Bosanquet, Culture, and the Influence of Idealist Logic

William Sweet

While now far less known than in the early decades of this century, the philosopher and social theorist, Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923), was one of the principal representatives of British Idealism (the other being F.H. Bradley). Bosanquet's writings were influenced largely by his reading of Aristotle and Hegel, and it has been suggested that his views, especially on topics related to culture, were gradually influenced by the 'absolutist' metaphysics he inherited from them, and that he became, ultimately, 'anti-humanist.'

I will argue, however, that Bosanquet's discussion of cultural phenomena in fact reflects principles present in his logic--principles articulated long before his explicitly absolutist views--and from a period in which he clearly held humanist values. This, I conclude, obliges us to reevaluate some of the standard assessments of Bosanquet's philosophy.


The word 'culture', in a broad sense, refers to "the whole way of life, material, intellectual, and spiritual, of a given society." It is understood as not simply what exists in a society at a particular moment, but as something both historical and dynamic. Moreover, a discussion of the 'whole way of life' of a society involves more than artistic and intellectual work; it includes a society's customs, its mores and moral principles, its laws, its manner of educating its citizens, and its understanding of spiritual life.

Much of Bosanquet's work was concerned with culture, though he never wrote explicitly on the topic. Among his principal interests was the moral, intellectual and spiritual development of individuals in society--'the perfection of human personality' ('perfection,' here, being a synonym for 'cultivation')--and the practices and institutions that contributed to this. In his some 20 books and over 200 articles and reviews, he wrote on ethics, aesthetics, religion, education, social work and social policy, law, and psychology. Indeed, one of his earliest works was a collection of humanist essays entitled The Civilization of Christendom.


There is, then, little associated with the term 'culture' that Bosanquet did not study. To see better what was involved in his understanding of this issue, I shall begin by focusing on three of the 'constituents' of culture indicated above--aesthetics, religion and social life.

a. Aesthetics

Bosanquet's views on culture are perhaps best illustrated in his aesthetics. His A History of Aesthetic (1892) was the first such study in the English language and, in addition to several essays on the topic, his writings in metaphysics, ethics and religion are replete with examples from the world of art.

In Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915), Bosanquet was primarily concerned with analysing the 'aesthetic attitude' which, he says, is an activity of the whole person--"body-and-mind." Starting from the case of simple aesthetic experience, he says that the aesthetic attitude or consciousness is 'a preoccupation with a pleasant feeling, embodied in an object [i.e., "an appearance presented to us through perception or imagination"] which can be contemplated'. There is no distinction between 'art' and the feelings it evokes in us, and when we imaginatively contemplate an art object, we are "able to live in it as an embodiment of our feeling". The work of art, then, is not so much an object of contemplation as something in which the observer finds him or herself 'expressed.'

Art is, then, an expression of spirit, but is also revelatory of the spiritual character of the world. It brings us out of our finite selves, and yet into contact with values that deepen our self-understanding.

Finally, the appreciation of a work of art requires understanding it as a whole or as a unity--by reference not only to the elements or features within the art object itself, but to the environment in which the work comes to be. Art (and aesthetic consciousness) have their basis, as it were, only in a community or a larger whole. For Bosanquet, aesthetic consciousness and art are important aspects of human life, though an analysis of them is inseparable from an understanding of human consciousness.

Yet Bosanquet's interests go beyond providing an analysis of aesthetic experience. He was also concerned with such questions as the different 'kinds' of beauty. Bosanquet suggests that while we may normally distinguish between beauty and ugliness, there is nothing that is truly ugly in genuine art. Thus, he speaks of 'difficult' beauty--i.e., cases where, because of some feature in the object (e.g., tension or intricacy) and of some failure in the individual observer (e.g., of education, imagination, experience, or effort), there is an inability to appreciate the beauty of the object.

b. Religion

Bosanquet's account of religion is typical of the humanistic demythologising of the 19th century (e.g., by David Strauss and Ferdinand Baur)--although, interestingly, one also finds parallels between it and some contemporary philosophy of religion (e.g., that of D.Z. Phillips).

Bosanquet defines 'religion' as "that set of objects, habits, and convictions […] which [one] would rather die for than abandon, or at least would feel himself excommunicated from humanity if he did abandon"--this, he adds, could well differ from one's "nominal creed." Thus, 'religious belief' is something to which an individual has a commitment, which is a part of one's sense of self and which he or she considers more important than his or her own life, but it does not entail holding any specific set of beliefs or dogmas. In fact, Bosanquet challenged such traditional notions as the personality of God and the existence of an afterlife.

But this does not mean that Bosanquet thought that religion was false. He held that religious belief is 'true' so far as it is an expression of a nisus to totality or a move to wholeness--e.g., to the "unity of will and belief in the supreme Good." And to the extent that religious belief is, and promotes, a unity at the level of consciousness, it can also be said to be 'true.'

Religion--in the sense of practice and the holding of particular beliefs--is something that Bosanquet sees as having 'evolved' from a 'subjective' to an 'objective' form towards what he calls 'Absolute religion.' He holds that Christianity is a religion where we find divinity "progressively revealing itself" and where there is "a true sense of 'unity between object and subject'." This, he says, is a progress over earlier stages of religion. But, he continues, Christianity itself must evolve, so that "man more fully apprehends his true humanity and his oneness with the spirit which is in the world". No existing set of practices or beliefs, then, constitutes a complete expression of the 'truth.'

c. Social Life

A third concern for Bosanquet, bearing on culture, was social life--politics, law, ethics, social reform and public policy.

In The Philosophical Theory of the State and in related essays, Bosanquet's aim was to address issues in contemporary political thought and, in particular, the 'problem' of political obligation. Here, he developed Rousseau's conception of the 'general will,' and used this to explain the nature of the state, its positive role in human freedom, and its limits. This same notion of the general or 'real' will enabled Bosanquet both to provide an account of human rights based on one's 'station' in society and the duties that followed from it and to explain the nature of punishment (which he took to be largely retributive).

What is this 'real' will? On Bosanquet's view, the will of the individual is "a mental system" whose parts—"ideas or groups of ideas"—are "connected in various degrees, and more or less subordinated to some dominant ideas which, as a rule, dictate the place and importance" of the other ideas that one has. Thus, "[i]n order to obtain a full statement of what we will, what we want at any moment must at least be corrected and amended by what we want at all other moments." In fact, given that these dominant ideas are shared with others, to know what one's will is, one must be concerned with all of the other wants, purposes, associations and feelings that she and others have (or might have) given all of the knowledge available. The 'product' is one's 'real will'.

Bosanquet sees a relation between this will and the 'common good'—"the ineradicable impulse of an intelligent being to a good extending beyond itself." This 'good' is nothing other than "the existence and the perfection of human personality" which Bosanquet identifies with "the excellence of souls" and the complete realisation of the individual.

Now so far as the state reflects this will and this common good, its action is morally allowable. Like Hegel, Bosanquet saw the modern state as an 'organism', reflecting a shared understanding of the good—though he extended Hegel's account so that legitimate state action was principally 'the hindrance of hindrances' to human development. Moreover, like Hegel, he argued that the state, like all other 'social institutions' was best understood as an 'ethical idea' and as existing at the level of consciousness. Again, it is in terms of the 'common good' that one's 'station' or 'function' in society was defined, and it is conscientiously carrying out of the duties attached to one's 'station' that constitutes ethical behaviour. Thus, Bosanquet rejects a "false particularisation" of individuals which emphasizes them as 'isolated' beings, independent of a "relation to the end." In fact, it is primarily in light of one's service in the social order that a person has the basis for speaking of his or her particular identity. Even if people cannot be 'reduced' to their special service or 'function,' they clearly cannot be separated from it.


We can see from this brief outline of Bosanquet's views on aesthetics, religion, and social and political that certain principles recur.

It has generally been held that these common principles are determined by Bosanquet's absolute idealist metaphysics. For example, the notion of 'the Absolute'--the most comprehensive description of reality--was a central theme of his Gifford lectures, The Principle of Individuality and Value and The Value and Destiny of the Individual. Still, one cannot say that Bosanquet's views on culture are just extrapolations of this 'absolutism.' It is important to note that Bosanquet's fullest articulation of his metaphysics came late in life (when he was 63 years old), and after much of his work in aesthetics, religion, and social philosophy had been done. Arguably, it is not his metaphysics that determined his views on culture, but the other way around--his aesthetics and analyses of religion and social life provided guidelines for his metaphysics.

But if it is not Bosanquet's metaphysics that explains the recurrent themes in these different aspects of culture, what does? I would suggest that what underlies Bosanquet's study of culture--and the whole of his philosophical work--is his logic and, specifically, his view of the logical character of 'individuality.' His earliest philosophical work was in logic, and his interest in logic continued through his career.

To see how Bosanquet's logic is fundamental to his philosophy--and, specifically, to his analysis of culture--it is instructive to consider what he says logic is.

In The Principle of Individuality and Value, Bosanquet states that "By Logic we understand, with Plato and Hegel, the supreme law or nature of experience, the impulse towards unity and coherence [...] by which every fragment yearns towards the whole to which it belongs, and every self to its completion in the Absolute, and of which the Absolute itself is at once an incarnation and a satisfaction." It is, he writes, "the clue to reality, value and freedom."

There seem to be three fundamental features in this logic. First, logic is concerned with "the properties which are possessed by objects or ideas in so far as they are members of the world of knowledge." Everything that can be studied must be 'asserted in consciousness' and, thus, falls into the province of logic. Second, Bosanquet writes that reality is "composed of contents determined by systematic combination in a single coherent structure." To have a complete description of some thing, then, it must be understood in its context and in its relations to other things. Bosanquet's coherence theory of truth reflects this. To say that a judgement is 'true,' we take the system in which the judgement is bound up and then we note "how unintelligible that part of our world... would become if we denied that judgement." Third, acknowledging the essential incompleteness of our understanding of the world, Bosanquet's logic is 'dialectical,' wherein 'experience forces thought along certain lines from partial to more complete notions.' The coherence of thought is arrived at via an evolutionary process. Still, this does not mean that we will some day arrive at ultimate truth. Bosanquet notes that "the true meaning of propositions lies always ahead of fully conscious usage, as the real reality lies ahead of actual experience.'

Now, each of these logical principles are present throughout Bosanquet's reflections on culture.

For example, Bosanquet speaks of the aesthetic experience as the assertion of a work of art in consciousness; this is clearly parallel to his claim that thought is 'the self assertion of reality [...] within [...] a mind.' Moreover, as he notes at the beginning of his Three Lectures, aesthetic experience is 'common'--i.e., it is something that requires others and is shared. Again, in art, as in logic, no element is 'isolated;' starting from any particular, we are led to the 'whole'--i.e., what Bosanquet will later, in his metaphysics, call 'the Absolute.' Thus, art allows access to the Absolute through 'feeling' (in Bosanquet's broad sense of the term). And because of the interdependency among its parts, a work of art as a whole can be seen as a universal--what Bosanquet calls a 'concrete universal.' Furthermore, just as, in logic, there is no absolute error, so there is no genuine ugliness in art; what we call error and ugliness, respectively, is simply failing to see the phenomenon to be explained in relation to the whole. In short, Bosanquet's aesthetics reflects his coherence theory. Indeed, his most direct statement of his philosophical method is given in the Three Lectures: that "I only know in philosophy one method, and that is to expand all the relevant facts, taken together, into ideas which approve themselves to thought as exhaustive and self-consistent."

Recall that, in his account of religion, Bosanquet speaks of religion as having 'evolved' from a 'subjective' to an 'objective' form, towards what he calls 'Absolute religion.' It is just this 'evolution'—an inherent operation of the principle of non-contradiction—that is present in his account of knowledge and thought as a whole. Consider also Bosanquet's description of religious 'truth.' In speaking of particular religious claims--for example, the characteristics of infinite being--the standards that he suggests we employ to assess the truth of such beliefs seem to be much the same as those we use to assess the truth of any particular belief whatever--namely, coherence. And when Bosanquet writes that religious belief is 'true' so far as it is an expression of a 'nisus to totality,' here, too, truth is determined by coherence. Religion is 'true,' not because it 'corresponds' to something in reality, but because it is the expression of, and commitment to, reality as coherent; there is nothing 'outside' in the 'world' that makes it 'true.' Furthermore, when Bosanquet writes that in religious belief, as in morality, one must 'die to live,' 'death' is not the annihilation of all that an individual is, but passing from what is 'lesser' in us so that what is 'greater' can be preserved and grow. This reflects the very principle present in his logic, when he considers the status of individual propositions within a 'special science' or system. That is, the meaning and truth of a judgement is modified as it is put into relation with other 'true' judgements, so that 'truth' is possible only once all are reflected in 'the content of a single persistent and all-embracing judgement'--something which does not deny, but transcends, all particular judgements.

Finally, the notions of the general or 'real' will and of one's 'station' within a community are fundamental to Bosanquet's description of politics and social life. This latter idea of one's 'stations' clearly reflects Bosanquet's logic, where the meaning and truth of (individual) judgements are determinable only in terms of the system in which they appear. The concept of the 'real' will is, moreover, a reflection of the general logical principle that 'truth' is not a property of a judgement in isolation, but properly of all judgements understood in relation to one another. Indeed, the notion of the 'general will' itself, as a will that one may not be aware of in "momentary consciousness," is prefigured in his logic where, recall, Bosanquet says that "true meaning […] lies always ahead of fully conscious usage." Of course, it would be implausible to claim that all of Bosanquet's criticisms of political individualism were based simply on his logic, but it is obvious that they are consistent with it.


In this paper, I have suggested that Bosanquet's study of cultural phenomena such as aesthetics, religion and social life reveal features that 'have their home' in his logic, rather than primarily in his later 'absolutist' metaphysics. (In fact, though I cannot provide the argument here, a number of other central concepts, such as 'will,' 'belief,' 'experience,' and 'reality,' also depend on these same logical principles.) Moreover, Bosanquet defended his idealist logic throughout his career, and there is no evidence of any significant shift in his views here. Thus, pace Francois Houang, there is reason to doubt that Bosanquet's late philosophy was inconsistent with his early humanism and, therefore, to challenge some of the standard assessments of his work as a whole.