Josiah Royce Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Royce was the last major philosopher of the twentieth century to integrate theological or religious topics with idealistic philosophy and to present his system to the general reader in terms of community and loyalty. He advanced philosophic idealism and played a significant role in Harvard University’s intellectual development.

Early Life

Josiah Royce was born November 20, 1855, in Grass Valley, California. His parents, Josiah Royce, Sr. (1812-1888), and Sarah Bayliss Royce (1819-1891), had come to California during the gold rush of 1849. They were pious, evangelical Christians. Since Royce’s father was never successful in any of his various business activities and, as a salesman, was often absent from the home, his mother played a major role in shaping young Josiah’s world. He was a sickly boy, short, freckled, with wild red hair; his mother did not allow him to play with the other children in the community. According to later autobiographical remarks, Royce was fascinated by the problem of time: He considered his hometown old, yet people referred to Grass Valley as a “new community.” Meanwhile, in 1866 Royce entered Lincoln Grammar School in San Francisco, the family having moved there for better economic opportunities and educational possibilities for “Jossie.” After a year at San Francisco Boy’s High School, which in 1869 had a distinct militaristic manner that Royce hated, he entered the preparatory class at the University of California in Oakland. Within five years, Royce received his bachelor of arts degree in classics. As a result of his achievement, local patrons of the university sponsored him for a year’s study in Germany.

Accordingly, from 1875 to 1876, Royce studied at Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Göttingen. His area of study was philosophy. His early concerns about time, the individual, and the community now found expression in his study overseas and at The Johns Hopkins University, the pioneer in graduate study and research. Enrolling in 1876, Royce completed his Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins within two years. Jobs teaching philosophy were scarce, and—very unwillingly—Royce returned to the University of California, where he taught English rhetoric and literature for the next four years. He did not, however, give up his study of philosophy.

In 1880, Royce married Katharine Head; the couple produced three sons. Royce kept his public role and private life separate, although the latter often indirectly revealed itself in his letters. Having met William James while at Johns Hopkins, Royce corresponded with him, and in 1883 Royce joined the Harvard faculty as a temporary replacement for James, who was on academic leave. Royce could now be a full-time philosopher.

Life’s Work

Having published fifteen articles by the time of his temporary appointment, Royce worked very hard, teaching and writing, to gain a permanent place on the Harvard faculty. Within six years he would achieve tenure and have a nervous breakdown. The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885) was based on lectures which he published as a book. This was a method he used for nearly all of his books. Exceptions were California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco, 1856: A Study of American Character (1886), a state history, and The Feud of Oakfield Creek (1887), a novel; both books were early reflections of Royce’s lifelong interest in community and individual behavior.

After spending most of the year 1888 traveling to Australia as a cure for his nervous condition, Royce returned to Harvard with a fuller grasp of his ideas as well as the energy to express them. After publishing The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), he was appointed professor of the history of philosophy at Harvard. He continued to write on an extraordinary range of topics, but his basic focus was on religious values and philosophy; The Conception of God (1897) and Studies of Good and Evil (1898) were typical expressions of that focus. During the years 1894 through 1898, Royce was chairman of the Department of Philosophy, and...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

After teaching in San Francisco and at the University of California at Berkeley, Royce moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1882 and distinguished himself as a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. There he became close friends with the American pragmatist William James, although Royce’s philosophy differed fundamentally from that of his famous colleague.

Royce’s philosophical idealism stressed that a human self is a center of purpose and striving; therefore, human life involves suffering and a struggle with evil. Royce affirmed, however, that in facing these obstacles courageously, in achieving success wherever one can, and in recognizing that one’s relationship with the Absolute, or God, entails the overcoming of every evil, one can experience positive meaning and joy.

According to Royce, such human fulfillment depends on loyalty, which he defined as “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” Not all causes are good ones, but Royce believed that the act of being loyal is good whenever it does occur. He concluded that the most fundamental principle of the moral life ought to be that of being loyal to loyalty. This principle points toward a community where all individuals are free, where they use their abilities and cultivate their interests, and where all these persons and factors encourage and support one another.