Felix Dies Natalis, Josiah

November 20 is the 156th anniversary of the birth of Josiah Royce, world famous philosopher and Grass Valley native.

He was the “leading American proponent of absolute idealism, the metaphysical view that all aspects of reality, including those we experience as disconnected or contradictory, are ultimately unified in the thought of a single all-encompassing consciousness,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Royce’s parents crossed the Sierras in a covered wagon in 1849. His father established a general store. His mother continued her career as a teacher by conducting a private school at home.

After getting a PhD from the newly opened John Hopkins University, Royce taught English literature and logic at the University of California at Berkeley, Gov. Jerry Brown’s alma mater. The Democratic governor referenced Royce in his January inaugural speech.

Royce subsequently taught at Harvard. His students credited Royce’s wife Katharine with this appraisal of her husband’s lecturing style.

“This is the way Josiah lectures. First he tells you what he is going to say. Then he says it. Then he tells you what he has said; and finally he points out that he has said what he said he was going to say!”

While his earlier works dealt more with logic and metaphysics, his later books focused more on sociology and the idea of ‘community,’  a central theme in Royce’s 1908 Philosophy of Loyalty, which Brown cited in his speech.

“Community had fascinated him since his boyhood in the ‘young community’ of the California gold rush. Gradually, the mutual relevance of (his) two great interests  had become clear to him. His studies of logic  and of the mathematical theory of groups-strange as it may seem established a bridge for him between the community and his metaphysics. A group of people achieves community of goal and loyalty by virtue of the internal ‘operation’ of communication or, as he preferred to say, of ‘interpretation,’ wrote Robert Woodworth in a 17-page biography of Royce published in 1959.

For Royce, a person is defined by what they do. That can be a job or membership in a service club, a religion, a sport, a cause. And participation in these social groups defines the individual and makes them part of a larger community with shared goals and values.

And eventually the individual becomes committed to those shared goals and values. That’s what Royce calls “loyalty.”

In Royce’s words:

 “There is only one way to be an ethical individual. That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady — in the spirit of all the loyal.”


“My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” 



Filed under: California History

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