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Bernard Bosanquet

Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of St. Andrews
1848 to 1923

Bernard Bosanquet, philosopher and social worker, was born on 14 June 1848 at Rock Hall, Northumberland, England, the youngest of five sons born to the Reverend Robert William Bosanquet and Caroline MacDowall, the daughter of Colonel Day Hort MacDowall of Castle Semple, Renfrewshire. Bosanquet attended various schools before studying for five years at Harrow starting in 1862. In 1867 he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied the classics, including Plato and other Greek philosophers, under the guidance of Richard Lewis Nettleship. Bosanquet was also influenced by the lectures of Arnold Toynbee, and his social work-minded ideas, as well as Thomas Hill Green’s socially minded lecturing. It was through Green that Bosanquet was introduced to the writings of Kant and Hegel, both of whom would be predominant influences in Bosanquet’s later Gifford Lectures. Bosanquet graduated with first class honours and was elected to a fellowship at University College, Oxford. He won the post against F. H. Bradley, with whom he would later engage in intellectual disagreements. Bosanquet taught ancient history and philosophy at Oxford from 1871 to 1881, although he published only one document during that time (a translation of G. F. Schoemann’s Athenian Constitutional History). He then moved to London, where he began a more prolific writing career and involved himself in social work with poor communities in the city.

Influenced in part by his lecturers at Oxford, Bosanquet became a member of the Charity Organization Society (COS), which his older brother Charles had founded some years before. Although Bosanquet apparently did not enjoy working directly with poor people, he was involved in the organization at the committee level and also taught sociology and social economics at the charity’s school in later years.

Bosanquet wrote his philosophical works while in London. His first major philosophical publication, an essay entitled ‘Logic as the Science of Knowledge’, appeared in a collection of essays written in the memory of his former professor, T. H. Green. The essay prefigured his more thorough Logic (1888). In the first essay he argued that ‘truth’ is intelligible only as part of a ‘system’. While Bosanquet accepted that ‘truth’ could be defined as ‘correspondence with fact’, that correspondence must take place within a coherent system to have any meaning at all. In his Knowledge and Reality Bosanquet criticised Francis Herbert Bradley for failing to recognise the ‘system’, or context, within which truth claims are made. Bosanquet was keen to point out language contains many nuances and any statement could be taken to mean any one of a number of things depending on the context. Meanwhile, in his Logic or the Morphology of Knowledge Bosanquet held that while formal logic is not the only standard of thought (being only a specialised type of thinking), it is through logic that we ultimately come to realise reality is ‘systematic’. Facts cannot be distinct or completely isolated from one another; if they were, inference from one series of events to another would be impossible. Throughout his philosophy, Bosanquet emphasized the underlying unity and harmony of all phenomena, which formal logic can help to illuminate in part.

Bosanquet also theorized about the relationship between the individual and the state. In his Philosophical Theory of the State he followed in the tradition of Aristotle and Rousseau in arguing that the state (or society) is able to civilize individuals. The individual, he said, is a microcosmic version of the macrocosmic state. For Bosanquet, the ‘state’ is akin to an organism; it is a holistic entity—not merely an aggregate of individuals, but rather a ‘system’ of individuals. Although he rejected laissez-faire economics because of its emphasis on the ‘individual’, Bosanquet also rejected socialist models of economics, both pre- and post-World War I. However, he was often criticized for seeming to argue that the state could do no wrong, even when it came to ‘crimes’ such as proactive war and pillaging.

On 13 December 1895 Bosanquet married Helen Dendy, a social worker with the COS. She had graduated with a first-class honours degree after writing the moral sciences tripos at Cambridge. She later engaged in a furious debate from 1905 to 1906 over reform of the ‘Poor Laws’. At the time, a royal commission had been set up to analyse the legislation. During those years Bosanquet and his wife attempted to include community work and discussions of ‘family values’ more deeply in the policies of the COS in their efforts to combat poverty.

Throughout his life Bosanquet was a member of various organisations, including the London Ethical Society and the Aristotelian Society, the latter of which he was president from 1894 to 1898. He became Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews from 1903 to 1907, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1907. He received honorary degrees from various universities including Glasgow, Birmingham, Durham and St. Andrews. Bosanquet and his wife had been known to spend their summers at a cottage they had built in Oxshott in Surrey, to which they retired at the end of Bosanquet’s academic career. However, the couple later moved to London because of Bosanquet’s deteriorating health. He died on 8 February 1923 at the age of 75.

Bosanquet’s primary works include: Knowledge and Reality: A Criticism of Mr. F. H. Bradley's ‘Principles of Logic’ (1885); Logic, or the Morphology of Knowledge (1888); A History of Aesthetic (1892); The Civilization of Christendom and Other Studies (1893); The Essentials of Logic: Being Ten Lectures on Judgment and Inference (1895); Aspects of the Social Problem (1895); Psychology of the Moral Self (1897); The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899); The Principle of Individuality and Value, the Gifford Lectures for 1911 delivered in Edinburgh University (1912); The Value and Destiny of the Individual, the Gifford Lectures for 1912 delivered in Edinburgh University (1913); Social and International Ideals: Being Studies in Patriotism (1917); Implication and Linear Inference (1920); What Religion Is (1920); The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy (1921); and Three Chapters on the Nature of Mind (1923).

  • Josipa Petrunic, University of Edinburgh