Howison, George Holmes (1834–1916)

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George Holmes Howison, the American personalist philosopher and mathematician, was a graduate of Marietta College in Ohio and professor of mathematics at Washington University, where he became a member of the St. Louis Philosophical Society. He taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the Harvard Divinity School, and at the Concord School of Philosophy before moving in 1884 to the University of California, where he organized what was to become an influential department of philosophy.

Howison, calling his system "Personal Idealism," maintained that both impersonal, monistic idealism and materialism run contrary to the moral freedom experienced by persons. To deny the freedom to pursue the ideals of truth, beauty, and "benignant love" is to undermine every profound human venture, including science, morality, and philosophy. Thus, even Personalistic Idealism (B. P. Bowne and E. S. Brightman) and Realistic Personal Theism (Thomas Aquinas) are inadequate, for they make finite persons dependent for their existence upon an infinite Person and support this view by an unintelligible doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

Howison's Personal Idealism, therefore, is founded on what he believed to be an undeniable fact: The freedom crucial to human existence is untenable if the individual is dependent for his existence upon any other being, including a Creator-God or an Absolute One. Therefore, self-determining beings must be uncreated and eternal; yet the unique quality of human freedom presupposes that each person stands in an individual relationship to other persons, subpersonal beings, and God.

How, then, does this plurality of uncreated beings compose a universe and not a mere collection of beings, a pluriverse? Howison answers that it is the very nature of undeniable, self-active, unified, thinking beings to define themselves and to fulfill themselves as individuals. In this very act of self-definition and self-fulfillment they find themselves related to other beings. "Thus, in thinking itself as eternally real, each spirit thinks the reality of other spirits."

Is there a God to unify the many grades of self-active beings? Yes, but any unification must not infringe upon individual growth to moral perfection. Creation as efficient cause must give way to creation in accordance with an Ideal present in each being. The fulfillment of this Ideal calls for a world composed of "all the individual differences compatible with the mutual reality of all." Thus, basic harmony is possible because, as each individual defines himself, he finds the Ideal of self-definition by which to measure himself. And God, who is "defined as self-existent by every other self-defining being," is the indispensable standard for measuring reality.

In this Personal Idealism there is, then, no one Prime Mover or Creator. Reality is a republic of self-active, self-defining spirits, each moving toward the Ideal exemplified by God, "changelessly attentive to every other mind, rationally sympathetic with all experiences, and bent on its spiritual success." Nor are the vast number and the gradation of minds that compose the different levels of matter, life, and mind the product of evolution; what we know as nature and evolution is the product of the various kinds of self-active beings, moved ultimately by the final causes of their inner beings toward a common goal.

See also Bowne, Borden Parker; Brightman, Edgar Sheffield; Idealism; Materialism; Personalism; Thomas Aquinas, St.


Buckingham, J. W., and G. W. Stratton. George Holmes Howison, Philosopher and Teacher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934. Includes a bibliography and complete reprint of The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays Illustrating the Metaphysical Theory of Personal Idealism (London: Macmillan, 1901).

Cunningham, G. W. The Idealistic Argument in Recent British and American Philosophy. New York: Century, 1933. Ch. 12.

Peter A. Bertocci (1967)