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Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawney (1864–1929)


Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, the British sociologist and philosopher, was born in a small village near Liskeard, in Cornwall. He was educated at Marlborough School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he took firsts in classical moderations and "greats." During his undergraduate years he engaged in the study of current problems in politics and economics, along with other radically minded students such as Gilbert Murray and Arthur Acland. He was elected to a prize fellowship at Merton College in 1887 and to a fellowship at Corpus Christi in 1894.

Hobhouse's main interest was the study of the evolution of mind as the central factor in historical development. This, combined with an innate humanitarianism, made him dissatisfied with the passive role of an Oxford don, although even at Oxford he was active in the Labour movement, especially in such causes as trade unionism, the cooperative movement, and adult education. After leaving Oxford, Hobhouse became influential among the "New Liberals," who sought to combine Liberalism with a measure of organized collective action. He was very sympathetic to the Labour Party, although he never joined it. Toward the end of his life Hobhouse grew disillusioned with party politics, and by 1927 he had ceased to belong to any party.

On leaving Oxford in 1897, Hobhouse joined the staff of the Manchester Guardian, with which he was associated for most of the rest of his life in one capacity or another. Sociology and philosophy, however, were always his main interests. His Mind in Evolution (1901) and Morals in Evolution (1906)a remarkable synthesis of anthropology, ethics, and the history of religious and social institutionsled to his appointment to the new Martin White part-time chair of sociology in the University of London, converted in 1925 to a full-time chair. Hobhouse first opposed Britain's entry into World War I, but he came to support the Allied cause wholeheartedly. He saw the war as the direct outcome of Hegelian teaching, and his own contribution to the war effort was The Metaphysical Theory of the State, an extreme attack on Hegelian political theory, especially as found in Bernard Bosanquet's Philosophical Theory of the State.

Hobhouse, besides being a philosopher of distinction, made important contributions to anthropological techniques and was a pioneer in comparative and social psychology and one of the founders of sociology as a synthesizing science. The encyclopedic scope of his work and the reluctance of English universities to accept the new subject of sociology contributed to an underestimation of his work in any one field. In philosophy his concern with the reconciliation of different schools meant that he did not himself belong to any one school, and this militated against his due recognition by philosophers.

It is impossible to separate Hobhouse's philosophy from the rest of his work, since his achievement lay in interpreting philosophically a wealth of general and detailed knowledge. There was, however, no question of fitting everything into a fixed scheme. His procedure was empirical and undogmatic, leaving a place for new facts from science and life. His comprehensive studies began with epistemology; went on to an evolutionary interpretation, first of mind in animals and humankind and then of moral and religious ideas; turned next to values in man and society; and ended with a grand synthesis of his philosophical and scientific theories.

The strongest influences on Hobhouse were Herbert Spencer's evolutionary philosophy, Auguste Comte's Positivism, and the social philosophy of John Stuart Mill and T. H. Green. He parted company with Spencer in regarding the appearance of minds as a turning point in the evolutionary process and in accepting the idealists' organic view of society. At the same time he rejected the idealists' reduction of all things to the spiritual. His theory of knowledge was realist and empirical; knowledge cannot make its own object, for it is based on experience and is of reality, not appearance. All knowledge is sociologically conditioned, but a positivist philosophy, applying our knowledge of these conditions, provides safeguards against error. The object of the physical sciences ("matter"), subject to mechanical laws, is only one aspect of reality; there is another aspect ("mind"), subject to teleological laws. Hobhouse traced the close relation of the two aspects in the developing world order.

See also Bosanquet, Bernard; Comte, Auguste; Epistemology; Green, Thomas Hill; Hegelianism; Idealism; Liberalism; Mill, John Stuart; Positivism.


works by hobhouse

The Theory of Knowledge. London: Methuen, 1896.

Mind in Evolution. London: Macmillan, 1901.

Morals in Evolution. London: Chapman and Hall, 1906.

Social Evolution and Political Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911.

Development and Purpose. London: Macmillan, 1913; rev. ed., 1927. The revised edition is largely rewritten.

The Metaphysical Theory of the State. London: Allen and Unwin, 1918.

The Rational Good. London: Allen and Unwin, 1921.

The Elements of Social Justice. London: Allen and Unwin, 1922.

Social Development. London: Allen and Unwin, 1924.

works on hobhouse

Barker, Ernest. "Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse." Proceedings of the British Academy 14 (1929): 536554.

Carter, Hugh. The Social Theories of L. T. Hobhouse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1927.

Ginsberg, Morris. "The Contribution of Professor Hobhouse to Philosophy and Sociology." Economica 9 (1929): 251266.

Ginsberg, Morris. "Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse." Journal of Philosophical Studies 4 (1929): 442452.

Hobson, J. A., and Morris Ginsberg. L. T. Hobhouse, His Life and Work. London: Allen and Unwin, 1931.

Nicholson, J. A. Some Aspects of the Philosophy of L. T. Hobhouse. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1928.

A. K. Stout (1967)

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