Thomas Hill Green

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Thomas Hill Green

The British philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) founded the school of more or less Hegelian idealists that dominated British philosophy in the late 19th century.

The son of a clergyman, Thomas Hill Green was born on April 7, 1836, in Birkin, Yorkshire. Distantly related to Oliver Cromwell, he resembled him in being sober, conscientious, and practical. In 1855 Green entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied under Benjamin Jowett, obtained a first-class honors degree in 1859, and was elected a fellow the following year. He soon concentrated his teaching work on philosophy and, after Jowett became master of the college in 1870, took on much of the responsibility for running the college. In 1865 and 1866 he served on a commission of inquiry into the outdated grammar schools of England. In 1878 he became professor of moral philosophy.

Green expressed himself plainly and often cumbrously and was not a superficially attractive teacher. But his originality, moral seriousness, and reforming zeal had a profound influence. He firmly rejected the native philosophical tradition: its empiricist theory of knowledge, in the massive introduction to his edition of David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature; its hedonistic ethics, in his posthumously published Prolegomena to Ethics (1883). Against empiricism he argued that the mind is active in knowledge; against hedonism, that human action is free, not the causal outcome of natural desires, and that its end should be self-fulfillment, not pleasure. This conception of man's moral agency led him in Principles of Political Obligation (1883) to assign to the state the task of creating the conditions for individuals to pursue their moral perfection freely.

Green was an ardent advocate of temperance and an effective member of the Oxford town council. He was a partisan of the North in the American Civil War and was extremely hostile to the patriotic, imperialist mood inspired by Benjamin Disraeli. Green's disciples dedicated themselves to the education of a responsible, socially reforming elite and were soon active in all spheres of public life.

Further Reading

Memoir of Thomas Hill Green (1906), written by Green's pupil R.L. Nettleship, is an admirable, rather solemn work which concentrates on Green's thought. For details on his life a better source is Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (1964), which is also through and discerning on the question of Green's influence. There is a useful essay on Green in James Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography (1903). See also Y. L. Chin, The Political Theory of Thomas Hill Green (1920), and J. Charles McKirachan, The Temporal and the Eternal in the Philosophy of Thomas Hill Green (1941). □

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Thomas Hill Green, 1836–82, English idealist philosopher. Educated at Oxford, he was associated with the university all his life. He was professor of moral philosophy there from 1878 until his death. In his Introduction to Hume's Treatise on Human Nature (1874), Green struck a heavy blow at traditional British empiricism. Rejecting sensationalism, he argued that all reality lies in relations, that relations exist only for a thinking consciousness, and that therefore the world is constituted by mind. In his Prolegomena to Ethics (1883) Green submitted an ethics of self-determination, which he epitomized in the phrase "Rules are made for man and not man for rules." Self-determination is present when humanity is conscious of its own desires, and freedom occurs when people identify themselves with what they consider morally good. Green's ethics are believed to have influenced, among others, John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. Politically, Green was a liberal; he asserted that government must represent the general will and that when it fails to do so it should be changed. See his Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1895).

See M. Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (1983).

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Green, Thomas Hill (1836–82). Philosopher. Born in Yorkshire, educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, Green became Whyte's professor of moral philosophy at Oxford in 1878. He made a lasting contribution to moral and political philosophy by attacking the prevailing materialism and empiricism of utilitarian thinkers, arguing for a Hegelian sense of duty to promote the common good. His ideal was human self-perfection—a condition in which people voluntarily chose to develop their potential as active citizens in pursuit of the good life. In his essay ‘Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract’ (1881) Green claimed that the inequality of power between employer and worker vitiated freedom in the labour contract and prevented workers from achieving perfection. But Green was no ivory tower academic; he took an active interest in politics and social affairs, participating in the work of a royal commission on education in 1865–6, taking a leading part in the temperance movement, and becoming in 1876 a member of Oxford City Council.

Tim S. Gray