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, 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.).






    Abbagnano, N., Il nuovo idealismo inglese e americano, Perrella, Napoli 1927.

    Aronson, M.J., La philosophie morale de J. Royce. Essai sur l’idéalisme social aux Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Alcan, Paris 1927.

    Auxier, R.E., Time, Will, and Purpose: Living Ideas from the Philosophy of Josiah Royce, Open Court, Chicago 2013.

    Aykaraparampil, F., Beloved Community: A Roycean Response to Globalization, Dharmaram Publications, Bengaluru 2017.

    Bonito Oliva, R., La «magia dello spirito» e il «gioco del concetto». Considerazioni sulla filosofia dello spirito soggettivo nell’Enciclopedia di Hegel, Guerini e Associati, Milano 1995.

    Ead., L’individuo moderno e la nuova comunità. Ricerche sul significato della libertà soggettiva in Hegel, Guida, Napoli 2000.

    Bournique, G., La philosophie de Josiah Royce, Vrin, Paris 1988.

    Bradley, F.H., Apparenza e realtà. Saggio di metafisica, Italian transl. by D. Sacchi, Rusconi, Milano 1984.

    Briody, M.L., Community in Royce: An Interpretation, in «Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society», 5 (1969), pp. 224-242.

    Buzzi, E., Individuo e comunità nella filosofia di Josiah Royce, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 1992.

    Cantillo, C., Concetto e metafora. Saggio sulla storia della filosofia in Hegel, Loffredo Editore, Napoli 2007.

    Cárdenas, P.R., A Semiotic Theory of Community: Josiah Royce’s Absolute Pragmatism, Lexington Books, Lexington (Mass.) 2023.

    Clendenning, J., The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 1985; revised and expanded edition, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville 1999.

    Cotton, J. H., Royce’s Case for Idealism, in «The Journal of Philosophy», 53 (1956), pp. 112-122.

    Dewey, J., Voluntarism in the Roycean Philosophy, in «The Philosophical Review», 25 (1916), pp. 245-254.

    Donadio, F., J. Royce e l’idea di una “comunità d’interpretazione”, in G. Cantillo, C. Papparo (Eds.), Genealogia dell’umano: saggi in onore di Aldo Masullo, 2 vols., Guida, Napoli 2000, vol. 1: pp. 347-363.

    Fabbrichesi, R., The Body of the Community: Peirce, Royce, and Nietzsche, in «European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy», 2 (2010), pp. 25-34.

    Galcano, S., Il pensiero filosofico e morale di Josiah Royce, Unione Editrice, Roma 1921.

    Hartmann, K., Hegel: A Non-Metaphysical View, in A. MacIntyre (Ed.), Hegel. A Collection of Critical Essays, Doubleday and Company, New York 1972, pp. 101-124.

    Hartstone, C., Royce and the Collapse of Idealism, in «Revue Internationale de Philosophie», 21 (1967), pp. 46-59.

    Hegel, G.W.F., Werke in 20 Bänden (W), auf der Grundlage der Werke von 1832-1845, hrsg. von E. Moldenhauer und K. M. Michel, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M. 1969-1971.

    Id., Gesammelte Werke (GW), in Verbindung mit der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft, hrsg. von der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Meiner, Hamburg 1968 ff., später Hegel-Archiv, Bochum.

    Hocking, W.E., The Ontological Argument in Royce and Others, in C.I. Barrett (Ed.), The Contemporary Idealism in America, Macmillan and Co., New York 1932, pp. 43-66.

    Humbach, K.T., Das Verhältnis von Einzelperson und Gemeinschaft nach J. Royce. Eine Untersuchung zum Zentralproblem der Sozialphilosophie, C. Winters Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg 1962.

    James, W., Bradley o Bergson? (1910), in H. Bergson, W. James, Durata reale e flusso di coscienza. Lettere e altri scritti (1902-1939), Italian transl. by R. Ronchi, Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2014, pp. 145-150.

    Kaag, J., American Interpretations of Hegel: Josiah Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty, in «History of Philosophy Quarterly», 1 (2009), pp. 83-101.

    Kaufmann, W., Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts and Commentary, Doubleday Press, New York 1965.

    Kegley, J.A.K., Josiah Royce in Focus, Indiana University Press, Bloomington-Indianapolis 2008.

    Kuklich, B., Josiah Royce. An Intellectual Biography, Hackett Publ. Co., Indianapolis 1985.

    Lombardi, A., David George Ritchie. Un darwinista hegeliano nell’Inghilterra vittoriana, Edizioni di pagina, Bari 2020.

    Mahowald, M.B., An Idealistic Pragmatism: The Development of the Pragmatic Element in the Philosophy of Josiah Royce, M. Nijhoff, The Hague 1972.

    Marcel, G., La métaphysique de Royce, Aubier, Paris 1945.

    McDermott, J.J., Josiah Royce’s Philosophy of the Community: Danger of the Detached Individual, in M. Singer (Ed.), American Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1985, pp. 153-176.

    Mead, G.H., The Philosophies of Royce, James and Dewey in Their American Setting, in «International Journal of Ethics», 40 (1930), pp. 211-231.

    Milic, C., Time and Eternity in Royce and Bergson, in «Revue Internationale de Philosophie», 21 (1967), pp. 22-45.

    Miller, D.L., J. Royce and G.H. Mead on the Nature of the Self, in «Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society», 11 (1975), pp. 67-89.

    Nagl, L., Hegel ein “Proto-pragmatist“? Rorty’s halbierter Hegel und die Aktualität von Royces „absolute Pragmatism“, in Von der Logik zur Sprache. Stuttgarter Hegel-Kongress 2005, Kleitt-Cotta, Stuttgart 2005, pp. 390-411.

    Olgiati, F., Un pensatore americano: Josiah Royce, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 1917.

    Oppenheim, F.M., Royce’s Mature Ethics, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame 1993.

    Parker, K.A. - Skowroński, K.P. (Eds.), Josiah Royce for the Twenty-First Century. Historical, Ethical, and Religious Interpretations, Lexington Books, New York 2012.

    Parker, K.A. - Bell, J. (Eds.), The Relevance of Royce, Fordham University Press, New York 2014.

    Pearce, T., Pragmatism’s Evolution: Organism and Environment in American Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2020.

    Perry, R.B., Professor Royce’s Refutation of Realism and Pluralism, in «The Monist», 12 (1902), pp. 446-458.

    Pinkard, T., Hegel’s Phenomenology. The Sociality of Reason, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994; Italian transl. by A. Sartori e I. Testa, La Fenomenologia di Hegel. La socialità della ragione, Mimesis, Milano 2013.

    Id., Hegel. A Biography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000; Italian transl. by S. Di Bella, Hegel. Il filosofo della ragione dialettica e della storia, Hoepli, Milano 2018.

    Id., German Philosophy, 1760-1860. The Legacy of Idealism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002; Italian transl. by M. Farina, La filosofia tedesca 1760-1860. L’eredità dell’idealismo, Einaudi, Torino 2014.

    Id. (with H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.) (Eds.), Hegel Reconsidered. Beyond Metaphysics and the Authoritarian State, Kluwer, Dordrecht 1994.

    Raccuglia, S., Il concetto sintetico del reale e la sua evoluzione nel pensiero di Josiah Royce, Travi, Palermo 1920.

    Rametta, G., La metafisica di Bradley e la sua ricezione nel pensiero del primo Novecento, Cleup, Padova 2006.

    Randall, J.H., Josiah Royce and American Idealism, in «The Journal of Philosophy», 63 (1966), pp. 57-83.

    Ritchie, D.G., Darwin and Hegel, with Other Philosophical Studies, Sonnenschein & Co., London 1893.

    Roni, R., Il lavoro della ragione. Dimensioni del soggetto nella Fenomenologia dello spirito di Hegel, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2012.

    Id., Il soggetto e la relazione riconoscitiva tra natura e civilizzazione: Rousseau-Hegel-Mead, in Id. (Ed.), La costruzione dell’identità politica. Percorsi, figure, problemi, Edizioni ETS, Pisa 2012, pp. 103-130.

    Id., La visione di Bergson. Tempo ed esperienza del limite, Mimesis, Milano 2015.

    Id., Terry Pinkard interprete di Hegel, a partire da David George Ritchie: il pragmatismo della ragione, il suo linguaggio, il suo destino, in F. Gembillo - G. Giordano (Eds.), La presenza di Hegel nei pensatori contemporanei, Armando Siciliano Editore, Messina 2023, vol. 3, pp. 187-216.

    Rothman, W., Josiah Royces Versuch einer Synthese vom Pragmatismus und Objektivität, G. Neuenhahm, Jena 1926.

    Royce, J., The Spirit of Modern Philosophy: An Essay in the Form of Lectures, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1892; with an introduction by R.B. Perry, G. Braziller, New York 1955; Dover Publ., New York 1983; Italian transl. by G. Rensi, Lo spirito della filosofia moderna, 2 vols., Laterza, Roma-Bari 1910.

    Id., The World and the Individual, «Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Aberdeen 1899-1900», 2 vols., Macmillan & Co., New York 1899-1901; Dover Publ., New York 1959; Italian transl. by G. Rensi, Il mondo e l’individuo, 2 vols., Laterza, Roma-Bari 1913-1916.

    Id., The Philosophy of Loyalty, Macmillan & Co., New York 1908; with an introduction by J.J. McDermott, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville 1995; Italian trans. by G. Rensi, La filosofia della fedeltà, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1911; Extract with introduction and notes by G. Modugno, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1927; Italian transl. by M. Cai, ed. by E. Buzzi, Aragno Editore, Torino 2014; French transl. by J. Morot Sir, Philosophie du Loyalisme, Aubier, Paris 1946; Spanish transl. by Y.P. Quintero, Filosofia de la fidelidad, Hachette, Buenos Aires 1949.

    Id., The Problem of Truth in the Light of Recent Discussion, in «Bericht über den III internationalen Kongress für Philosophie», Carl Winter’s Universitatsbuchhandlung, Heidelberg 1909, pp. 62-90.

    Id., Lectures on Modern Idealism, ed. by J. Loewenberg, Yale University Press, New Haven 1919.

    Ruggiu, L., Logica metafisica politica. Hegel a Jena, 2 vols., Mimesis, Milano 2009.

    Id., Lo spirito è tempo. Saggi su Hegel, Mimesis, Milano 2013.

    Ruggiu, L. - Testa, I. (Eds.), Hegel contemporaneo. La ricezione americana di Hegel a confronto con la tradizione europea, Guerini e Associati, Milano 2003.

    Ruggiu, L. - Testa, I. (Eds.), Lo spazio sociale della ragione. Da Hegel in avanti, Mimesis, Milano 2009.

    Scardicchio, S., Idealism, New Realism and Pragmatism: The American Debate on Reality from Royce to Lewis, in «Quaestio», 12 (2012), pp. 423-447.

    Seibert, C., Polke, C. (Eds.), Josiah Royce: Pragmatist, Ethicist, Philosopher of Religion, Verlag Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2021.

    Smith, J.E., Royce’s Social Infinite. The Community of Interpretation, with a new Preface by the Author, The Shoe String Press, Hamden 1969.

    Testa, I., La natura del riconoscimento. Riconoscimento naturale e ontologia sociale in Hegel, Mimesis, Milano 2010.