Searching For Rhymes: Royce’s Idealistic Quest

(Paper Submission, SAAP 2009)


Abstract: The author here explores two broad phases of Royce’s idealistic quest in order to show that, despite its shift of emphasis, he maintains a consistent concern.  That concern is to find a larger meaning in all lived affairs, one deemed insufficiently expressed in the atoms of empirical interpretation.  The experience of immanence is for Royce an expression of this larger meaning, the discovery of rhyme amidst an otherwise monotone language of meaning. 


Royce’s idealism relies very heavily, and it should be emphasized, very personally on the experience of immanence, the professed point of contact between the self and the divine.  Following Royce’s leads, one understands this experience as first of all necessary to resolve the deepest philosophical questions: the problem of evil,[1] especially, but also the abiding antinomies with which Royce preoccupied himself such as the vexing divide between the temporal and the eternal.[2]  Additionally, and perhaps of greater importance to Royce, the experience of immanence is necessary to overcome the dark specter of determinism swirling about humans, sharply so in Royce’s day, during the first-wave of evolutionist thinking.  Here I shall explore these phases of Royce’s idealistic quest, which despite its shifting emphases displays a consistent concern for finding a larger meaning in all lived affairs, one deemed insufficiently expressed in the atoms of empirical interpretation.  The experience of immanence is for Royce an expression of this larger meaning, the discovery of rhyme amidst an otherwise monotone language of meaning. 

I: The Experience of Immanence

Royce conceives the experience of immanence as the fully developed meaning of a finite instant, which when realized is identical with the Absolute, divine will:

Our Idealism has depended, from the first, upon the thesis that the Internal and the External meaning of any finite process of experience are dependent each upon the other, so that if the whole meaning and intent of any finite instant of life is fully developed, and perfectly embodied, this Whole Meaning of the instant becomes identical with the Universe, with the Absolute, with the life of God.[3]


The identification of a fully realized finite instant of life with God is possible, Royce goes on to say, in virtue of the fact that the “implied whole meaning” of every individual striving, even the blindest, “is identical with the entire expression of the divine Will.”[4]  The “complete expression of a whole meaning,” according to Royce, is the implicit aim of all human intercourse.  Whether towards friend or enemy, Royce argues, the relation requires that when I address myself to another, I do so with the aim of a complete expression of the whole meaning of that relation, an aim only imperfectly fulfilled due to the “infinitely complex” unity the entire relation involves.  This conception of human relations is positioned to resolve the tension between the “Self and the not-Self,” or what is involved in the same tension according to Royce, between the “Internal and the External meaning of this present moment’s purpose.”  Put in more concrete terms, every present moment has some larger purpose, the fuller expression of which awaits acknowledgement of the symbiotic connection between presumed inner and outer experiences. 

In what Royce conceives to be the incomplete and limited present of the living human standpoint, the finite mind struggles to articulate itself in various ways.  This struggle always takes the form for Royce of one of yearning for a fuller, complete meaning.  Especially in his earlier thinking,[5] he endorses the Hegelian argument that such yearning only makes sense if the goal of present struggling thought, the fuller meaning, is all along already contained in a completed Absolute.

The central strategy by which Royce defends this view involves his (also) Hegelian conception of the relation between the possible and actual.  In his 1954 study Royce on the Human Self, James Harry Cotton helpfully identifies this strategy in an 1899 exchange of letters between Royce and William James.  The exchange concerned the status of presently existing and future-possible facts:  “Let us assume, James [wrote to Royce], a fact A, taken first without its relations to B, C, and D; then we later take fact A with these relations.”[6]  Offering this characterization James goes on to argue that there are “three stages of being for A’s relations: impossibility, possibility, and actuality.”[7]  James alleges that the three stages reflect those of a knowing subject, attained upon awareness of the facts as they relate to A.  At the first stage, where facts B, C, and D are not yet known, awareness of their meaningful relation to A is of course impossible.  At some second stage the knowing subject gains awareness of facts B, C, and D.  Here awareness of their relation to A is possible but not necessarily actual—the subject might not yet have acknowledged their meaningful relationship to A.  Lastly is the stage in which the subject connects the further facts with A, becoming aware of their collective meaningful relationship. 

James introduces these distinctions with the intention of challenging the Roycean view just articulated, that the fuller meaning of a present struggling thought is already contained in an Absolute thought of the same.  James challenges what he perceives to be Royce’s reliance in this way of thinking upon “assumed facts,” that is, related facts not yet given that are assumed to justify facts incompletely given in present awareness.  The problem, Royce will respond, is that the taxonomy James uses assumes three further facts, respectively, that A remains unchanged throughout the three stages, that the knowing subject also remains identical throughout, and thirdly that each moment, from A being thought alone to its being thought together with the other facts, are all discretely “objective” “events in one time series.”   

And Royce pushes James further in his response, calling into question the alleged third stage of being: actuality.  He poses several propositions concerning the status of future-directed-claims which, according to James’s logical taxonomy, must all be defined as “neither true nor false.”  “Is it neither true nor false today,” he shrewdly asks James, “that I shall someday die?”  The possible, Royce frequently argued, must rest on something actual or else it could not be possible.   James’s presumption that each stage of being is discrete and whole unto itself overlooks the continuity and reciprocity between facts and the use knowing subjects make of them to produce justified truth claims about the future. 

In other words, in their informal exchange of letters Royce caught James in the act of deploying an atomistic logic that ran counter to his pragmatist leanings.  Of course not long after this exchange James will formally present his pragmatist view of truth with attention to this lesson.[8]  The key for our purposes is to note a crucial piece of reasoning in Royce’s perceptive responses to James, one that will in one way or another clinch his various arguments for idealism and its reliance upon the notion of immanence.  The possible, Royce argues, is never “merely” possible as is so often assumed.  It is only possible in virtue of its relation to the actual, whether given or not. 

This can be illustrated by giving James’s taxonomy content.  Imagine that fact A, discovered upon being hired for a new position in a workplace, is that the previous employee in the same position was dismissed.  Nothing more is known about this fact, the person in question, the circumstances of the dismissal, or even the larger demographics of the workplace in question.  It is impossible, James’s taxonomy requires, from the standpoint of the acknowledgement of this fact alone to know its relation to three further facts, say, (B) that the employee was a female; (C) that the employee was multiply reprimanded for absenteeism and unfulfilled administrative demands; and (D) that the workplace in question has a scrutinized history of hiring predominately male employees.  From our fully realized vantage of these facts we can easily use their relations to A to enhance our initial acknowledgment of it alone, and so to form a sufficient appreciation of the pathos of the situation given the juxtaposed facts.  We are able, specifically, to appreciate with vividness in a single thought something like the notion: a workplace scrutinized for sexism initiating an act that fails to positively address that scrutiny, but which may nevertheless be justified in its actions.  We may moreover use this more-complete appreciation to form various convictions that instruct ensuing experiences, such as to judge the controversial complaints of a female co-worker on the incident’s proof of the workplace’s alleged sexism.

Royce’s retorts to James help us see the overly superficial character of this picture.  His counters encourage us to appreciate the fact that experiential possibilities multiply to a point where it becomes clear that truth gradually emerges, is interpretively fertilized[9] in the thick nest of the experiential context in question, as opposed to appearing discretely, as James’s taxonomy submits, in the neat order of facts disclosed.  For Royce, the abiding pluralism of experiential factors in any matter of consideration reveals that there can never be a discrete possible fact that avoids in some manner depending upon an actual one.  This mutual dependence of possible and actual facts introduces the need for a deeper explanation of interpretive understanding, cuing Royce’s emphasis on the experience of immanence.   

A general perusal of key moments of Royce’s earliest defenses of idealism easily establishes that there is reliance throughout upon the notion of immanence.  One finds this in his famous argument “from error” in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy in its insistence upon the implied necessary existence of an Absolute knower, or mind for which all objects correspond correctly and which all finite minds direct themselves in their knowing relations.  And one finds this in Royce’s fine-tuning of the same argument in the “Four Historical Conceptions of Being” section of the first volume of The World and the Individual.  There he deploys the argument just considered concerning the possible and the actual in service of the general claim (the “fourth conception of being”) that an idea can only “intend” its object, can only be a “possibility” for truth in proportion to the necessarily implied existence of an actual being. 

As has been well documented however, Royce’s later thinking, commensurate with the remainder of his life after the turn of the century, was focused in the direction of reconsidering the meaning of the “Pauline community,” grounding the concern in the original concept of “loyalty.”  I describe this later trajectory as a re-focus because it is not my perception that Royce makes any radical break from his earlier views, rather, he tunes them up by a shift of concern to more concrete considerations.  I now want to consider the fate in this later period of Royce’s reliance upon the experience of immanence.  As we found, this reliance constituted itself in Royce’s earlier work as a reach for an Absolute home beyond the incomplete present.  As Royce paid greater attention to living, concrete concerns, to social considerations specifically, he enlisted the conception of the experience of immanence to address more urgently the concern that may all along have been at the center of his thinking.  That concern was for the marginalized status of the human within evolutionary frameworks.[10] 

II. Transcending Scientistic Conceptions of the Human

Given Royce’s consistent emphasis on personal, individual experiences as the touchstone for the Absolute it is not surprising, and arguably indispensable for understanding his philosophy, that his own biography closely parallels the thematic trajectory of his thinking.  Everything in Royce’s philosophical development appears traceable to some feature of his life: his early intellectual development in California outside of the confines of a specifically philosophic disciplinary framework; his increasing hunger for a philosophic outlet and eventual, uneven transplant from an intellectually arid California to Brahmin Boston; to his physical appearance itself which drew the mocking of even his wife.  These biographical features color the various interrogative modes of Royce’s thinking. 

For this reason John Clendenning’s widely read and justly praised The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce is particularly satisfying because it presents its subject without clear delineation between biography and philosophic exegesis.  Justification for this rare method of approaching the thought of a philosopher is provided by Royce himself in his lifelong preoccupation with the experience of immanence.  As we have found, for Royce immanence is grounded in the notion that “external meaning is only apparently external, and, in very truth, is but an aspect of the completely developed internal meaning.”[11]  This view does not simply blur the distinction between internal and external meaning and reality, it insists for the purposes of philosophic understanding upon its total obliteration.[12]  I turn now to some choice biographical observations to shed light on Royce’s philosophic orientation. 

            Around 1883, when Royce had recently relocated to Harvard from California, he first expressed his fuller commitment to Absolute idealism.  As scholars have speculated, his fuller embrace of the orientation probably involved something of the change of geography, which loosened something in Royce’s personality.  Contrary to the character attributed to Royce while living in California, Clendenning observes that after moving to Boston:

All of his earlier timidity seems to have vanished.  Instead of holding back or retiring behind a cover of self-doubt, Royce now moved forward into direct combat, challenging all comers.  He was, as James noted, ‘ready for everything in this world or the next.’...Another comparison [of Royce in Boston], frequently made, was that he was a ‘perfect little Socrates’.  Those who stopped him in the streets were subjected to the most exacting cross-examinations; he broke though all opposing arguments, spotted contradictions, and made every debater feel helpless and irrational.  Most went away with the feeling that truth has meaning only through its place in the universal consciousness.[13]


In other words the transition from California to Boston brought out more strongly than ever the crusader-converter in Royce, and he approached all philosophic challenges, whether informal or formal debate, or in writing, with the same tenacious force of persuasive energy.  Famously, after his first reading of Royce’s The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, published in 1885, James sincerely felt for a period of time helpless against the force of logic that demanded adherence to Absolute idealism.  With deep irony given the impetus of Royce’s transplant away from California, James wrote in his glowing review of the book: “California may feel proud that a son of hers should at a stroke have scored so many points in a game not yet exceedingly familiar on the Pacific slope.”[14]

As persuasive as he could be in person and in written argument, we know from the sorry reception of Royce’s idealism beyond those points of contact, that its message falters for many interpreters.  The trajectory of his work towards more practical, applied considerations suggests that perhaps Royce himself worried about the inability of his idealism to gain broad assent.  After transitioning to Harvard he would enlist his newfound vigor and intensity in service of a moral concern that had probably all along motivated his work, but needed much further concretion if it was going to be made a concern for others.  The troubled status of humans under scientistic conceptions, predominately that of the evolutionist conception still emerging in Royce’s day, increasingly moved to the forefront of his philosophic concerns.   

Royce’s concluding chapter in the second volume of The World and the Individual, the published book of his 1900 Gifford Lectures, begins with a revealing summary of the previous lectures.  He describes the “result” of the foregoing lectures as an “outline of the basis of a Philosophy of Religion.”[15]  This otherworldly-sounding characterization is immediately qualified as serving the purposes not of escape from this world but from its naturalizing snares.  He reflects on the treatment of “Man” as he is understood from the standpoint of the finite, physical world, and extrapolates:

There is a sense in which man is a product of Nature, and in which his life is but one incident in a vast process of Evolution,--a process whose inner meaning in great part at present escapes us.  We have tried to see the extent to which just this is true.  There is also a sense in which man’s life as a Self appears to be a mere series of relatively accidental, and of shifting social contrast-effects.  We have attempted to show how far this also is the case...[Now] View yourself as an incident, or at best an episode, in the world-embracing process of evolution.  And then, when you have done all this, ask afresh this one question: How can I know all these things?  And how can all these facts themselves possess any Being?  You will find that the only possible answer to your questions will take the form of asserting, in the end, that you can know all this, and that all this can be real, only by reason of an ontological relation that, when rightly viewed, is seen to link yourself, even in all your weakness, to the very life of God, and the whole universe to the meaning of every Individual.[16]


Royce aims to avoid sentimentalizing the harsh, determined view of humans offered by scientistic perspectives, physical and social, which conspire to fit humans with a bleak view of themselves.  Embrace these views, Royce counsels, but probe them to their core.  One of the first discoveries to be made, as Royce argues in the previous lectures, is that they do not come without metaphysical baggage. 

This argument concerning the metaphysically laden character of empirical ideas, prefigured in his earlier elaborations on the experience of the immanent, and in his Hegelian resolution of the relationship between the possible and actual, is the gateway to Royce’s development, over the next eight years, of the philosophy of loyalty (culminating in the 1908 publication of The Philosophy of Loyalty).  Royce’s philosophy of Loyalty is grounded in a prodigious conviction about the personally unique moral contribution each being is capable of making both in and to the world, a contribution impossible if a person conceives herself as a mere empirical object among other empirical objects .  In a letter of 1910 to Elizabeth Randolph, Royce expresses this notion succinctly in response to her having sharpened for him the central existential query:

‘Why must I live?’—Well, first, take me just as I happen to be,--a mere creature who happens to be born, and to want happiness, and who happens to breathe and eat…take me merely thus, as a creature of nature,--and the question has no particular answer…But let me look at my life otherwise.  Suppose I come to see…that there is some good to be done in the world that nobody but myself can do…Well then the question, Why must I live? begins to get its answer.  I must live because my help is needed.[17] 


This letter is a wonderful instance of the urgency and personal character of Royce’s idealistic quest.  Yes, there must be a reason to live, a meaning to existence.  And, yes, that reason and meaning has to issue in a sense of being needed by others, or, “an-other,” generalized into a social community that welcomes the individual task.  But that reason and meaning cannot make sense, and that social community cannot be welcoming to the individual, unless the individual creature herself, first of all, counts for something, a meaning impossible to convey outside of the experiential framework of immanence. 

This argument exonerates Royce from a common objection.  The frequent charge against idealists of Royce’s persuasion, who advocate a social sense of self and a community-conscribed sense of the individual, is that they dissolve the individual into her social functions.  According to this criticism, the individual, in being so needed by the demanding community, ceases to be capable of retaining her sense of individuality.  Just as Dewey headed off such criticisms in his work by appreciation for the need for a more and more “integrated” individuality, so too Royce maintains a deep sensitivity to the particularity of each individual contribution to the social whole.  Every being counts in large amounts.  The community cannot take the shape it takes, and indeed ceases to be a community in proportion to the absence of, the particular individuals who make it up.  The community demands because the community needs, not simply your “contribution”—more a Marxist than a Roycean notion—but you in all of your particularity.

            Royce found scientistic conceptions of humans lacking in just this respect, that they failed to produce a demand for each individual for what she means in her particular existence to the social and ontological whole.  Science is not menacing, Royce holds, so long as we conceive it after the manner of Kant, as a useful tool by allowance of ontological abstraction for expanding our ability to act in the phenomenal world.  But it must be remembered at all points that this scientific tool is useful only, and its being an abstraction from the true ontological relation of humans to their world, cannot be extended to accommodate the desire to imbue human life with meaning and value.



[1] Royce appeals to the experience of immanence to address the problem of evil in his emphasis on the collective deficit realized in any individual act of evil: “…the very solidarity of the moral world implies that when any individual sins, all beings, in a measure, endure the evil consequences; so that, in general, the greater part of any man’s suffering is due to causes that are not in any wise identical with his own free will.”  (Josiah Royce.  The World and the Individual.  London: The Macmillan Company, 1904: 394.

[2] “…your future and your past, your aspect of individuality, and of freedom, and the various aspects wherein you are dependent upon the rest of the world, your whole life of deeds, and your attainment of your individual goal through your deeds,--all these manifold facts that are yours and that constitute you, are present at once to the Absolute…[this enables] us to define in what sense man is one with God…”  (Ibid, 148.

[3] Josiah Royce.  “The Human Self” in The World and the Individual (second series): Nature, Man, and the Moral Order.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904: 270-271.

[4] Ibid, 271.

[5] Though the present author perceives no hard departure in his later thinking from this argument.

[6] James Harry Cotton. Royce on the Human Self.  New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968:131.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This particular set of exchanges with Royce on the logical relation of facts apparently permitted James the opportunity to further distance himself from the atomistic tendencies he displays in his earliest work.

[9] Randall Auxier helpfully suggests to me that this characterization conveys the meaning of “abduction.”  If so, inferences to the best explanation given available facts has a deeper philosophic meaning than the typical Holmesian interpretation of abduction sometimes permits, and the latter is from my perspective the narrower view of James in the exchange discussed.  Elaboration of this interesting point leads far afield however of present considerations.

[10] As Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden (1909) attests, Spencer’s evolutionist thinking was probably at the forefront of the minds of most intellectuals of Royce’s day.

[11] Ibid.

[12] It may well be that this motif is hard for many readers of Royce to accept because it runs counter to a strong propensity in Western minds, that predisposing them towards dualistic thinking.  The pervasiveness of “subjective” and “objective” categories in the Western tradition conspires against the experience of immanence profoundly described and defended in Royce’s idealism.  Experience alleged as “subjective” and then taken as the sounding point for presumed “objective” reality is arguably a notion found in all idealist philosophies.  But as we have recognized, the experience of immanence emphasized in Royce’s idealism entails an originally powerful homing impulse, one pushed, at least for the non-initiated, to near-pathological proportions in its wish to untie what he understood to be the “world knot”: “…we are first to recognize, even more clearly, I say, than common sense, the sharpness of [the] apparent antithesis between the conscious internal and the seemingly external meaning.  Here, as I have said, is indeed the world-knot.”  The World and the Individual (First Volume) “Introduction: The Religious Problems and the Theory of Being,” section V Reprinted in The Philosophy of Josiah Royce.  Edited by John K. Roth.  New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971:  130.

[13] John Clendenning.  The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce.  The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985: 132.

[14] [cite]

[15] Josiah Royce.  The World and the Individual: Nature, Man, and the Moral Order.  The Macmillan Company, 1904: 415.

[16] Ibid, 415-417.

[17] Josiah Royce.  “To Elizabeth Randolph, November 16, 1910.  The Letters of Josiah Royce.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970: 548.