Leonard T. Hobhouse Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Hobhouse helped develop the theoretical basis of modern liberalism and was the founder of sociology as an academic discipline in Great Britain.

Early Life

Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse was born in the small fishing village of St. Ive on the east coast of Cornwall, England, on September 8, 1864. His paternal grandfather, Henry Hobhouse, a member of the landed gentry, was permanent Undersecretary of State at the Home Office. Leonard’s father, Reginald, was the Rector of St. Ive. Leonard’s mother, Caroline Trelawny, was the daughter of the eighth baronet of Trelawny, Cornwall. Her family was prominent in Liberal politics; Caroline’s brother, John, was a Radical Liberal Member of Parliament for twenty-two years.

The young Hobhouse’s formal education was typical of British upper-class families. After attending a preparatory school at Exmouth, he went to a prominent public school, Marlborough College, from 1877 to 1883. While at Marlborough, his political opinions changed from Conservative to Liberal. This change may have been precipitated by the emergence of his uncle, Arthur Hobhouse, whose criticisms of the Conservative government’s expansionist policy in Afghanistan brought him to prominence as a Liberal political figure. Leonard’s father, however, was a staunch Conservative and was shocked by the shift in his son’s views. He was even more disturbed when he discovered that Leonard had broken away from his High Church Anglicanism and was claiming that he was an agnostic, an avowal that directly affected Leonard’s college career. Although members of the Hobhouse family had traditionally gone to Balliol College, Oxford, Reginald encouraged Leonard to apply at the more conservative Corpus Christi College at Oxford because he feared that the intellectual atmosphere at Balliol would strengthen Leonard’s unorthodox religious opinions.

During his four years at Corpus Christi College, Hobhouse was an exceptional student. His course of study was based on the classics and involved intensive study of ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy. Hobhouse’s study of classical Greece had a lasting influence on his ethical and political theories; he became convinced, for example, that the ancient Greek city-state was the ideal of what a true moral community should be like.

After receiving a first-class honors degree for his superior academic performance at Corpus Christi, Hobhouse was awarded a prize fellowship to do graduate study in philosophy at Merton College, Oxford. While at Merton from 1887 to 1890, Hobhouse studied under two of the outstanding nineteenth century British philosophers, both of whom were prominent figures in the British Idealist movement: William Wallace and F. H. Bradley. Hobhouse’s work at Merton was sufficiently impressive that in 1890 he was appointed a fellow of that college, and he taught philosophy there until 1894, when he became a fellow of Corpus Christi College. Although he later became a critic of Idealism, it should not be surprising, given his close contact with the leading spokesmen for British Idealism over a seven-year period, that Hobhouse incorporated important Idealist doctrines into his own philosophical system.

In addition to his academic interests, Hobhouse was deeply involved in several groups which comprised the political Left at Oxford in the late nineteenth century. He was a member of the Russell Club, an organization of Radical Liberals, and of two groups established by Thomas Hill Green’s devotees: the Oxford Economic Society and the Inner Ring. Both societies shared Green’s conviction that economic problems could not be divorced from ethical considerations and attempted to apply Green’s theories to specific social problems. Hobhouse soon became involved in Toynbee Hall, the East London settlement house, and in efforts to organize Oxfordshire agricultural laborers into a union. He also became acquainted with the leading left-wing intellectuals of that time. Although he did not become a Fabian, he was favorably impressed with Sidney Webb following a long discussion with him, while the founder of the Oxford University Fabian Society, Sidney Ball, became one of his closest friends.

Life’s Work

Hobhouse’s first book, The Labour Movement, was published in 1893 and established his reputation as Green’s successor at Oxford. It reflected Hobhouse’s conviction that traditional Liberalism had become an obstacle to social improvement. In its place Hobhouse proposed a type of Liberal Collectivism; his book was intended to provide the theoretical basis for this new movement. Although parts of his theory were influenced by Fabian economics, Hobhouse’s central philosophical analysis consisted of a refinement of Green’s concept of positive freedom. Like Green, Hobhouse believed that state intervention was necessary in order to increase individual liberty, even if that meant the coercion of some individuals in order to enlarge the scope of freedom for others.

Hobhouse taught philosophy at Oxford for seven years, and even after he moved into other areas of employment he continued to think of himself as a philosopher. He published three essays in Mind, a leading philosophy journal, in 1891, and in the following year he was invited to join the prestigious Aristotelian Society. In 1891, he married an Oxford student, Nora Hadwin; they had several children, and it appeared that he would spend the rest of his life teaching philosophy at Oxford. Yet his initial efforts to establish his reputation as a philosopher brought him into conflict with Great Britain’s leading philosopher, Bradley, and this left Hobhouse despondent about continuing to teach at Oxford.

The publication in 1896 of Hobhouse’s first philosophical work, The Theory of Knowledge, was a critical turning point in his chosen career. It attempted to refute the Idealist theory of knowledge as presented by its most eloquent spokesman, Bradley, at a time when Idealism was the dominant philosophical system at Oxford. In arguing that the intentionality of consciousness proved the existence of an extraconscious reality, Hobhouse’s critical realism anticipated the direction which the reaction against Idealism would take later in the twentieth century. William James was impressed with Hobhouse’s book and believed that he had succeeded in refuting Bradley’s theory of relations, but within Oxford the book received a cold response. Hobhouse was so hurt by this reaction that he resolved to leave Oxford if the opportunity arose. When C. P. Scott, the editor of...

(The entire section is 2718 words.)