George Holmes Howison

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George Holmes Howison (1834–1916) was an American philosopher who established the philosophy department at the University of California, Berkeley and held the position there of Mills Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity. He also founded the Philosophical Union, one of the oldest philosophical organizations in the United States.

Friends and former students of Howison established the Howison Lectures in Philosophy in 1919. Over the years, the lecture series has included talks by distinguished philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky.


George Holmes Howison was born on November 29, 1834, in Montgomery County, Maryland, and died in Berkeley, California on December 31, 1916. His parents were Robert Howison of Virginia and Eliza Holmes Howison of Maryland. These were old and distinguished Southern families, Presbyterians and slaveholders. Howison’s biography is eclectic and the basis of Howison’s later devotion to pluralism. Howison was the primary originator of philosophical pluralism in America, which was his most enduring contribution to philosophy. Although he was widely recognized during his lifetime, Howison's ideas have spread and come into the present mainly through influence on other notable philosophers whose names have continued to attract attention, especially Josiah Royce, William James, and Borden Parker Bowne. Howison was, by the accounts of those who knew him, a very persuasive philosopher.

When Howison was four years of age his parents freed their slaves and moved to Marietta, Ohio, for the improved educational and cultural life it offered at that time. The various Christian sects there had worked out a consensus and ecumenism, creating a co-operative community in which even Protestants and Catholics worked together. This religious pluralism was exceedingly rare in 19th century North America. Howison attended Marietta Academy and later Harmar Academy where he received a classical education, including ancient languages. He entered Marietta College at 14 and studied German. He studied philosophy in his senior year. After graduating, Howison pursued Christian ministry, graduating from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati and being licensed to preach. Howison did not take a church, however, and served as a schoolteacher and principal several Ohio towns. In 1862 he moved to Salem, Massachusetts as a school principal. There he met and married Lois Caswell, an English teacher, who was related to several prominent academic families associated with Yale University and Brown University. Howison continued to educate himself, especially in mathematics.

Having moved to better and better schools and having made a name for himself as an educator, in 1864 (when he was 30) Howison was offered a post as professor at Washington University in St. Louis. During the following years Howison taught in all the branches of mathematics, including applied fields such as mechanics and astronomy, but also in political economy and Latin. Howison wrote a treatise on analytic geometry (1869) and an algebra primer (1870). In St. Louis Howison also came into contact with a subdivision of the St. Louis Philosophical Society called The Kant Club, which met at the home of William Torrey Harris. With this group he read G. W. F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. His association with Harris and the St. Louis Hegelians turned Howison’s main interest to philosophy. Harris’ The Journal of Speculative Philosophy was started during this time and Howison published an important paper on the relations among the branches of mathematics in one of its early numbers. The Kant Club hosted speeches by both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. Washington University offered no opportunity for Howison to pursue philosophy, so he returned to New England to become headmaster at English High School in Boston. In 1872 Howison moved to the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science, remaining until 1878, when financial problems forced M.I.T. to eliminate his position. It was during these years that Howison began writing philosophy. He held various teaching positions and lectured for money between 1878 and 1882, including courses at Harvard Divinity School and the Concord School of Philosophy, where he became better acquainted with Emerson and Alcott.

Also during these years he attended every two weeks the informal philosophical meetings in the Temple Street rooms of Thomas Davidson with a small group that included William James and Bowne. American philosophical pluralism and American personalism began here. These views were differently articulated and defended by James, Bowne, Davidson, and Howison, but their commonalities are many.

Beginning in 1880 Howison traveled and studied in Europe. In 1881 he enrolled at the University of Berlin, studying Kant with Jules Michelet which moderated Howison's enthusiasm for Hegel and planted a predilection for Kantian thinking in Howison's mind which remained for the rest of his life.

Howison returned to the US in 1882, and hoped to teach at Harvard while James was on sabbatical, but Royce, being younger and very promising, was given preference. Howison taught privately for a year and although he did not want to leave Boston, he accepted a position at the University of Michigan, which turned out to be not to his liking. At this time, the University of California decided to begin a philosophy program and recruited Howison, now 50 and a prominent voice in academia, as the Mills Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity, and they invited Howison to create a philosophy program according to his own vision. Howison's extensive administrative experience along with his connections to the eastern and mid-western intellectual lights led to great success. Howison was also an inspiring teacher and so the program attracted students easily.Howison's Philosophical Union became a prominent host for public lectures and even debates, hosting such speakers as James, Royce, and John Dewey.

Howison became a popular and controversial speaker and became the progenitor of the California school of American personalism.[1] His heterodox teachings about the nature of God placed him at odds with the theological community, but his incisive ability to defend it against all challenges and his personal charity and moral excellence kept him safe from serious personal attacks. Despite Howison’s dissatisfaction with other contemporary and historical metaphysicians, he did continue to profess Christianity. He recognized that his support of Jesus’ position was not accepted as he might have hoped by his Christian peers, but maintained that his theory of personal idealism was in line with Jesus’ teaching, particularly as presented by “the 4th gospeler”, John. He said: “I feel the strongest assurance that my new interpretation of the name of God is the genuine fulfilment of the highest and profoundest prescience in the historic religious life.”[2]

Personal Idealism[edit]

While he was well known and widely respected in the young professional discipline of philosophy, Howison did not publish prolifically. Most of those who have written on Howsion attribute his reluctance to publish to his perfectionism regarding language and writing. He was exacting, as is indicated by his revision of a widely used dictionary of English synonyms (1892).

Howison, having thoroughly considered the various offerings from the history of his field (see p. 394 of "Limits", for example), arrived at what remains even today a unique offering. He developed his theory in the late 1880s, in consideration of another theory that was the rage of the times, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Considering evolution in the light of the fatalistic-deterministic materialism which had come to dominate the scientific mindset from the times of Newton, in 1901 he published his magnum opus, “The Limits of Evolution, and Other Essays, Illustrating the Metaphysical Theory of Personal Idealism” (reprinted 1905[3]), wherein he supported, amongst much else, these two positions:

1) “Strive as one may, there is no escape from Kant’s implication that not even evolution* can produce time in our consciousness.” Certain knowledge/capacity must be a priori. (p. 20)

2) “Issuing from the noumenal being of mind, evolution has its field only in the world of the mind’s experiences, - ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ physical and psychic; or, to speak summarily, only in the world of phenomena. But there, it is indeed universal and strictly necessary." (p. 41)

Furthermore, attesting to the grand scope intended by the philosophy of “personal idealism":

In the light of the foregoing analysis, a thorough philosophy would now move securely forward to the conclusion that the Continuous Copula required in evolution, the secret Active Nexus without which it would be inconceivable, is at nearest inference the spiritual nature or organic personality of man himself. Whether there is not also involved a profounder, an absolute Impersonation of that nature, to be called God, is a further distinct question... (p. 41)

The Limits of Evolution[edit]

Howison’s magnum opus took its title from the first essay, “The Limits of Evolution,” but six more essays fill out his theory, “Modern Science and Pantheism,” “Later German Philosophy”, “The Art-principle as Represented in Poetry,” “The Right Relation of Reason to Religion,” “Human Immortality: Its Positive Argument,” and “The Harmony of Determinism and Freedom.” The 1905 reprint contains a second preface, and a set of 5 appendices.

In the important title essay, Howison did not deny that evolutionary theory properly explains certain kinds of developments in biological life. Rather he registered an objection to those who attempt to make the idea of evolution explain things either beyond its genuine reach, or in a way that neglected the demands/limits of idealistic reason, as Herbert Spencer and even Charles Darwin himself eventually did, in extending the idea of (materialistic) evolution to social and moral development. Howison stakes out a position that many still hold to be the proper scientific limits in evolutionary theory, although Howison is rarely credited for having explained it so early and so clearly. Howison argues that there are certain "breaks" which evolution cannot cross without recourse to the noumenal realm of "Pure Reason". Evolution is an idea that not only demands the experience of self-active, ideal persons and the structures of that experience, but is itself "strictly necessary" following from the proof of noumenal based "ideality". Howison goes on to show that the idea of evolution, without the help of noumenal principles, cannot bridge the gaps between the inorganic and the organic, physiological and logical genesis, nor "the gap profound" between the unknowable and the explanatory. Howison supplies the needed non-empirical principles, arguing especially against Spencer and his followers.

To be sure, Howison envisioned the materialists' "the world” as but the (personal) phenomenal aspect of an harmonious pluralism of such “supernatural”, or ideal, persons, who, thus genuine and complex, ultimately constitute his (personal) "the world" of creative "beings really free" (p. 351). At p. 47 he states,

“Thus creatively to think and be [editorial emphasis] a world is what it means to be a man. To think and enact such a world merely in the unity framed for it by natural causation, is what it means to be a ‘natural’ man; to think and enact it in its higher unity, its unity framed by supernatural causation of Pure Ideals, supremely by the Moral Ideal, is what it means to be a ‘spiritual’ man, a moral and religious man; or, in the philosophical and true sense of the words, a supernatural being – a being transcending and yet including Nature, not excluding or annulling it.”

For more detail on what Howison means by such ideality, consider his presentation of “Final causation”. For example, at p. 38,

“This, the mind’s consciousness of its own form of being as self-conscious, - that is, spontaneously conscious and spontaneously or originally real, - is the ultimate and authentic meaning of causality. In the cause as self-conscious Ideal, the consciousness of its own thinking nature as the ‘measure of all things,’ – as ‘source, motive, path, original, and end,’ – we at length come to causation in the strictest sense, Kant’s Causality with freedom. It might happily be called, in contrast to natural causation, supernatural* causation; or, in contradistinction from physical, metaphysical causation. The causality of self-consciousness – the causality that creates and incessantly re-creates in the light of its own Idea, and by the attraction of it as an ideal originating in the self consciousness purely – is the only complete causality, because it is the only form of being that is unqualifiedly free.”

The Art Principle in Poetry, IV[edit]

At p. 201:

"This brings us to a final removal of the mistake made in saying that the principle of art's being its own end implies indifference to truth and good. The principle does not mean that the contents of a work of art — of a poem, for instance — are not necessarily true and moral; much less does it mean that the contents, if the artist choose, may violate truth and morality. Such a meaning would contradict the nature of art, as we have now seen it. The meaning is, that while truth and good, in all their various gradations from the lowest to the highest, form the essential contents of art, its character as art—as distinguished, that is, from science and religion — turns upon its form, and that its whole business, in dealing with whatever contents compatible with its nature, is to put them into its own form, instead of the form proper to religion or to science; to put them into this form upon the form's own merits, and not merely as if the form were subsidiary to the form of science or of religion. The proper form of science is explanation and argument,

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and the proper form of religion and morality is exhortation and command; but that of art is simply the directest embodiment of its theme as the theme itself requires. Assured that the theme is compatible with the ideal nature of art, the artist knows that it will justify itself and work its own work, if it can only find expression in its natural embodiment."

Right Relation of Reason to Religion[edit]

at p. 224:

"It is this New Doctrine, known generally, and properly enough, as the doctrine of Rationalism, that I am permitted by the courtesy of this Congress1 briefly to explain and defend. To the question, What is the right relation between reason and religion, you will now understand me to answer, It is that reason should be the source of which religion is the issue; that reason, when most itself, will unquestionably be religious, but that religion must for just that cause be entirely rational; that reason is the final authority from which religion must derive its warrant, and with which its contents must comply; that all religious doctrines and instrumentalities, all religious practices, all religious institutions, and all records of religion, whether in tradition or in scripture, must alike submit their claims at the bar of general human reason, and that only those approved in that tribunal can be regarded as of weight or of obligation; in short, that the only real basis of religion is our human reason, the only seat of its authority our genuine human nature, the only sufficient witness of God the human soul. Reason, I shall endeavour to show, is not confined to the mastery of the sense-world and the goods of this world only, but does cover all the range of being, and found and rule the world eternal; it is not merely natural, it is also spiritual; it is itself, when come to itself, the true divine revelation."

Research resources[edit]


  1. ^ See Rufus Burrow, Jr. Personalism: A Critical Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999).
  2. ^ Howison, The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays, 2nd ed. (1905), p. 431.
  3. ^

See also[edit]