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.