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George Holmes Howison

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George Holmes Howison

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 Novermber 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

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

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 beyond its genuine reach, as Herbert Spencer and even Charles Darwin himself eventually did, in extending the idea of 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. As indicated above, Howison argues that evolution cannot cross the gap between the phenomenal world of experience and the world as it would or could exist completely apart from human experience. Evolution is an idea that presupposes the experience of persons and the structures of that experience. Howison goes on to show that the idea of evolution cannot, without the help of non-empirical principles, bridge the gaps between inorganic and organic, and between physiological and logical genesis. Howison supplies the needed non-empirical principles, arguing especially against Spencer and his followers.

To be sure, Howison envisioned “the world” as but the phenomenal aspect of an harmonious pluralism[4] of such “supernatural”, or ideal,[5] persons, genuine and complex. 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.”


Direct Criticism is perhaps impossible to find. Thomas Davidson offered a minor, indirect, criticism of Howison's Ground, arguing that God must be intimate in his immanence, thus suggesting that final cause would open the door for true numerically widespread eternal Divinity. In this vein it was suggested by a discussion member at the Lilasquad* (at google groups), that Howison's hierarchy of Human Art, - wherein he saw the "divinity" of God shining most, - can involve a harmonizing of Howison's "lowest" art form, Architecture, with Howison's "highest" art form, Poetry; the proffered name for this supernatural art form was "mercitecture" (suggesting the "binding up" rather than the "looseing" of: Sin-is-to-miss-the-'bullseye'; and, "at the same 'damn' time", corroborating Howison's position on the balanced-harmony a priori necessarily-implicit in "(a priori complex-and-pluralistic) definite (individually-proprietary) freedom"). *The Lilasquad's namesake, and the context of the action, was Robert Pirsig's book entitled "Lila: an inquiry into morals".

Research resources

  • The Bancroft Library


See also

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