If you’re a Californian who doesn’t know the name Josiah Royce, shame on you — and on the schools who have allowed us to forget the greatest thinker the Golden State ever produced.
When he is remembered, Royce — born in 1855 in Grass Valley, raised in San Francisco, and educated at Berkeley — is often described as a once-famous philosopher. But that doesn’t do justice to a man whose work was as big and broad as his home state, and still offers us fresh wisdom.
Royce wrote on the scientific method, religion, psychology, insurance, race relations and social ethics. He published literary criticism, invented concepts of peace that inspired the League of Nations and identified important foundations of logic and mathematics that undergird cybernetics.
Perhaps most significant, he authored a history of California that was ahead of its time in demonstrating how the state was built on the unjust Mexican War and exploitation of non-whites. California’s story also deeply informed his most important philosophical work — on how communities, and our loyalty to communities, shapes individuals.
“My earliest recollections include a very frequent wonder as to what my elders meant when they said this was a new community,” Royce, by then a Harvard professor, would recall of Grass Valley, where he lived in early childhood, watching it develop from a mining camp into a town with schools, taverns and churches.
In 21st century California, Royce’s intense focus on local community
speaks to our obsessions with health and inequality. Royce’s 1886 history, “California: A Study Of American Character,” described Californians as careless, hasty and blind to their social duties, but also “cheerful, energetic, courageous and teachable.”
We were too individualistic, he argued, and failed to understand the ways in which communities shape us.
“My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community,” he wrote.
And he was deeply critical of California’s discrimination against immigrants, warning: “You cannot build up a prosperous and peaceful community so long as you pass laws to oppress and torment a large resident class of the community.”
But Royce was most distressed by the American Californians’ treatment of the Californios and the Indians — a “disaster to them” and a “disgrace and degradation to ourselves.” This criticism of the American conquest of California cost him friendships, as other historians were championing Manifest Destiny. But he published his book anyway, as a warning against America’s imperialist tendencies.
“The American as conqueror… wants to persuade not only the world but himself that he is doing God service in a peaceable spirit, even when he violently takes what he has determined to get,” Royce wrote.
And he criticized the heroic individualism championed by the likes of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and ultimately developed a California-flavored metaphysics that conceived of reality as infinite community of minds. Such a community may sound something like Facebook, but Royce warned specifically against exploiting social connections to pursue great fortunes.
“We are all but dust, save as this social order gives us life. When we think it our instrument, our plaything, and make our private fortunes the one object, then this social order rapidly becomes vile to us; we call it sordid, degraded, corrupt, unspiritual, and ask how we may escape from it forever,” he wrote. “But if we turn again and serve the social order, and not merely ourselves, we soon find that what we are serving is simply our own highest spiritual destiny in bodily form.”
Royce died in 1916, but he is not totally dead. UCLA’s Royce Hall is named for him. There is an international society of Royce scholars, and Grass Valley has hosted a play in his honor. Cal State Bakersfield philosophy professor Jacquelyn Ann K. Kegley still teaches Royce in her contemporary philosophy course, and says, “when students read him, they become very intrigued about his communal approach.”
And Royce’s early judgments of California and its people still influence the skeptical way in which we see each other — and the sense that we might better address our problems if we could somehow come together.
“A general sense of social irresponsibility is, even today, the average Californian’s easiest failing,” he wrote in 1886. “In short, the Californian has too often come to love mere fullness of life and lack reverence for the relations of life.”
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.