhat unwitting founder of the critical realist movement in philosophy which developed substantially in the early twentieth century and helped to supplant idealism during the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, it is still important to recall that Hobhouse had no interest in naive realism and he retained deep sympathies with aspects of idealist thought. Hobhouse’s most pervasive influence arose from his social and political philosophy, not so much his systematic work linking social evolution and politics, as his passionate formulation of a new philosophy of social liberalism. This has worn best out of all his diverse writings. His metaphysical work, although immensely impressive and wide-ranging in its attempt to forge a comprehensive synthesis, again, has also suffered from the fluctuating fortunes of evolutionary theory in the social sciences. In addition, his optimistic humanistic vision, entailing greater rational harmony, has looked increasingly suspect in the light of war and pogrom in the twentieth century. Hobhouse recognized this point on many occasions nearer the end of his life, particularly after the carnage of World War I. Yet, overall, Hobhouse’s energetic attempt to reconcile empiricism and rationalism, in the light of a rational reconstruction of experience, remains as an important philosophical achievement which has yet to be fully appreciated in its entirety.


The Labour Movement (1893).

The Theory of Knowledge: A Contribution to some Problems of Logic and Metaphysics (1896).

Mind in Evolution (1901).

Democracy and Reaction (1904; repr. Brighton, 1972).

Morals in Evolution: A Study in Comparative Ethics , 2 vols (1906).

Liberalism (Oxford, 1911).

Social Evolution and Political Theory (1911).

Development and Purpose: An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Evolution (1913; rev 2nd edn, 1929).

(with G.C. Wheeler and M. Ginsberg), The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation (1915; repr. 1930).

The World in Conflict (1915).

Questions of War and Peace (1916).

The Metaphysical Theory of the State: A Criticism (1918; repr. 1993).

The Elements of Social Justice (1922; repr. 1993).

The Rational Good: A Study in the Logic of Practice (1921; repr. 1993).

Social Development: Its Nature and Conditions (1924; repr. 1993).

Other Relevant Works

‘The Philosophy of Development’, in J.H. Muirhead (ed.), Contemporary British Philosophy (1924), pp. 149–88 .

Sociology and Philosophy: A Centenary Collection of Essays and Articles , ed. M. Ginsberg (1966).

L.T. Hobhouse: Liberalism and Other Writings , ed. James Meadowcroft (Cambridge, 1994).

Further Reading

Barker, Ernest, Political Thought in England 1848–1914 (1915).

Barker, Ernest, ‘Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse’: 1864–1929’, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 15 (1929), pp. 536–54 .

Carter, H., The Social Theories of L.T. Hobhouse (Durham, 1927).

Clarke, Peter, Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge, 1978).

Collini, Stefan, ‘Hobhouse, Bosanquet and the State: Philosophical Idealism and Political Argument in England 1880–1918’, Past and Present, vol. 72 (1976), pp. 86–111 .

Collini, Stefan, Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England 1880–1914 (Cambridge, 1979).

Freeden, M.S., ‘Biological and Evolutionary Roots of the New Liberalism in England’, Political Theory, vol. 4 (1976), pp. 471–90 .

Freeden, M.S., New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford, 1978).

Greenleaf, W.H., The British Political Tradition , vol. 2 (1983).

Griffin, C.M., ‘L.T. Hobhouse and the Idea of Harmony’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 35 (1974), pp. 647–61 .

Hobson, J.A. and M. Ginsberg (eds), L.T. Hobhouse: His Life and Work (1931; repr. 1993).

Meadowcroft, J., Introduction to L.T. Hobhouse: Liberalism and other Writings (Cambridge, 1994).

Owen, J.E., L.T. Hobhouse, Sociologist (1974).

Vincent, Andrew and Raymond Plant, Philosophy Politics and Citizenship: The Life and Thought of the British Idealists (Oxford, 1984).

Weiler, Peter, ‘The New Liberalism of L.T. Hobhouse’, Victorian Studies, vol. 16 (1972), pp. 141–61 .