Bernard Bosanquet (philosopher)

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Bernard Bosanquet

Born14 June 1848
Rock Hall, near Alnwick, England
Died8 February 1923(1923-02-08) (aged 74)
London, England
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Helen Dendy (m. 1895)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School British idealism

Bernard Bosanquet FBA ( /ˈbzənˌkɛt,-kɪt/ ; 14 June [1] 1848 – 8 February 1923) was an English philosopher and political theorist, and an influential figure on matters of political and social policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work influenced but was later subject to criticism by many thinkers, notably Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and William James. Bernard was the husband of Helen Bosanquet, the leader of the Charity Organisation Society.



Born at Rock Hall near Alnwick, Bosanquet was the son of Robert William Bosanquet, a Church of England clergyman. He was educated at Harrow School and Balliol College, Oxford. After graduation, he was elected to a Fellowship at University College, Oxford, but, after receiving a substantial inheritance, resigned it in order to devote himself to philosophical research. He moved to London in 1881, [2] where he became an active member of the London Ethical Society and the Charity Organisation Society. Both were positive demonstrations of Bosanquet's ethical philosophy. Bosanquet published on a wide range of topics, such as logic, metaphysics, aesthetics and politics. In his metaphysics, he is regarded as a key representative (with F. H. Bradley) of absolute idealism, although it is a term that he abandoned in favour of "speculative philosophy".

He was one of the leaders of the so-called neo-Hegelian philosophical movement in Great Britain. He was strongly influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, but also by the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Among his best-known works are The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), his Gifford lectures, The Principle of Individuality and Value (1912) and The Value and Destiny of the Individual (1913).

Bosanquet was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1894 to 1898.

Idealist social theory

In his Encyclopedia, Section 95, Hegel had written about "the ideality of the finite." This obscure, seemingly meaningless, phrase was interpreted as implying that "what is finite is not real" [3] because the ideal is understood as being the opposite of the real. Bosanquet was a follower of Hegel and the "central theme of Bosanquet's idealism was that every finite existence necessarily transcends itself and points toward other existences and finally to the whole. Thus, he advocated a system very close to that in which Hegel had argued for the ideality of the finite." [3]

The relation of the finite individual to the whole state in which he or she lives was investigated in Bosanquet's Philosophical Theory of the State (London, 1899). In this book, he "argued that the state is the real individual and that individual persons are unreal by comparison with it." [3] But Bosanquet did not think that the state has a right to impose social control over its individual citizens. "On the contrary, he believed that if society is organic and individual, then its elements can cooperate apart from a centralised organ of control, the need for which presupposes that harmony has to be imposed upon something that is naturally unharmonious." [3]

The relationship between the individual and society was summarised in Bosanquet's preface to The Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art (1886):

Man's Freedom, in the sense thus contemplated, lies in the spiritual or supra-sensuous world by which his humanity is realized, and in which his will finds fulfilment. The family, for example, property, and law are the first steps of man's freedom. In them the individual's will obtains and bestows recognition as an agent in a society whose bond of union is ideal — i.e. existing only in consciousness ; and this recognition develops into duties and rights. It is in these that man finds something to live for, something in which and for the sake of which to assert himself. As society develops he lives on the whole more in the civilized or spiritual world, and less in the savage or purely natural world. His will, which is himself, expands with the institutions and ideas that form its purpose, and the history of this expansion is the history of human freedom. Nothing is more shallow,more barbarously irrational, than to regard the progress of civilization as the accumulation of restrictions. Laws and rules are a necessary aspect of extended capacities. (p. xxvii) [4]




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  1. Bernard Bosanquet by Helen Bosanquet, London, 1924, p. 7. Many printed sources report a different, incorrect date, 14 July. The original source of this error is unknown.
  2. 'Britannica
  3. 1 2 3 4 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3, "Idealism", New York, 1967
  4. "The Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art". Kegan Paul Trench & Co. 1886. Retrieved 13 December 2016.