The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 20. Josiah Royce

Unlike most of America’s distinguished philosophers, Josiah Royce (1855–1916) was not brought up in New England. He was born in a mining town in California and received his philosophic education in the university of his own state, at Johns Hopkins, and at Göttingen, where he studied under Lotze. Many diverse elements stimulated his subtle and acquisitive mind to philosophic reflection; the theistic evolutionism of the geologist Le Conte, the fine literary spirit of E. R. Sill, and his own reading of Mill and Spencer as well as of the great German philosophers, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer.

In 1882 he went to Harvard, where his prodigious learning, his keen and catholic appreciation of poetry, and the biblical eloquence with which he expressed a rich inner experience, at once made a profound impression. His singularly pure and loyal, though shy, spirit attracted a few strong friendships; but his life at Cambridge was in the main one of philosophic detachment. As a citizen of the great intellectual world, however, he closely followed its multitudinous events; and his successive books only partly reflected his unusually active and varied intellectual interests. In his earliest published papers he is inclined to follow Kant in denying the possibility of ultimate metaphysical solutions except by ethical postulates, but in his first book, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), he comes out as a full-fledged metaphysical idealist. This brilliant book at once made a profound impression, especially with the arguments that the very possibility of error cannot be formulated except in terms of an absolute truth or rational totality which requires an absolute knower. Like the parts of a sentence, all things find their condition and meaning in the final totality to which they belong. The world must thus be either through and through of the same nature as our mind, or else be utterly unknowable. But to affirm the unknowable is to involve one’s self in contradictions. Royce delights in these sharp antitheses and the reduction of opposing arguments to contradictions.