Bowne, Borden Parker (1847–1910)

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Borden Parker Bowne, an American Personalist philosopher, spent his scholarly life, that is, from 1876 to 1910, at Boston University, where he taught in the liberal arts college and the school of theology, and where he became the first dean of the graduate school. In many articles and in seventeen books, Bowne expounded his Personalism, or Personalistic Idealism, which held that the Creator-Person, God, and created persons constitute the real.

Bowne was constantly concerned with taking full account of every dimension of human experience, be it the logical, the emotional, the moral, or the religious. Each dimension should be given full value and not be arbitrarily explained away by pontifical claims made in the name of such doctrines as Christian supernaturalism, psychological associationism and materialism, or ethical utilitarianism. For Bowne, reason is the criterion of truth. This means that for him reasoning discovers the real by interweaving and interpreting the different dimensions of experience.

The presupposition of thought and action is a unified, thinking self, or person. Were the person unable to will freely (granted limitations) and to choose in accordance with moral and intellectual ideals, there could be no trustworthy science or philosophy and no significance to moral and religious living. It is in the nature and experience of this self-identical, thinking, willing, and feeling person, who may not be reduced either to a mode of matter or to a mode of divinity, that Bowne finds his clue to, and his model of, reality.

Persons, however, do not create themselves, or each other. They could not communicate with each other were they not bound by the same laws of reason and subject to a common world. Each knower is bombarded by a flux of discontinuous sense impressions and responds as constructively as possible in accordance with his or her own dynamic categories, such as time, space, quality, quantity, cause, substance, and purpose. Thus the "common world" is the phenomenal world as organized by knowers who interact with, and ultimately depend upon, the structure of the real world independent of them. The phenomenal world is not a mask of the real world; it is the real world as related to the cognitive nature and purposes of finite knowers.

Bowne argues that the real world is neither nonmental nor independent of persons. For in knowing, and in interacting with an order other than itself, the mind must meet not only the conditions of its own nature but those of some agency or agencies independent of it. Since knowledge exists, and yet is not imported into a passive mind, the realist's contention that the real is unaffected by knowing is unintelligible. The fact must stand that minds, in following their own natures, can know with reasonable assurance the reality in which they live and can construct a common world of thought and action, even though they are not identical with the real in knowing.

Furthermore, minds in their theoretical and practical action are clearly alien neither to each other nor to the reality that is the source of their experiences. The world as known is the world persons construct, following the nature of their own theoretical interests, on the basis of the reality beyond their thought. Why, then, hold that any reality beyond finite things is nonmental if such cooperative interaction is possible?

Bowne granted that the case against nonmental "material being" is not proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. But he argued that what we do know about the relation of mind to nature is more economically explained if we think of nature as the energizing of a cosmic Person. Nature is God willing in accordance with rational principles, hence nature dependably supports the orderly common world our finite reasons construct in response to it. God, however, is not identical with the natural world. He is transcendent as well as immanent in relation to it. He is the unified, dynamic ground of nature, and he uses it for his purposes, inclusive of his interaction with finite persons.

How, then, are finite persons related to God? Finite persons are created by God and have relative, delegated autonomy. The real world, whose structure maintains and guides the constructive cognitive adjustments of persons, does not force their moral and appreciative responses. But when persons do not treat each other as persons in a realm that is morally purposeful, they fall short of what their own natures in God's world can be. God created man free, to work out the content of his freedom in a world order that at once limits and gives him opportunity for fulfillment. Human freedom could effect nothing in a world without order, for persons do not create the rational or moral principles by which they guide their thought and action in the given ultimate order.

For Bowne, then, the natural world as known by persons is the objectification of the orderly interaction between finite wills and cosmic Will. The ethical world is the objectification of the orderly, chosen, interaction among free, finite persons in the natural world God makes possible. Bowne's universe is not (like Benedict de Spinoza's) a unity with many finite modes. It is a realm of persons united both by God's purposive action in nature and by the further moral unity created as persons freely respond to the reason, will, and love of the cosmic Person.

See also Idealism; Personalism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


Among the most interesting philosophical works by Borden Parker Bowne are The Theory of Thought and Knowledge (New York: Harper, 1897); Metaphysics (New York: Harper, 1898); Theism (New York: American, 1902); and Personalism (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908).

Works about Bowne include E. S. Brightman, "Personalism and the Influence of Bowne," in Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, edited by E. S. Brightman (New York: Longmans, Green, 1927); and A. C. Knudson, The Philosophy of Personalism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1927).

For bibliography, see F. J. McConnell, Borden Parker Bowne (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929).

Peter A. Bertocci (1967)