You are here

Josiah Royce

Professor of History of Philosophy, Harvard University
1855 to 1916

Josiah Royce was born in Grass Valley, California, on 10 November 1855. His parents, Josiah and Sarah Royce, were head of their local primary school, which Royce attended. He took his first degree, a B.A. in Classics, at the University of California in 1875. He then went to Germany to study philosophy for one year before returning to the United States to take a Ph. D. at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, completing in 1878.

Royce’s career was not restricted to philosophy. His first appointment was as an instructor in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1878. He resigned from California in 1882, having accepted a one-year position at Harvard, replacing William James, who was on sabbatical. He remained there, attaining a permanent position as assistant professor of philosophy in 1885. In 1892 he became Harvard’s Professor of the History of Philosophy, and acted as chair of the philosophy department from 1894 to 1898. He continued at Harvard for the rest of his life, publishing a great deal. Although his chief work was in philosophy, he also published a history of California in 1886 and a western novel, The Feud of Oakfield Creek, in 1887.

Royce is best known for his absolute idealism, first expounded in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885). In this work, he offers a transcendental argument for the truth of his absolute idealism from the undeniable existence of error. He characterises truth in terms of a correspondence of an idea or judgment to its object. Error or falsehood obtains when an idea or judgment does not correctly represent its object. Royce goes on to argue that this would mean that no judgement could ever be erroneous, since all ideas refer to the objects they intend, unless there exists an absolute knower, a ‘mind’ in which all ideas necessarily correspond to their objects.

Despite winning few adherents, Royce further developed his view, defending and modifying it over the years. Based on his Gifford Lectures presented at the University of Aberdeen between 1898 and 1900, The World and the Individual (1899–1900) was an attempt to stave off criticism that his earlier presentation of absolute idealism eliminated the possibility of individuality, personality and moral responsibility. The criticisms from his colleague and friend William James influenced later revisions and defences. These were embodied in The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), in which he utilised a principle of loyalty as the ground of morality in his system, and later The Problem of Christianity (1913), in which the relation of the finite individual to the absolute as well as the community was further explored.

Royce died on 14 September 1916. He was survived by his wife, Kathrine, whom he had married in 1880, and, to much regret, only two of their three children: Edward and Stephen. Their firstborn, Christopher, had died from typhoid fever in a state mental hospital in 1910.

Royce’s works include The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), The Conception of God (1897), The World and the Individual (2 vols., 1899-1900), The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems (1908), The Sources of Religious Insight (1912), The Problem of Christianity (1913), War and Insurance (1914) and The Hope of the Great Community (1916). A biography of Royce is B. Kuklick’s Josiah Royce: An Intellectual Biography (1985). For critical discussion of Royce’s works see R. Auxier, ed., Critical Responses to Josiah Royce, 1885-1916, (2000), and F. M. Oppenheim, Royce’s Voyage Down Under: A Journey of the Mind (1980).

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen