[Reprinted from History of Political Thought, Volume XXI, Issue 4 (2000) pp. 736-739]

The Collected Works of Bernard Bosanquet, ed. William Sweet (20 vols., Thoemmes Press: Bristol, 1999), £1,200.00/$1850.00, ISBN 1 85506 6009.

reviewed by Peter Nicholson, University of York (UK)

Professor Sweet's many fine papers on Bosanquet, and his excellent evaluation of Bosanquet's political philosophy(1), have established him as the leading authority on Bosanquet, and he was the ideal choice as editor for this collection. Sixteen of these volumes reprint all of Bosanquet's books except his translations (two of the translations have significant introductions, on Hegel's aesthetics and on Plato's educational theories, and these are included elsewhere in the collection). The Logic occupies two volumes, and the seven shortest books are grouped to make three. Also reprinted are the posthumous collection of Bosanquet's essays, Science and Philosophy, and J. H. Muirhead's edition of his letters, Bernard Bosanquet and his Friends. The distinguishing feature of this Collected Works is that, in addition to these reprints, Sweet has created two new volumes with a very generous further selection from Bosanquet's articles, contributions to books, and reviews. The first of these(2) opens with the editor's substantial general introduction to Bosanquet's philosophy, and has a comprehensive bibliography of his published and unpublished writings (based on my own of 1978, but extended and rearranged) and a list of the main critical studies. The second new volume(3) has a short introduction focusing on Bosanquet's views on social policy, the topic of his writings which it gathers.

These two new volumes are constructed on different principles. The Introduction to Volume I is the introduction to the collection as a whole. After a succinct and informative sketch of Bosanquet's life, based on unpublished as well as published materials, Sweet proceeds to discuss briefly Bosanquet's main contributions in the areas in which he wrote: logic, social reform and education, philosophy of art, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. This survey is used both to locate Bosanquet's books and major articles within the development of his thought, and also to give insight into the essentials of his philosophical position and emphasize its unity. Indeed, Sweet is careful throughout to highlight the connections between Bosanquet's work in different fields. He quotes to good effect Bosanquet's remark that 'I only know in philosophy one method, and that is to expand all the relevant facts, taken together, into ideas which approve them selves to thought as exhaustive and self-consistent' (p. xxi). Sweet also refers to present-day interest in Bosanquet's aesthetics, in his perfectionist ethics, in the communitarian aspects of his political thought, and in the critique of empiricism in his logic. The Introduction is expertly done, and shows an impressive command of Bosanquet's writings, of their intellectual context, and of current scholarship on Bosanquet. The volume itself contains a very large number of articles, discussion notes, reviews and so on which Bosanquet himself did not reprint and which are not contained in Science and Philosophy. The selection, I think, is excellent: everything I had hoped to find is here, and a great deal else besides (on politics, for example, there is his encyclopaedia entry on the Philosophy of the State, the Mind articles on 'Hegel's Theory of the Political Organism', the article in French on Rousseau's political ideas, the long review of Vaughan's edition of Rousseau, the exchange of letters with R. M. MacIver, the 1915 essay on 'Patriotism in the Perfect State', and two late notes throwing considerable light on the General Will). It is when one is confronted with more than five hundred pages of Bosanquet's work which are the occasional pieces, that one is compelled to acknowledge his range and fertility, and his ability always to make one think. The selection is perfaced by Bosanquet's own posthumously published intellectual autobiography, 'Life and Philosophy' (1924) - still a very good place to begin one's study of him - and thereafter usefully arranged in sections on Ethics and Religion, Aesthetics Metaphysics, Political Philosophy, Logic, Plato and Greek Philosophy, and the History of Philosophy. The seventy or so pages on Plato help substantiate Sweet's judgment in the Introduction that classical Greek thought is one of the major roots of Bosanquet's idealism (p. xxxi). I agree on that; and I would add that Bosanquet develops an interpretation of Plato as an idealist which is a helpful contrast to those which have replaced it.(4)

The second new volume concentrates on what remains one of the most controversial areas of his work, his writings on social policy. Sweet was faced by the problem of how to treat the book which Bosanquet edited, Aspects of the Social Problem (1895). Bosanquet is the author of the Preface and six of the eighteen contributions, but three of his contributions were reprinted in Science and Philosophy. Sweet's solution is to print the Preface and the three contributions which were not reprinted, and to supplement them with a selection of articles and book review son the same and related topics. Here then we have a selection of Bosanquet's writing, running from some of the earliest, in 1889, right up to 1922, on one of his principal interests, the alleviation of poverty and other social problems. He investigates the proper methods of charity, especially the work of the Charity Organisation Society and the principles underlying it, and discusses connected matters such as private property and socialism. This is important material, because it is only by reading Bosanquet on such issues in depth that the full force of his position and the reasoning behind it can be understood, and the one is equipped to judge the hostile reaction it has provoked. Sweet has provided an extremely useful selection of pieces, most of which are very hard to locate, such as the reviews in the Charity Organisation Review, or the pamphlet on General Booth's plan to deal with poverty in 'Darkest England', and many of which are very little known, for instance 'The English People: Notes on National Characteristics'. The volume has its own short Introduction where, as well as outlining the main features of the writings in it, Sweet stresses that they not only 'reflect the application of Bosanquet's social and ethical theory' and illustrate several of its important characteristics, but also constitute the background, 'provide a form or structure', in which his later metaphysical studies developed (p. ix).

The editing of both new volumes is exemplary. The type has been reset throughout, with remarkably few misprints. Endnotes give full information about the original publication, identify authors named and unattributed quotations, and supply full references where Bosanquet's are incomplete. There are cross-references, and occasional background notes (e.g. on Bosanquet and G. E. Moore, Vol. 1, p. 62). Unfortunately there are no indexes.

To have all this material conveniently available is a very great aid to interpretation. Bosanquet is a systematic thinker who asserted the unity of knowledge and set out to connect his ideas. He generally succeeded. The result is that different passages, sometime son disparate topics, can throw light on one another. Consequently the basis and full force of his political philosophy, for example, cannot be appreciated without reference to his logic and metaphysics (and to his commentaries on Plato and Hegel) on the one side, and to his discussions of practical matters of social work and training on the other. Similarly, his analysis of the nature of religion, and of the development of ideas of religion, bears closely on his view of the necessity of social reform (there is no transcendent Heaven, 'another world', in which the poor will be compensated for their sufferings; rather, men must see justice done here on earth).

Bosanquet is an important thinker. The obituarist on The Times described him as 'the central figure in English philosophy during the last decade of the last century and the first of the new'. But he had no successors or heirs, and his philosophy fell out of fashion. He is, in my view, less original than Green or Bradley; but he did realize his ambition to think through a consistent, comprehensive and modernized version of idealism, inspired and much influenced by Hegel, which is remarkable for its spread - from epistemology and metaphysics, to aesthetic, religious, moral and especially political philosophy - and for its unity and integrity; and above all for the fearless application of its principles and pursuit of the argument even where that seems most opposed to ordinary ideas. Bosanquet constructed a philosophical system which makes him the nearest there is to an English Hegel (and usually a good deal easier to grasp). He is outstanding for a life-long commitment to the ideal of philosophy associated with T. H. Green and the rest of the circle influenced by him, that speculation should be connected with life instead of made an intellectual luxury, and that all the various branches of science - physical, social, political, metaphysical, theological, aesthetic - should be brought together instead of separated, and tackled in concrete detail instead of abstractly (I paraphrase from the famous petition some of his students presented to Green in 1872). The great business of the nineteenth century throughout Europe, Bosanquet held, had been 'to arrange society in a more human way than before . . . so that every man [generic sense] should be treated as a human being, capable of doing a man's work and of exercising a man's will.(5) His own aim was to study the changes occurring in his own time, to pinpoint where progress had been made, and set out how it might be continued. His life and writings illustrate what a very intelligent person, trained as a philosopher and deeply involved in social and political affairs, thought about a period of British life now recognized as highly significant for the part it played in the creation of ideas so influential in the twentieth century, and which are now being carried into the twenty-first. We find ourselves in the same position as Bosanquet: in the midst of huge and confusing technological, economic and social changes. We struggle to make them intelligible, and to control and direct them so that they benefit everyone. When we look back to Bosanquet, we may decide that we cannot afford to feel superior - his construction of a rational view of life has many strengths, and although we may spot weaknesses, too we are hardly able to boast that our own time possesses a successful or even an agreed way to cope either with theoretical or with social problems.

Now that the period of the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth is being reassessed. Bosanquet's achievements and his shortcomings will have to be examined by students of philosophy, of political thought and social policy, and by historians. They will have to take his work as a whole if they wish to understand any part of it fully. Professor Sweet and Thoemmes Press have performed a great service by making Bosanquet's writings more accessible.


1. In William Sweet, Idealism and Rights: the Social Ontology of Human Rights in the Political Thought of Bernard Bosanquet (Lanham, MD, and London, 1997).

2. The Collected Works of Bernard Bosanquet, ed. Sweet, Vol. 1, lx + 589 pp.

3. Ibid., Vol. 14, xv + 332 pp.

4. One still sees A Companion to Plato's Republic for English Readers, Volume II in this Collected Works, as recommended readings: Sean Sayers, Plato's Republic: An Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 8.

5. B. Bosanquet, Essays and Addresses (London, 1889), pp. 2-3.