Green, T. H.

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Green, T. H.



Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882), English philosopher, social theorist, and reformer, was born in Birkin, Yorkshire, where his father was rector. He became a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1860, and professor of moral philosophy in 1878 but died four years later at the age of 45. Green initiated and inspired the British renaissance of Hegelian idealism, which started in Oxford in the 1870s and dominated academic philosophy in Britain until its retreat before the criticisms of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in the early years of the twentieth century.

Green’s aim was to demolish the prevailing system of thought that grafted evolutionary ideas onto the stem of traditional empiricism and to lead his contemporaries away from J. S. Mill and Huxley and toward Kant and Hegel. He began with an attack on received views in metaphysics and theory of knowledge, which appeared in an introduction to the works of David Hume (1874). Knowledge, he held, could not be derived by a merely passive mind from a sequence of discrete sensations. Nature is an unalterable scheme of intelligible relations constructed by the mind; this implies an equally unalterable and objective eternal consciousness of which all finite minds are parts. As the constructer of nature, mind cannot be a part or product of it.

The prevailing system of philosophy, which regarded man as a part of nature governed by deterministic laws, ruled out conduct as much as it ruled out knowledge. Green believed will and choice, the rational determinants of action, must instead be distinguished from passive compliance with the promptings of natural desire. In an act of will, a man identifies himself with his ideal self or character, which is part of the eternal consciousness and not of the mechanical order of nature. The moral end is the full realization of one’s potentialities, and these can be realized only in a social community. For Green, as for Rousseau and Hegel before him, genuine human personality was an essentially social phenomenon, and it was inconceivable that isolated natural man should be a moral agent. Green was not entirely hostile to Mill’s chastened utilitarianism; he shared its rejection of customary rules but conceived the ideal end of conduct as moral perfection, not individual contentment. (For Green’s metaphysics and ethics see Green 1883.)

Green’s social theory (1882) follows Rousseau and Hegel to some extent in subordinating the individual to the community. The duty of the citizen is to follow the general will for the common good. But for Green the community is not coterminous with the state; he remained in the liberal tradition in asserting the sovereignty of morals over politics. There is some of Hegel’s contempt for the individual conscience in Green’s well-known view that there can be no unrecognized rights, but he did not say that all true rights were legal ones. The recognizing authority is not the state but the moral consensus of the community. Positive law can be criticized and improved upon in the light of the state’s ideal purpose: the moral perfection of men. Since morality presupposes freedom the state can not serve this end directly, but it can create favorable conditions for it. Green valued democracy as giving men the kind of responsibility that is conducive to moral improvement. Participation in democracy is a duty, not a right; an opportunity for moral development, not a negative emancipation from authority and constraint.

Green’s special combination of moral individualism and collectivism, in particular his idea of the state as an indirect agent of moral improvement, led him to favor the intervention of the state to secure the welfare of its citizens (1881). He was opposed to Mill’s libertarianism and Spencer’s barbarous version of laissez-faire. In his support of the enlargement of the state’s responsibilities he anticipated the doctrines of the British Labour party. He became the first Oxford tutor to serve on the city council, where he actively promoted temperance reform and public secondary education. Realistic in his respect for the force of circumstances and the moral sense of the community, Green was no traditionalist. He admired Cromwell (from whom he claimed descent) and shared his republicanism. He was hostile to class distinction, militarism, and patriotic display. The first important English philosopher since Ralph Cudworth to spend his active life in a university, he supported, by precept and example, the involvement of philosophers in the social and political life of their society. The character of Mr. Grey in Mrs. Humphry Ward’s novel Robert Elsmere is an admiring portrait of Green’s nobly serious personality, in which a determined puritanism was at once strengthened and mitigated by decency and practical good sense.

Anthony Quinton

[For the historical context of Green’s work, see the biographies ofHegel; Mill; Rousseau. For discussion of the development of his ideas, see the biographies ofBosanquet; Figgis; Lindsay.]


(1874) 1906 Introduction to Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Pages 1-371 in Thomas Hill Green, Works . .. Volume 1: Philosophical Works. London: Longmans.

(1881) 1906 Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract. Pages 365-386 in Thomas Hill Green, Works … Volume 3: Miscellanies and Memoir. London: Longmans.

(1882) 1960 Lectures on the Principles of Political Obli gation. London: Longmans.

(1883) 1929 Prolegomena to Ethics. 5th ed. Oxford: Clarendon.

1906 Works of Thomas Hill Green. Edited by R. L. Nettle-ship. 3 vols. London: Longmans. → Volumes 1-2: Philosophical Works. Volume 3: Miscellanies and Memoir.


Fairbrother, William H. (1896) 1900 The Philosophy of Thomas Hill Green. 2d ed. London: Methuen.

Milne, A. J. M. 1962 The Social Philosophy of English Idealism. London: Allen & Unwin.

Muirhead, John Henry 1908 The Service of the State: Four Lectures on the Political Teaching of T. H. Green. London: Murray.

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

Ritchie, David G. (1887) 1902 The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hill Green. Pages 125-151 in David G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference: Four Essays on the Political Philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer, J. S. Mill, and T. H. Green. London: Sonnenschein. → First published in Contemporary Review.