R.F.A. Hoernlé and Idealism in South Africa

William Sweet


One of the best-known philosophers in South Africa – and for many, perhaps, the only philosopher known - is R.F.A. Hoernlé (1880-1943). Professor of Philosophy in Cape Town at the South African College (1908-1911) and, from 1923 until his death in 1943, at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Hoernlé was a founding member of the South African Institute on Race Relations, and one of the leading liberals in South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. Hoernlé was also profoundly influenced by British idealism, and there is reason to believe that his idealism and his liberalism are importantly related.

            In what follows, I want to outline a number of the arguments given by Hoernlé for his views on social policy. Interestingly, Hoernlé argues that political philosophy is influenced by culture and environment, that culture is an important value, and there is a distinctive strand liberalism to be found in South Africa (largely because of the unusual character of the culture and diversity present there). In this paper, then, we will also be able to see some of the important relations among liberalism, culture, and social policy, particularly as they bear on the nature of South African liberalism, and then discuss what policies on race relations might follow from this. Such an investigation will provide some tools for considering to what extent Hoernlé’s views are entailed by the philosophical idealism that he respected, how his reading of culture in South Africa may have led to his philosophical and political views on both pluralism and apartheid, and how these arguments might bear more generally on the relation of pluralism and culture and on how one might respond to them