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The Principle of Individuality and Value

1910 to 1912
University of Edinburgh

For Bernard Bosanquet, the ‘individual’ is not a distinct entity, separated from the world around it, and independent of the forces pervading the universe. Rather, he argues, to speak of the ‘individual’ is to speak of ‘participants’ in a totality—members of a ‘world’.

Bosanquet’s Gifford Lectures, entitled ‘The Principle of Individuality and Value’ and ‘The Value and Destiny of the Individual’, and delivered 1911 to 1912, are focused on the theme of human beings as ‘concrete universals’ as opposed to ‘abstract universals’. An ‘abstract universal’ is the repetition of a quality in various instances—for example, ‘redness’. ‘Abstract universals’ are used in science to explain various phenomena by appealing to one law, or one property (e.g., gravitation). ‘Concrete universals’, on the other hand, are corporeal, like Julius Caesar. The various actions an individual takes are linked to one another because the same person is performing the act in all instances. Caesar makes different decisions in different situations, but ultimately it is always Caesar making the decisions. Caesar is a concrete thing and so are his decisions, but his personality pervades throughout.

Bosanquet later concludes that all human life is a manifestation of the one ultimate ‘concrete universal’—the Absolute will acting through us. To Bosanquet, individuals are not merely the inferior creations of God; they are ‘finite-infinite’ beings. Each of us shares in the Infinity of this Absolute. We are each a manifestation of the one ‘concrete universal’ that exists and pervades throughout the universe. Bosanquet refers to any activity or experience which ‘throws light on something beyond itself’ as a ‘universal’: ‘The endeavour of the simple generalisation is to pursue an identity apart from differences. “Generality” in science is achieved by “attending to common qualities of a number of individuals, and disregarding their differences.”’ While science tells us ‘things about nature’, he says in his third lecture, ‘it does not pretend to speak of real beings in their whole and fundamental nature’. For Bosanquet, only philosophy can make claims about the whole; science simply makes claims about particular instances that point towards that ‘whole’. Science stops short of linking the common qualities of the phenomena it observes to an even grander ‘whole’—that is, to ‘an organism’, ‘a system’ or, more generally, a ‘world’.

Bosanquet’s worldview is reminiscent of Plato’s view of the recurring life cycle and the ‘One’—the ultimate Form that is the progenitor of all particulars in the world. Bosanquet aligns himself with Plato on many points, and refers to his Form, or One, as the equivalent of his own concept of the ‘Absolute’. Particular experiences and even human lives are participants in the Absolute; we are all manifestations of an all-pervading spirit or energy that constitutes the ‘whole’. Bosanquet says his view is also reminiscent of various ‘Oriental’ philosophies, where all of life is considered interconnected and fundamentally the same, as opposed to the atomistic view of life that science often appeals to, in which gravity, heat and other forces are considered distinct phenomena. ‘Nature’ is tied up with our individual ‘minds’. They are not separate phenomena, as science often leads us to believe. It is best to think of nature as ‘continuous with mind’. It is an ‘external system’, continuous with our individual minds, and through which ‘the content and purposes of the universe are communicated’. Consciousness of this process is nothing other than ‘religious consciousness’, he concludes. ‘Nature, then, lives and is complete in our minds’. This is the thesis of Bosanquet’s first series of lectures.

It is useful to consider Bosanquet’s philosophical claims as a refutation of various ‘pragmatic’ views prominent at the time that he was giving his Gifford Lectures. For pragmatists, ‘truth’ claims are based more on the use of the claim itself—the social role it plays—rather than some absolute truth criterion. For Bosanquet, however, belief in an infinite, universal principle as internally noncontradictory and consistent means that ‘not all truth is subordinate to practice, or has, as sought for and held, any connection with practice at all’. The ultimate ‘tendency’ of thought, he says, is not to ‘generalise’ as the scientist does, or to seek out useful concepts as the pragmatist does. It is to understand the ‘world’—to grasp the holistic network within which all phenomena, even contradictory phenomena, are manifestations of the same Absolute energy. In sum, ‘truth’ is always ‘a system of connected members’; our endeavours to find ‘truth’ must be endeavours to constitute such systems.

This endeavour is a ‘logical law’, Bosanquet asserts. ‘Logic’, in the form of a system with no internally contradictory elements, is the ultimate manifestation of ‘truth’. In such a system, every detail gains meaning by being related to every other element in the system in such a way that its existence is seen as fundamental to the existence of the other elements. Once all contradiction is overcome, ‘truth’ is revealed. He writes: ‘Logical completeness, or universality, is not a deadening but a vitalising quality, and thought is not a principle of reproducing reality with omissions, but of organising worlds and investing their detail with fresh significance’.

By seeing things as ‘harmonious’, the human mind is set free. ‘Freedom’, for Bosanquet, is nothing other than the elimination of contradiction through the construction of ‘worlds’ of explanation. Individual life is best served by seeking ‘logical self-completeness’. This necessarily involves sacrifice and even suffering. But these processes are all a part of our ultimately perfecting process. By seeking ‘perfection’ in the sense of noncontradictory desires and impulses, and even thoughts, we find ultimate ‘freedom’.

In his second series of lectures, Bosanquet relates this idea of a noncontradictory, logical ‘world’ of explanation—or ‘system’—–to the human soul. Our souls find their worth in their membership and participation in the universe. Bosanquet viewed the soul as a ‘link or focus, through which the striving of the universe unites the multitude of things and persons in the absolute whole’. In his exegesis on the topic, Bosanquet divides his last nine lectures into three themes: the process of ‘soul-making’ through natural and social selection; the life of the self-complete finite being as one full of suffering and adventure; and the secret of stability and security for the finite self as revealed through self-recognition.

We often feel as though we are distinct individuals, Bosanquet notes, because we have feelings, and we know we cannot have anyone else’s feelings nor can anyone else have our feelings. But this distinctness is only an illusion: ‘[T]he unreflective person will believe in his own absolute independence and self-existence, as merely limited by that of others through a few external contacts. This false claim to absoluteness, with the want of recognition which is its cause, condition the whole character and being of the finite mind. . . . But yet, belonging as it does to the continuum of the whole, and unconsciously inspired by its unity, it is always passing beyond its given self in the attempt to resolve the contradictions which infect its being and obstruct its self-satisfaction’.

For Bosanquet, humans may have evolved naturally in response to environmental conditions, but these conditions, and our evolutionary responses to them, are always the products of the universal principle manifesting itself through our lives. Physical evolution is part and parcel of human soul-making: ‘The creation of such a system is due to the operation of the positive principle of non-contradiction in a definite embodiment and environment. The self-maintaining system of Life, under the guidance of its surroundings, has rejected whatever variation was, under all the conditions, out of harmony with its end of self-maintenance. Non-contradiction, as we saw, is the principle of individuality; and here we observe it at work in the initial formation of the finite centre of experience’.

Social evolution also adds to the process of soul-making. In building societies, and in improving social cooperation and living standards, humans transcend themselves, he argues: ‘Natural selection as operative upon the individual soul through its social environment has given rise to creatures and institutions which have embodied the matter of souls or selves in creations transcending their particular existence’. These institutions include language, marriage and other such creations of the ‘thinking will’. In sum, our will to progress and further unify our fellow creatures through the bonds of social connections and institutions are key processes in soul-building, and prove we are not as individualised as we often think we are.

However, these natural and social developments constitute ‘claims and counter-claims’ on our soul which are not always pleasant. Life is ‘full of hazard and hardship’, Bosanquet notes. And if we conceive of ‘morality’ as a duty to a superior, separate being (i.e., a divine Christian God) it would be easy to see why many hardships in life are difficult to bear. Bosanquet says we must cease to think of our hardships and pains as though they are ‘claims’ on our being, which are the result of our debtor-creditor relationship to God, as described in Christianity and other religions. For Bosanquet, ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ are merely the ‘limitations on our nature, along with our impulse to transcend them’.

Bosanquet explains that as with pleasure and pain, religion plays a role in allowing us to find our infinite selves. Religion is a largely practical matter; it cannot prove God’s existence or an afterlife. However, the religious consciousness is pervasive throughout human societies in the same way social consciousness is pervasive—it is another manifestation of our attempt to transcend our finite beings and locate ourselves in something greater: ‘Wherever a man fairly and loyally throws the seat of his value outside his immediate self into something else which he worships, with which he identifies his will, and which he takes as an object solid and secure at least relatively to his private existence—as an artist in his attitude to beauty or as a man of science to truth—there we have in its degree the experience of religion, and, also in its degree, the stability and security of the finite self’.

The ‘religious attitude’ is recognition of our finite nature and of an ‘underlying reality’ to which we inseparably belong. This experience gives our finite lives the sense of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ which pain and suffering might, at times, lead us to question. While we cannot have proof of an afterlife, our constant desire to transcend our individual lives, to be a part of a social community and to engage in religious beliefs, give us the feeling there is a transcendental realm beyond our finite lives—a Platonic-like reality which lies beyond our perceptive capacities but of which we are ultimately, and fundamentally, a part. As Bosanquet concludes: ‘That the ultimate reality of persons, like that of everything else, is in the Absolute and that the Absolute is non-temporal are conclusions which seem inevitable from the idea of completeness or perfection’.


The Principle of Individuality and Value

Macmillan and Co. Limited
  • Josipa Petrunic, University of Edinburgh