Archive for August 12th, 2019

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Royce’s spirit

August 12, 2019

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Royce’s spirit

August 12, 2019

Opening Day of the Fall semester is just two weeks away. Everlasting summer, fading fast. Same old August story. What’s to grab that’s gonna last?

Josiah Royce’s answer: a cause, a commitment, an object of affection, devotion, exertion, and steadfast loyalty. Something valorous, noble, and challenging that’s larger than your puny self. A stake, in a word, in the life of spirit – spiritus, breath, life, the force than animates the world and moves events forward.

I don’t think that’s necessarily what Walter and Donald had in mind, in Reelin’ in the Years, nor can I picture Josiah Royce grooving to Steely Dan. And nothing’s ultimately going to last forever, in the cosmic universe. But still, it puts the shrinking summer in perspective.

In all my years of teaching, when on Opening Day I asked students to name an American philosopher, no one ever named Josiah Royce. For that matter, almost no one ever named his more famous friend, colleague, neighbor, and favorite bete noire William James.

That’s not their fault, it’s a failing of our culture’s educational priorities. But it’s a failure comparable to the inconceivable scenario of Greek students entirely ignorant of Plato and Aristotle, French students of Sartre and Descartes, Germans of Kant and Hegel. Those cultures would consider that not just embarrassing and shameful but actually, in a word that meant much to Royce, disloyal. In ours it’s just sadly and predictably disappointing. Philosophy’s “cash value” (in James’s misleading and misunderstood xpression) has failed to impress the custodians of capitalist consumerism and commercialism.

Royce has been having a little moment, though. His thought features prominently in the pages of John Kaag’s excellent American Philosophy: A Love Story. And David Brooks has endoresed the opinion that Roycean pluralism. (“Relationalism,” he calls a cognate view he champions in The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.)

Royce had an impact on my own early philosophical education, back in the late ’70s when my mentors at the University of Missouri unexpectedly awarded me their undergraduate essay prize for my Royce-infused attempt to understand the abstruse idealistic metaphysical morass of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854). Royce had written The Spirit of Modern Philosophy back in the 1890s, and I’d randomly whisked it from its dusty perch in the stacks of the Ellis Library at Mizzou all those years later.

My winning essay is no longer in my possession, or probably anyone’s, so I can’t go back to it, precisely, for clues as to what real insight I may actually have gleaned from JR.

So, it’s going to take some digging and extrapolating to begin to understand what it was about Royce’s Spirit of Modern Philosophy that so captivated callow undergraduate me, circa 1978-9. What in that book emboldened me to write more confidently and knowingly about a metaphysically mystifying, abstruse, obscure set of variations on the philosophy I’d just learned to call Absolute Idealism than I can really have felt? Why did my capsule Roycean riff on the pre-Hegelian systematizers (“How’s the system coming?” was apparently their common salutation) Schelling and Fichte persuade my teachers to think I deserved to win the undergraduate essay contest? I didn’t know anything about Royce, or James yet either), or about their important mutual misalignment. Still don’t know much about Royce, certainly compared to the Royce Society scholars I’ll be addressing in a couple of months…

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