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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,082

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This is the grave of Josiah Royce.

Born in 1855 in Grass Valley, California, Royce was the son of parents who had moved from England to make their fortune in Gold Rush California. What is interesting to me about this is that it was both father and mother who moved there, a time when there were very few white women in California outside of sex workers. In any case, the family had some success and Royce went to the University of California, where he graduated in 1875. At the time it was in Oakland, but it moved to Berkeley while he was there in the early 1870s.

At California, he studied under the geologist Joseph LeConte. This was a moment when the theory of evolution was changing the way we thought about the world. Today, we often think of science as antithetical to religion because of the way that Christian fundamentalists responded to Darwin by rejecting it entirely and subscribing to ever more dogmatic visions of God creating the world just as it says in Genesis. But religious figures at the time knew this was hooey. For people such as LeConte, what God was doing through Darwin was revealing more about His true ways, showing that 19th century people were more advanced than those who needed silly stories about the creation of the universe. In any case, this was highly influential to Royce, who was not a scientist in training but who was interested in big ideas that brought together different parts of the modern world in new ways.

So Royce took his early training and engaged in postgraduate studies in the home of the late 19th century global intellectual center–Germany. Then he went to Johns Hopkins for his PhD in philosophy, which he achieved in 1878. He went back to Berkeley for awhile and then in 1882 got a job at Harvard, where he would remain until his death. He liked California. It was home. But at that time, it was also an intellectual backwater and he wanted and needed the ferment of Boston society for his thought.

What makes Royce interesting is that he was a philosopher, but he was also a historian, particularly of his home region of the American West and he spent as much time writing history as working out philosophical ideas. He had a hugely ranging mind, more so than almost any American of his era. What this meant of course is that he stressed himself out by going down so many roads where he committed himself to something and then had to finish it, every academic’s worst nightmare. That included not only philosophy and history, but the paranormal which sounds ridiculous today but this was the era of spiritualism and desires to communicate with the dead. Plus he thought it was also bullshit and so his writing on this was strictly negative. He also engaged in literary criticism. He was trying to write a history of California that would pay him good money too. All of this combined and he had a mental breakdown in 1888.

After his breakdown, Royce gave up most of the side projects and just focused on philosophy. He was already one of the nation’s most prominent scholars in his field, despite being distracted all the time. The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, from 1885, and The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, from 1892, were both hugely important works. Like many elites of his time, Royce was trying to justify the existence of God using modern tools and while this feels like a fool’s errand to me, it was very hard for people of this era to deal with the idea of atheism and so mental gymnastics were necessary to be at the forefront of modern thought and religious at the same time. Who knows, maybe these people are right.

Now, as I have fully admitted before in this series when profiling philosophers, I am not a big idea guy so some of the details of this stuff get real hazy and I get bored fast with this kind of thing anyway. So I’m going to do the best I can on this and you can correct me in the comments. A lot of what he pushed with the idea of an Absolute, which is related to his determination to find God in the modern world. His core idea was that of absolute idealism, which is the sense that all aspects of reality, which include those that may not seem that real to us, are connected in a single consciousness that covers our entire life experiences. He wrote on issues around people’s everyday religious experiences and explored ethical theory. I am now going to quote the always useful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, since I don’t have a good way to paraphrase what I really don’t understand.

In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an “absolute pragmatism” grounded in semiotics. This view dispenses with the Absolute Mind of previous idealism and instead characterizes reality as a universe of ideas or signs which occur in a process of being interpreted by an infinite community of minds. These minds, and the community they constitute, may themselves be understood as signs. Royce’s ethics, philosophy of community, philosophy of religion, and logic reflect this metaphysical position.

I don’t know what all of these words mean, but OK.

He continued writing on these issues for the rest of his life. Among his books are The Conception of Immortality in 1900, The Philosophy of Loyalty in 1908, and What is Vital in Christianity in 1909. He did sometimes write books on other philosophers as well, including a book on Herbert Spencer in 1904 and William James in 1912. He was critical of James but they were also good friends and threw ideas off each other. He also trained other philosophers at Harvard, including George Santayana. He also had W.E.B. DuBois as a student and Royce himself wrote on racial issues from time to time. Among his other students include T.S. Eliot and Norbert Weiner.

Royce died in 1916, at the age of 60. Seems to have had heart issues.

Josiah Royce is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other philosophers, which are unquestionably the worst posts in this series, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hilary Putnam is in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and George Herbert Mead is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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