Hobhouse, L. T.

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Hobhouse, L. T.



Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864–1929), British sociologist and philosopher, was educated at Oxford. He was appointed fellow of Merton College in 1887 and fellow of Corpus Christi in 1894. Early in his career he showed an active interest in social and political movements: he was secretary of the Free Trade Union from 1903 to 1905 and published several political works, notably The Labour Movement (1893), Democracy and Reaction (1904), and Liberalism (1911a). From 1897 to 1902 he served on the staff of the Manchester Guardian, and from 1905 to 1907 he was political editor of the Tribune in London.

The main lines of the social philosophy that he was to develop in his later studies can be clearly discerned in these early political writings. This philosophy is based on principles differing fundamentally both from laissez-faire liberalism and from the bureaucratic, or as Hobhouse called it, “official” socialism of the Fabians. It may best be described as social liberalism, and in working it out he presented a cogent and still vitally important analysis of the relations between individual freedom and responsibility and state control.

In 1907 Hobhouse was appointed the first Martin White professor in sociology at the University of London and thereafter devoted himself mainly to his scientific and philosophical pursuits; but he never abandoned his earlier passionate interest in the deeper issues of politics, internal and foreign, as can be seen in his important contributions to the Manchester Guardian during World War I and in his work as chairman of trade boards and as arbitrator in various disputes.

The key to Hobhouse’s work is to be found in his conception of development. He was profoundly dissatisfied both with Spencer’s account of evolution as dependent on the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest and with the idealist philos ophers’ metaphysical theory of an absolute mind reaching self-consciousness in the historical process. In his view, a theory of development has to be solidly based on empirical facts. In his early work on logic and epistemology, The Theory of Knowledge (1896), he had subjected the dominant idealist view of the nature of thought to a detailed critical analysis and worked out a realistic theory based on a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism. Subsequently he turned to the study of the growth of the mind in the animal world and of the transition to the mind of man. The results were embodied in Mind in Evolution (1901).

The publication of Morals in Evolution (1906) marked a new epoch in the development of sociology. Hobhouse revealed a grasp of anthropological data, of the history of law, morals, and religion, and of scientific and philosophical thought and laid the foundations of an impressive sociological system. A later work incorporated research on pre-literate societies carried out in collaboration with G. C. Wheeler and the present writer and was published in 1915 under the title The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples.

From 1918 to 1922 Hobhouse published three works devoted to political and ethical theory, and in 1924 there appeared his Social Development, in which he presented a restatement of the whole of his sociological work. In this book he gave a fresh analysis of the nature of social development and of the factors making for progress, arrest, or decay. His treatment avoids both the mistakes inherent in the kind of crude evolutionism that has brought the theory of development into disrepute and those that result from the one-sided emphasis on economic factors implicit in many forms of historical materialism. Only the general lines of this methodology are indicated here:

(1) He worked out a social morphology, that is, a classification of types of society and of the forms of social institutions, based on a wide survey of the data of anthropology and history. He was well aware of the difficulties inherent in the comparative method but sought to meet them by penetrating beneath outward resemblances to basic functions.

(2) He attempted to correlate the various aspects of social change with their contribution to the general advance of the community, as estimated by certain criteria deduced from the general nature of development. They are extension in the scale of organization, growing efficiency in control and direction, and increasing freedom and cooperation in the satisfaction of mutual needs. It should be noted that these criteria are, at this stage of the inquiry, to be taken as ethically neutral: scale and efficiency are clearly so, and even though freedom and mutuality might appear to be ethically tinged, they are defined by Hobhouse in a manner that does not involve any particular ethical theory. Thus, a society is said to be free internally if its component parts can operate with the least loss of energy, without interfering with or obstructing each other. Mutuality depends on the extent to which the parts not only do not obstruct each other but work together so as to maintain the system as a whole.

(3) He put forward a hypothesis that there is a broad correlation between mental development and social development as estimated in the light of the above criteria. To establish this correlation he undertook an elaborate analysis of mental development in (a) the growth of scientific thought, (b) the control of the forces of nature, including human nature, (c) the ethicoreligious sphere, and (d) more briefly, the history of art. It is not suggested that the movements in these various spheres are parallel or that their rate of advance is similar but that, making due allowance for conditions in different periods of time and different parts of the world, they may be taken as a general indication of the growth of the human mind.

(4) Hobhouse then tried to show that there is indeed a broad correlation between mental advance and the development of societies. Thus, in the earlier phases of thought and belief, societies grow in scale and efficiency and in control and direction, although at the cost of mutuality and freedom. Governments tend to be authoritarian in character, and social differentiation rests on subordination. In rel atively higher phases this growth in scale and efficiency continues to increase as does subordination. But with the beginning of critical and systematic thought free forms of government arise, and, in theory at any rate, there emerge ideals of a unitary spiritual order. In the ancient world the embodiment of these ideals is still very restricted. In more recent times, in the stage of “experiential recon struction,” when conceptual analysis is combined with empirical verification, there is not only an increase in scale and efficiency but also the beginning of a concrete embodiment of the elements of mutuality and freedom on a world scale; and attempts are made at a genuine synthesis of personal and political freedom with moral universalism. A survey of history thus suggests that there has been, on the whole, correlated growth of mind and civilization.

(5) Hobhouse next argued that the process of development, so far examined by him independently of any ethical commitment, may be shown to be generally in the direction required by his theory of the rational good. This good consists in the harmonious fulfillment of human potentialities, and it is clear that it can be achieved only by the willing cooperation of all mankind. In theory, therefore, ethical and social development have a common end. But although they tend to converge, they do not in fact coincide. For this there are many reasons. Each different society develops, if not wholly independently, yet in its own way and in accord with its own peculiarities and distinguishable internal sources of change. Furthermore, they advance at different rates. As a result, inequalities in economic and political power arise that offer opportunities for exploitation and domination and have been among the root causes of war. Again, development in one direction may bring retrogression in another. Thus, the extension of the area of organization may reduce the chances of conflict but may make it more destructive when it does occur. The parts may develop at the expense of the whole or the changes that they undergo may not be duly balanced, with resulting structural strains and possible collapse. These causes of arrest or decay can easily be illustrated from the history of communities and are readily discerned in the contemporary world. It is in this connection that Hobhouse’s analysis may be fruitfully extended in dealing with the problems of our own day. Progress is, in any case, not automatic or unilinear but depends on human thought and will: on the rationality of the mind and its capacity for forming an intelligible conception of a good in which all men can share and for securing an effective will directed to this good. Humanity has not yet reached the stage of self-direction; but reviewing the state of the world in the 1920s, Hobhouse felt justified in concluding, despite serious misgivings, that it contained many essentials of such self-direction and that these were sufficient to indicate the direction of future development.

Hobhouse further strengthened his argument by an examination of the conditions affecting social change: environmental, biological, psychological, and distinctively sociological. The great value of his contributions to sociology does not depend solely on the strength of his main hypothesis; it also lies in the light he threw on various phases in the history of knowledge, religion, and morals and their relation to social change, in the careful way in which he distinguished judgments of fact and of value, and in the skill with which he eventually brought facts and values together in a comprehensive synthesis.

Hobhouse will be remembered not only as a contributor to sociology and to comparative and social psychology but also as a philosopher of great distinction. The fullest exposition of his philosophical theories is to be found in his Development and Purpose (1913), which he himself regarded as completing a scheme that had occupied him for 26 years and that had been carried through successive stages in his previous major works. In this book he showed that development proceeds by the liberation of elements originally indifferent to or in conflict with one another and by the building up of structures of varying degrees of plasticity and coherence. The power behind development is mind, essentially a correlating activity, manifested in all orderly structures but most clearly in living organisms, in which mechanical and teleological factors are interwoven. Mind is, in this view, not coextensive with reality but is the principle of orderly growth within it. It is limited by the material it works upon, and its purposes themselves undergo development. His fundamental principle, which he entitled “conditional teleology,” is examined both from the point of view of the logical requirements of explanation in dealing with systems undergoing change and from the point of view of its value as an instrument of investigation, especially in the fields of biology and sociology.

Morris Ginsberg

[Directly related are the entriesEvolution, article onCultural Evolution; Liberalism; Social darwinism; Social Institutions. Other relevant material may be found inconstitutional law, article oncivil liberties; Tribal Society; War, article onPrimitive warfare; and in the biographies ofBosanquet; Ogburn; Toynbee.]


(1893) 1912 The Labour Movement. 3d ed. New York. Macmillan.

(1896) 1921 The Theory of Knowledge: A Contribution to Some Problems of Logic and Metaphysics.3d ed. London: Methuen.

(1901) 1926 Mind in Evolution. 3d ed. London: Macmillan.

(1904) 1909 Democracy and Reaction. 2d ed., rev. & enl. London: Allen & Unwin.

(1906) 1951 Morals in Evolution: A Study in Comparative Ethics. With a new introduction by Morris Ginsberg. 7th ed. London: Chapman & Hall.

(1911a) 1945 Liberalism. Oxford Univ. Press. → A paper back edition was published in 1964.

1911b Social Evolution and Political Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(1913) 1927 Development and Purpose: An Essay To wards a Philosophy of Evolution. New ed., rev. & enl. London: Macmillan.

(1915) 1965 hobhouse, leonard T.; wheeler, gerald C; and ginsberg, morrisThe Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation. London: Routledge.

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

(1921) 1947 The Rational Good: A Study in the Logic of Practice. London: Watts.

(1922) 1958 The Elements of Social Justice.London: Allen 8t Unwin.

1924 Social Development: Its Nature and Conditions. London: Allen & Unwin.

Sociology and Philosophy: A Centenary Collection of Essays and Articles. Preface by Sir Sydney Caine. Introduction by Morris Ginsberg. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Bell, 1966.


Barker, Ernest 1929 Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse. British Academy, London, Proceedings 15:536–554.

Hobson, J. A.; and Ginsberg, Morris 1931 L. T. Hob house, His Life and Work: With Selected Essays and Articles. London: Allen & Unwin.