Skip to main content

Royce, Josiah (1855–1916)


Josiah Royce, the American idealist philosopher, was born in Grass Valley, California. He received his AB degree from the University of California in 1875 and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1878. In the intervening years he studied in Germany at Leipzig and Göttingen, where he attended the lectures of Hermann Lotze. Royce returned to the University of California in 1878 as an instructor of English. Four years later, with the help of William James and George Herbert Palmer of the Harvard department of philosophy, he was invited to Harvard, where he taught for two years as a replacement for men on leave; in 1885 he received a regular appointment as assistant professor. Until his death Royce was one of the mainstays of the philosophy department in its so-called golden period. During that time he carried on his friendly debate with William James about the merits and demerits of absolute idealism, supervised the doctoral work of George Santayana, and delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Royce was a prolific writer and was much in demand as a public speaker.

Philosophical Orientation

Royce's philosophy is a unique synthesis of the rationalist metaphysic we associate with the system builders in the Western philosophical tradition and the appeal to experience and practice that has been dominant in American philosophy since 1875. Royce is the best American representative of absolute idealism, although there are voluntaristic elements in his position that distinguish it from both the Hegelian position and the systems of the British idealists. Royce's theory of the will and his conception of its role in the knowledge process introduced novel features into the tradition of rationalistic idealism. Royce was aware of this fact and hence called his position absolute voluntarism or absolute pragmatism.

Royce's thought revolves around the problems raised by a religious view of reality. He sought to resolve them through a metaphysical system constructed with the aid of concepts drawn from a wide range of thought and experience. Basic to his position is the concept of the self, an idea that he elucidated in several forms. In his earlier thought the self appears as the Absolute Knower, grasping all truth in one synoptic vision totum simul. Later, however, Royce put more emphasis on mediation and on the idea of system. Ultimately, he arrived at the community of interpretation, or social theory of reality, according to which all selves are joined in a Universal Community whose goal is to possess the truth in its totality.

The Nature of Being

In large measure Royce's idealism consists in his having given to the process of knowing a privileged position in the definition of reality. The nature of Being is to be determined through the elucidation of the process of being known.

argument from error

The pattern of the approach through knowing was established early in Royce's development. In a paper, "Kant's Relation to Modern Philosophic Progress" (1881), he argued that the proper task of philosophy is to study the nature of experience, especially the role played by the forms of intellectual activity in knowing. In later works he returned repeatedly to the task of defining the relation between sense and understanding, between the perceptual and conceptual poles in experience and knowledge. Strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant, Royce sought to discover the exact relation between the knowing activity and its matter. He asked how the function of judgment transforms the sensible starting point of all experience into knowledge. Whereas Kant had argued that the past moment and its datum can be brought into the present through the activity of the transcendental subject, Royce regarded the past and future as projections from the present. Knowledge starts with immediate data of sense; these data, as present, are beyond the control of judgment (this is the realistic element in Royce's idealism), but the whole of experience involving reference to a past, a future, and a public object is to be built up from the momentary consciousness. In order to accomplish this construction, judgment and principles of transcendence are required.

Dissatisfied with the view that assigns the status of postulates to the principles needed for transforming immediate data into knowledge, Royce sought to justify those principles. His theory of the Absolute Knower, which he developed in the well-known chapter "The Possibility of Error" in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (Boston, 1885), was intended to show that the conditions for both knowledge and error must themselves be actual; what is actual cannot be explained or justified by what is merely possible or postulated. The argument that is presented for the existence of God or the Absolute Knower may be summarized as follows. Error actually exists; erroneous judgments cannot be made erroneous by finite knowers. In order to be in error, a judgment must fail to agree with its intended object. Yet if the intended object is wholly and completely defined by the isolated judgment, it is difficult to see how the judgment can fail to be true. Royce's central contention is that a judgment can have its own object and at the same time fail to agree with it only if the judgment is not isolated as an entirely enclosed fact but is, instead, part of a system of judgments or an organized body of thought. The isolated judgment cannot have within itself the distinction between its truth and falsity; for that we need an inclusive thought capable of relating the isolated judgment to all other actual and possible judgments about the intended object. In finding error as a fact that we cannot create, we are actually involved in the Infinite Thought. Without that Thought, error is either impossible or unintelligible. This ingenious argument assumes, among other things, that the real individual at which knowledge aims can be identified only at the end of the knowledge process. However, as Charles Peirce and others have shown, there is no need to make this assumption, although without it the argument fails.

thought and reality

Royce continued to approach the problem of Beingthe problem of defining the basic nature of the realthrough concentration on the knowledge process. He was also trying to retain critical philosophy and neutralize its negative judgment on the possibility of ontology. His solution was to say that a theory of Being is possible if we can discover the true relation between our ideas and the real world. In The World and the Individual (New York, 19011902) Royce posed the problem of Being as one of explaining what thought and reality must be like if the former is to attain genuine knowledge of the latter. By means of an extended dialectical argument, Royce examined three classical theories of Being (in his language, theories of "the ontological predicate")realism, mysticism, and critical rationalism. In subjecting them to critical analysis, he tried to show the element of truth and error in each. From this analysis Royce's own voluntaristic idealism emerged; it was designed to avoid the errors of the other positions while preserving their truth in a new and more comprehensive system that defined Being in terms of purpose fulfilled.

For Royce realism is the doctrine that to be is to be independent of being known. According to realism, the real is just what it is apart from the knower and his acts of knowledge. Royce, however, aimed at exposing this position and hence placed a narrow construction on the term independent. To be independent is taken to mean that the idea and object are totally externally related. If the idea and object are thus disconnected, he argued, then knowledge becomes inexplicable, and reality is severed from truth. Peirce, among others, objected to this statement of the realist position, describing it as one-sided.

Mysticism is defined as the thesis that to be is to be immediate. Here again, the real is understood as that which falls effectively beyond the power of analytical reason.

Royce's exposition of critical rationalism, which he defined somewhat cryptically with the formula "to be is to be valid," has been charged with ambiguity; John Dewey claimed that Royce's entire argument was vitiated by his having confused "possible experience" and "validity" in his presentation of the position. Dewey's claim is not without warrant; Royce combined several ideas under one heading, and it is not clear that they are compatible. Nevertheless, Royce's argument is clear enough in its main outline. The critical rationalist does not accept the independent objects of either realism or common sense and still less allows the immediacy of mysticism. Instead, he defines the real as that which gives warrant or validity to our ideas. To be real in this instance means that an object conforms to certain universal forms or conditionscausal sequence, temporal succession, spatial relations, numerical identity, and so onthat are marked out in advance as the general structure of all experience. For Royce the merit of this position is that it comes closer to defining reality in terms of truth than was possible with either realism or mysticism. Critical rationalism, however, is inadequate because it can define or anticipate only the universal form of experience and cannot reach the determinate individual. Royce's point is that the determinate individual cannot be defined in terms of universal conditions of possible experience alone; in order to have knowledge of an individual, we must appeal to actual, sensible experience. But it is just the need for this appeal that marks the defect of the position; a completed rationalistic idealism would show us how to pass from the idea to its fulfillment in the individual object without having to appeal to a brute, sensible experience that is "given." Critical rationalism, however, is forced to rest with "possible experience," by which Royce meant the universal conditions that any proposed object of knowledge would have to satisfy in order to be an object of experience at all. It is important to notice that the entire discussion is dialectical, in the sense that Royce expounds and criticizes the alternative theories only in relation to his own final view. Competing theories fail or succeed precisely to the extent that they are incompatible with, or contribute to the development of, his voluntaristic idealism.

voluntaristic idealism

Royce's own view can be summed up in the thesis that to be is to be the individual or determinate fulfillment of a purpose. Distinguishing between the internal and external meaning of ideas, Royce defined an idea as a purpose (internal meaning) seeking its object, or other (external meaning). An idea intends, and thus selects, its object; the object, as the full realization of the idea, must be the determinate individual that allows no other of its kind if it is to be the unique fulfillment of the purpose expressed by the original idea. If we say that Socrates is snub-nosed, our ideas (internal meaning) aim at, or intend, the unique and unduplicable individual Socrates (external meaning). Our ideas are not about just anyone or anything but only about the individual intended; the internal meaning selects the object (external meaning) by reference to which it can be judged true or false. The voluntarism of the position lies in the idea that the other at which all ideas aim is itself the expression of the absolute will or purpose. For Royce it is only in this way that we can explain how an idea can correspond with an object other than itself while that object remains other and yet is the object intended by the idea.

The entire theory is recognizable as a modern version of an ancient doctrine of self-knowledge. We start with an idea that is fragmentary and imperfectly understood, and we seek to find its true meaning in the object that is its individual fulfillment. The object intended exceeds the fragment with which we began; we can discover the true nature of the object and the truth or falsity of our idea only when we have reached the total individual reality that fulfills our purpose. Royce developed this conception of Being into a comprehensive system embracing a doctrine of man, nature, and God. The rational will and its purpose mark the ultimate reality; all finite individuality is what it is in virtue of its fulfilling the purpose of the Absolute Self.

The reality of the infinite

In the essay "The One, the Many and the Infinite" appended to The World and the Individual, Royce introduced the topic that was to occupy much of his later thoughtthe reality of the infinite. He attempted to refute the claim, made by F. H. Bradley in Appearance and Reality (1893), that we cannot express in clear concepts the detail of the many facts constituting the Absolute. Since such a claim, if true, would have rendered Royce's entire project pointless, he felt called upon to refute it. To explain how the many develop out of the one, Bradley argued, always leads to an actual infinity, and this is self-contradictory. In the Absolute all is one, but according to Bradley, we are unable to comprehend the unity. Royce denied that an actual infinite is self-contradictory. Through the concept of a self-representative system based on what would now be called a recursive function, he developed a modern version of the actual infinite. The form of the self-representative system was construed as a purpose or an ordering plan and defines once and for all an actual infinity of members. A self-representative system is one that represents itself with all else that it represents. A mirror of the entire universe, for example, would have to include itself among the represented items. By the form of the system, Royce meant the principle or purpose behind it, which in the above example would be mirroring. From the one form or purpose there comes, by the recurrent or self-representative operation, an infinity of detail such that nothing less than that infinity will serve to express all that was meant by the original form. Understanding the self as having the form of a self-representative system, Royce claimed that the multitude of details constituting the concrete individuality of the real world is an expression of that self. Reality is an actual infinite, a unity of one and many. Royce's later doctrine of the community of interpretation represents his final attempt to elaborate the theory.

Logic and mathematics

It is important to note that Royce took very seriously the development of mathematical logic and studies in the foundation of mathematics. He was fond of criticizing pragmatism for neglect of what he took to be a doctrine of absolute truth implied in the new logic of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Giuseppe Peano, and Ernst Schröder. Maintaining that "order is the fundamental category of exact thought about facts," Royce argued for the validity of using technical logical concepts in the construction of a metaphysical theory. Two examples will clarify the point. In the analysis of discrimination, he used the concept of between, arguing that discrimination and comparison are possible because, given any two conceptions, we are always able to find a third conception that is between the other two and expresses some relation in which they stand. This point was later expressed through the logic of triadic relations and the theory of interpretation. An even more striking illustration is found in the use of the limit concept to define the nature of the real as individual. The reality at which the process of knowledge is directed is said to be the "limit" of a series of attempts to apprehend the object. Royce understood "limit," not in the sense of an end term that we can approach at will, but in the sense of a least upper bound, which, in the series 1 + ½ + ¼ · · ·, for example, is the least number that lies beyond the sum of the seriesnamely, 2. Thus, the real, individual reality is what is immediately beyond the whole series of efforts to know it.

Ethical and Religious Doctrines

Royce contributed ideas worthy of consideration to almost every branch of philosophy, not least in ethics.


Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty (New York, 1908) is still one of his best-known books. In it he developed the principle of loyalty to loyalty as the basic moral law. He regarded his principle as superior to both Kant's categorical imperative and J. S. Mill's principle of utility. Loyalty, by which is meant a freely chosen and practical devotion to a cause or goal, is the highest virtue. Royce was well aware of the existence of evil causes and of the fact that not every cause aims at the loyal spirit. Hence, he argued that loyalty in the ethical sense means devotion to causes that extend the spirit of loyalty and do not contribute to deception, dishonesty, racial and social strife, and so on. Every cause involves some loyalty, but not all causes involve loyalty to loyalty. It is only through loyalty to loyalty itself, the virtue that makes all social life possible, that the self can solve the basic problem of ethics, which is to find a good that is at once objective, in the sense that it constrains our purely individual and subjective interests, and freely chosen, so that the self can acknowledge its obligatory character. Royce followed G. W. F. Hegel in finding the good in a form of self-realization, and he followed Kant in upholding the autonomy of the will.

philosophy of religion

Royce's interest in the philosophy of religion was a basic factor in the shaping of his philosophical position. Religious issues constitute the foundation of his thought, starting with The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (Boston, 1885) and continuing to his last major work, The Problem of Christianity (New York, 1913). Royce had a twofold aim in the philosophical treatment of religion. First, he sought to reinterpret classical religious ideas through contemporary experience and current language; second, he attempted to assess their validity by comparing them with the results of metaphysical analysis. Both aims are clearly present in The Problem of Christianity, in which he developed an original interpretation of the Christian religion, first, by uncovering the experiential roots of three central ideasthe church, sin, and atonementand, second, by seeking support for these ideas in his metaphysic of interpretation and community.

Starting with the view that neither perception nor conception alone, nor any indeterminate combination of the two, is able to yield knowledge of selves, Royce went on to develop the theory of interpretation, according to which all our knowledge is mediated through signs. From this view it follows that the human self is not known (either by itself or another) intuitively as a particular datum or as a universal character but only as the goal of an infinite process of interpretation. In requiring comparison with other selves, this process necessitates a community if there is to be self-knowledge. Persons are involved in, and linked together by, a number of different communitiespolitical, legal, economic, moral, religiouseach of which is defined by its purpose or the goal for which it exists. The religious or Beloved Community has the special purpose of redeeming man from sin (a moral burden) and from the consequences of the self-centered deeds by which he endangers the community through disloyalty. The three central ideas of Christianity (the church, sin, and atonement) are linked together. The Beloved Community is the locus of the love (in Royce's terms, loyalty) exemplified by the atoning deed of Jesus; the church exists to overcome, through love, the self-centeredness of the individual and to transmute the evil consequences of treachery by a constant renewal of the community of many selves devoted to the cause of charity.

The novel feature of Royce's reinterpretation of Christianity is his attempt to rework the much neglected doctrine of the Spirit, or Third Person, of the ancient Trinitarian tradition. God now appears as the Spirit or Interpreter, linking together a multiplicity of distinct selves in a spiritual unity of love. The Beloved Community, founded by the sacrificial or atoning deed of Jesus, becomes the ultimate instrument of the redemptive process.

Unlike William James, Royce was clearly dissatisfied with a purely practical basis for religious belief. Instead, he made the validity of religion dependent on a metaphysical system. He set forth one such system in The World and the Individual, and he returned to the task in The Problem of Christianity, in which he dealt with specifically Christian ideas. In the intervening years Royce fell under the influence of Peirce's thought, and he freely acknowledged an indebtedness to Peirce's theory of signs, his analysis of triadic relations, and the idea of the community of knowers engaged in interpreting the meaning of things through an infinite system of signs.

The continuation of the logical and epistemological aspects of Royce's philosophy is to be found mainly in the work of C. I. Lewis, and its metaphysical aspects are developed in the thought of W. E. Hocking. The strong current of pragmatism on the American scene, however, carried philosophical thinking away from the speculative realm and directed it into other channels.

See also Absolute, The; American Philosophy; Being; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Dewey, John; Frege, Gottlob; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hocking, William Ernest; Idealism; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Lewis, Clarence Irving; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Loyalty; Mathematics, Foundations of; Mill, John Stuart; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Peano, Giuseppe; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Pragmatism; Realism; Relations, Internal and External; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Santayana, George; Self-Knowledge.


works by royce

The Basic Writings. Edited by John J. McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1969.

The Conception of God: A Philosophical Discussion concerning the Nature of the Divine Idea as a Demonstrable Reality. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1971.

The Conception of Immortality. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Lectures on Modern Idealism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1967.

The Letters of Josiah Royce. Edited by John Clendenning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1970.

The Philosophy of Loyalty. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.

works on royce

The Problem of Christianity: Lectures Delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston, and at Manchester College, Oxford. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967.

Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press 1967.

The Religious Aspect of Philosophy: A Critique of the Bases of Conduct and of Faith. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.

The Religious Philosophy of Josiah Royce. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

The Sources of Religious Insight. New York: Octagon Books, 1977.

The Spirit of Modern Philosophy: An Essay in the Form of Lectures. Norton, 1967.

William James and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Life. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press 1969.

For a complete list of Royce's writings, published and unpublished, it is necessary to combine the bibliographies in the following works:

Cotton, J. H. Royce on the Human Self, 305311. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Loewenberg, Jacob. Philosophical Review 26 (1917): 578582.

Rand, Benjamin. Philosophical Review 25 (1916): 515522.

Smith, J. E. Royce's Social Infinite, 171173. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1950.

works on royce

Cady, Linell Elizabeth. The Conceptions of Love and the Self in the Thought of Soren Kierkegard and Josiah Royce: A Thesis. PhD diss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981.

Clendenning, John. The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Costello, Harry Todd, and Grover Cleveland Smith. Josiah Royce's Seminar, 19131914: As Recorded in the Notebooks of Harry T. Costello. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Cotton, James Henry. Royce on the Human Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954; New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. Well-focused; based on manuscript as well as printed works; aimed at interpreting the whole of Royce's thought in terms of his theory of the self.

Cunningham, G. Watts. The Idealistic Argument in Recent British and American Philosophy. London and New York: Century, 1933. A clear and helpful account of Royce's thought, focusing on his attempt to establish the truth of idealism by the argument from error.

Fuss, Peter. The Moral Philosophy of Josiah Royce. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965. The most incisive account of Royce's ethical philosophy in relation to both his theory of knowledge and the doctrine of the community.

Galligan, Michael W. E. God and Experience: A Study of Josiah Royce's "The World and the Individual." PhD diss. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1973.

Imbelli, Robert Peter. Man's Quest for Salvation in the Thought of Josiah Royce. PhD diss. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1973.

Jarvis, Edward A. The Conception of God in the Later Royce. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

Kegley, Jacquelyn Ann Kovacevic. Josiah Royce's Theory of Knowledge. New York: 1971.

Kuklick, Bruce. Josiah Royce: An Intellectual Biography. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Mahoney, James Michael. Josiah Royce: Moral Reasoning. PhD diss. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1975.

Mahowald, Mary Briody. An Idealistic Pragmatism: The Development of the Pragmatic Element in the Philosophy of Josiah Royce. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1972.

Marcel, Gabriel. La métaphysique de Royce. Paris: Aubier, 1945. Translated by V. Ringer and G. Ringer as Royce's Metaphysics. Chicago: Regnery, 1956. Four articles on Royce's thought that originally appeared in 19181919. The entire range of Royce's philosophy is considered, with indications of Marcel's own existentialism and the resources for it that are to be found in Royce's theory of knowledge and the individual.

Marcel, Gabriel. Royce's Metaphysics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Muirhead, John H. The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. London: n.p., 1931. A fairly complete, but not especially penetrating, account of all of Royce's works from the earliest essays to The Problem of Christianity.

Oppenheim, Frank M. Bibliography of the Published Works of Josiah Royce, 1967.

Oppenheim, Frank M. Royce's Mature Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Oppenheim, Frank M. Royce's Mature Philosophy of Religion. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

Powell, Thomas F. Josiah Royce. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967.

Skinner, John E. The Logocentric Predicament: An Essay on the Problem of Error in the Philosophy of Josiah Royce. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Smith, John E. Royce's Social Infinite. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1950. A study of Royce's later thought, stressing the idea of the community and of its relation to Peirce's theory of signs. Considerable emphasis is placed on the logic of interpretation and its use in Royce's final statement of the religious issues.

John E. Smith (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Royce, Josiah (1855–1916)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 25 May. 2019 <>.

"Royce, Josiah (1855–1916)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (May 25, 2019).

"Royce, Josiah (1855–1916)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved May 25, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.