The most developed statement of the political theory of the British Idealist tradition is,
arguably, that of Bernard Bosanquet (1848 - 1923). In The Philosophical Theory of the State
(1899; 4th ed. 1923), Bosanquet argues that, in order to provide an adequate account of rights
and of moral and political obligation, one must abandon certain individualist assumptions found
in Hobbes and Locke (and, later, in Bentham, Mill and Spencer) concerning the nature of, and
the relationships between, the individual, society and the state. Bosanquet suggests, for example,
that the existence of individual rights depends on their prior recognition by the state in law.
Without such recognition, there can be no right.
In light of this, it is no surprise that one of the most frequent criticisms (e.g., by Hobhouse(1), MacIver(2)
and Laski) of Bosanquet's political thought is that it fails to distinguish
between the social and the legal recognition of rights and, more generally, between society and
the state.(3) These critics argue, moreover, that one may legitimately have a right, recognized by
society, that must be ultimately respected by - and which may even "trump" - the state.
Bosanquet's failure to recognize this, they continue, undermines his account of rights and
political obligation. Furthermore, some (e.g., Hobhouse(4), Morrow(5)) maintain that Bosanquet's
views on the nature and the authority of the state are incompatible with those of his teacher and
mentor, T.H. Green, and in fact represent a departure from the liberal roots of the British idealist
I shall argue that much of this criticism fails because it rests on an inadequate
understanding of Bosanquet's concept of society and its relation to the state. Once the notions of
state and society are clearly defined, one will be better able to understand, for example,
Bosanquet's account of political liberty, the binding force of law, and the function, duty and
rights of the individual. Specifically, one will see why Bosanquet insists on the recognition of
rights by the state and why he believes that a social recognition would be inadequate. This will
also go some way in challenging the claim that Bosanquet's work lies outside the liberal
1. Some criticisms
Bosanquet's account of society and the state is central to a correct understanding of his
political thought. Although influenced by Hegel and Rousseau, he distinguishes his concept of
society from both Hegel's "civil society" and that implied by the theory of the social contract
(85). Bosanquet asserts, then, [against Hegel,] that the institutions which constitute society
already have the status of "ethical ideas" and denies, as well, that society is in some way based
on consent. But the nature of these "institutions" and the relationships between them are not
always clear. For example, while Bosanquet speaks of the state as one among many essential
social institutions, the state often appears to be not only more important than other such
institutions, taken individually, but more important than society taken as a whole.
This feature of Bosanquet's account of society and the state has led to two major
criticisms. First, it is claimed that his analysis is incomplete. If Bosanquet does not altogether fail
in maintaining the distinction between society and the state, such as Acton(6), Joad(7), MacIver and
Hobhouse maintain, it is at least unclear how he distinguishes and relates social institutions to
the state.(8) It is also argued that Bosanquet is simply wrong about the relationship of society and
the state. Here critics note that society is something more than the state and that the state is just
an 'institution' among other institutions. Moreover, it seems that social institutions have their
own justification, independently of the state(9). And finally, some point out that not only does
Bosanquet ignore that there are no clear boundaries between states, but there are often
overlapping boundaries or competing loyalties within--between institutions and the state or
between church and state.(10)
A second objection frequently raised is that, if we accept Bosanquet's account of the
relationship between society and the state--including, putatively, a belief in the 'supremacy of the
state'--the state cannot be subject to moral criticism or evaluation.(11) For example, if a person's
rights must be recognized by the state, then it seems that that person can make no complaint
against it. Moreover, if there is "no standard by which the present may be criticized" except the
present, then it seems that the state can do no wrong.(12) Collini also suggests that such a view
leads, in the international sphere, to a relativism concerning rights.(13) Thus, 'given the idealist's
tendency to find the ideal in the real', Bosanquet's theory is either just a glorification of the status
quo(14) or, worse, a justification of the view that whatever wins is right.(15) And it is no surprise,
then, that in response authors such as Laski argue for a policy of 'limited sovereignty'(16) that the
state must be subject to individual scrutiny.(17)
Many of these criticisms are made in a way that suggest that Bosanquet neither did nor
could provide any response or defense of his views. And if these criticisms hold, their net effect
would be to eliminate the kind of ground that he wants to provide for rights, liberty, political
obligation and the binding force of law. But Bosanquet was fully aware of most of these
criticisms and did not consider them decisive.
To see what Bosanquet's response would be, we must consider the following questions:
what is the nature of society and of the institutions which compose it? What is the nature and
rôle of the state? What is the basis of its moral authority? What is the connexion between society
as a whole, social institutions, the state and law? If it can be argued that these criticisms can be
answered and that Bosanquet's account is not as incomplete, inaccurate or inconsistent as is
sometimes alleged, then one may have to grant that his views on the nature and source of rights
and obligations cannot be rejected tout court.
2.1 Society as an ensemble of institutions
Bosanquet's theory is close to the classical theory in which society is seen as a unified
collection of a number of "natural" institutions. Each institution contributes, in its distinctive
way, to the intellectual, moral, social, and spiritual development of the human person--but they
are not entirely independent of one another (156). Bosanquet speaks of society, then, as an
"individual organism" (23, quoting Huxley), which is neither an accidental association of
individuals or institutions nor normally subject to dissolution (147).
Bosanquet adopts, in general outline, Hegel's list of the principal institutions which
constitute society, sc., the family, the district, the position (or the social class) of the individual
and the nation-state. Although the other institutions are distinct from the state and are, in a sense,
prior to it,(18) each is also "a growth dependent on the spirit and protection of the State" (279). The
existence of the family requires, for example, the existence of laws concerning marriage and
inheritances. Again, one's position in the social framework is rooted and sustained, in the final
analysis, by the state, which recognizes it, gives individuals the rights necessary to performing
their corresponding functions, and protects them from outside interference with the exercise of
their rights. Consequently, like all 'institutions', the institution of social class in general, and
individual functions in particular, do not exist outside of the state.
2.2. Society as a unity
Although one may say that, for Bosanquet, society is based on the will of individuals, it
is not a contingent association based on a social contract (147). Rather, so far as it can be said to
live and grow (23) it is, as noted earlier, analogous to an organism.
Thus, like Rousseau, Bosanquet sees society as 'a moral and collective body' (86), permeated
by the general will.(19) "The General Will is as much implied in the life of a society as some sort of
will for good in the life of an individual" (102). The general will reveals itself in social practices
and institutions (139), and is incorporated in the law (174). This will is even described as the
essence of society (87).
Bosanquet uses the example of an army as an illustration of the kind of unity he believes
to be present in society through the presence of this general will. An army is composed of a
multitude of persons with distinctive roles, under the control of certain "dominant ideas". These
ideas and the common experience which they reflect are incorporated in the hierarchy, the
practices, and the habits of each soldier, and they relate individuals to one another in a "quasi-permanent" order. One may contrast this unity with the "unity" of a crowd. Here, the unity is
only accidental and there is "no oneness of life or principle" (106) expressed in the actions of its
In a society, these "dominant ideas", can be present in laws or rules, or even traditions or
customs. They go beyond the external and enter into the nature of individuals just as the
structure and hierarchy of an army can be said to enter into the life of each soldier. Moreover,
like an army, society is divided into groups with different functions and, within each of these
groups, each individual has a distinctive position which represents its service to the common
good. Thus, even though each element has a different function, uses different means, and may
not even be aware of how others contribute to the common good, there is the presence of certain
ideas that serve as an organizing principle [the general will], and it is this which permits a united
action. It is in this way, then, that dominant ideas--the general will--exist throughout a society
and this suggests how, through habit and through experience, they are present in the lives of its
members--even if its members are not fully conscious of them.
Still, a critic might argue that the analogy breaks down. After all, one generally explicitly
chooses to join an army and, sooner or later, leaves it. Might not the same be true of an
individual's relation to society? How can Bosanquet show that society is not a voluntary
association--the "joint stock company" of Herbert Spencer(20)--where each person joins so far as it
accords with his private interests and where the association lasts only so long as it achieves a
limited, agreed-upon aim? Here, Bosanquet would argue that the essential unity of society is
explained, fundamentally, because all of these institutions exist on the level of "mind".
2.3 Society as mind
According to Bosanquet, although society consists of a number of institutions that exist
in space and time, it is above all a community of minds. He claims that, when we think, for
example, of a district or social class, we have in mind more than just its physical location or the
equipment or tools that its members use. Every institution "implies a purpose or sentiment of
more minds than one, and a more or less permanent embodiment of it" (277). Thus, it is not
simply a matter of geography, but the goals or sentiments of persons who live in a district that
form the boundaries of that community. And, by extension to social life as a whole, the "partial
facts and experiences within it demand ultimate co-ordination in the category of mind" (45). In
short, then, "the outward organisation of society is a body which at every point and in every
movement expresses the characteristics of a mind" (6-7). This mind is the general will, referred
to above, which aims at a common social good, and it is in virtue of this common good (and,
consequently, this will), that there is a coordination of activities in society.
To illustrate this description of society as a mind or spirit, Bosanquet uses the example of
a school. A school is more than a pile of bricks and mortar with pupils and a certain number of
teachers. Its functioning and its reality lie "in the fact that certain living minds are connected in a
certain way" (159). All the members possess certain operative ideas, and they must be guided by
these ideas in at least one aspect of their lives. Moreover, each member must also have some
particular activity--an activity that serves to contribute to and, hence, modify the functioning of
the system. "The pupil must be ready to learn in his particular way and the teacher to teach in his
particular way" (160). Thus, in light of certain dominant ideas, all have their respective positions
or functions, and each position is related to certain corresponding positions and functions held by
others. One cannot speak of the one without referring to the other--the existence of a pupil
requires the existence of a teacher and vice versa.
A school, therefore, does not exist simply where there is a collection of matter in space
and time. Of course, one cannot describe an institution without making reference to the physical
environment in which persons carry out their activities. Nevertheless, according to Bosanquet
this environment is included in "the ideas" possessed by these persons concerned and,
consequently, it is appropriate to say that the school exists more in the individuals than in the
buildings, pedagogical aids, etc. In short, then, the school is a spiritual entity which is the
intersection point where various elements, themselves understood as minds, come into contact
(see 277). And this 'spiritual entity'--the school--is manifested, in turn, in these minds through
their respective activities.
With this analogy of the school, Bosanquet believes that he has explained how "every social
group or institution is the aspect in space and time of a set of corresponding mental systems in
individual minds" (161). Of course society and institutions require, and cannot be entirely
separated from, 'external apparatus' (159) but, in the end, "the social phenomena which are
among the most solid and unyielding of our experiences, are nevertheless ideal in their nature,
and consist of conscious recognitions, by intelligent beings" (33). Bosanquet adds that, in fact,
"minds and society are the same fabric regarded from different points of view (158; cf. pp. 6-7;
Consequently, when Bosanquet speaks of society as having the characteristics of a mind, he
means that it is a mind (158) which is also a collectivity of minds (i.e., of individuals and
institutions) in human minds (174?), organised by dominant ideas (since social life requires a
coordination in mind (45)), which has a spiritual function or common good (that is, to
'spiritualise' human persons) (187). And, given this description, one understands why Bosanquet
insists that society is essentially a unity. Society as a whole, and each of the institutions which
constitute it, are permeated by a single mind and aim at a common good. Like a school, society
contains and unites the various elements which constitute it.
3. The State
3.1 The nature and role of the state
Bosanquet would claim that many of those characteristics predicated of society are
equally true of the state. For example, Bosanquet says that "the explanation of both is ultimately
the same" (172). Like society, then, it is natural--at least in the sense that it is the natural and
necessary product of the nature of the individual. "If you start with a human being as he is in
fact, and try to devise what will furnish him with ...a stable purpose capable of doing justice to
his capacities... you will be driven on by the necessity of the facts at least as far as the State".(22)
Moreover, although the state in some sense reflects an aspect of the nature of the individual--his
will--the state is not the product of an explicit act of the particular will of the individual.
The state is also a spiritual entity, in the sense already explained. It is an institution and an
ethical idea which enters into the personalities of individuals and contributes to their
development. Not only does it have a fundamental role in the functioning of institutions, but
each state is a "diverse embodiment of the human spirit, ...characterized by individual missions
or functions in which [it] proffers its characteristic contribution to human life" (xlviii). And
while it does not have the status of a human person, it may be called a "moral person" (96).
Admittedly, Bosanquet's account of the nature and role of the state is not easy to discern--particularly since there seems to be a certain ambiguity in Bosanquet's understanding of it.(23) Still,
when Bosanquet refers to the state, he does not mean "an ideal State"(24) but, instead, the nation-state--which is "the widest organization which has the common experience necessary to found a
common life" (298). He describes the state as being "territorially determined" little by little
(xlviii) and as having a distinctive history and development, although Bosanquet would also
maintain that this development is not arbitrary.(25)
The state, however, is not simply the "political fabric" (140) of a society. Instead,
Bosanquet refers to it as "ultimate arbiter and regulator, maintainer of mechanical routine, and
source of authoritative suggestion" (173).(26) Thus, one may say that the state is a system of unity
and order which holds "together a complex hierarchy of groups" (i.e., institutions) (xxviii). It
establishes and enforces law, and its primary tool is force.(27) As Bosanquet says, "you cannot
carry out a universal end in a plurality of units... without enforcing general rules" (173) and it is
for just this reason that the state is seen to be necessary to the existence of social institutions.(28)
Moreover, given that humans are beings with an "animal nature", society needs an institution to
enforce its rules "so far as the limits of our animal nature exist". Consequently, Bosanquet
describes the state as society "habitually recognised as a unit lawfully exercising force" (173).
Still, although the presence of the state is particularly evident when it is carrying out such public
functions, it is more than a legislative power, an executive, a civil service, or an institution
possessing force and Bosanquet insists that the state is not a separate entity like the monarch or
Bosanquet maintains that the state must possess supreme power over the individual.
"[Y]ou cannot have just as much or as little of them [i.e., "sovereignty and the truly absolute
state"] as you may choose" (xiii), and he argues that no ideal is to be found in the limitation of its
absolute power (172). Moreover, if one owed obedience to several states or institutions,
"conflicting adjustments might be imposed upon him by diverse authorities having equal power
and right to enforce his obedience" (173).
Bosanquet rejects, therefore, the view of Spencer, where the state is seen as a free
association of individuals for a limited goal, determined by these persons, and always subject to
their private wills.(29) Interestingly, however, absolute power is not ascribed to the state a priori. In
the end, it seems that the nation state has an absolute power over individuals simply because
there is no other existing authority outside of or beyond the state (such as a world state) which
could control its behaviour.(30)
Understood as an institution exercising force, the state has a fundamentally "negative"
character. Nevertheless, Bosanquet emphasizes that it has a positive function. Its continuing role
includes "the operative criticism of institutions"(140)--where by "criticism" is meant the task of
harmonising and readjusting "a mass of data to bring them into a rational shape" (111). In the
event of conflict among institutions or among their members, it functions as an arbitrator (172-3). Moreover, it is through the legal system that the state recognizes and protects both
institutions and the positions of individuals in society, and it is because the state is the
authoritative source of the recognition of positions that it is, ultimately, required for the
recognition of rights. Finally, as noted earlier, it provides a structure for social activity and for an
organized social life (257), through the official recognition of marriages, of the laws governing
In keeping with the liberal tradition, Bosanquet believes that the role of the state is to
guarantee and to realize liberty. The state is "the main organ and the condition of the fuller
liberty" (127). But this is only another way of saying, according to Bosanquet, that the state aims
at the realization of the individual, since "to be free" is to be "the best that we have it in us to
be", that is, to become ourselves (119).
Thus, unlike individualist theories--though similar to Hegel--Bosanquet insists that liberty is to be found in the state (see 230 - 236), and that we can be "forced to be free" (119). Like Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, Bosanquet distinguishes liberty from licence. In his analysis of Hegel, Bosanquet notes that the 'free mind' cannot exist "[e]xcept by expressing itself in relation to an ordered life" (236). Moreover he says, versus Spencer, that "the idea that there was or could have been a previous general liberty, of which a part was given up in exchange for more, is a mere illusion" (181; see 54).(31) Still, Bosanquet insists that this does not diminish the value of liberty and he maintains that when the state uses force to hinder the liberty of an individual, it is incompatible with itself. In fact, one may criticize a 'complex of institutions' or a state (xxx; 186) should it not permit the expression of liberty.
Finally, although the state may not enforce morality (xxxv), it is the guardian of moral
interests (l) and a moral guide. First, it "represents the ground won and settled by our
civilization" (200). It serves, then, as an instantiation of developed moral principle. As
expressions of the general will, the state and social institutions reflect the content of this will and
"aim" at the realization of the common good. Specifically, they provide a concrete indication of
the requirements of morality and serve as mechanisms by which the activity of individuals (and
society as a whole) is protected and directed towards the common good.
Moreover, through its use of punishment, it holds back the bad will (lxi), and "brings us
to our senses... [and] makes us conscious of our errors and the moral decision to improve our
behaviour" (208). In the state and through its help "we find at once discipline and expansion, the
transfiguration of partial impulses, and something to do and to care for, such as the nature of a
human self demands" (140). Thus, the state favors the moral development of the individual and
contributes to the realization of this common good (xxxix).
Given this analysis of the state, it is no surprise that Bosanquet's view of law is quite
different from that present in the liberal individualist models of Bentham, Spencer and Mill. By
'the law' Bosanquet means, as suggested above, a set of "general rules" enforced by the state in
order to "carry out a universal end in a plurality of units" (173).(32) In general, the law is simply an
act of the general will, aiming at a common good, supported by the positive convictions or
sentiments of individuals (36) and recognized by the state. It is by means of the law that the state
can check or hinder bad wills (lxi), and it achieves this end by regulating the functioning of
institutions and by concerning itself with the allocation of rewards and, invariably, punishments
(205). The existence of the law, then, indicates that there is something that is worth being
maintained, the violation of which would be an offense against the common good (36).
Like the state, the law represents our real will (95), and its imperative end is freedom
(94). And while the unity of law is presumably guaranteed by the unity of the state, ultimately
this unity depends on and is provided by the underlying "social spirit of a people" (38).
Consequently, the law is not, as it is in Austin, the mere command of the sovereign (37)
and, since it represents the will of the individual, it is far from being (as Bentham would say) an
evil (see 53ff.). It is true that the law possesses a coercive element but, as noted earlier,
Bosanquet insists that the limits imposed by the law are not foreign to human nature and, in fact,
help the individual to realize himself and to grow. There is no liberty where there is an absence
of law and, indeed, the "restrictions" imposed by law and our freedom develop together (181-182).
3.3 The origin of the moral authority of the state
What is the origin and nature of the moral authority of the state?
According to Bosanquet, the state forms our world. It "is the fly-wheel of our life. Its
system is constantly reminding us of duties... All individuals are continually reinforced and
carried on beyond their average immediate consciousness by the knowledge, resources, and
energy which surrounds them in the social order" (142). But the authority of the state is based on
more than its utility. The state possesses its moral authority because it is a reflection of the
individual's "real will".
Bosanquet's reasons for this are clear. As noted earlier, so far as there is a shared history
or cooperation among persons in view of a common good, there is a general will. Bosanquet
accepts the general principle that the only legitimate authority over a person is himself and, since
the general will is the "real will" of each individual, he is obliged to obey it.
Now, Bosanquet says that "any system of institutions which represents to us, on the
whole, the conditions essential to affirming such a will... such as to constitute a tolerably
complete life, has an imperative claim upon our loyalty and obedience..." (139). In short, "[t]he
social system under which we live... represents the general will" (186)--which is the individual
person's own 'real' will--and requires his obedience, even if that person has not explicitly given
assent (119, n. 2). Similarly, the moral authority of the law is derived from the fact that, in
obeying it, one obeys his real will--that is, only himself (94).
3.3 The nature and limit of state action and law
As we know, Bosanquet says that he is much more favourable to the state than Green
(ix), and he seems much less concerned than Green about imposing limits on the role of the state
(269-271). Indeed, he says that there is little with which the state should not concern itself (xii),
and one may not choose as much or as little of the state as one would like (xiii). This leads
Morrow to charge that Bosanquet's view is essentially illiberal.(33)
Yet, while he criticizes the analysis of the state given by both utilitarianism and natural
rights theory, Bosanquet nevertheless considers himself to be within the "liberal" tradition.(34) It is
clear that he wishes to avoid any semblance of a mechanistic collectivism or statism which
would simply force people to perform their duties (63) or which would replace individual
initiative and activity. In fact, Bosanquet insists on limiting coercive authority as far as possible
(see 51; 63), and frequently underscores the value of the individual. He says, for example, that
one must "always individualize the case--don't classify".(35) Thus, unlike Morrow, Hobhouse finds
Bosanquet to be too much of an "individualist",(36) and accuses him of not being sufficiently aware
of the service that the state can provide in the development of the human person!
Admittedly, as noted above, the state is an agent of coercion and force. Its function is to
remove or eliminate obstacles to moral action. Through its power and the establishment of law, it
hinders or punishes those who impede individuals in the exercise of their liberty.(37) It may also
restrain or influence the intention of a person (217). But still the state is limited in what it ought
to do. The function of the state is to "clear the way" for moral action. But, so far as an action is
constrained, it is removed from the moral sphere (178-9).(38) Consequently, as it is the motive that
gives moral value to an action, and since the state can never control the motive of an individual
(176), its primary function is not to act itself, but to enable human persons to act. Indeed,
Bosanquet specifically denies that the state may promote morality by force (179) and he denies
as well that it can directly promote a spiritual end (xxxvi). From these remarks, then, it would
seem that it is Hobhouse's criticism that is the more telling.
But the role of the state is not entirely negative; it may act in a more positive way in
removing or eliminating obstacles which individuals may encounter in fulfilling the
requirements of their positions (177). Thus, the state may provide the "means" for the realization
of moral action (183), even if it cannot itself act morally. For example, it can build schools,
which serve to reduce illiteracy, and can control the sale of liquor, and so restrain alcohol abuse
Nevertheless, Bosanquet saw that there are limits on what the state can do. It cannot (or
should not) do everything--such as guarantee full employment or provide housing for all (178).
But these limits are not imposed because of the risk of 'violating' of individual liberty, as in
individualist theories--rather, doing this , Bosanquet thinks, works against the nature and end of
the state itself--sc., the realisation of human personality.
When the state acts, then, it must be certain that three conditions are satisfied. First, that
there is an important potentiality in the individual that is being frustrated. Second, that the
"liberation" of the resources of character and intelligence that follow are greater than the
restrictions imposed on the person and, finally, that it is better that the action be done from any
motive whatsoever than that it not take place (179-180). Thus, the action of the state is, at base,
limited (178), and when Bosanquet says that one may not choose to have as much or as little of
the state as one wishes (xiii), he does not consider himself as an enemy of the human person.
Indeed, he does not recognize any "contradiction" between the genuine freedom of the individual
and the nature of the state.
Given this view of the nature, authority and limits if the state, it seems inappropriate and
unjust to describe Bosanquet's thought as "statist", even if it is clear that it is not
"individualist".(39) Bosanquet is, as we have seen, fundamentally concerned with the 'liberty'--the
full realisation--of the human person and, since there is no necessary connexion between
liberalism and individualism, there seems no sufficient reason to hold that Bosanquet has
abandoned liberalism. Certainly, even though Bosanquet and Green do not have identical views
on the function of the state, there do not seem to be sufficient grounds to argue that Bosanquet is
any less a member of the 'liberal tradition'.
Still, given this account of society and the state, one can see the point of two major
criticisms noted above (section 1). First, a critic might argue that the relationship between
society and the state is confused or mistaken. Second, if the state is seen as the guardian of the
moral order and is the "supreme community" (302), isn't this account of the state simply a
justification of the status quo? And doesn't it suggest that the state is not subject to moral
criticism? An answer to these questions requires an examination of the relation between society
and the state.
4. The relationship between society and the state
Bosanquet's account of the relation between society and the state is complex. For
example, at times Bosanquet insists that the state is inherently and permanently distinct from
society (lxi), yet he also says that the characteristics of society overlap with those of the state
(173). He acknowledges that the state "includes the entire hierarchy of institutions by which life
is determined" (140), and yet the state is one of the ethical ideas or institutions which constitute
society. (277) Collini argues that Bosanquet's "definition" of the state does not, in fact,
correspond to any existing state, and Hobhouse and Pant argue that Bosanquet fails to maintain
any clear distinction between the state and society.(40)
One explanation for this alleged 'confusion' is simply that there is an integral relation
between society and the state, and that they share certain characteristics. Bosanquet writes that
the justification of the state and society is the same, they have the same origin and, in the final
analysis, the same end--the best life (173). Moreover, Bosanquet cannot imagine the existence of
a society of human beings--beings that still have an "animal" element in their natures--without
the existence of punishment, law and force (lxi; 143-144; 173). Furthermore, as noted earlier, the
state is "implied" in the various institutions which compose society. Thus, Bosanquet says, "the
characteristics of Society pass gradually into those of the State" (173). But there is another
reason why Bosanquet would insist that society is so closely connected to the state. He refuses to
see society and the state as two institutions imposing potentially incompatible demands on
individuals. An individual can be subject ultimately to only one authority.
Still, Bosanquet keeps society and the state distinct.(41) He notes the importance of social
action which is reducible to neither political nor private activity (xxxvii-xxxix) and, as the state
cannot do everything by means of legislation, and Bosanquet emphasizes the necessity of
volunteer work in society.(42) Moreover, even though Bosanquet refers to the state as an institution
in society, it is unique. Each social institution is related to every other but, in each case, it is the
relation to the state which is fundamental. As an illustration of what Bosanquet has in mind here,
consider the relation between the skeleton and the body of an organism. Although the skeleton is
necessary to the existence of the body, it does not exist prior to the body; both are formed at the
same time. Similarly, even though the state does not exist fully formed prior to society, it is
distinct from it.(43) And it is because of this that it makes sense to say, then, that the state is the
institution that has as its task the settlement of conflicts which may arise among social
institutions. Thus, the state allows for the possibility of a society, and without its existence
society itself could not exist.
Given this picture of the relation of society to the state, Bosanquet does not--or, at least,
does not obviously--confuse the two. But if the state is not merely the government or the
executive, but the sum of the sources of legitimate force and recognition in society, it is difficult
to see how society could be said to exist apart from it. Thus, it is difficult to see how there could
be a social recognition of rights which is independent of a recognition by the state.
It is clear, of course, that Bosanquet's distinction between society and the state is not that
made by Locke and Spencer. In the individualist tradition, one often hears of the possibility of
society existing independently of 'the state'. This view seems to draw support from the belief that
there is a certain basic antagonism between the individual and the state and that one can leave
the state without abandoning society altogether. But Bosanquet seems, like Hobbes, to deny this
kind of a distinction, with the result that without a state, there is not merely an absence of an
executive, but the absence of a social order.
But, a critic may ask, if the state is the 'operative criticism of institutions', by what
standard is it criticized? If the state, as the definitive manifestation of the general will, reflects
the standard of morality, how can it be subject to moral evaluation? Indeed, this has led to the
charges noted earlier. Hence critics note Bosanquet's remark that "[t]he State, as such, certainly
cannot be guilty of personal immorality, and it is hard to see how it can commit theft or murder
in the sense in which these are moral offenses (300).
But first, to say that the state 'cannot be guilty of personal immorality' does not mean that
it is beyond moral criticism altogether. In fact, Bosanquet allows that it can be said to act
"immorally" (304). His point is, however, that because the state is not a moral agent, it is not
subject to the same kind of moral assessment as a human person. It is "the guardian of a whole
moral world, but not a factor within an organised moral world" (302) and thus is not, properly
speaking, guilty of the kind of immorality that occurs within the moral world that is represented
by 'the state'. Thus, "[t]he means adopted by such a supreme power to discharge its
responsibilities as a whole, are of course subject to criticism as respects the conception of good
which they imply and their appropriateness to the task of realising it" (304). And, in a note to
this discussion, Bosanquet emphasizes that "[i]n such a case, the guilty State is judged before the
tribunal of humanity and of history" (304, n. 1).
Nor is it appropriate to say that Bosanquet's view of the moral authority of the state is, in
the end, a mere defense of the status quo. This criticism fails to recognize that the close relation
between society and the state is also a dynamic one. There is, Bosanquet insists, a "mutual
adjustment" (140) that occurs between the state and the various institutions that compose society.
"No society is consistent with itself" (198), since it is continually related to historical
circumstances and to the lives of its members--which are, themselves, limited and 'partial'. "And,
one inconsistency being amended, the path is opened to progress by the emergence of another"
(198). As society as a whole works out these inconsistencies, all of its institutions change.
Thus, not only is the state open to change, but it must change. As it tries to harmonize
and organize social facts into "a rational shape" (111), the state itself is adjusted and harmonized.
This "ultimate and effective adjustment of the claims of individuals, and of the various social
groups in which individuals are involved" (172-173) includes the 'rational criticism' (___) of the
state as well. This is, clearly, no justification of the status quo and Bosanquet would think that it
almost impossible that there could be social ferment and yet that the state not respond. Normally,
the tensions that exist between social institutions and the state can be resolved in the context of a
constitutional process (199).
But suppose such an 'impossible' situation occurs? What happens if "a despotic state
refuses to sanction what a majority of its members regard as a necessary condition of the
common good?"(44) Admittedly, Bosanquet says one should be prudent. General agreement on a
principle does not mean that the state must act on it. For sometimes consensus is nothing more
than 'the will of all'--an ad hoc association of persons where each acts according to his private
interests. Thus, Bosanquet quotes favorably the comment of Bradley that the state may, with
legitimacy, do "with the moral approval of all what the explicit theory of scarcely one will
morally justify".(45) It is only so far as a majority of its members--or even a minority of its
members--represents the general will, that the state would be open to such a criticism.
Still, despite this caution, Bosanquet appears to admit the legitimacy of rebellion. Indeed,
he says wherever "the importance of the matter in which we think Society defective" exceeds
"the whole value of the existence of social order" (199), one has a public duty to rebel.(46) This
duty "does not rest on a non-social right, but on a recognition that the state is divided against
itself".(47) It cannot be founded on a right, because the existence of rights is based on that very
order which is under question. There is not, consequently, an obligation to rebel that is
correlative to a right, but a duty--in the sense of a general goal which is moral and imperative on
We should remember, however, that according to Bosanquet, a rebellion is not merely
against a government, but against the social order as a whole, and is thus opposed to it in its
entirety. A rebellion reduces us to a Hobbesian state of nature, and not simply to a level of
society where we may choose, as in Locke, a new "executive". In light of Bosanquet's view of
the close relation between society and the state, this consequence should be of no surprise. In
order to justify a rebellion, one must show that it is more harmful to stay in society than to leave
it. Indeed, if one finds himself in such a situation, it would likely not be reasonable to say that
one was in a society at all.
4.1 The social and legal recognition of rights
Given this account of the relation between the society and the state, one can see why Bosanquet will insist on not just a 'social recognition' but a recognition of rights by the state in law.
Admittedly, the precise connexion between recognition in law and that which we may
call "social recognition" is not quite clear. Two possibilities come to mind. First, recognition in
law by the state may be simply the final phase of the social recognition of a position. Alternately,
Bosanquet might claim that there are two distinct 'recognitions' involved but that, so long as the
law is open to the influence of social forces, it can never lag far behind in recognizing that which
society acknowledges as essential to the common good. Whatever option one chooses,
Bosanquet believes that one should not be concerned that he might be hindered by the state in
obtaining those rights which he needs. And given the nature of society and the state as a
community of minds, if there is a power which is necessary to a role or function of any one of its
members, society and the state must (at least in principle) be aware of its existence. Bosanquet
writes that this point is purely a logical one. We can benefit from the support of others only so
far as this position and this right are recognized by others in our society (206). And if one wishes
to insist that the state recognize a "socially recognized right", one must "show what 'position'
involves it and how that position asserts itself in the system of recognitions which is the social
mind" (198). Thus, if a position were recognised without the recognition of the correlative rights,
the state would be inconsistent with itself (198).
There are other reasons, however, why Bosanquet would insist on the recognition of
rights by the state. Without this legal character, social recognition is insufficient to guarantee the
protection and the respect which constitute a right. Moreover, without a definitive recognition, it
would be difficult to identify the nature, the role, and the extent of a right in social life. Clearly, a
social recognition independent of the state would also be independent of the possibility of
sanctions that could enforce and ensure the respect of these claims. Indeed, it is the state that, by
definition, enforces the will of society. Thus, wherever there are functions and rights which must
be maintained and protected, there must be a state. Rights are not rights without recognition in
In this paper, I have attempted to address certain basic criticisms of Bosanquet's political thought. In order to understand how Bosanquet might reply to them, I have sketched out his account of the various institutions that make up society, their respective roles in the development of the individual and the fundamental role of the state. It is particularly important to note that Bosanquet sees both society and the state as spiritual entities, since this serves in part to explain how the state can be subject to criticism and how Bosanquet's work can still have a place within the 19th and early 20th century liberal tradition.
Despite this "metaphysical" character, the state of which Bosanquet speaks is not just some "ideal" entity. Still, neither is Bosanquet's account assimilable to a form of liberal individualism. The state and law derive their authority from the fact that they manifest the general will and aim at the common good. Although the state is an organ of coercion and can act only in a negative way, neither the state nor the law is opposed to the development of the individual. On the contrary, by means of the state and law, one understands why the demand for recognition by the state is not to limit the freedom and rights of the individual, but constitutes a necessary condition for their existence.
1. . Leonard T. Hobhouse, The Metaphysical Theory of the State. London, 1917. According to Hobhouse (1917), p. 77, "[t]o confuse the state with society and political with moral obligation is the central fallacy of the metaphysical theory of the state." (This book is the "classical" criticism of Bosanquet's political thought. Of Hobhouse, Bosanquet wrote: "I don't think I shall read his book--I don't feel I learn much from him, and books are expensive since the war began; and time is not cheap." [cited in J.H. Muirhead, Bernard Bosanquet and his Friends, London, 1935, p. 21.]
2. . R.M. MacIver, Community: A Sociological Study. New
York, 1917. See especially Appendix B "A Criticism of the Neo-Hegelian Identification of Society and the State," pp. 425-33; Appendix A on the individual, the association, and the community, pp. 421-5. MacIver was one of the founders of American sociology, although he began his career in philosophy in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen.
3. . Nalini Pant accuses Bosanquet of "an inconsistency in uniting the social, legal, and moral aspects of rights" (Theory of Rights: Green, Bosanquet, Spencer, and Laski. Varanasi: Vishwavidyalaya Prakashan, 1977), p. 92. In fact, her point appears to be simply that, in her view, Bosanquet shows only that rights need social recognition, not legal recognition, and that he therefore confuses legal and social recognition. She attributes this "inconsistency" to Bosanquet's "following the idealist tradition in not making an absolute demarcation between the notions of state and society" so that "the two terms are likely to be interchanged at times" (ibid., p. 94).
4. . Hobhouse (1917),
5. . John Morrow, "Liberalism and British Idealist Political Philosophy: A Reassessment," History of Political Thought, 5 (1984), pp. 91-108.
6. . H.B. Acton, "Bernard Bosanquet," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Ed. Paul Edwards) New York, 1967. Vol. 1, pp. 347-350, p. 349.
7. . C.E.M. Joad, Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics, London, 1938. chapter 18.
8. . A.D. Lindsay, "The State in Recent Political Theory," The Political Quarterly, 1 (Feb. 1914), pp. 128-145, p. 131.
9. . G.D.H. Cole, "Loyalties," in PAS XXVI (1925-6), pp. 151-170, p. 138.
10. . See Cole (1925-6), p. 151; Lindsay (1914), p. 133.
11. . Ernest Barker, Political Thought in England: 1848 - 1914. London, 1915. (Original title: Political Thought in England from Spencer to Today.), pp. 77, 79. See also Joad (1938), ch. 18, "Criticism of the Idealist Theory of the State".
12. . S. Collini, "Hobhouse, Bosanquet and State," Past and Present, 72 (1976), pp. 86-111, p. 109; Acton (1967), p. 350.
13. . Collini (1976) p. 101.
14. . Cole (1925-6), p. 164.
15. . Collini (1976) p. 90.
16. . Harold Laski, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty, London, 1917.
17. . See also Authority in the State, London, 1919. See also Cole (1925-26), p. 160.
18. . It is, for example, "less complex". Thus, in light of Aristotle's view in the Politics, one might say that the idea of the family is epistemologically, if not in some way temporally, prior to the state.
19. . See here my "Bernard Bosanquet and The Development of Rousseau's Idea of the General Will, " in L'homme et la nature - Man and Nature, Vol. X (1991) (forthcoming).
20. . See "The Great Political Superstition," in Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State. (1884) Caldwell, ID., 1960. p. 181; Bosanquet (1923), p. 71; Barker (1915), p. 102.
21. . Collini sees parallels between Bosanquet and Durkheim in viewing society as a spirit or mind. See Stefan Collini, "Sociology and Idealism in Britain: 1880-1920," Archives européenes de sociologie, 19 (1978), pp. 3-50, pp. 13-14.
22. . According to Bosanquet, Fichte proposes an analogous idea, that a self implies a society of selves which implies laws (227).
23. . This has been the target of many criticisms as well, but these questions will not be discussed in this paper. The most general criticism is that the depiction of the state is either ambiguous, defective or unreal. G.D.H. Cole and Stefan Collini [1976, 105] argue, for example, that Bosanquet confuses two different pictures of the state: that of the state as a set of existing institutions and that of the state as the paradigm or ideal of what civil authority should be like (in the way in which a biologist might speak of 'the human' as an ideal of what any particular human person might be like).
There is, they claim, "no working analogy of the state" [Cole (1925-6), Collini (1976), pp. 105-6] and the definition that Bosanquet provides is both normative and descriptive [Collini (1976), p. 110]. Collini also considers Bosanquet's presentation of the nature of the state ahistorical [(1976), p. 106] and says that it ignores the role of accident in the development of the state [Collini (1978), p. 31].
Laski and others find Bosanquet's analysis of the state 'too intellectualist'--the state is neither a 'mind' [see Cole (1925-6) and Laski (19__)], nor a personality [Joad (1938), p.__], and it is not rooted in mind but in law [Laski (19__), p.__]. MacIver denies that the state is properly compared to an organism [MacIver (1917), p.__] and Laski argues that its basis is, in fact, voluntary and as a result is subject to individual scrutiny [Laski (19__), p.__].
24. . "The object of political philosophy is to understand what a State is, and it is not necessary for this purpose that the State which is analysed should be 'ideal,' but only that it should be a State". (232)
25. . See PTS 172: "...there is logic underneath the apparent accident..."
26. . This is its "distinctive attribute" or work. (174-5)
27. . See The Principle of Individuality and Value. London, 1912. p. 311, n. 1. For a contemporary, though distinct, account of this aspect of the state, see George Sabine "The Concept of State as Power", in Philosophical Review, XXIX (1920), pp. 301-318, esp. pp 302 and 303.
28. . Again: "It is no more conceivable that social life should go on without force and authoritative custom... than that individual life should go on without sub-consciousness and automatism" (143-144).
29. . See Spencer (1940), pp. 179-181.
30. . But Bosanquet does seem to hold out some hope for a 'world-State' or "League of Nations" (lix). This question is discussed by Peter P. Nicholson in "Philosophical Idealism and International Politics: A Reply to Dr. Savigear," British Journal of International Studies, 2 (1976), pp. 76 - 83, pp. 78-9.
31. . Here Bosanquet cites Kant that man "has totally abandoned his wild lawless freedom in order to find his entire freedom again undiminished in a lawful dependence, that is, in a condition of right or law; (undiminished), because this dependence springs from his own legislative will" (226).See Kant, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre (1797) (ed. Benzion Kellermann) (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 2. Teil, 1. Abschnitt) in Kant's Werke, Bd. 7, (ed. Ernst Cassirer) Berlin, 1916. S 47, p. 122.
32. . See also pp. 240-3.
33. . Morrow (1984), p. 108.
34. . In fact, J.H. Randall describes Bosanquet as "an early supporter of the Labour party" and, according to Peter Nicholson, ["Bradley as a Political Philosopher," in The Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, edited by Anthony Manser and Guy Stock. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. pp. 117 - 130, p. 118], Bosanquet was himself a member. I have been unable to find any direct proof of this, although one might note Bosanquet's comment to R.F.A. Hoernlé in 1919 that "I should like a labour government with one or two good liberals in it". (cited in Muirhead (1935), pp. 218-219.)
35. . Social and International Ideals, p. 164.
36. . Collini (1976), p. 87; see also p. 95 and p. 109, where Collini outlines the argument of Hobhouse.
37. . Bosanquet sees this as identical to the protection of rights taken as a whole (215).
38. . Collini (1976), p. 99, sees here a tendency towards Kantianism.
39. . Bosanquet considers himself to be a moral socialist but an economic individualist. See "The Antithesis between Individualism and Socialism Philosophically Considered," in Bosanquet (1893), pp. 304-357, and the discussion in Collini (1978), p. 46. See also Adam Ulam, The Philosophical Foundations of English Socialism. Princeton, 1951 (especially chapter 2, "Idealism").
40. . See Collini (1976), pp. 105-106; Hobhouse (1917), pp. 75-80; and Pant (1977), p. 94.
41. . PTS lxi; see Bosanquet The Principle of Individuality and Value, London, 1912, p. 311
42. . See Collini (1976), p. 95.
43. . Perhaps one might say as well that, since the family is the place where our awareness begins, it is more fundamental than the individual. Nevertheless, the state is, on the ontological level, more important.
44. . Bertil Pfannenstill, Bernard Bosanquet's Philosophy of the State. Lund, 1936, p. 270.
45. . Bosanquet, "Function of the State in Promoting the Unity
of Mankind," in Social and International Ideals. London, 1917, pp. 270-301, p. 274, citing F.H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, 1st edition, (1876) p. 166; [2nd edition, (1927) p. 184]. Nevertheless, Bosanquet does not go as far as Bradley when it comes to the value of private opinion. According to Bradley, "[w]e should consider whether the encouraging oneself in having opinions of one's own, in the sense of differing from the world on moral subjects, be not, in any person other than a heaven-sent prophet, sheer self conceit" Bradley (1927), p. 200.
46. . Bosanquet (1917), p. 281.
47. . See Bosanquet (1917) p. 284, n. 1. Here Bosanquet seems to differ from Green. For Green, even though now rights are "derived from the State", some "existed when there was as yet no state." Hence, while the individual has no right to disobey the laws so far as they "fulfil the idea of a state," it seems one in fact has such a right "for the purpose of making the state in respect of its actual laws more completely correspond to what it is in tendency or idea" (Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, London, 1917, p. 146). Bosanquet, however, says that a despotic government is "deficient", and that it is an open question whether there is a political obligation in this system (50). But he seems to go farther than this in other passages.
48. . May one justify revolution by an appeal to the laws of humanity or an international organization? Bosanquet rejects this possibility, since "the State is not subject to the law of any other State" (303, n. 2).