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No American philosophy has as yet been produced,” complained Charles Sanders Peirce in 1866. “Since our country has become independent, Germany has produced the whole development of the Transcendental Philosophy, Scotland the whole philosophy of Common Sense, France the Eclectic Philosophy and Positive Philosophy, England the Association Philosophy. And what has America produced?” Whereupon Peirce took it upon himself to answer his own question, and in 1878 laid out the lineaments of what his friend and patron William James would call pragmatism. James would do more than name the new philosophy; he would popularize it so successfully that Peirce faded into the background of his own eccentricity.

James had no time for any sort of dualism of thinking and doing, believing and acting. “Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action,” he insisted, “and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action.” An idea isn’t good because it’s true. It is good because the consequences of believing it make life better: “‘The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking.”

That instrumental conception of truth changed everything. It turned philosophy into the determination of “what works best.” Pragmatism was the new method. It aimed to answer questions, not to speculate on first things. Pragmatists don’t wait for absolute truths to arrive and give us full contact with hard reality; that will never happen. Mind is an instrument, not a slate, and truth is provisional and ever corrigible. Even if eternal verities exist, we’ll never know them, so we should stop arguing over conceptual differences that have no practical consequence. Apply the pragmatic method to metaphysical disputes and most of them will quickly disappear and productive inquiry may proceed.

At least, that’s what James believed, and his persuasion was strong enough to become the main current of American thought. Translated into social theory by John Dewey and Horace Kallen (James’s student), poetry by Wallace Stevens (another James student), social science by George Herbert Mead, semiotics by Charles Morris (a Mead student), and jurisprudence by Oliver Wendell Holmes—not to mention the philosophy of F. C. S. Schiller, Sidney Hook (a Dewey student), C. I. Lewis, W. V. O. Quine (a student of Lewis), and many others up to and beyond Richard Rorty—pragmatism swept through the universities. It has become the national outlook, “one that,” in the judgment of William Goetzmann, “governs much of our behavior and certainly the politics and courts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in America.”

But as the pragmatists were transforming higher thought at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago, and in the culture at large, another thinker was extending pragmatism well beyond the instrumentalist conception. He shared some pragmatist principles, but he aimed them toward the Absolute. Like James, he began with concrete individual experience, but built up from it to a vision of a “Blessed Community” aligned with God. He has disappeared from popular memory, but he is worth remembering today as a moral contrast to the utilitarian viewpoint, a reminder that the good must always be subordinated to the Good.

Josiah Royce is the first important American thinker born west of the Mississippi. This was interpreted by him as a disadvantage. His ­parents were Forty-Niners who had journeyed to California expecting to find gold and wealth, only to find neither. Royce was born on ­November 20, 1855, amid the squalor of a mining camp in Grass Valley, California, and he never lost in his later years at Harvard the intimidating sense of being a rube among the roses. “I never was, in my youth, a person ‘cultivated’ in any aesthetic sense,” Royce recalled in 1912, “and I remain more barbarous as to such matters than you can easily suspect.” One of his earliest memories was of the enormous mountains that rimmed his home along the Sacramento River, but the impression they made was of imprisonment and isolation. Even at the beginning, Royce looked for something beyond the limitations of immediate experience.

In the spring of 1866, the Royces moved to San Francisco, where Josiah’s father opened a fruit store. The city turned out to be a godsend for Josiah, who entered San Francisco Boys’ High School in July of 1869, and only two years later registered as a freshman in the new University of California, across the bay from San Francisco. (The campus moved from Oakland to Berkeley in Royce’s third year.) It was not exactly an introduction to advanced thinking: The university had been in existence for just three years under the presidency of the enterprising Daniel Coit Gilman when Royce entered it, and he was only the 155th student to walk through its doors. But it was a turning point in Royce’s intellectual life. He came under the teaching of Joseph LeConte, a geologist and onetime pupil of Louis Agassiz who, notwithstanding Agassiz’s famed hostility to Darwin, had embraced Darwin wholesale. LeConte cut no figure of great consequence in the larger world of American science, but at Berkeley in the 1870s, he was (as Royce described him) “a great light in the firmament.”

Royce scraped by financially at Berkeley on scholarships, managing to graduate at the top of his class in 1875. That earned him the attention of President Gilman, and Gilman convinced a group of businessmen to contribute enough money for Royce to do graduate study in Germany, which in the mid-nineteenth-century was the angelic realm for aspiring American intellectuals, from historian George Bancroft to theologian Charles Hodge. It was there that Royce found his calling as a philosopher. After spending the fall in Heidelberg, he entered the University of Leipzig, and then Gottingen, where Immanuel Kant struck him like a bolt of lightning.

To most Americans, Kant was a fuzzy-headed German, almost impossible to read. Apart from the cut-rate editions of Kant that had inspired the American Transcendentalists, much of his thought filtered through Coleridge, Kant remained mostly a mystery in the New World. “We have studied Kant a good deal,” Royce noted of the American scene, “but we have had no Neo-Kantian movement.”

For Royce, Kant pointed toward how one might fill the vacuum left by evolution’s dethronement of God. Kant had argued that the mind is not a mechanical receiver of sensations that it associates into meaningful clusters of experience. It has a creative function, “synthesizing” sensations into intelligible wholes organized upon transcendental (i.e., non-empirical) categories of unity, causality, negation, necessity, and so on. These “pure concepts” cannot be derived from experience. They originate in the mind itself, though experience “activates” them. We can’t, for instance, assert the law that everything that happens has a cause simply because we have always found a cause for one thing after another. That would only give us a set of causes, not something we might attribute to the very structure of the universe. We need something more to do so, namely, a concept of causality.

The lesson philosophers drew from Kant is that cognition itself is a creative act. Mind is formative. Mind is empty without the materials of experience, but experience is incoherent without the organizational power of mind. The tools of mind go to work on sensations as mind receives them, sorting them out spatially and temporally and otherwise. Knowledge is the result.

If the mind is the active agent in knowledge, then the principle of mind itself triumphs over the vast, messy array of material substances awash in the world. We ponder God, freedom, and immortality; experience the sublime; play with imaginary notions such as negative numbers; conceive fictive universes. Pragmatists tie those activities to concrete human interests, explaining them in terms of their usefulness to human goals. But Royce aimed higher. Along with Kant’s most conservative followers, Royce argued that the existence of mental categories shows that the material substance of the world must be ruled over by an Absolute Mind, which is fully as active and independent in its universal sphere as human minds are in theirs. If our experience of the world requires a concept-forming mind, then the world itself requires a Concept-forming God.

This last conclusion was a leap, but one Royce was happy to make. It gave him back a sense of religious awe—if not for the God of his parents, then at least for a God he could call the Absolute. It also gave him a sense of having a place in the universe, a role carved deliberately for him, not by chance, but by design. Kant was “the good father” of Royce’s ideas, and he added, “the Kantian construction of the philosophy of experience is one that must forever form a part of all genuine metaphysics in the future.”

Royce, however, was not going to be able to dream Kantian dreams in Germany forever, and when Gilman (who had by now ascended to the presidency of the new Johns Hopkins University) offered Royce a graduate fellowship at Hopkins, Royce packed his bags and headed for Baltimore. Baltimore was certainly not Germany, but at Hopkins Royce formed the great intellectual friendship of his life by becoming a student of William James.

Gilman had attempted to recruit James away from Harvard, and settled for borrowing him as a one-semester lecturer. Royce rapidly became James’s “beloved Royce,” and James became Royce’s “friend from my youth to the end of his beneficent life.” They made an odd couple: James was polished, ­Northeastern, well-heeled, and the sort of man for whom life seemed to bend over obligingly to please. Royce was short, stocky, homely, and baby-faced, lacking in social ­graces. James was born to an easy and unquestioned place near the top of the social pyramid; Royce was the loner, the unwilling individualist who feared loneliness and yearned to be part of a band of brothers far from the unheroic isolation of the frontier.James hoped to bring Royce into the Harvard faculty once Royce had finished his doctoral dissertation—not surprisingly, on Kant. But Harvard had no openings, and so, in 1878, Royce returned to California for the only job on offer, teaching English composition at Berkeley. He loathed it. After three years away, returning to California seemed to Royce like an exile.

But James did not forget him, and when on leave from Harvard in September 1882, he prevailed on Harvard’s president, Charles William Eliot, to hire Royce as his substitute. It was only a temporary position, James warned him, but there was the hope that if Royce could make a deep enough impression as a teacher, he might win a permanent appointment. Hope was enough for Royce. He left California with his new wife and newborn son for Harvard’s fall term of 1882. “Whether there will be room for me next year I cannot tell,” Royce admitted in January of 1883, but “I do not want to go back to California, and took this place so as to get in the edge of a wedge somewhere on this side of the Continent.” The wedge worked. After three years of temporary appointments and reappointments, Royce was hired on a five-year contract, and when Stanford University tried to woo him away, Eliot promoted him to professor of the history of philosophy.

As much as Royce liked and deferred to James, and even described himself as James’s “disciple,” he stood up from the very first to James’s empiricism with all the ammunition that Kant had given him. But James gave Royce’s idealism a pragmatic twist by pushing Royce to ask not what the source of thought is—the old bogeyman of epistemology—but what purpose thought serves. To that question, Royce had a perfectly pragmatic answer: “the attainment of mastery over our experience”—in other words, concepts that make reality clear and predictable. That requires two things which belied the “radical empiricism” James thought underlay all pragmatism. First, we need to know what was supplied to the mind as a sort of given; and second, we need to know what the mind adds to it as its own contribution. What is given are ideas. One cannot not think, and whether you want to call your idea a feeling, or a perception, or a phantasm, some idea is just there. Experience can validate the idea, but the idea is the real object of the experience.

That is only half the explanation. “At every moment we are not merely receiving, attending, and recognizing, but we are constructing,” Royce wrote in an early essay in 1882. “Knowing is not mere passive reception of facts or of truths.” To know is to act, in just the same way that Peirce had defined belief as “a rule for action.” To that extent, Royce was as much a member of the pragmatist fellowship as either of the others. But unlike James, Royce was concerned not just with how knowledge makes us act, but whether that knowledge is really true.

As we’ve seen, for James, an idea proves itself true if it relieves doubt or adapts our lives to pressing realities. Royce could not reconcile himself to this relativism. The categories we impose on sense data enable us to master our experiences, but they do not fluc­tuate according to need or circumstance. The future, for instance, cannot be seen by the mind as the past, nor the past as the future, no matter how comforting such a juxtaposition might be. And the moment we confuse the two, we do not congratulate ourselves on the suppleness of our imagination; we call it an error. And if an idea is erroneous—not just trivial or unhelpful, but erroneous—then it is inescapable that an idea can also be true. “Thus then,” Royce concluded in his first major philosophical work, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885), “we are driven to assume an infinite thought, judging truth and error.”

We make judgments about truth and error because they are all present to, and can be compared to, an Absolute. “Such goodness, then, if completely experienced at all, must be experienced upon some higher level of consciousness than any one human being ever reaches.” The Absolute must be a “metaphysical” reality; individuals alone “do not constitute the whole truth,” for otherwise thinking would become nothing “more than a convenient illusion.”

This marks a decisive departure from James’s pragmatism, since James was content to define truth by whether an idea corresponded to expectations it arouses or expresses. This, Royce objected, was hopelessly vague. It may be true that “we never find unity present to our human experience in more than a fragmentary shape.” But this is because “we seek a city out of sight.” Against a purely pragmatic approach, he argued that anyone who tries to deny “the reality of this whole of truth” is caught in a self-contradiction. “To deny that there is truth, or that there is a real world, is simply to say that the whole truth is that there is no whole truth.”

Royce’s conviction that an Absolute existed—whether one wanted to call it God or “the Unity of the Infinite Thought”—goes in precisely the opposite direction from James’s relativism and, even more important, away from James’s individualism. As far as James was concerned, all of us are on our own in the universe, finding out what works best for each of us. For Royce, there is an Absolute, and our task as thinkers is to find our way to it. If we could only set aside our conflicting, selfish, and erroneous aims, “all the world of individuals would act as one Being, having a single Universal Will,” and “harmony would in fact be attained.”

Royce labored over the next thirty years to work out the implications of what he called “Absolute pragmatism,” venturing into psychology, logic, and even mathematics in an effort to puzzle out how minds can understand the will and ideas of the Absolute. In The World and the Individual, Royce sharpened his description of an idea as “any state of consciousness . . . which, when present, is . . . viewed as at least the partial expression or embodiment of a single conscious purpose.” He did not want Absolute pragmatism to lapse into the usual caricature of idealism, which made ideas into nothing more than objects of idle contemplation; ideas always contain, at their core, an intention to act. And he separated his notion of the Absolute from Scottish realism, Romantic mysticism, and even some aspects of Kant.

What eventually grew to be his greatest concern was not the relationship of minds to the Absolute, but the relationship of minds to other minds. As early as 1880, Royce had complained that “individuality without [any] other aim than to be peculiar” tends “towards a savage diversity of wills and aims and thoughts.” His youthful memories of life in Gold Rush California, which he distilled into a series of essays, a state history, and a historical novel, The Feud of Oakfield Creek, testified to the terrifying chaos of a society animated by desire for gain and policed by vigilantes. If harmony with the Absolute is the destiny of all minds, the best application of one’s individuality would be when “every one would give himself up to whatever work were before him, every one would feel that the world’s ends were his ends, and no human will would be coerced by another, because perfect submission would be the attitude of every one.”

At this point, Royce could have taken the tack of John Dewey and turned his attention to how the family, the school, and the Church might be retooled to steer ideas of social relations away from the materialism of the Gilded Age. But for Royce, the path to social harmony lay not through pragmatic social training, but through what he called loyalty. When someone is loyal to a cause, Royce argued in The Philosophy of Loyalty in 1908, it unites him to something larger than his own personal interests, and unites him to others who share the same cause. One example is patriotism: The patriot submits himself to the will of the nation, yet he does so as an act of individual self-surrender which satisfies the highest demands of his individuality. “Where there is an object of loyalty, there is, then, a union of various selves into one life.” Of course, there are any number of causes to which one could be loyal, and not all of them are worthwhile. How, then, can one determine what cause to be loyal to? Royce’s reply was that we should pursue “a loyalty to loyalty.” We should choose for our cause only the sort of causes that promote loyalty in others, and shun causes that require the destruction of other loyalties. A cause “which lives by overthrowing the loyalties of others . . . is an evil cause, because it involves disloyalty to the very cause of loyalty itself.”

The ultimate goal to which loyalty points is the creation of what Royce, in his last great work, The Problem of Christianity­­, in 1913, calls “the Beloved Community.” Royce had come back to the Church as the final model of what harmony with the Absolute looks like. He believed that William James’s “momentous error” had been to justify the exercise of religious belief on the basis of a few extraordinary individuals (who in any case were merely justifying religious believing, not the beliefs themselves), and he understood clearly that those who followed in James’s track were (like Dewey) eventually going to lose any grip on religion at all. Science would provide all the answers religion purported to give; progressive democracy would provide managed guidance to whatever social yearnings people had. Religion (said George Santayana) was, like patriotism and unselfishness, one of the “forced arts.”

Royce disagreed. “Monotheism . . . cannot be proved, but rationally must be acknowledged as true.” It is emotionally satisfying as well, because “the loyalty which stands at the centre of the Christian consciousness, is as an emotion, a longing for such a mystical blending of others.”

“Those who have believed in the being whom they called Christ,” Royce wrote gingerly, “were united in a community of . . . perfectly real and divine Universal Community, and were saved by the faith and by the life which they thus expressed.” In The Problem of Christianity, Royce declared I believe in the Holy Catholic Church to be the “capital article of the Christian creed,” and added that it “should be philosophically expounded and defended.” If you “merely take a cross-section of the social order at any one moment,” it will only yield “the predominantly pluralistic form” of “detached individuals.” The Church “has a past and will have a future,” and “its more or less conscious history, real or ideal, is part of its very essence.” Although Catholicism “never awakens [his] sympathy” as an instinctive Protestant, Royce admired the way “Catholic tradition has made the relation of theology and philosophy much closer and more uniform.”The ultimate loyalty is a loyalty to the Absolute, and in that loyalty—not the social gospel of doing good or the corporate gospel of wealth—is the only hope of creating a “Beloved Community.”

William James was alternately impressed by, puzzled by, and scornful of Josiah Royce. He jokingly predicted that a hundred years hence, Harvard would be known as the place where Josiah Royce had taught, but in his lectures on Pragmatism, he dismissed Royce as an example of “guileless thoroughfed thinkers . . . explaining away evil and pain.” Posing for a snapshot with Royce, James waited until a split second before the photographer pushed his lever to blurt out “Damn the Absolute!”—and catch Royce in the snapshot looking simultaneously horrified and flat-footed. It was a joke, but Royce was too burdened with his own sense of being a dog in the Harvard manger, and too much a friend to James—too loyal, we might say—to retaliate. “Life is a sad, long road, sometimes,” he told James in 1907. “Every friendly touch and word must be preciously guarded.” Besides, Royce admitted, James still charmed everyone into admiration. “The Pragmatists wag their heads and mock when I pass by,” Royce complained in 1908. “My colleague James, who although so much my senior, is eternally young” and “has all the interest on his side. . . .”

Perhaps he complained too much. From 1902 onwards, Royce developed a substantial public following, publishing essays on race, insurance, football, and the future of Christianity, lecturing for the Carnegie Foundation, the Twentieth Century Club, the Ingersoll Foundation, and the Lowell Institute, and writing op-eds for the Boston newspapers. He was hailed in the popular religious press as “Royce, Defender of the Faith,” and one Congregationalist magazine declared that “when these doctrines come from the leading philosophical thinker of America, and from an institution popularly regarded as liberal, the event is more than noteworthy.” Audiences demanded him from as far away as Oxford, Australia, Trinidad; even his University of California alma mater came calling. But he could never bring himself to join any particular church. “The author has no present connection with any visible religious body,” Royce wrote in 1914, “and no sort of desire for any such connection.” And a sharp-eyed reviewer in the quarterly Bibliotheca Sacra noticed that Royce’s “Beloved Community” seemed to have no necessary “connection with, and no interest whatever in, any alleged individual founder,” and seems to go on “just the same whether or not it was founded by Solomon and George Washington.”

His last years were clouded by the outbreak of the First World War. Royce had always regarded Germany as “the land of his spiritual birth,” and he was appalled to find the Germans “running amok and turning their finest thought and energy to the destruction of mankind.” His lecture at Tremont Temple, “The Duties of the Americans in the Present War,” on January 30, 1916, and his essay “The Destruction of the Lusitania” (along with an address delivered before 2,500 people at a memorial for the first anniversary of the Lusitania’s sinking) elevated Royce into “the leading anti-German ideologue,” according to his biographer Bruce Kuklick. Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced Royce at the American Philosophical Association at Princeton in 1903, hailed him as “a walking, sentient mind agog about everything and not to be resisted or put off or mystified or left half-answered in its inquiries.” Royce’s former student, the writer Rollo Walter Brown, remembered, “Millions who had never seen his name until yesterday now talked of him as one of humanity’s great bulwarks.”

Reluctantly, Royce joined the chorus of voices clamoring for American intervention in the war, but added, “Unless the enemies of mankind are duly rebuked by the results of this war, I for one, do not wish to survive the crisis.” It was a wish he was granted. Royce died on September 14, 1916. “No man in outward appearance could furnish a more complete contrast to the American of British literature, with his bragging and his materialism, than he,” mourned the Harvard Crimson. “But we believe that it is in such a man as Josiah Royce that one can discern the real American.”

The promise of pragmatism was that it would solve practical social problems without appeal to God or metaphysics. Butit had the peculiar effect of turning people away not only from theology and metaphysics, but also from philosophy and toward the “human clash of social purpose and aspirations” (Dewey’s phrase). The end point of pragmatism is our politicized culture war.

Had James not cast Royce so thoroughly into his shadow—had American philosophy followed the path of a thinker with his eye on the Absolute rather than that of the shrewder social pragmatism of Dewey—the intellectual history of twentieth-century America might have been different. A public philosophy built around the Beloved Community would not have yielded the hedonistic individualism that has made a wreck of American culture. It would, in all likelihood, have slowed the expulsion of religion from the public square, and a public square open to words of purpose and harmony and the Absolute would be an improvement over today’s competition of group identities. A jurisprudence built around loyalty would not have descended, as Holmes’s did, into a rank celebration of personal autonomy. We cannot imagine Royce endorsing Holmes’s promise to Harold Laski that “if my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.”

Lacking a sense of a presiding truth, after World War I our Jamesian mentality turned toward politics and social engineering with a vengeance. The upshot is our restless progressivism, always in search of the next cause. The Beloved Community of Josiah Royce would have to be built by other hands.  

Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

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