Bosanquet, Bernard (1848–1923)

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Bernard Bosanquet, the English philosopher, was born at Altwick and educated at Harrow and at Balliol College, Oxford. He taught ancient history and some philosophy at Oxford from 1871 to 1881, when he left Oxford for London. In London he edited translations of Rudolf Hermann Lotze's Logic and Metaphysics, played an active part in the London Ethical Society, worked with the Charity Organisation Society, and did some teaching in the adult education movement. In 1895 he married Helen Dendy, who had been employed by the Charity Organisation Society and who later wrote much on social problems and became a member of the important Royal Commission on the Poor Law of 1909. From 1903 to 1908 he held the chair of moral philosophy at St. Andrews. He died in London.

Bosanquet's first important philosophical work is an essay titled "Logic as the Science of Knowledge" in Essays in Philosophical Criticism (A. Seth and R. B. Haldane, eds., London, 1883), a collection of papers in memory of T. H. Green. In Knowledge and Reality (London, 1885) he criticized F. H. Bradley's Principles of Logic for divergences from the central and, as Bosanquet thought, correct course charted in that book. In 1888 Bosanquet's Logic or the Morphology of Knowledge (2 vols., London) was published. Bosanquet had earlier translated the introduction to G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art (London, 1886), and his own History of Aesthetics appeared in London and New York in 1892. His Gifford lectures were published as The Principle of Individuality and Value (London, 1912) and The Value and Destiny of the Individual (London, 1913). Bosanquet was a prolific writer who contributed to discussion in all branches of philosophy and also took part in some social controversy. He was two years younger than Bradley and, like him, came to the Idealist point of view partly through the influence of T. H. Green and partly through reading Hegel. Bradley's Ethical Studies influenced him, but Bradley, in his turn, learned from Bosanquet's writings, especially from those on logic. Although both were Idealists, and both were called Absolutists, Bosanquet was more Hegelian and less of a skeptic than Bradley.


In the essay "Logic as the Science of Knowledge," which appeared in the same year as Bradley's Logic and seems to be independent of it, Bosanquet set out the main lines of his 1888 Logic. In this preliminary essay he argued that truth is comprehensible only within systems of knowledge, and that although truth is correspondence with fact, such correspondence is conceivable only within systems because "the facts by which we test conclusions are not simply given from without," and they are not available for judgment until they are "organised into knowledge." He also argued that judgment and inference are not fundamentally distinct, but that judgment is inference not yet made explicit and inference is explicit judgment. A further feature of this striking essay is that in it the forms of judgment are not regarded as fixed and rigid but as "elastic" in their application, so that a form of sentence best suited to express one form of judgment can in fact be used to express many others.

In Knowledge and Reality Bosanquet suggested that Bradley had, in spite of his "essential and original conceptions" as to the general nature of judgment and inference and their connection with each other, fallen into some of the errors of "reactionary logic." Bradley said, for example, that categorical judgments state facts, whereas hypothetical judgments (and with them universal ones) do not. By an ingenious choice of examples, Bosanquet shows that such a contrast cannot be sustained and that there is no contrast between being a fact and being a universal. Bosanquet's method is to cite intermediate cases that make impossible the acceptance of sharp distinctions between forms of judgment. He thinks that Bradley was inclined to isolate his examples from their contexts and to lose sight of the subtleties and complexities of language. An instance of this part of Bosanquet's argument is his discussion of Bradley's example "the sea-serpent exists." Bosanquet points out that it is far from clear what this means in the abstract and that "'exist' is a formal predicate which receives material interpretation from context."

In Logic or the Morphology of Knowledge these views are worked out in systematic form. The first volume is concerned with judgment and the second with inference, but the two parts are very closely linked. Bosanquet did not think that, in actual and advancing thought, form and subject matter could be separated. Thus he regarded formal logic not as the standard of thought but as a highly specialized and idealized, and somewhat subsidiary, type of thinking. The forms of judgment and inference with which he concerns himself, therefore, are those that he regards as operative in the actual advancement of knowledge. Judgment is concerned with truth, and mere interjections do not claim to be true; but there are rudimentary judgments of quasi-interjectional type, such as "How ugly!" or "Oh, horrible!" Such impersonal judgments as "It rains" take us still further along the road of developing thought, and demonstratives take us still further. "This" is always so by relation to "that," so that demonstratives lead on to comparison; and as comparison is made more exact, it leads on to proportion and measurement.

At this point, according to Bosanquet, the series diverges, one route being that taken by what he calls "the concrete or categorical series" and the other by what he calls "the abstract or hypothetical series." Along the first route there are singular judgments and those he calls generic judgments, in which a kind is regarded as real, as when we say "Man is mortal" or "Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit." Along the second line of development there are the various types of abstract judgment, such as "Heat is a mode of motion" or "7 + 5 = 12," in which the emphasis is on necessary connection rather than on concreteness. The two series converge again in the hypothetical judgment, and the whole culminates in the disjunctive judgment, which Bosanquet regards as the most adequate form. His reason for this is that it combines the concreteness of the categorical series with the necessity of the hypothetical series. The various disjuncts, in this view, reveal a system in which every member has its distinct place.

Bosanquet illustrates this by such examples as "The triangle is either scalene, isosceles, or equilateral." In the Essentials of Logic (London and New York, 1895), he refers to functions within a social order of the sort which, if an individual exercises one of them he does not and cannot exercise any of the others: if a person is king, he is not subject; if he is judge, he is not prosecutor. In his account of inference, Bosanquet also lays great stress on intermediate and transitional forms. Furthermore, just as he minimizes the difference between judgment and inference, so he minimizes the difference between deduction and induction. He holds that knowledge advances neither by generalization from particulars nor by the elimination of hypotheses. Inference, in his view, depends upon the existence of systematic connections, and neither mere counting nor mere discarding can reveal these to us. What is needed is "depth and complexity of insight into a sub-system of the world," and the word "induction" is used when our points of contact with the real world are "isolated perceptions, occurrences or qualities." But the aim of all inquiry is to break down this isolation and to show how the elements of a system must be what they are. Thus, as knowledge advances, the aspect of contingency is less prominent, mere facts or mere observations play a vanishing part, and we come to see that things must be as they are.


For Bosanquet, as for Hegel, there is no sharp division between logic on the one hand and epistemology and metaphysics on the other. Indeed, although logic is concerned with the forms of judgment and inference, the study of these forms leads to the conclusion that reality is systematic. If facts were distinct and isolated, it would be impossible to infer from one to another. Since inferences can be made, facts are not isolated but are "implicated" with one another and "transcend" themselves. The possibility of inference points to the metaphysical fact of "self-transcendence."

Bosanquet's metaphysical system is outlined in his Principles of Individuality and Value and given more detailed application in The Value and Destiny of the Individual. These titles indicate Bosanquet's concern with individuality and individuals. His view is that individuals are concrete universals. He contrasts (as Bradley had done) abstract universals, such as redness, with concrete universals, such as Julius Caesar. Abstract universality is the repetition of an identical quality in many instances, whereas concrete universality is the realization of the same individual in its various interrelated acts or manifestations. The many red things are extremely diverse, whereas the actions of an individual are more or less systematically connected with one another. According to Bosanquet, "there can be only one individual, and that, the individual, the Absolute." When people are called individuals, it is in a "secondary sense," insofar as they are regarded as relatively independent, stable, and unique. But this uniqueness is not some internal, private, inaccessible feature of them. The "inwardness" of persons is not something private, not "the banishment of all that seems outward, but the solution of the outward in the circulation of the total life."

McTaggart complained that everything Bosanquet says about mind and body "might have been written by a complete materialist," and Bosanquet himself in Knowledge and Reality had written that "a consistent materialist and a thorough idealist hold positions that are distinguishable only in name." Bosanquet rejects both psychophysical interactionism and the view that mind is an effect of matter. He holds that mind is a perfection of the organism and that an organism possesses more or less of it as the organism selects from, and adapts itself to, the circumstances of its world. He rejects the possibility of a mind independent of matter, and draws ethical conclusions from this. Without things, he says, there would be no problems for men. If there were nothing but disembodied persons, there would be nothing to do.

In bringing these general principles to bear upon aspects of experience, Bosanquet comes to some surprising conclusions. His view of individuals as concrete universals might have been expected to lead to a respect for historical knowledge, as it has done with other Idealists. But, according to Bosanquet, history is "a hybrid form of experience," "the doubtful story of successive events." His view is that the spatiotemporal contingencies of human life must, as knowledge grows, become absorbed into a fuller understanding of society, art, philosophy, and religion. These, he says, are "concrete and necessary living worlds." Bosanquet also rejects the view, advocated by Thomas Carlyle, James Anthony Froude, and Bradley, that human conduct and discovery cannot be predicted. He argues that this thesis depends upon the false assumption that individuals cannot overlap, and he holds that such facts as "anticipatory" inventions that have to be "reinvented" are evidence to the contrary. Thus, in The Value and Destiny of the Individual he concluded that "intelligences must overlap" and stigmatized as "the pathos and bathos of sentimentalism" the view that selves are essentially withdrawn and alone.

Social Philosophy

From what has already been said about Bosanquet's metaphysics, it follows that societies are individuals to a fuller degree than individuals can be. In the Philosophical Theory of the State, he treats the relation between the individual and the state as that of microcosm to macrocosm. The individual world and the social world are held to be correlated with one another in such a way that for every element in the one there is some corresponding element in the other. Like Aristotle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he emphasizes the civilizing influence of the state on the individual. He rejects the commonsense, pluralistic metaphysics that he thinks misdirects the social philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. "All individuals," he writes, "are continually reinforced and carried on, beyond their average immediate consciousness, by the knowledge, resources, and energy which surround them in the social order." "The common self or moral person of society," he holds, "is more real than the apparent individual."

Hence, like Rousseau, he regards coercion by the state as coercion exercised by the social aspect of the individual upon the recalcitrant and less real aspects of his being. According to classical liberalism, the individual is free when he is left alone to do what he wants. According to Bosanquet, this is a metaphysical as well as a practical impossibility, so he develops the conception of freedom as self-mastery. But since selves are not exclusive atoms, self-mastery, social control, and freedom are held to coincide. Bosanquet accepts T. H. Green's view that action under compulsion has less value than action freely willed, thus recognizing that state enforcement can lead to mere external conformity. But just as he regarded nature as the necessary complement of mind, so he regarded force, habit, and tradition as the necessary complements of creative choice. Thus, although punishment acts on the "lower self" by means of threats, it can also stimulate the "higher self" by producing a shock that forces attention to legitimate social demands. Still, the function of the state is forcibly to "hinder hindrances to the best life or common good," and the very notion of promoting morality by force is "an absolute self-contradiction."

Thus, although Bosanquet minimizes and even denies the reality of individual men, he does not advocate totalitarian or even socialistic measures. Indeed, just as Bastiat, the publicist of laissez-faire, considered that society as a whole was moved by an impersonal reason, so Bosanquet believed that intelligence is manifested in society to a greater degree than it ever could be in any particular person. He has been criticized for failing to distinguish between society and the state and for suggesting that the state can do no wrong. There is justice in the former criticism, even though we may agree that force is inevitable if developed societies are to continue in existence. As to the second, Bosanquet's main philosophical point was that theft, murder, and such are concepts that apply to people within a society, and that war, conquest, confiscation, and such are concepts of a different type, applying to beings of a different type.

Bosanquet's account of what makes them different types is very complex. He points out that many crimes committed on behalf of the state result from the desire of some individual agent of the state to take a short cut or to save trouble and hence are not imputable to it. Furthermore, the state cannot commit wrongs of the sort that are the consequences of individual selfishness or sensuality. On the other hand, a state that ordered the killing of a hostile statesman would rightly be criticized, not on the ground of murder but "by the degree of its failure to cope with the duties of a state." Bosanquet seems to mean that when a state is rightly criticized, it is compared with more adequate specimens of its own type but is not blamed or punished as are individuals who break the law. Bosanquet holds that states are morally responsible beings, but that they cannot do wrong in the way that individual persons can and do. States fall short rather than do wrong. Furthermore, he repudiates the idea that individuals are guilty of murder when a state wages war or of theft when it annexes or confiscates; any moral criticism, he holds, should be directed against the morally responsible agent, the state itself, and such criticism must relate to the general level of life it sustains and promotes. At the end of World War I Bosanquet opposed such popular appeals as "Hang the Kaiser" and "Punish the Germans," and although he said that the League of Nations was "the hope and refuge of mankind," he believed that individual members should no more submit themselves unreservedly to this organization than individual men should submit themselves unreservedly to their own governments.

See also Aristotle; Bentham, Jeremy; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Carlyle, Thomas; Green, Thomas Hill; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Knowledge and Belief; Logic, History of; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Macrocosm and Microcosm; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Mill, John Stuart; Punishment; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Society; State.


On Bosanquet's life, see Helen Bosanquet, Bernard Bosanquet (London: Macmillan, 1924) and J. H. Muirhead, ed., Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends: Letters Illustrating the Sources and Development of His Philosophical Opinions (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935).

Apart from the works mentioned in the text, Bosanquet's books include: A Companion to Plato's Republic (New York: Macmillan, 1895); The Psychology of the Moral Self (London and New York: Macmillan, 1897); Three Lectures on Aesthetics (London: Macmillan, 1915); Some Suggestions in Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1918); Implication and Linear Inference (London: Macmillan, 1920); What Religion Is (London: Macmillan, 1920); The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy (London, 1921); and other shorter works.

There are also the following collections of essays and lectures: Essays and Addresses (London, 1889); The Civilisation of Christendom (London S. Sonnenschein, 1893); Social and International Ideals (London: Macmillan, 1917); Science and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: Allen and Unwin, 1927).

For discussions of Bosanquet's views, see: J. M. E. McTaggart's critical notice of The Principle of Individuality and Value in Mind, n.s., 21 (1912): 416427; H. B. Acton, "The Theory of Concrete Universals," in Mind, n.s., 45 (1936): 417431 and n.s., 46 (1937): 113; and F. Houang, Le Néo-Hégélianisme en Angleterre: la philosophie de Bernard Bosanquet (Paris, 1954).

On Bosanquet's social philosophy, see: L. T. Hobhouse, The Metaphysical Theory of the State (London: Allen and Unwin, 1918) and A. J. M. Milne, The Social Philosophy of English Idealism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), Ch. VII.

other recommended works

Bosanquet, Bernard, ed. Aspects of the Social Problem. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1968.

Bosanquet, Bernard. Croce's Aesthetic (1919). Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Bosanquet, Bernard. The Distinction between Mind and Its Objects (1913). Bristol: Thoemmes, 1990.

Bosanquet, Bernard, tr. The Education of the Young in The Republic of Plato (1917). Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.

Bosanquet, Bernard. Three Chapters on the Nature of Mind (1923). Edited by Helen Dendy Bosanquet. New York, Kraus Reprint, 1968, 1923.

H. B. Acton (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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Bosanquet, Bernard (1848–1923)

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