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The Spirit of Modern Philosophy at Central APA

James Pearson was the chair of the Josiah Royce Society’s session on ‘Revisiting Royce’s The Spirit of Modern Philosophy’ at the APA Central Division Meeting in March 2017 in Kansas City.  Here, James reflects on the session.  

James, can you give an overview of the Josiah Royce Society session?  

Sure! The papers comprising the session reassessed the contemporary significance of Josiah Royce’s 1892 book The Spirit of Modern Philosophy. Robin Friedman began by revealing ways that the initial chapters of this book, in which Royce provides sympathetic introductions to key figures from the history of philosophy, are a lens through which to understand Royce’s absolute idealism, and particularly how his arguments for that view are rooted in experiential knowledge. Jacquelyn Ann Kegley deepened this account, bringing out ways that the two main lessons Royce took from history – namely, the limitation of any one philosophy and the personal nature of all philosophy – continue to resonate in our own moment, which is marked by a recommitment to philosophical pluralism. And Kevin Harrelson concluded by examining Royce’s historiography, and the justifications for studying the history of philosophy that might be found in Royce’s conception of appreciation.

What’s your interest in this topic? 

Although Royce does not belong to the tradition of analytic philosophy – the historical tradition my own research engages – I was interested in chairing this session for a number of reasons. One is the Harvard connection; Royce was a key member of the philosophy department up until his death in 1916, influencing Henry Sheffer and C.I. Lewis, who in turn went on to influence W.V. Quine (about whom I spoke in my own paper). But another, deeper reason was Royce’s interest in the philosophy of history, an area that does not get written about much these days, but which I think is important for all historians of philosophy to engage. In my view, to write history well requires thinking philosophically about the goals of historical inquiry and the stakes in historical interpretation – both topics about which Royce thought deeply.

What do you think were the most interesting or contentious points that came up during the session? 

One contentious issue was whether Royce had served as the second or third president of the APA… I jest, but Harrelson took the opportunity of speaking at a divisional meeting to think about what Royce would have made of the development of our professional organization. This question resonated with the panelists, especially in the context of the recent survey about the values of our profession that Valerie Tiberius had summarized in her presidential address. On the one hand, the number and diversity of the panels represented at our divisional conference is a sign of the health of philosophy; and yet panelists noted that many of these—including our own session—only attracted small (though committed!) audiences. Royce, who developed a “philosophy of the community,” sought to reveal the underlying unity in apparently conflicting philosophical views and traditions; but such rapprochement can only occur if opposing views are exposed to and engage one another.

What sorts of discussions took place with the audience?

The formation of the canon of the history of philosophy was discussed – as well as our responsibilities when teaching philosophy’s history to our students. Royce is a figure who is seldom taught, but his commitment to appreciating the work of other thinkers as participants in the hypostatized World Spirit suggests a distinctive account of the value of history of philosophy. Perhaps instead of telling students that our classes are instrumentally valuable for a better understanding of philosophy, or the development of critical thinking skills, or an eventual career in law, some audience members suggested that we find in Royce an argument that they are intrinsically valuable opportunities to enact our appreciation for other minds.

What do you hope participants will take away from the session?

I hope that the participants have a renewed interest in studying Royce’s The Spirit of Modern Philosophy! Friedman was particularly passionate about the richness of the text, accessible when one takes the time to engage Royce’s Victorian prose. I also hope that participants felt both energized and recommitted to being good citizens of the philosophical community, to attending—and appreciating!—a variety of panels even outside their various areas of specialization.

James Pearson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University. His primary areas of research are the history of analytic philosophy, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind and language. 

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