Josiah Royce proved to be the most durable American proponent of the metaphysical position, absolute idealism. The World and the Individual is composed of two series of Gifford Lectures delivered before the University of Aberdeen in 1899 and 1900, the first entitled “The Four Historical Conceptions of Being,” and the second, “Nature, Man, and the Moral Order.” In these lectures, Royce developed, with some significant changes, earlier ideas that he had presented in such works as The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885) and Studies of Good and Evil (1898). A summary of Royce’s philosophical position appears in the last lecture of the second volume:The one lesson of our entire course has thus been the lesson of the unity of finite and of infinite, of temporal dependence and of eternal significance, of the World and all its Individuals, of the One and the Many, of God and Man. Not only in spite, then, of our finite bondage, but because of what it means and implies, we are full of the presence and the freedom of God.

This is a truly revealing statement considered not only as a condensation of Royce’s central claim but also as an indication of the characteristic mode of argument that gives Royce’s philosophy its individual content and flavor, distinguishing it from other versions of idealism. Royce maintains that from human finitude, God’s infinite presence and freedom follow. Royce supposed that the finite, the limited, is conceivable only by comparison with an actual infinitude. It is as if he had argued that humanity, in virtue of its limitations, suggests the actual unlimited, the Absolute—otherwise, there would be no sense in saying that humanity is “limited,” that it does not come up to the mark. Royce’s words are reminiscent of French philosopher René Descartes’s argument that knowledge of humanity’s imperfection leads to knowledge of the actuality of God’s perfection and, hence, of God’s existence.

Royce’s argument claims that from imperfection, knowledge of perfection follows. Hence, from knowledge of purpose, knowledge of fulfillment follows; from knowledge of error or of its possibility, knowledge of the actuality of truth follows; from knowledge of the partial, knowledge of the Absolute; from knowledge of the individual, knowledge of the community—and from knowledge of the unfulfilled and finite individual and community, knowledge of the fulfilled, infinite, “Individual of Individuals,” or God, follows.

Error and Infinity

In “The Possibility of Error,” a chapter in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, Royce argued that the possibility of error implies the actuality of “an infinite unity of conscious thought to which is present all possible thought.” Royce suggested that an error is a thought that aims at being a complete thought in regard to its chosen object, and it is only by comparing the incomplete or inadequate thought with a complete or adequate thought that the incomplete thought can be known to be erroneous. Furthermore, not only could the error not be known to be erroneous were there not a complete thought present to a thinker who could compare the complete thought with the erroneous thought, but the error could not even be an error were there not such an actual complete thought and actual, knowing thinker. An idea could not be incomplete by reference or comparison to nothing or by reference to something other than a thought; for an error to be an error, an actual, adequate thought (and thinker) must exist. Since “there must be possible an infinite mass of error,” there must be an actual, infinite, all-knowing thought.

A pragmatist such as William James or Charles Sanders Peirce would say that a belief can be understood to be erroneous if what one would receive in the way of experience, were one to act appropriately, would run counter to one’s expectations. However, the mere possibility of a more satisfactory and adequate experience was not enough for Royce. Unless there were actually a complete idea, no belief could possibly be erroneous, for no belief could fail to measure up to a complete idea unless there actually was such a complete idea.

Internal and External Meanings

In the preface to The World and the Individual, Royce writes: “As to the most essential argument regarding the true relations between our finite ideas and the ultimate nature of things, I have never varied, in spirit, from the view maintained in . . . The Possibility of Error.’” He refers to a number of books in which the argument was used, then states that “In the present lectures, this argument assumes a decidedly new form.” The new version of the argument is presented in “The Internal and the External Meaning of Ideas,” chapter 7 of the first volume of The World and the Individual. The argument concludes with the fourth (and final) conception of Being considered by Royce: “What is, or what is real, is as such the complete embodiment, in individual form and in final fulfillment, of the internal meaning of finite ideas.” The three conceptions of Being that Royce examined and rejected before settling on this final idea were those of realism, mysticism, and critical rationalism. The fourth conception of Being, for all of the novelty of its presentation, is fundamentally that with which readers of Royce’s earlier works are familiar; and the argument in its support is, strictly speaking, not a new argument distinguishable from the one to be found in “The Possibility of Error” and The Conception of God (1897), but—as Royce himself wrote—the argument in “a decidedly new form.”

To understand the argument in its new form a distinction must be drawn, in Royce’s terms, between the “internal and external meaning” of ideas. According to Royce, an idea “is as much an instance of will as it is a knowing process”; that is, an idea is a partial fulfillment of the purposive act of desiring to have an adequate conception of something. By the “internal meaning” of an idea, Royce meant the “conscious embodiment” of the purpose in the idea. If one tries to get a clear idea about someone, then to the extent that one’s thoughts are directed by that interest and come to have something of the content they would have were one entirely clear in one’s conception,...

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A Theory of Knowledge

With the final conception of Being, the first volume of The World and the Individual comes to a close. In the second volume, Royce worked out the implications of his conception to present an idealistic theory of knowledge, a philosophy of nature, a doctrine about self, a discussion of the human individual, a portrait of the world as “a Moral Order,” a study of the problem of evil, and some conclusions concerning the bearing of these matters on natural religion.

Royce’s idealistic theory of knowledge is a reaffirmation of his central predisposition to accept as real only that which fulfills the purpose of an individual will. Realists talk about “hard” facts, he writes, but analysis shows that “hard” facts are understandable as facts that enable us “even now to accomplish our will better than we could if we did not acknowledge these facts.” A fact is “that which I ought to recognize as determining or limiting what I am here consciously to do or to attempt.” A distinction is drawn between the ethical Ought, definable by reference to a more rational purpose than one’s own, and a theoretical Ought, definable by reference to a world of recognized facts that embodies and fulfills purposes. To know, to apprehend a fact, is to come to have the thought that the present thought would be were its purpose (its internal meaning) fulfilled by further considerations (the external meaning). To know is to think what you...

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The Self and Moral Order

The idea of the human self is constructed not by reference to any “Soul-Substance” but by reference to an “Intent always to remain another than my fellows despite my divinely planned unity with them.” There is no ultimate conflict between individual selves and the Divine Will, “for the Divine Will gets expressed in the existence of me the individual only in so far as this Divine Will . . . includes within itself my own will, as one of its own purposes.”

To justify the claim that reality exhibits a moral order, Royce insists that every evil deed must sometime be “atoned for” or “overruled” by some individual self; in this manner, perfection of the whole is realized. The evil of this world is in its incompleteness, its partial fulfillment of purposes—but because the incomplete and the unfulfilled make sense only by reference to an actual Absolute, by being incomplete they make Being possible as an ordered whole.

Royce regarded God, or Absolute Being, as a person, that is, as “a conscious being, whose life, temporally viewed, seeks its completion through deeds.” God is the totality of all conscious efforts, but viewed eternally, God is an infinite whole that includes temporal process. People are also persons, but not absolute; reality finally consists in God’s reality.

Because the self possesses individuality, a uniqueness of purpose, it can be satisfied only by what is Other, by what fulfills that purpose,...

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Additional Reading

Clendenning, John. The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Taking a chronological approach, Clendenning argues that there is a close relationship between the particulars of Josiah Royce’s life and his metaphysical thought.

Hine, Robert V. Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. This worthwhile historical study of Royce and his times stresses the importance of Royce’s California upbringing.

Kegley, Jacquelyn Ann K. Genuine Individuals and Genuine Communities: A Roycean...

(The entire section is 406 words.)