The Social Destiny of Reason in the "Absolute Pragmatism" of Josiah Royce Interpreter of Hegel


    Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was professor of Natural Religion, Moral and Political Philosophy at Harvard since 1892, colleague of the pragmatists C.S. Peirce, W. James, G.H. Mead and J. Dewey, and speaker at the 3rd International Congress of Philosophy at Heidelberg (1-5 September 1908) with a paper on The Problem of Truth in the Light of Recent Discussion. [*]

    As widely documented by critics, Royce began studying German idealism at a very young age. Already during his time in Germany (when he followed the teaching of W. Wundt, W. Windelband and H. Lotze), the comparison with Hegel’s theses is a recurring motif throughout his scholarly activity (Kaufmann 1965), within which also developed the comparison with Meister Eckhart, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte and Schelling, through to Schopenhauer, Emerson, Jean-Marie Guyau, Bergson and Nietzsche.

    Currently, few studies are dedicated to the role played by Hegel within Royce’s reflection, between historical-philosophical investigation and ethical-theoretical reflection (see Nagl 2005; Kaag 2009). In Italy we have some old translations of Royce’s main works: these edited by Giuseppe Rensi for Laterza’s “Biblioteca di cultura moderna” series: (Lo spirito della filosofia moderna, 1910; La filosofia della fedeltà, 1911; Il mondo e l’individuo, 1913-1916); later these by Ernesto Codignola for Vallecchi (Il problema del cristianesimo, 1924-1925) and by Umberto Forti again for Laterza (Lineamenti di psicologia, 1928).

    Among the critical texts on Royce, we recall some studies from the same period (Olgiati 1917; Raccuglia 1920; Galcano 1921), followed by Elisa Buzzi’s ethical-theoretical works, which are more recent (1992), and which emphasize, above all, the relationship between the individual and the community and the ethics of loyalty; followed shortly by a valuable contribution by Francesco Donadio on the “community of interpretation”, in which Royce is placed at the origins of the debate on Apel’s “unlimited community of communication” and Habermas’ “ideal dialogical situation” (Donadio 2000). Abroad, on the other hand, contributions are more substantial and continuous over time (see Marcel 1945; Oppenheim 1993; Auxier 2013; Aykaraparampil 2017; Cárdenas 2023).

    In order to clarify Hegel’s presence in Royce’s thinking, it is necessary to consider the three stages of his reflection: the youthful period, which runs from the mid-1870s until 1885, when he published The Religious Aspect of Philosophy; the period considered “idealist”, to which we will give more space, which runs from 1885 until the early 20th century with The World and the Individual (1899-1901) and The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908); and lastly, that of the logical turn and the “metaphysics of community”, developed in The Problem of Christianity (1913) and the other works of this period.

    According to his biographer John Clendenning, in the 1890s Royce had a “Hegelian period” (Clendenning 1999, p. 212), paying particular attention to the Phänomenologie des Geistes, that Royce proposed to translate to Holt Publishing in 1893, a proposal that was later declined.

    Some interpreters trace the comparison with Hegel’s Phänomenologie, Logik and Enzyklopädie as a recurring motif of all his reflection. I too confirm this second reading, which allows us both to enhance the social reading of Hegel carried out by Royce within the framework of his “absolute pragmatism”, and to compare it with the contemporary American reading carried out by Terry Pinkard, taking into account also the contribution of his master Klaus Hartmann (1925-1991), who, from the 1970s onwards, reads Hegel as a post-critical philosopher who investigates the social and historical content of transcendental philosophy (Hartmann 1972).

    Royce presents Hegel as the philosopher of the ‘publicity’ of consciousness:

            "I know myself, he writes, only in so far I am known or may be known by another than my present or momentary self. Leave me alone to the self-consciousness of this moment, and I shrivel up into a mere atom, an unknowable feeling, a nothing. My existence is in a sort of conscious publicity of my inner life". (Royce 1892, p. 207).

    Royce shows how the theoretical and moral experience of the subject cannot be separated from the socio-historical one, which is configured in terms of publicity of the self beyond any ethical subjectivism. This process, therefore, places in the foreground the problem of the relationship with the totality, understood as “the subject’s broader ideal horizon, which is concretely realised in the web of social relations in which the subject is involved and finds its meaning.” (Buzzi 1992, p. 23). In reconstructing these social relations, Royce takes into account not only Hegel, but also the psychological debate of his time (in particular Tarde, Bergson, James, Baldwin, and Wundt), highlighting three fundamental notions derived to a large extent from James: the selective attention, the stream of consciousness and the specious present. Royce modifies the latter, which James borrows from the English psychologist Edmund R. Clay, into the concept of time span.

    With his holistic and non-reductionist reading of Hegel, Royce clearly anticipates Pinkard’s line of enquiry, which states that

           "absolute knowing in the form of the historical practices and modern institutions of philosophy is the form of reflection on that ‘social space’ in which the kinds of reasons and legitimations of the ‘ground rules’ – of what is authoritative for us in thought and action and whether they can be authoritative for us – are rationally reconstructed to see if they can indeed affirm for us our sense of who we are. This reflection is absolute in its being fully internal to this ‘social space’.” (Pinkard 1994, p. 265). 

    At the same time, Royce preserves Hegel from James’s criticism, aligning him with the pragmatic method, outside the metaphysical interpretations of Hegel such as Bradley’s among the English idealists (Rametta 2006), but more akin to that of David George Ritchie (1853-1903), who interprets Hegel in the light of Darwin’s evolutionism (see Ritchie 1893; Lombardi 2020).

    Commenting on the Phänomenologie des Geistes and repeatedly emphasising the practical, psychological, historical and social character of Hegel’s work, Royce writes in The Spirit of Modern Philosophy:

          "I know myself only in so far I am known or may be known by another than my present or momentary self. Leave me alone to the self-consciousness of this moment, and I shrivel up into a mere atom, an unknowable feeling, a nothing. My existence is in a sort of conscious publicity of my inner life." (Royce 1892, p. 207).

    Further on:

            "I must enlarge myself, conceive myself as in external relationships, go beyond my private self, presuppose the social life, enter into conflict, and, winning the conflict, come nearer to realizing my unity with my deeper self." (Ivi, p. 215).

    In the Lectures on Modern Idealism, we read:

            "The Phänomenologie unites logic and history rather by means of a reducing of the thinking process to pragmatic terms than by means of a false translation of real life into the abstract categories of logic". (Royce 1919, p. 145).

    Linked to this observation is another important note on the “evolutionary” character of the Hegelian theory of the absolute:

            "Hegel’s theory of the Absolute is therefore at one, and in a way which is not very clearly explained, an evolutionary theory and a non-temporal theory. The absolute consciousness is an inclusion in a single non-temporal consciousness of the meaning of all temporal processes. But, on the other hand, the absolute consciousness is the goal of a historical process." (Ivi, pp. 170-171).


        "The world of Geist next appears as a series of incarnations of the self, which are no longer individual, but explicitly universal, and also social. In other words, these Gestalten are now entire societies, nations, stages of culture, or on higher levels, movements of thoughts and of general social action – reforms, reconstitutions of society, institutions possessing spiritual significance." (Ivi, p. 159).

    From the above-quoted textual passages, we can understand both the originality and the great topicality of Royce’s reading of Hegel. According to Royce, the activity of reason does not consist in reflecting through categories a presumed fixed order of reality. Still, in an organic development that structures itself through antitheses, contradictions and conflicts, and that finds its unifying practical-social moment in will and action.

    Even the notion of truth cannot be separated from action, because it is a construction, a process, an activity, a creation, an achievement of something superior in both ethical and theoretical terms. In this sense, as Royce often reiterates, such a reading of Hegel is intended to place the proper emphasis on all “active” components in thought, truth and reality. As well as the participation of the will in the conflicting motivations on which it depends. Pragmatism thus becomes the absolute experience of freedom and truth, absolute insofar as it succeeds in seeing what is temporal (and contingent) as the symbol and image of the eternal.

    From these theoretical assumptions Royce, in his mature work, The Philosophy of Loyalty, develops an important corollary, namely that loyalty is based on a “most peculiar and subtle” union of natural inclination and free choice, and above all that one cannot be loyal only to sterile abstractions, because “loyalty has its elemental appeal to my whole organism” (Royce 1908, p. 130).

    However, even in this case, Royce goes in search of a principle of superior, “ethical” unity, to the individual-organic experiences that structure what Pinkard calls the “social space of reason”.

    Royce looks at a collective subject, understood as “a superhuman being, a union of the empirical lives of many men in the complex of a single experience” (Ivi, pp. 336-337), which obtains “the conspectus of my whole life, to see what, in the long run, is indeed for me expedient” (Ivi, p. 339), since “whoever, he concludes, gets that conspectus, if such a being there indeed is, is essentially superhuman in his type of consciousness.” (Ibid.).


    [*] I discuss here the preparatory outline of a forthcoming monograph.



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