British Idealism

During the middle of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, British Idealism was the dominant philosophy in Britain and permeated the whole English-speaking world with the writings and influence of such exponents as T.H. Green, F.H.Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird, Henry Jones, Andrew Seth, D.G.Ritchie, J.S.Mackenzie, William Wallace, J.M.E.McTaggart, John Watson, J.H.Muirhead, R.G.Collingwood, and Michael Oakeshott. The British Idealists introduced into Britain the philosophical discourse of German, and later Italian Idealism and made an important re-assessment of its cardinal doctrines. Furthermore, they were critically engaged in a fruitful philosophical dialogue with the Italian and American exponents of Philosophical Idealism and with the representatives of different philosophical traditions such as utilitarianism, realism and pragmatism. The British Idealists were influenced by Greek classical political thought (especially by the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle), by the philosophical system of German Idealism (Kant, Fichte, Hegel), and by the insights of the British philosophical tradition (Hobbes, Hume, Locke). They produced philosophical work which made original contributions to Aesthetics, Logic, Metaphysics, Theology, philosophy of history and Social and Political Philosophy. Their Social and Political Philosophy is, probably, the most important project because it contains the practical application of the conceptual and normative systems they elaborated and developed.

 

The main achievements of the political philosophy of the British Idealists were:

  • To develop an important and significant relation between theory and practice, between philosophical speculation and social work, politics, and social policy
  • To elaborate a comprehensive scheme concerning the philosophical foundations of politics
  • To emphasise the fundamental relation between Society, State and the Individual and, thus, to oppose narratives and interpretations of social and political life that focus on the claims of a narrow atomistic individualism
  • To propound a more comprehensive version of liberal political theory by emphasising the intrinsic interdependence between society and the individuals, and to develop a political philosophy structured around the key-concept of the commitment to the Common Good
  • To have influenced public policy by active participation in politics.
     

See biographies of British Idealists.

The recent revival of interest in the moral, social, and political philosophy of the British Idealists requires systematic research into the meaning, significance and contribution of the doctrines they developed. They have a contemporary relevance in that they address such issues as the role of the state; theorise communitarianism; seek to extend the moral community beyond state borders; and, theorise about rights.

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