Josiah Royce — A Personal Impression[1]

MY own response to Professor Royce in 1887-88 may, I think, be regarded as fairly typical of his appeal to many of the young men and women who found themselves caught in the speculative problem of the time. That problem had been fashioned in theology. Even those who were outside the churches had in the back of their minds the fundamental assumptions of the philosophy of the church: that the world was ordered by some personal purpose whose result was assured, while the successful results of the lives of individual men and women depended largely upon their willingness to fit into this rational moral purpose — that this purpose was bound in some way to realize the fullest development of their individual thought, culture, and character. The problems that intrigued us were still largely speculative. The social questions had not as yet become insistent, nor were we caught as yet in scientific implications of these later years. We wished to be free to follow our individual thinking and feeling into an intelligent and sympathetic world without having to bow before incomprehensible dogma or to anticipate the shipwreck of our individual ends and values. We wanted full intellectual freedom and yet the conservation of the values for which had stood Church, State, Science, and Art. We came out of a narrow Scottish intuitional philosophy, that crystalized problems into dogmas, and paralysed thought; out of a puritan conception of life that standardized conduct by self-denials both passional and economic, and yet found in the business and social success which the community approved a sort of guarantee of rightness with God and His universe. Emerson had represented for us a mood

(169) rather than a method, and only irritated our thirst for a doctrine which would let us think without barriers and still do God's service in a world of moral order.

We had the docile attitude of those who had received their culture and science from abroad, and out of whose democratic achievements had arisen no thought or act that could measure up to those of Europe. Politically we might think ourselves the leaders of the world. Those who thought and read and travelled made no pretensions of our having expressed the meaning of life either in lasting aesthetic or philosophic forms. To youths of such minds and attitudes Professor Royce opened up the realm of romantic idealism. What had been barriers of thought became but hazards in the game. Contradictions, instead of marking the no thoroughfares of reflection, became the guide posts toward higher levels of reality. To have achieved the dialectic was to have won a liberty that not only needed no eternal vigilance to insure its security, but even found in any threatened restraint only wider fields within which to range. And yet this intoxicating doctrine proved the reality of God by the very notion of error. Out of it blossomed a forever waxing individuality, higher spiritual orders of church and state, and a true infinity that was the heritage of anyone who could think la Hegel.

And then this came not only in the form of philosophy; it was embalmed also in culture and puritan America took over in the form of culture what it would never have tolerated in life and conduct, much as one delights in the insects which have been incased in yellow amber. There should be a special edition of the Spirit of Modern Philosophy bound in tooled morocco with illuminated borders and initialed paragraphs and illustrated with preRaphaelite art to symbolize what it meant to young men when Royce first taught in Cambridge.

The predominant impression he left upon me was of clear ideas and luminous vistas, of subtle athleticism of thought, and an inexhaustible universe of explication and illustration. Philosophy was no longer the handmaid of theology

(170) nor the textbook for a formal logic and a puritan ethics. The bodily reality of the world was of the texture of thought and if anywhere this idealistic doctrine has been achieved it was in the audience of Josiah Royce.

He was no jealous occupant of the platform. He delighted in the thinking and expression of others. The generosity of his appreciation left a warmth behind that inevitably grew into an affection that went with the admiration which the operation of his powerful brain always inspired, while the keenness of his questions detected inaccuracies and pricked the bubbles of spurious conceptions.

I could follow his courses, unfortunately, only through one term and part of another, for a physical breakdown took him away during the winter. But I received an impression from him of freedom of mind, and of dominance of thought in the universe, of a clear unclouded landscape of spiritual reality where we sat like gods together but not careless of mankind and it was a vision that followed me for many years.

George H. Mead
University of Chicago


  1. Read at a meeting in commemoration of Josiah Royce held at the University of Chicago November 22, 1916.

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