Green, Thomas Hill (1836–1882)

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Thomas Hill Green, the English idealist philosopher, was born the fourth son of a Church of England clergyman at Birkin in Yorkshire. His mother died when he was only a year old. Green received his early education from his father before going at the age of fourteen to Rugby School, which had been reorganized on distinctive lines by Thomas Arnold a few years earlier. The corporate side of life at Rugby had little appeal for Green, but his fellow scholars were already impressed by his seriousness and independence of mind. Academically, he was able but not outstanding. In 1855 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he was an undergraduate for the next four years. Green was only a moderate classical scholar, but he got first-class honors when he took the final examinations in Literae Humaniores, preparation for which gave him his first serious work in philosophy. He was elected a fellow of Balliol in November 1860 but did not get a regular teaching post there for several years. In 1863 he refused an offer of the editorship of the Times of India, then being started in Bombay; in 1864 he was an unsuccessful candidate for a philosophy chair at the University of St. Andrews. In 1865 and 1866 he served as assistant to a Royal Commission investigating school education in England and Wales, working mainly in and around Birmingham. From 1866 onward he was heavily engaged at Balliol, where he became the first nonclerical tutor; by 1870, the year in which Benjamin Jowett became master, much of the administration of the college had fallen on his shoulders. He continued to serve as a tutor until 1878, when he was elected Whyte's professor of moral philosophy at the university.

By this time Green had married Charlotte Symonds (1871) and had published his first major philosophical work, the long critique of empiricism which constitutes the introduction to the edition of David Hume's works, which he produced with T. H. Grose. He had also begun to take an active part in social work and in local politics. From 1872 on he was prominent in the temperance movement (one of his brothers was a hopeless drunkard), and in 1876 he became a member of the Oxford town council, being the first active teacher in the university to hold such an office. He also played a major part in a movement to found a new high school in Oxford. Unfortunately, however, his health deteriorated sharply during these years, and matters were not improved by the added lecturing duties of the professorship, which Green undertook with characteristic thoroughness, writing out his lectures in full. He had long planned a major work on moral philosophy, but his Prolegomena to Ethics was still incomplete when he died in 1882. It was published by A. C. Bradley the following year. Green's other philosophical and miscellaneous writings were collected in three volumes by R. L. Nettleship, who also wrote the long memoir printed in Volume III.

Green has been described as the first professional philosopher in the modern sense; he was certainly one of the first specialized teachers of the subject in Oxford. But he exercised influence in many spheres outside philosophy. His work as a Balliol tutor did much to produce a distinctive type of Oxford graduate, unknown in the mid-nineteenth century: hardworking, intensely serious, aware to a surprising degree of social problems and realities. In politics he was important not only because of what he did to ease relations between "town and gown" in Oxford but also for his pronounced radicalism: He was a strong supporter of John Bright against Lord Palmerston and of the cause of the North in the American Civil War. His essay "Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract" (1881) is important for its criticisms of pure laissez-faire liberalism and can be seen as anticipating the doctrine of the welfare state. Theologically, Green was not strikingly original, but the low value he set on dogma and historical tradition was certainly not without its effect. By insisting on the independent authority of philosophy he may well have persuaded many intending ordinands to take up other careers. Although very different in his philosophical views and immediate disciples from his contemporary Henry Sidgwick, he made much the same contribution to the secularization of Oxford as Sidgwick made to the secularization of Cambridge.

Critique of "Popular Philosophy"

A useful point of entry into Green's philosophical thought is to be found in his early essay "Popular Philosophy in its Relation to Life," originally published in 1868. The "popular philosophy" of the title was that professed by the advanced thinkers of the time, whom Green explicitly compared with the ancient Sophists. Like the Sophists they were superficially clear and rhetorically persuasive; again like them, they owed their apparent success to a refusal to examine their basic notions. Yet these notions, when applied in the concrete, turned out to be wholly inadequate; they could not successfully be brought to bear on life, as understood in art or religion or moral practice. In "Popular Philosophy" Green set himself to demonstrate this conclusion only in the case of ethics, reviewing for this purpose the doctrines of Joseph Butler, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it was obvious that he had wider considerations in mind. When he spoke of the need for an "adequate theory," of which the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel might offer a foretaste, he was implying that the philosophers he was considering were wrong not only in their ethical distinctions but also in their whole method and metaphysical outlook. Following John Locke, they assumed that truth could be arrived at by simple introspection; they had no notion of the difference between image and concept and hence no tenable theory of thinking. The statement of their theories presupposed a continuing self-identical subject, but the theories themselves had no room for any such thing. Nor, in practice, had they anything like an adequate grasp of the workings of the human mind, which they looked on as an isolated automaton mechanically pursuing pleasure and seeking to avoid pain, instead of as an active agent whose interest and welfare were intimately bound up with those of others.

The corrective to popular philosophy, Green said at this stage, was to be found in "the deeper views of life which the contemplative poets originated" and in the notions of "evangelical religion," as well as in some of the better insights of Rousseau. It was not "'within his own breast'" that Wordsworth had looked to "read what he was," but to "the open scroll of the world, of the world, however, as written within and without by a self-conscious and self-determining spirit" (Works, Vol. III, p. 119). Similarly, the evangelical insistence on the sense of sin showed the superficiality of the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment, which could represent vice as an object of regret or distaste but never as an object of abomination. Much of Green's mature philosophy becomes intelligible if we bear these remarks in mind. He took neither poetry nor religion to be a substitute for philosophy, but nonetheless he felt deeply that both had important lessons to teach the philosopher.

Critiques of Hume and Naturalism

The more academic criticisms sketched in Green's early essay were elaborated in the introduction to his edition of Hume's works (1874). Green's view was that Hume was a major philosopher who had taken Locke's ill-thought-out assumptions to their logical conclusion and, in so doing, had revealed their absurdity. Hume's first principle was that nothing is real save feeling; Green attacked this view with the argument that to say that something is real is to relate it to other things and that relations are not given in feeling but are the work of the mind. Hume's attempt to ground "philosophical" in "natural" relations, that is, in what is given to sense, was a failure. So was his theory of the self as a succession of perceptions, for relating clearly demands an unchanging subject that relates. The argument of this passage was carried further in the first book of the Prolegomena to Ethics, where Green claimed that not only our consciousness of nature but also nature itself presuppose an "eternal," self-identical, and self-differentiating subject which is the source not only of the connections in thought but also of its material. A halfway position, such as Immanuel Kant had taken, was not intellectually defensible: The thing-in-itself and its empiricist counterpart, the sheerly given, remain unintelligible on this type of view.

Green's object in metaphysics was plainly to state an alternative to materialism, which struck him as both insidiously attractive and intellectually preposterous. Much the same ambition informs his writings on ethics, in which field he again saw himself as developing an antinaturalist position. In his critique of moral sense theories, which forms part of his general criticism of Hume, he represented the supporters of those views as one and all hedonists, on the ground that they made the passions the only spring of action and thought of reason as practically inert. Hence, his own first aim in the Prolegomena was to establish that human actions spring from motives and to show that motives are not "natural phenomena." He defined a motive (Sec. 87) as "an idea of an end, which a self-conscious subject presents to itself, and which it strives and tends to realise." The vital point here was the connection between motives and a continuing subject consciously pursuing good; human action, for Green, was entirely different from animal behavior, for although much of it had animal impulses as its basis, these impulses were transformed in being brought into consciousness and thought of in relation to long-term aims. As for the good with which action is concerned, Green said (ibid., Sec. 92) that "anything conceived in such a way that the agent acts for the sake of it, must be conceived as his own good, though he may conceive it as his own good only on account of his interest in others, and in spite of any amount of suffering on his own part incidental in its attainment." But in practice he had little to say about the connection of good with the satisfaction of the agent: The moral ideal must be realized in persons, but one person's claims to moral self-expression were as good as those of another, and moral progress came about with the realization that more and more persons and types of person were entitled to have their claims considered. Green made much use of the phrase "the common good" in speaking of the ultimate aim of moral action, but his alternative description of the end as the attainment of "human perfection" is in some ways more appropriate, provided it is added that he wanted to see human perfection realized without distinction of persons.

Political Philosophy

In ethics Green had clearly learned a lot from Hegel, although his general outlook remained more Kantian than Hegelianboth in theory and in practice he must be counted as a liberal moralist. His political philosophy also is in the liberal tradition, despite its rejection of such elements of older liberal political theory as the doctrine of the contract. The state, according to Green, is the product of will, not of force, insofar as the system of rights and duties it operates rests on a moral as opposed to a merely natural basis. Green was as emphatic in his political as in his ethical theory that rights cannot be created out of nothing, in the way Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza supposed. But although he thus saw the state as, in a sense, a moral organism, Green had no inclination to endow it with positive moral authority. The state might sometimes have to inhibit the freedom of particular men to enable others to be free at all, but the end of political action could only be to put citizens in a position to lead the good life. The liberalism he favored was thus in the end a negative liberalism, concerned with creating the minimum conditions in which people could exercise moral choice and, for the rest, leaving matters to their voluntary efforts.

Compared with that of his younger contemporary F. H. Bradley, Green's literary style was flat and uninteresting. The moral earnestness that is apparent in so much of his writing also has had much to do with its neglect by more recent philosophers. But however earnest he was, he was at the least estimate an influential thinker; to describe him, as C. D. Broad did, as "thoroughly second-rate" is to forget the extent to which his articulation of problems is still accepted, for example in political philosophy. Nor are his solutions entirely without interest, if only we can divest them of the stiff Victorian garments in which he chose to clothe them.

See also Bradley, Francis Herbert; Broad, Charlie Dunbar; Butler, Joseph; Empiricism; Enlightenment; Ethics, History of; General Will, The; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Metaphysics; Naturalism; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Self; Sidgwick, Henry; Sophists; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


The Works of Thomas Hill Green, edited by R. L. Nettleship, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, 18851888), contains all Green's surviving writings except his introductions to Hume (in Hume's Works, edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose, London, 1874) and the Prolegomena to Ethics, edited by A. C. Bradley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1883).

For literature on Green, see J. Pucelle, La nature et l'esprit dans la philosophie de T. H. Green, 2 vols. (Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 19611965), which is the fullest commentary; see also Pucelle's L'idéalisme en Angleterre (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1955).

For Green's ethics, see W. D. Lamont, Introduction to Green's Moral Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1934). On his political views, compare A. J. M. Milne, The Social Philosophy of English Idealism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), and M. Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Times (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), which also contains biographical details supplementing Nettleship's memoir in Works, Vol. III. Mrs. Humphry Ward's novel Robert Elsmere (1888) is dedicated to Green's memory, and one of its characters is said to portray him.

W. H. Walsh (1967)