Bosanquet, Bernard

views updated May 14 2018

Bosanquet, Bernard



Bernard Bosanquet (1848–1923), English philosopher, was the youngest son of the Reverend R. W. Bosanquet, Rector of Alnwick, Northumbergland, and his second wife Caroline. Bosanquet was educated at Sherburn, Yorkshire, and at Harrow. During the period 1866 to 1870 he was a classical scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a first in classical moderations, 1868, and a first in greats, 1870. For the next 10 years, he was both a fellow and a tutor at University College, Oxford.

The dominant influence on Bosanquet at Oxford were his tutors at Balliol, T. H. Green and R. L. Nettleship. Green, who like Bosanquet came from an evangelical Protestant background, had introduced a liberalized form of Hegelian idealism into English thought. He had turned his back on traditional English empiricism and naturalism and expounded a view of ethics and politics based on Hegel’s metaphysical conception of history as the process whereby the Absolute realizes itself, attaining this realization in the most self-conscious form in human consciousness. This spiritual principle led Green to propound a teleological view of history and of human conduct. Yet Green did not accept Hegel’s exaltation of the role of the state in politics, which tended to diminish the status and value of the individual; indeed, he reversed the emphasis. For Green the state exists as a means whereby individuals achieve moral self-fulfillment, which they do by freely willing the common good. The contribution of the state is to “hinder hindrances,” to maintain and expand individual rights, to reconcile individual and class conflicts, and to provide those conditions in which individuals can conceive and freely will the good of all. He believed that his philosophy logically implied certain practical conclusions. Green himself and his followers engaged in active social work, and he can be regarded as one of the major influences in the creation of the modern welfare state in Britain. Bosanquet, while agreeing with Green on the importance of individual responsibility in the achievement of the common good, nevertheless was more conservative in his interpretation of Hegel, both in the metaphysics and politics.

In 1881 Bosanquet resigned his post at Oxford; he lived in London for the next 22 years in order to have the leisure to write and to engage in social work. His half-brother Charles had helped to found the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in 1869 and had been its first secretary. Its aims were to coordinate and administer charitable funds to aid the poor, but to do so in such a way that the recipient maintained his self-respect and self-reliance and that unity of the family was secured. The society developed the system of casework and of district committees to investigate applicants for charitable relief in order to discriminate between deserving cases and those cases where poverty was due to fecklessness or drink. The COS constantly resisted the intrusion of the state as a welfare provider, and in 1905 C. S. Loch (who succeeded Charles Bosanquet as secretary) was one of the opponents of proposals to reorganize the Poor Law and to introduce state old-age pensions. In 1890 Bernard Bosanquet became a member of the administrative committee of the COS. In 1895 he married Helen Dendy, one of its district secretaries in Shoreditch, who later edited the society’s journal and wrote a number of works advocating its aims. In 1886 Bosanquet helped found the London Ethical Society and the London School of Ethics and Social Philosophy. He gave many public lectures on their behalf, as well as for the University Extension Board. He returned to academic life in 1903 and was appointed to the chair of philosophy at St. Andrews, but he retired in 1908 to prepare his Gifford lectures.

Bosanquet’s logical theory. Bosanquet’s work on logic is closely related to the work of his famous Oxford contemporary, F. H. Bradley, whose Principles of Logic was published in 1883. For each of them logic is based upon and is an explication of metaphysics. The function of logic is to expound the unity and coherence implied in human knowledge, for it is essential to their metaphysical beliefs that as knowledge becomes more coherent, so it becomes more “real”—hence, logic as the science of knowledge and metaphysics as the science of reality ultimately become indistinguishable. The basic logical unit is “judgment,” and all judgments are to be regarded as partial definitions of reality as it reveals itself in the mind of man. While isolated judgment may be contradictory, the pursuit of logical consistency forces the further qualification of each judgment so that thought becomes more systematic and more rational in the sense that each judgment logically should entail all other judgments. Our actual thinking falls short of this: our attempts to be comprehensive succeed only in expressing “abstract” universals and fall short of the concrete universal. The abstract universal is a class concept like “red” and refers to partial aspects of many different particulars. The concrete universal is the unity-in-difference of the particular and is the clue to “reality” as a whole. It is a world “whose members are worlds.” And the ideal of knowledge is, by becoming more systematically coherent and self-consistent, to see the whole as a “macrocosm constituted by microcosms.”

Bosanquet’s social philosophy. It is from the above metaphysical generalities that Bosanquet proceeded to set out his social philosophy, which he conceived as standing midway between meta-physics and practical social activity. This is expounded in his Philosophical Theory of the State (1899). His object was to show that society is itself a concrete universal, or “world,” included in the all-comprehensive concrete universal of reality as a whole. Here he followed through the implications of Hegelianism more rigorously than Green had. He thought that Green had unduly limited the functions of the state (though Bosanquet attacked the socialists for their belief in the efficacy of staterun bureaucracies to own and manage industry). Also, Bosanquet was readier than Green to acknowledge the contribution of sociology and psychology to social understanding. As social sciences they adopt analytic and descriptive procedures and tend to explain more developed forms of behavior in terms of simpler and more primitive forms, whereas philosophy studies the lower forms as containing the potentialities of the higher and sees in the diverse and apparently conflicting facts a manifestation of a unified social purpose. This conception of philosophy, indeed, can be claimed as the main explanatory principle of Bosanquet’s social theory. This theory can be broadly summarized as follows:

(1) Human action is the expression of will. But what we will at any one moment may be harmful to us or inconsistent with our other desires. These activities therefore are subject to criticism from the point of view of an end which will most fully and coherently fulfill our needs. Hence he distinguished between the “actual” will, the momentary desires we feel, and the “real” will, what will wholly satisfy us and what we truly desire.

In political terms the moral justification of the state is that it reinforces by its laws the claims of the real will of the individual. It is a false antithesis to set the interests of the individual against those of the state. The purpose of the state is the self-perfection or self-realization of the individual. The true interests of state and individual coincide. In this sense the individual is “forced to be free.” His freedom lies not in the absence of restraint but in the correction of impulses and delusive wishes which may prompt him to action harmful to himself. As a rational being he wants to will what is conceived as a good for himself. The state fulfills a moral function in directing him to this end.

(2) The state is conceived as a “concrete universal” when it is apprehended as the manifestation of a general will (which is the expression of the real will of each individual in the state) and when each institution is apprehended as the manifestation of that general will. For the general will is the source of the sovereignty of the state and as such is the final arbiter of social decisions and the authority which can criticize the imperfections of all other social institutions. And though the state cannot directly affect human motives it can affect human intentions. By law the state can induce men to act in certain ways and to bring about such behavior as should preferably occur from any motive rather than not occur at all.

(3) Bosanquet therefore followed Hegel in adopting Rousseau’s concept of the general will but applied it to the nation-state and did not confine it (as Rousseau did) to a limited city-state. The result is that Rousseau’s safeguard of the direct participation of each individual in arriving at collective decisions is no longer practicable. Also, the distinction between the state and the executive becomes less clear. In its place Bosanquet relied on the sentiment of nationalism as a collective sense of group unity. “The modern nation is a history and a religion rather than a clear-cut idea.” And the state ideally should be the focal expression of this feeling of unity. In practice, however, he admitted that the actions of the agents and organs of the state may fall short of the ideal, particularly in respect to the moral function of the self-perfection of individuals which the state should promote, though the state cannot be held responsible for the blameworthy actions of its agents.

(4) The practical consequences of this theory led Bosanquet to deny that predictions of human behavior can be made on the assumption of an egoistic psychology. We are “members one of another.” Social groups are communities, not associations. He insisted on the limits of international institutions in promoting human cooperation: the nation-state has a finality which no international body can possess. Although Bosanquet claimed that his views were a kind of Christian Hellenism, it is clear that he denied both a personal God and the immortality of the soul. “I cannot believe,” he said, “that the supreme end of the Absolute is to give rise to beings such as I experience myself to be.”

Huw Morris-Jones

[See alsoGeneral will; State; Systems analysis, article onSocial systems; and the biographies ofGreenandHegel.]


1885 Knowledge and Reality. London: Routledge.

(1889a) 1951 The Philosophical Theory of the State. 4th ed. London: Macmillan. → The 1951 publication is a reprint of the 1923 fourth edition.

(1889b) 1899 Essays and Addresses. 3d ed. New York: Scribner.

(1892) 1934 A History of Aesthetics. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan. → The 1934 publication is a reprint of the 1904 second edition.

1893 The Civilisation of Christendom and Other Studies. New York: Macmillan.

1897 Psychology of the Moral Self. New York: Macmillan.

(1899) 1920 The Philosophical Theory of the State. 3d ed. London: Macmillan.

1913 The Value and Destiny of the Individual. London: Macmillan.

1917 Social and International Ideals. London: Macmillan.

1920a Implication and Linear Inference. London: Macmillan.

1920b What Religion Is. London: Macmillan.

1921 The Meeting of Extremes in Contemporary Philosophy. London: Macmillan.

1923 Three Chapters on the Nature of Mind. London: Macmillan. → Published posthumously.

1927 Science and Philosophy. Edited by R. C. Bosanquet and J. H. Muirhead. London: Allen & Unwin. → Published posthumously.


Bosanquet, Helen 1924 Bernard Bosanquet: A Short Account of His Life. London: Macmillan.

Haldane, R. B. 1923 Bernard Bosanquet: 1848–1923. British Academy, Proceedings 10:563–575.

Hegel, Georg (1817–1829) 1905 Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art. Translated by Bernard Bosanquet. London: Routledge. → First published in German.

Hobhouse, Leonard T. (1918) 1951 The Metaphysical Theory of the State: A Criticism. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan.

Lotze, Hermann (1874) 1888 Logic: In Three Books, of Thought, of Investigation and of Knowledge. 2 vols. 2d ed. Translated and edited by Bernard Bosanquet. Oxford: Clarendon Press. → First published in German.

Lotze, Hermann (1879) 1887 Metaphysics: In Three Books, Ontology, Cosmology and Psychology. 2 vols. 2d ed. The English translation edited by Bernard Bosanquet. Oxford: Clarendon Press. → First published in German.

Milne, Adam 1962 The Social Philosophy of English Idealism. London: Allen & Unwin.

Mowatt, Charles L. 1961 The Charity Organisation Society, 1869–1913: Its Ideas and Its Work. London: Methuen.

Muirhead, John H. 1923 Bernard Bosanquet: Obituary Notice. Mind 32:393–407.

Muirhead, John H. 1931 The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. London: Allen & Unwin.

Muirhead, John H. (editor) 1935 Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends: Letters Illustrating the Sources and Development of His Philosophical Opinions. London: Allen & Unwin.

Pfannenstill, Bertil 1936 Bernard Bosanquet’s Philosophy of the State. Lund (Sweden): Gleerup.

Richter, Melvin 1964 The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Spiller, Gustav 1934 The Ethical Movement in Great Britain. London: Farleigh.

Bernard Bosanquet

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bernard Bosanquet

The English philosopher Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923) was probably the most eminent member, certainly the most prolific writer, of the idealist school of philosophy which flourished in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bernard Bosanquet was born on June 14, 1848, at Alnwick in Northumberland. He attended Harrow and continued his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, in classical literature and ancient philosophy. T. H. Green, a fellow and tutor of Balliol, was introducing philosophical ideas derived from the German philosopher Hegel, and Bosanquet came immediately under his influence and remained so for the rest of his life.

Hegelian Idealism

Green, like Bosanquet, came from an Evangelical Protestant background and, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply disturbed by the challenge of natural science to religion. In Hegelian idealism he found a system of thought which enabled him to reconcile the claims of religion and morality with science. Green, however, did not slavishly adopt Hegelianism. In particular, he propounded a more liberal social philosophy than he found in Hegel and insisted that the state could not claim absolute obedience from the individual. Its role was to "remove hinderances, " such as poverty or ignorance, and to provide the individual with a social environment which would enable him freely to develop into a mature, moral person. In following up the implications of this position, Green can justifiably be regarded as one of the founders of the welfare state.

Although Bosanquet accepted the same fundamental philosophy as Green, he followed Hegel more closely and gave to idealism a more conservative bias, probably because he brought to these issues a mind deeply immersed in ancient philosophy, particularly Aristotle. His first published work in 1878 was a translation of Schömann's Constitutional History of Athens. Furthermore, his classical training made him one of the few English philosophers interested in esthetics, and he wrote some of his best works on this subject.

Charity Organization Society

In 1881 Bosanquet resigned his post as fellow and tutor at University College, Oxford, which he had occupied for 10 years, and moved to London. In 1869 his half brother, Charles Bosanquet, had been one of the founders of the Charity Organization Society (COS) and had been its first secretary. The aim of the organization was to administer charitable funds to the poor, basing its support on the principle that the recipients should be in need owing to circumstances beyond their control—due to loss of occupation or sickness and not due to bad habits such as heavy drinking or other irresponsible behavior. This involved setting up a system of casework investigation by district committees in the deprived urban areas in order to examine and adjudicate on claimants for aid. Bosanquet played a notable part in setting up and serving on these bodies. Under his influence the COS constantly stressed the principle that aid should always be selective and be given in such a way that it never undermined individual responsibility.

Consistent with this principle, the COS opposed all efforts to induce the state to provide aid, and in the famous Poor Law Commission of 1910 C. S. Loch, who succeeded Charles Bosanquet as secretary of the COS, opposed the proposal (advocated by the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb and afterward adopted by Lloyd George) to introduce old-age pensions.

Freedom of the Individual

Bosanquet's most important work, The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), made him the target of considerable criticism. Its basic argument is a revival of Rousseau's concept of the General Will and a reformulation of Rousseau's paradox about "forcing" men to be "free." Freedom, it is argued, does not lie in doing what a man wants to do but in doing what the General Will imposes upon him. Bosanquet's extension of this led him to argue that freedom lies not in the pursuit of self-interest or sectional interests but in the identification of personal with social interest as expressed by the state. This would appear to subordinate the individual to the state, and during the 1914-1918 war he and other idealists were blamed for advocating ideas which justified a totalitarian political system. These criticisms were grossly unfair and were often based on statements taken out of context and misconstrued. Fundamentally Bosanquet was concerned with establishing a relationship between the state and the individual that would enable the individual to develop his full stature as a responsible moral agent.

In the pursuit of this ideal he spent much time and energy in developing and encouraging various educational ventures, particularly adult education. He helped found the London School of Ethics and Social Philosophy, which in 1902 became the London School of Economics. He returned briefly to academic life in 1903 as professor of philosophy at St. Andrews University, Scotland, but retired in 1908. Bosanquet died in Hampstead, London, on Feb. 8, 1923.

Further Reading

The best and most sympathetic work on Bosanquet, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends: Letters Illustrating the Sources and the Development of His Philosophical Opinions, was edited with biographical comments by his close friend and fellow idealist J. H. Muirhead (1935). Helen Bosanquet, Bernard Bosanquet: A Short Account of His Life (1924), is a brief and interesting work by Bosanquet's wife. For the background of Bosanquet's life and work the best book is Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (1964). For an account of the COS see Charles Loch Mowat, The Charity Organisation Society, 1869-1913: Its Ideas and Work (1961). □

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