Blanshard, Brand (1892–1987)

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Brand Blanshard was an American philosopher whose task is best described in his own words as the "vindication of reason against recent philosophical attacks." Blanshard was thus a critica critic of all those who, he alleged, reject rationalitybut at the same time he tried to exhibit the credentials that reason can show in its own right.

Blanshard was educated at the University of Michigan, Columbia, Oxford, and Harvardwhere he received his PhD. He taught at the University of Michigan, at Swarthmore College, and at Yalewhere he was Sterling professor of philosophy and chairman of the department. The multitude of honors he received during his career precludes their enumeration here.

Blanshard's first major work was The Nature of Thought (London, 1939), in two volumes, each divided into two books. The first volume is largely concerned with a subject matter common to both philosophy and psychology. The stated goal is to discover a theory of perception (Book I) and a theory of ideas (Book II) that will simultaneously satisfy the psychologist, who views percepts and ideas as contents of the mind, and the philosopher, who views them as potential items of knowledge. Various theories are examined and rejectedmost notably the traditional empiricist approachand it is finally argued that only a theory along the lines developed by Francis Herbert Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, and Josiah Royce is able to meet this double demand. The universal, Blanshard maintained, is present in all thought, even in the most rudimentary forms of perception; and it is the presence of the universal that is the most important feature of thought. This conclusion exhibits a theme that recurs throughout both volumes: the use of doctrines drawn from the idealist tradition in dealing with contemporary problems.

In the second volume of The Nature of Thought, the subject matter becomes more specifically philosophical. The main task of Book III (titled "The Movement of Reflection") is to answer the epistemological problem: What is the test and the nature of truth? Once more, after examining and rejecting alternatives, Blanshard turns to the idealist tradition for his answer, adopting a version of the coherence theory of truth. His exposition of the coherence theory has a number of distinctive features. Foremost is the clarity, rigor, and persuasiveness of the presentation; in this respect Blanshard has only Royce as a rival. Furthermore, he develops the theory independently of metaphysical doctrines that are for the most part now repudiated. Finally, he develops the theory in full cognizance of contemporary criticisms and attempts to offer direct answer to them.

In Book IV (titled "The Goal of Thought") Blanshard moves from epistemology into metaphysics. Still operating within the framework of idealism, he accepts the connected notions of internal relations, concrete universality, and concrete necessity. But he does not, as do most idealists, give these doctrines a gratuitous theological turn, nor does he attempt to secure the foundation of the entire system through an a priori proof that the completed, fully articulated system must exist. He does introduce the conception of a transcendent end for thought, which he considers a necessary postulate for knowledge, but he admits that it is possible (though unlikely) that this postulate is mistaken.

Some two decades after the publication of The Nature of Thought, and upon retirement from Yale, Blanshard began a projected three-volume sequence that would bring together material originally presented in his Carus and Gifford lectures. Reason and Analysis (London, 1962), the second of the three volumes, is his most polemical work. It is in large measure a systematic and unremitting attack upon the analytic tradition as it emerged in various forms during the twentieth century. Some of the arguments presented are refinements of those used in The Nature of Thought, but Reason and Analysis is not a mere echo of the earlier work. On the constructive side, many of the earlier idealistic doctrines, although not silenced, seem decidedly muted. If philosophies are to bear labels, this later position might better be called rationalism than idealism.

The first work in the sequence, Reason and Goodness (London, 1961), introduces another aspect of Blanshard's thought. In this work he traces out the dialectical interplay between the demands of reason and the demands of feeling throughout the history of ethical theory. Not surprisingly, Blanshard rejects any theory that will not provide a place for reason in the account of human values, and he thus offers elaborate critiques of subjectivism, emotivism, and related theories.

In developing his own ethical position Blanshard does not turn, at least primarily, to the idealist tradition but rather to the works of Henry Sidgwick, G. E. Moore, H. A. Prichard, and W. D. Ross. Throughout his career Blanshard favored teleology in ethics, and for a time he was attracted by Moore's ideal utilitarianism. He came to reject this position largely because of the difficulties associated with Moore's conception of nonnatural properties. In Reason and Goodness Blanshard rejects Moore's critique of naturalism and argues that goodness is characterized by the joint properties of satisfaction and fulfillment. The idea of fulfillment is associated with the idealist tradition, but as Blanshard uses it, it carries no suggestion of loss of individuality and is thus quite different from the idea of fulfillment as employed by Bradley and most other idealists. By including both satisfaction and fulfillment in the definition of goodness, Blanshard hopes to provide for feeling on one hand and reason on the other and, in this way, to resolve the dialectical tension outlined earlier in the work.

Reason and Belief was not yet published as of this writing, but from Blanshard's lectures it may be assumed that in this work he will challenge the religious irrationalism that is currently fashionable in some quarters. What positive doctrines he will espouse is more a matter of speculation.

See also Bosanquet, Bernard; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Coherence Theory of Truth; Idealism; Relations, Internal and External; Moore, George Edward; Rationalism; Reason; Ross, William David; Royce, Josiah; Teleology.


Blanshard, Brand. Reason and Belief. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

Additional works by Blanshard are "Current Strictures on Reason," in Philosophical Review 54 (1945): 345368, and On Philosophical Style (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954).

A work on Blanshard is Ernest Nagel, "Sovereign Reason," in his Sovereign Reason (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954), pp. 266295.

Robert J. Fogelin (1967)

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