The World and the Individual

by Josiah Royce

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 284 words.)

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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

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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, then to that extent one’s idea has internal meaning. Unless to some extent one fulfills the purpose of one’s thought by thinking accurately, one cannot be said to have an object of thought: In thinking about someone, one has to think accurately enough, at least, to identify that person as the object of one’s conception. Internal meaning, then, is a function of, and consequence of, human will and purpose.

However, ideas refer beyond themselves to something external, not part of their content. Royce asks, “How is it possible that an idea, which is an idea essentially and primarily because of the inner purpose that it consciously fulfills by its presence, also possesses a meaning that in any sense appears to go beyond this internal purpose?” The answer is that the external meaning of an idea is the “completely embodied internal meaning of the idea.” In other words, a finite thought fulfills itself to some extent by managing to be about something; but what one aims at is a more complete and adequate idea, a fuller conception, one that fulfills one’s purpose in thinking. Yet unless there is such an adequate idea, such an external meaning, then the incomplete thought, the unfulfilled idea, the partial conception, aims at nothing. If it has no objective, it cannot fail; and if it cannot fail, it cannot be incomplete or partial. Hence, the possibility of unfulfilled internal meanings implies the actuality of external meanings, and the totality of external meanings is God. God is the “Other,” the fulfillment of purpose, which alone can be the object of thought. An idea is true to the extent that it “corresponds, even in its vagueness, to its own final and completely individual expression.”

Royce built his conception of God in such a manner that God, or that Being that is the absolute fulfillment of all individual wills, “sees the one plan fulfilled through all the manifold lives, the single consciousness winning its purpose by virtue of all the ideas, of all the individual selves, and of all the lives.”

Another insight that serves to illuminate Royce’s philosophy and his method is the realization that for Royce, “the world is real only as the object of true ideas.” To be the “object” of an idea is to be that at which the idea aims, its objective; and the objective of the idea (of the thinker) is a completely adequate thought, one that fulfills the original purpose in thinking. Hence, if “the world is real only as the object of true ideas,” the world is real only as an absolutely adequate thought, itself an expression of will. The consequence is that God alone is real—but, then, insofar as any individual or any thought fulfills the purpose that has being because of the finite individuals and wills, then just to that extent the finite individual or thought is real, part of Being. Thus, unity is achieved despite the variety and finitude of things. The individual contributes to the Being who fulfills the purposes of the individuals.

A Theory of Knowledge

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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 ought to think relative to the purpose of your thought. Facts are objective in that they are “other than” the present, incomplete thoughts; one’s grounds for acknowledging facts are subjective in that they are related to one’s purposes, the intentions of one’s wills; however, the objective and subjective are synthesized by “the essential Teleological constitution of the realm of facts”—a teleological constitution that is understood once reality or Being is recognized as absolutely ordered and fulfilling will.

Royce argues that to those who see reality in a fragmentary fashion, facts appear to be disconnected; but there is, he claims, a linkage of facts that illuminates the particular character of each fact. Analogously, through temporal failures and efforts, the reality of eternal fulfillment is won.

To Royce, it appears that people’s wills are such that they cannot be satisfied by the mere addition of content, additional facts; for the full expression of will, other wills are necessary. Finally, fulfillment comes only from a system of wills that is such that Being is a unity, a one out of many, a will (the Individual of Individuals) that is the infinite, eternal embodiment of individual wills that, by their temporal efforts, have contributed to the reality of the whole.

According to Royce, the idea that nature is hopelessly divided between matter and mind is itself the product of a scientific enterprise motivated by social concerns. The fulfillment of that social concern is best served by recognizing the unsatisfactory character of a conception that maintains a diversity in nature, an irreconcilable tension between matter and mind. The conception of the natural world “as directly bound up with the experiences of actually conscious beings” is more in accord with the fourth conception of Being that the first series of lectures was designed to advance. The idea of a nonconscious, nonliving, nonwilling reality is unacceptable, for to be, to be real, is to be the conscious fulfillment of purpose. Thus, if nature is real, nature is the conscious fulfillment of purpose.

The Self and Moral Order

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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, namely, God. However, God is eternal. Consequently, the immortality of self is assured.

One can come to understand, provided one views Royce’s arguments with sympathetic tolerance, how if the self is realized only in God, there is a sense in which the self (the individual) and God are one—although viewed from the varying perspectives of time and purpose, they are distinct. However, if the self and God are one, then, in the respect in which they are one, they are alike: God’s eternity, then, is humanity’s, and this is humanity’s immortality. Although the individual self, in being distinguished from other selves by its peculiar purposive striving, is only partial, in contributing to the reality of the Absolute and in becoming unified with the Absolute, it is itself absolute. The part is equal to the whole, even though, considered otherwise than by reference to the final unity, the part is distinguishable from the whole.

The World and the Individual is eloquent witness to Royce’s moral sincerity and intellectual acumen. Fantastic as the idealistic image is to realists who presuppose an unconcerned and unconscious material world, it has a certain intellectual charm and moral persuasiveness to one who is willing to sympathize with the interest that leads Royce to deny that anything could be real, could be worthy of the honorific name “being,” that did not show itself to be a conscious effort to go beyond the limits of fragmentary knowledge and experience to a recognition of and identity with the whole of such effort. If such a proposition as “All Being is the fulfillment of purpose” is taken not as a description of the facts of the matter in regard to the kind of world the physicist studies, but as a suggestion that all human effort be directed to the ideal cooperation of all seekers after truth and goodness, The World and the Individual comes to be recognizable as a revolutionary manifesto directed to the human spirit—something quite different from the naïve speculative expression of an idealistic philosopher remote from the world of hard facts.


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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 Public Philosophy. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997. Uses Royce’s outlook to develop a social philosophy that emphasizes the interdependence of individuality and community.

Kuklick, Bruce. Josiah Royce: An Intellectual Biography. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. Relating Royce to the issues of his time, Kuklick provides a reliable study of Royce’s ideas and their place in the history of American philosophy.

McDermott, John J., ed. The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. McDermott’s introductions show how Royce set a “herculean task” for himself, namely, to provide a complete philosophical account of the nature of experience.

Oppenheim, Frank M. Royce’s Mature Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. This detailed study by an important Royce scholar shows how Royce’s moral philosophy developed and why it emphasized communal relationships so strongly.

Oppenheim, Frank M. Royce’s Mature Philosophy of Religion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. A thoughtful appraisal of Royce’s developing understanding of God and religious experience as key ingredients in his metaphysical idealism.

Roth, John K., ed. The Philosophy of Josiah Royce. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982. Roth suggests that Royce’s lasting contributions are to be found more in his analysis of finite human experience than in his metaphysical conclusions.

Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. Rev. ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. This classic study attempts to locate a common American spirit among five varied thinkers by interpreting the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead as well as the thought of Royce.

Smith, John E., and William Klubach. Josiah Royce: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. This book’s introductory material and selections emphasize Royce’s contributions to religious thought and understanding.

Trotter, Griffin. The Loyal Physician: Roycean Ethics and the Practice of Medicine. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997. Shows how Royce’s ethics and their emphasis on loyalty have important implications for the practice of medicine.