To Be Continued: Josiah Royce

Dear Ones,

“Who is Josiah Royce?”

Following last Sunday’s service, where we explored the idea of Beloved Community, I was asked why I hadn’t said more about this American philosopher. The short answer is time. I wanted to talk more about the concepts of community and Beloved Community than about Royce. However, I’m happy to offer a little more information in this column!

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was a major philosopher of the late 19th – early 20th Century. Born in Grass Valley, California, he entered university at the age of 14 and was one of the first graduates of the University of California in 1875. He then studied philosophy in Germany for a year, and continued his studies at Johns Hopkins University where he earned his doctorate – one of the first granted by that institution.

Royce taught first at the University of California-Berkley, then at Harvard University. Royce was interested in many areas of study, though his major contributions were to the Philosophy of Religion and Moral Philosophy. He debated religious philosophy with his friend, William James (who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience), and among his students were T.S. Eliot, George Santayana and W.E.B. Dubois. He wrote on the problem of evil, ethics, and the creation of genuine communities.

This interest in community was a reaction to the writings of Emerson, Whitman, and William James, which fostered what he saw as extreme individualism. Royce believed that individuals are inextricably bound with their social context. Significantly, he wrote: “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” (This makes me think of the South African proverb, “I am because we are.”)

Royce’s influence on American philosophy endures long after his death, primarily because of the influence of his work on Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom picked up on his thinking and writing on individuals and community. If you hadn’t heard of Royce before, it’s okay! I hadn’t heard of him before about a month ago, either!

Rev. Lori Hlaban