After reading this essay you will learn about the English idealism or Oxford idealism.
Any analysis of idealism or idealist philosophy will remain incomplete without proper and elaborate mention of English idealism or what is also called Oxford idealism. The English idealists drew their inspiration from German idealists. But German idealists were not the single source.
A. D. Lindsay in his Introduction to T. H. Green’s The Principles of Political Obligations makes the following remark:
“Green and his fellow idealists represent the renewed liberalism of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They were all of them, for all their Platonism and Hegelianism, in the succession of utilitarian’s. They were all fundamentally individualists and democrats. But they were convinced that utilitarianism had become barren as a political creed because of the inadequate philosophy upon which it was based”.
Marcuse, an important member of Critical Theory group, says:
“The British movement was still connected with the principles and philosophy of liberalism and for this very reason lay much closer to the spirit of Hegel than did the Italian”.
So it can be maintained that Oxford or English Idealism had several sources platonism, German Idealism, Utilitarianism and, above all, British liberal tradition of democracy and parliamentary system of government.
The persons who were influenced by Hegel’s idealism were Thomas Hill Green, Bosanquet, and D. G. Ritchie. Bosanquet’s famous work Philosophical Theory of the State was published in 1899. D. G. Ritchie, who came under the influence of Hegel’s idealism, wrote Darwinism and Politics, Principles of State Interference, Darwin and Hegel, and Natural Rights. All these were published between 1889 and 1895.
The most important idealist philosopher was T. H. Green. His famous book is Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligations. The Lectures were delivered by Green in 1879 and were published in 1882 after his death.
A. D. Lindsay writes:
They represent the most important contribution to political theory of the school of thought sometimes known as the “Oxford Idealists. Edward Card, William Wallace and Arnold Toynbee were also members of the school.”
Kant and Hegel did not attach too much importance to the representative institutions of England. They were accustomed to the authoritarianism of Germany and saw the disunity and constant fight among the various independent units of German states. Liberal tradition had no scope to develop in Germany.
Even Hegel castigated the representative institutions of England. People of that country could not test the freedom which was to be realized by monarchy and on this ground he branded England as the most backward country of Europe.
Kant also believed that the representatives had no scope to work independently, because they had to depend on the ministers. This was the academic situation on the eve of the emergence of Oxford idealism.
Barker writes, “Some modification of the theories of Kant and Hegel is thus obviously needed to make the idealist theory of the continent square with the representative institutions of England and to adjust a theory which emphasizes the majesty of the state to a practice which emphasizes the liberty of the subject.”
The on-going economic, political and other situations of Britain influenced the Oxford idealists to think about society in a new way. They thought that the attitude towards the activities, role etc. of the state required to be amended or might be made suitable for the changed situation.
In the post-Industrial Revolution period the British society was in the grip of crises and problems relating to social, economic, and political matters. The authority of a state cannot play the role of a helpless onlooker and leave everything to fate or God. This can never be the duty of a responsible government.
It must exercise power to arrest the crises in order to free the citizens from problems. But, at the same time, the democratic institutions which took centuries to assume proper shape must be given adequate importance and place.
In other words, the English idealists felt the need for reconciliation between the authority of state and democratic values and principles.
Green and other Oxford idealists were convinced that a new political philosophy must be found out in order to tackle the situation arising out of the Industrial Revolution. The sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century saw the heyday of Utilitarianism. The only important member of the Benthamite school was J. S. Mill.
The size of the school was very small, but its impact was very great. In fact, utilitarian philosophy dominated the English academic and political world for a considerable period of time. But it took no time for the Oxford idealists to discover the barrenness of the philosophy.
Utilitarianism had reduced the individual to a bundle of pleasures and pains. The state, to the utilitarian thinkers, was simply a collection of independent individuals. One individual was completely indifferent to the weal’s and woes of another person. This philosophy of utilitarian thinkers was inadequate. No further progress could be made in such an understanding of politics.
It is said that Carlyle was a bitter critic of the creed of “each for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” The growing misery of the poor disturbed their mind and they pondered over finding out a solution.
That is why the Oxford idealists leaned to Carlyle’s thought. In a great society, an individual cannot remain alone. He cannot make himself busy with his own affairs. The social problems must be treated as a whole.
In society each man is not up to himself. This philosophy of Carlyle led the Oxford idealists to think in terms of a new philosophy. But they did not share Carlyle’s aristocratic ideas and anti-democrat leanings. It is due to this fact that the Oxford idealists were democrats and individualists.
They felt that a new start had to be made and a proper conception of human nature and action acquired before an adequate political theory could be constructed That is why none of them were concerned only with political theory.
Their politics were to be the outcome of a view of human nature and of the world—of moral philosophy and of metaphysics (A. D. Lindsay).
The utilitarian thinkers wanted to make politics a science of achieving happiness and pleasure and avoiding pain.
Simultaneously they thought that the individuals had sufficient reason and intelligence to know what pain is and what is meant by pleasure and how to achieve them.
The generalisation about human nature as well as ability had no scientific basis. It was a sheer imagination of the utilitarians. The impractical and unfounded assessment of human nature made the thought system of utilitarians unsuitable for the post-Industrial Revolution British society. They did not think about numerous common men. On the contrary, the idealists woke up for the common people.
The fruits of democracy and the benefits of social wealth must be made available for the poorest of the poor. So the attitude of Green and other fellow idealists differed fundamentally from that of the utilitarians.
In the 1870s and 1880s there was a change in public opinion. Legislation, in Dicey’s phrase, was passing from an individualist to a collectivist trend.
The state was no longer confining itself to securing the free play of competition and vindicating freedom of contract, but was addressing itself to the more positive function. Public opinions already awakened and it demanded alertness of the state.
The Oxford idealists echoed the sentiment of the mass of men. They abandoned their academic recluse. They roamed in the dark and narrow lanes of London City and mixed with the denizens of those lanes and by-lanes.
This enabled them to be acquainted with the economic and other conditions of those hapless men. Particularly T. H. Green did this.
They were idealists, wanted to idealize politics. But they were also realists. They, through serious efforts, came to be acquainted with the down to earth condition. The Oxford idealists were humanists and, at the same time realists. This differentiates them from German idealists and utilitarians.
A few more words may be added to clear the nature of Oxford or English idealism. Herbert Marcuse points out that mention has sometimes been made that the development of British idealism from Green to Bosanquet was one in which the liberal philosophy of earlier epoch was abandoned.
Of course the abandonment took place very slowly. So far as the terms and words of British idealism are concerned it is purely Hegelian. But if we consider the spirit or inner meaning of Hegel’s idealism we shall find that the English idealism is far removed from it.
There are several points of departure. Bradley’s metaphysics, notwithstanding its Hegelian concepts, has a strong irrationality that is alien to Hegel.
“From its beginning the renaissance of idealism showed a definite anti-materialist tendency, a quality it shares with the tendencies accompanying the transition from liberalism to authoritarianism. The ideology accompanying this movement prepared the individual for more labour and less enjoyment, a slogan of the authoritarian economy. Gratification of individual wants had to give way before duties to the whole”.
Bosanquet has said that an imperative is imposed upon us by the concept of social good. Liberty of the individual can be realized only through the obedience to that imperative.
Thus, English idealism is a combination of new liberalism and authoritarianism. What the Oxford or English idealists have emphasized is that man no doubt seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. But his is not the only feature of human character. Many people have feelings for other and try to do something for them.
They follow an ideal and try to implement it. They do not always achieve success but they do not always abandon the ideal. We may call English idealism as realist idealism. It is an idealism that thinks about ordinary men and renewed role of state. From this has emerged the concept of welfare state.