Bernard Bosanquet (philosopher)

Bernard Bosanquet (July 14, 1848 – February 8, 1923) was an English philosopher and an influential figure on matters of political and social policy in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. Educated at Oxford by Arnold Toynbee and Thomas Hill Green, Bosanquet helped to revive the idealism of Hegel in England, and to apply its principles to social and political problems. He lectured at Oxford (1871–81) and at St. Andrews (1903–8), and spent much of his life involved in social work with poor communities in the city, through the Charity Organization Society (COS), which his older brother Charles had founded.


Bosanquet’s major works include A History of Aesthetic (1892), The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), and The Value and Destiny of the Individual (1913). They exemplified the idealists' discontent with British empiricism at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Bosanquet, all contradictions are merely apparent and are wholly harmonized as part of the Absolute. He supported the scientific study of religion, which encouraged the examination of sacred texts and religious experiences according to the principles of literary and historical analysis, independently of one's religious commitment. His theory of aesthetics emphasized the role of art in self-development, and of aesthetic appreciation in creating an awareness of an existence greater than the self. His political theory was closely related to his metaphysics, and held that social relations and institutions were not ultimately material phenomena, but existed at the level of human consciousness. Individual human beings could only be properly understood in terms of their social and cultural efforts at transcendence. Bosanquet's work influenced, and was also subject to criticism by, many thinkers, notably Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and William James.


Bernard Bosanquet was born on June 14, 1848, at Rock Hall, Northumberland, England, the youngest of five sons born to the Reverend Robert William Bosanquet and Caroline MacDowall, the daughter of Colonel Day Hort MacDowall of Castle Semple, Renfrewshire. Bosanquet studied at various schools and then spent five years at Harrow School. In 1867, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied the classics, including Plato and other Greek philosophers, under Richard Lewis Nettleship. Bosanquet was also influenced by the lectures and the social conscience of Arnold J. Toynbee and Thomas Hill Green. Green introduced Bosanquet to the writings of Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose influences were evident in Bosanquet’s later Gifford Lectures.

Bosanquet graduated with first class honors, and was selected for a fellowship at University College, Oxford, over F. H. Bradley, who later became his intellectual opponent. From 1871 to 1881, Bosanquet taught ancient history and philosophy at Oxford; during that time he published only one document. In 1881, he moved to London, where he began a writing career and involved himself in social work with poor communities in the city. Partly because of his teachers at Oxford, Bosanquet joined the Charity Organization Society (COS), which his older brother, Charles, had founded some years before. Bosanquet apparently did not enjoy working directly with poor people, but became involved in the organization at the committee level, and later taught sociology and social economics at the charity’s school.

Bosanquet wrote all of his philosophical works in London, where he became an active member of the London Ethical Society. His first major philosophical essay, Logic as the Science of Knowledge, appeared in a collection of essays written in the memory of his former professor, T. H. Green, followed by a more thorough Logic in 1888. In Knowledge and Reality, Bosanquet criticized Francis Herbert Bradley, and elaborated his theories on the relationship between the individual and the state. Philosophical Theory of the State followed in the tradition of Aristotle and Rousseau, arguing that the state (or society) is able to civilize individuals.

On December 13, 1895, Bosanquet married Helen Dendy, a social worker with the COS, who had graduated with first-class honors after writing the moral sciences tripos at Cambridge. During 1905 and 1906, she engaged in a heated debate over reform of the Poor Laws, which were then under the scrutiny of a royal commission. In their efforts to combat poverty, Bosanquet and his wife attempted to embed community social work and discussions of "family values" more deeply in the policies of the COS.

Throughout his life, Bosanquet belonged to various organizations including the London Ethical Society and the Aristotelian Society, of which he was president from 1894 to 1898. From 1903 to 1907, he was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1907. He received honorary degrees from various universities including Glasgow, Birmingham, Durham, and St. Andrews. Bosanquet and his wife had spent their summers at a cottage they had built in Oxshott in Surrey, and retired there at the end of Bosanquet’s academic career. Later, because of Bosanquet’s deteriorating health, they moved to London, where he died on February 8, 1923, at the age of 75.

Thought and works

Bosanquet published works on a wide range of topics, including logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and politics. Among his best-known works are A History of Aesthetic (1892), The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899; 4th ed. 1923), and his Gifford lectures, The Principle of Individuality and Virtue (1912) and The Value and Destiny of the Individual (1913).

Bosanquet was one of the leaders of the so-called neo-Hegelian philosophical movement in Great Britain, which helped revive Hegel’s idealism in England and applied its principles to social and political problems. He was strongly influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, but also by the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant. In his metaphysics, he is regarded as a key representative (with F.H. Bradley) of Absolute Idealism, although he abandoned the term in favor of "speculative philosophy." Bosanquet defended a modified version of Hegel's absolute idealism in Logic, or the Morphology of Knowledge (1888), The Principle of Individuality and Value (1912), and The Value and Destiny of the Individual (1914). His work influenced, but was also subject to criticism by many thinkers, notably Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and William James.


Bosanquet's philosophical views embodied the idealists’ discontent with the nineteenth century Anglo-American empiricist and utilitarian orientation of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Alexander Bain; and with the contemporary personalistic idealism and organicism of Herbert Spencer. Bosanquet maintained that many of his ideas could be found in Hegel, Kant, and Rousseau and, ultimately, in classical Greek thought. His ideas resembled in many particulars the thought of his teacher, Thomas Hill Green, and his contemporary, Bradley.


Bosanquet's philosophical views on religion were largely an outgrowth of the early nineteenth century biblical studies of David Strauss, Ferdinand Baur, and others, who initiated what is now called "the scientific study of religion." Religious experience, sacred texts, and religious practice were regarded as phenomena open to critical investigation which could be examined, independently of one's religious commitment, according to the principles of literary and historical analysis. This approach was well-established in Britain, and particularly in Oxford, by the mid-nineteenth century. The distinction of religious practice from dogma, and experience from creeds, was also a feature of the evangelical movement within the Church of England. Bosanquet, as well as many of his fellow idealists, had been raised in an Evangelical household; his later philosophical views were an evolution of his early religious convictions. Despite his conventional religious upbringing, Bosanquet was not an orthodox Christian.

Bosanquet held that religion was central to life and made life worth living; but that many particular religious beliefs, taken literally or at face value, were either incoherent or false. Bosanquet urged Christians to engage in a hermeneutical enterprise, and "learn to interpret" the sacred books, though he doubted that their actual meaning could ever be understood. He maintained that some religious beliefs, if examined logically, do not mean what many believe them to mean. He used the example of describing God as an “infinite individual,” when attributing "infinity" to a being would be inconsistent with “every predicate which we attach to personality.” Bosanquet held that religious belief in general is not concerned with a supernatural being or transcendent realm which enters into our daily lives, but focuses on what takes place in the world.


Bosanquet was the author of the first history of aesthetics in English, A History of Aesthetic (1892), but his writings on aesthetics were not as well known as those of R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) or Benedetto Croce (1866-1952). The literary scholar and Oxford Professor of Poetry, A.C. Bradley referred to Bosanquet as “the only British philosopher of the first rank who had dealt fully with this branch of philosophy (aesthetics).”

Bosanquet’s works were replete with examples and illustrations taken from the arts. He read widely and particularly appreciated poetry, from the classics to the moderns. He served for several years on the (London) Council of the Home Arts and Industries Association. Among Bosanquet’s early works was a translation of The Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art (1886) and he was the author of several articles on aesthetics, A History of Aesthetic (1892), a series of lectures on aesthetics given to the London Ethical Society (1895-96), and Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915).

Bosanquet's aesthetics is indebted to Hegel, the Romantic poets, the "Arts and Crafts" movement, and the philosophy of Hermann Lotze (1817-1881). Bosanquet agreed with Hegel's views on the function and the development of art, but he was also influenced by the writers of the Romantic movement, J.W. Goethe, Schelling, William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Blake. Bosanquet rejected any emphasis of emotion over reason, and believed that limits were important to art and to artistic activity in general, but he adopted the Romantic emphasis on unity, the importance of art as a form of self-expression essential to the development of the self, and organic conception of nature.

In several early essays (from 1886 to 1890), Bosanquet examined how art leads to an expansion of the self, both of the artist in creating a work, and of the spectator in appreciating it. In the moment, aesthetic appreciation leads to a greater ability to appreciate not only art, but life. In the long term, art is a vehicle for achieving insights concerning the unity of reality, and for experiencing something greater than ourselves.

Bosanquet criticized Croce for ignoring that “the aesthetic attitude is learnt,” and that characterizing language as merely expression excludes logic and conceptual meaning from it, and results in a metaphysical “singleness” without substance, content, or “definite meaning.” Bosanquet also felt that, by restricting the aesthetic solely to the realm of art, Croce ignored the role of the beauty of nature in calling us ‘out of ourselves’ and to the recognition of the real, and failed to provide an adequate statement of the relation between the aesthetic, nature, and the metaphysical.

Bosanquet's account of the production of the work of art and the nature of aesthetic appreciation advances the theory of Hegel, by understanding art and aesthetic experience as something more than a prelude to religion, and by re-situating them within the history of the development of consciousness.

Social and political philosophy

Bosanquet's social and political philosophy, written in reaction to the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, and to the natural-rights based theory of Herbert Spencer, is called "idealist" because he held that social relations and institutions were not, ultimately, material phenomena, but existed at the level of human consciousness. Bosanquet's views showed the influence of Hegel, Kant, and the classical Greek thought of Plato and Aristotle. Bosanquet often spoke of his political theory as reflecting principles found in "classical philosophy," and one of his early works was a commentary on Plato's Republic. Nevertheless, his political thought lies clearly within the tradition of liberalism.

Bosanquet developed his social and political philosophy in dozens of articles and essays which he wrote for professional academic journals, for publications of the Charity Organisation Society and for the popular press, but the main source for his ideas is The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899; 4th ed., 1923). Bosanquet's principal concern was to explain the basis of political authority and the state, the place of the citizen in society, and the nature, source and limits of human rights. His political theory was closely related to his metaphysics and logic and to his conceptions of the individual, the general will, "the best life," society, and the state. In order to provide a unified account of these concepts, Bosanquet argued that it was necessary to abandon the liberal commitment to individualism. Bosanquet further argued, in The Philosophical Theory of the State, that individual human beings are properly understood only in terms of their social and cultural efforts at transcendence.


  • Bosanque, Bernard and John H. Muirhead. Bernard Bosanquet and his Friends: Letters Illustrating the Sources and the Development of his Philosophical Opinions. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935. ISBN 041529553X
  • Bosanquet, Helen Dendy. Bernard Bosanquet, a Short Account of his Life. London: Macmillan, 1924.
  • Hoernlé, R F Alfred. Bernard Bosanquet's Philosophy of the State. New York: Academy of Political Science, 1919.
  • Sprigge, Timothy L S. The God of Metaphysics: Being a Study of the Metaphysics and Religious Doctrines of Spinoza, Hegel, Kierkegaard, T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, Josiah Royce, A.N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Concluding with a Defence of Pantheistic Idealism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. ISBN 0199283044
  • Sweet, William. Bernard Bosanquet and the Legacy of British Idealism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. ISBN 080208981X
  • --------. Idealism and Rights: The Social Ontology of Human Rights in the Political Thought of Bernard Bosanquet. Lanham: University Press of America, 1997. ISBN 0761832556

External links

All links retrieved June 3, 2016.

General philosophy sources


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