Social Organicism in the Political Philosophy of Bernard Bosanquet

Though this paper is an essay in political philosophy, it brings together recurrent themes of interest to me: that is, the individual’s relationship to the social corpora and associated issues in the philosophy of mind.

Bosanquet, B. (1899). The Philosophical Theory of the State, 1st ed., London

Gifford Lectures:

Bosanquet, B. (1912). The Principle of Individuality and Value, London

Bosanquet, B. (1913). The Value and Destiny of the Individual, London

Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923) contributed to a broad variety of philosophical subjects from philosophical logic and metaphysics, through to philosophy of mind, to aesthetics, ethics and political philosophy. His main political text, PTS, was once widely regarded as a classic of political philosophy.This paper is an attempt to retrieve one part of Bosanquet’s political philosophy, the positive part which I term his “Social Organicism”. The most effective way to introduce this organicism is to locate it at three points of divergence between Bosanquet and the British tradition of political philosophy. These divergencies will yield three components to Bosanquet’s Social Organicism. The aim of this paper is to set out these components and use them to construct Bosanquet’s solution to the problem of political obligation.First, then, to define the problem of political obligation and to set Bosanquet against the background of the British tradition.

1.2  The Problem of Political Obligation

Discourse in modern political philosophy has to a large degree centred on the problem of political obligation. This problem divides into two different but related lines of enquiry:

(1) On what grounds is an individual ever morally obliged to obey the state?

(2) Under what conditions is an individual either (a) not morally obliged to obey the state or (b) morally obliged to disobey it?

The relation between these lines of inquiry varies between different theories. For some theories the same conditions which, through their presence, ground political obligation also, through their absence, justify disobedience. For other theories the conditions may pull apart: consent many ground obedience, infringement of natural law may justify disobedience.

Both lines of enquiry involve an assumption:

(a) The state is central to politics

This is clearly so, since both lines of enquiry are formulated by reference to the state. 

1.3 Bosanquet and the British Tradition

Moreover, in the Hobbes-Locke tradition, which has tended to dominate this area of political discourse, it is further assumed that:

(b) Sovereignty is an essential attribute of the state.Sovereignty here means

(b1) a supreme coercive power

(b2) a supreme legal authority

Furthermore, there is also an assumption that:

(c) in regard to collective decision-making and to all individuals and associations within a society, what is also required is a sovereign state in a third sense:

(c1) a supreme moral authority  Whatever the difficulties of conceptualizing coercive power and legal authority, the main weight of philosophical reflection has rested on the problem of how to ground the sovereign state of (b1) and (b2) with the moral authority of (c1) – the moral entitlement to make decisions which bind all individuals within a society (see note 1). 

In the Hobbes-Locke tradition there is braod agreement that sovereign state’s moral authority can only rest on consent. In terms of our two lines of enquiry, then, consent provides the grounds of the moral obligation to obey the state: and lack of consent defines the conditions on which moral obligation fails.Bosanquet agrees with the tradition down to this point. Beyond this point, however, we find three areas of divergence concerning:

(i) The type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority.

(ii) The conception of the individual relevant to politics.

(iii) The conditions of individual well-being.

The divergencies are closely inter-related but we can distinguish broadly between them.

1.4. Divergence Over Type of Consent Relevant to the State’s Moral Authority

As noted above, in the British tradition from Hobbes and Locke, there is a general view that the sovereign state’s moral authority can only rest on consent.

Now, Bosanquet wants a sovereign state with all three attributes (b1), (b2) and (c1). So he is concerned with the state’s moral authority and he too accepts that the sovereign state’s moral authority can only rest on consent. But he is quite clear that the tradition operates with faulty notions of consent.

“Consent” is, of course, a highly ambigous word. If however, we follow Partridge’s analysis (1971, chapter 2) then we find three main senses which have dominated political discourse:

– Acquiescence under duress

– Acquiescence from apathy, indiffrence or habit

– Permission under conditions of deliberate choice or decision

Acquiescence under duress clearly pertains to Hobbes’ Commonwealth by Acquisition (Leviathan, chapter 20). Acquiescence from apathy, indifference or habit fits closely with Locke’s notion of Tacit Concent (Second Treatise, para. 119). Permission under conditions of deliberate choice or decision belongs to Hobbes’ Commonwealth by Institution (Leviathan, chapter 19) and to Locke’s account of the Goal of Political Society (Second Treatise, paras 123-24).

Bosanquest is clear that the attempt to base the state’s moral authority on consent, where consent is of these types, is a lost cause. It rests, he thinks, on spurious and confused assumptions about the nature of the individual. Specifically, it tries to solve “the problem of political obligation”, with a truncated view of the individual. Only by a longer route, through a proper conception of the individual and of his or her dependence on a social context for personal fulfilment, and a correct understanding of the state’s role in relation to that context, can we obtain a really intelligible conception of the state’s moral authority. To introduce briefly a notion to which we shall have to return, for Bosanquet, the type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority is that of:

– The Individual’s Real Will

1.5. Divergence Over the Conception of Individual Relevant to Politics

For Bosanquet, it was the conception of the individual relevant to politics which crucially undermined not only the Hobbbes-Locke tradition, but also the political philosophy of empricist thinkers as diverse as Bentham, Spencer, and J.S. Mill. All these thinkers tended to rely on a view of what Steven Lukes calls the “Abstract Individual” (Lukes 1973, p. 73-78 – see note 2).

Lukes explains this phrase by saying that the human features such as instincts, desires, rights, etc. are all treated as a given, independently of a social context. That is, all such features have been abstracted from man’s social context, even though man is or by definition, a social creature.

Bosanquet, by contrast, stresses (a) how the individual’s beliefs, desires, attitutudes, and activities mesh indefinitely with a social setting. Individuals thus have a social texture (I will call this the social texture thesis). The social texture thesis is, more precisely, the view that some or all of the significant psychological properties of individual human beings are social context-dependent.

1.6. Divergence Over the Condition of Individual Well-Being

We have just seen that Bosanquet rejects a view of the abstract individual. We grasp his conception of the individual more clearly when we note that three major views may be held concerning the relation of society to the individual:

(1) Society has ends of its own, distinct from those of its individual members.

(2) Society’s ends are higher than, or of supreior value to, those of the individual (with the corrolaries (a) that the individual, properly viewed, is more a means to society’s ends, and (b) that this instrumental value defines the nature and limits of individual well-being).

(3) The individual is internally related to society for his/her well-being.

Bosanquet subscribes to view (3). He offers a particular theory of socially mediated individual well-being. The individual can flourish only in a particular kind of social context, one which moulds beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities coherently.

Specifically, this view of well-being involves an account of the good life for which personal fulfilment depends on coherence of beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities and of how in turn this coherence is a function of the individual’s social roles in a setting regulated and underpinned by the state. 

The abstract “atomistic” individualism of the British tradition is here being replaced by a diffrent conception of the individual: but by a view which, in its account of well-being, avoids (1) and (2).  The tendency of British political philsophy from Hobbes and Locke through to J.S. Mill, was to deny (1), (2) and (3). On the other hand, the assertion of (1) and (2) are often attributed to Hegel and the Hegelian tradition (see note 3). Bosanquet’s position is reminiscent of Aristotle. The individual is internally realted, organically connected, to society in certain crucial respects for his proper functioning and well-being (as we note in Aristotle’s notion of man as politikon zoon); and the political aim is to ensure that social arrrangements allow and encourage that proper functioning and well-being.

1.7 Social Organicism

In short order, then, the individual’s well-being requires a coherent motivational structure; and the means of achieving that stucture is to fulfil the requirements of a social role (or consistent set of such roles). Finally, personal coherence is a matter of degree; and Bosanquet terms the coherent part of a person’s motivational structure his or her “real will”. Political consent is taken to be a function of this “will”.

To refer more directly to the state, we can trace the following picture. Individual well-being requires a particular social setting. The relevant social setting requires a state with attributes (c1) and (c2); and since the state supports the social context which provides the best conditions for personal fulfilment, this is the basis of its moral authority (c1). This Bosanquet combines (b1) and (b2) with (c1) – and how to do this was precisely our problem in 1.2.    

In this brief summary we have the outline of Bosanquet’s social organicism. It is the positive part of his political philosophy; the negative part is the critique of other thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Spencer, and J.S. Mill among others) at the points of divergence noted above.

It must be conceded that a similar political philosophy was produced by other members of the school of 19th Century Oxford Idealism:

Edward Caird (1835-1908)

T.H. Green (1836-1882)

F.H. Bradley (1846-1924)

William Wallace (1843-1897)

Unfortunately, however, Bosanquet receives less current attention than the two major figues – Green and Bradley – and his detailed views warrant independent interest.  

 1.8 Bosanquet and Hegel

The school of Oxford Idealism was also known as “neo-Hegelianism”; and a word must be said about Bosanquet’s relation to Hegel. The influence of Hegel on Bosanquet extended from philsophical logic and metahysics, through politics and ethics, to aesthetics. Perhaps its clarest mark in politics and ethics is the morality of social roles to which Bosanquet, less qualifiedly than Green or Bradley, is committed: the impact of Hegelian sittlichkeit is openly apparent.

But Bosanquet’s political philosophy is not simply a reproduction of Hegel’s. We have seen one possible divergence in 1.5. Two other points are relevant. In the first place, Bosanquet was influenced independently of Hegel, in ways beyond the scope of this article to explore; by Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau. Secondly, he confronts, as Hegel never did, directly and in detail, the British tradition of political philosophy from Hobbes and Locke. Here he cannot reproduce Hegel but must work out his own response to ideas and arguments. 

1.9 The Road Ahead

The positive task of Bosanquet’s political philosophy is then to vindicate his view of the conditions of individual well-being, which relies on his conception of the individual, which in turn underlies his view of consent and to do this in a way as to arrive at a state with attributes (b1), (b2) and (c1).

This article focus mainly on this positive aspect of Bosanquet’s political philsophy. This aspect has not been examined in recent times – and older commentators who investigated it tended to subsume it under a general discussion of Bosanquest’s idealist metaphysics. I hold the view that Bosanquet is a considerable political philosopher, who employs an interesting and neglected philosophical psychology; and that his contribution here can be translated into more accessible language from the rather opaque metaphysical language and terminology he himself employs. I will howver, refer to his metaphysical theory as so far as necessary to make Bosanquets’ position intelligible. An extended discussion of Bosanquet’s metaphysics would be beyond the ambit of this article, and would take us beyond the confines of political philosophy.

I shall atempt a critical examination and not merely an exposition of Bosanquet’s social organicism. But the point must be made that since there is no (or not much) recent exposition of Bosanquet’s political philsophy, and since Bosanquet himself often fails to use the clearest language, a real effort is needed to recover the system of ideas embodied in his social organicism. Criticism can only come into play when the relevant concepts and structure of argument have been brought to light.

The central texts to be examined is Bosanquet’s PTS. Reference will be made to other texts as appropriate.

The structure of this article is as follows:

Section 2: Individual and Society

Section 3: Society and State

Section 4: State and Individual

Section 5: Conclusions

If we follow this structure we shall be able to assemble the three main components of Bosanquet’s social organicism: his view of the the type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority, his conception of the individual relevant to politics; and his view of the conditions of individual well-being. From this we can construct his solution to the problem of political obligation.  

2.1. Individual and Society

In this section I examine Bosanquet’s view of the relation of the individual to society. That view divides into two parts. The first is concerned with the concept of the individual relevant to politics (1.5) and the second with the conditions of individual well-being (1.6). These are the two main components of Bosanquet’s social organism. After making a terminological point, I lead in by way of a brief characterization of organicism.

The terminological point is this. Bosanquet himself tends not to refer to individual human beings as “individuals” , but rather as “selves” or “persons”. This withholding of the term refects a metaphysical theory, developed mainly in the Gifford Lectures, on which the criteria of individuality are comprehensiveness and coherence. On those criteria, in Bosanquet’s view, human beings are highly imperfect individuals. Ultimately, there is only one individual, the Absolute, i.e. the whole of reality. I note this usage, but will continue to refer to human beings as “individuals”, in line with normal practice in political philsophy.

2.2 Organicism: a Conceptual Analysis   

Organicist or holistic views of society typically involve one or more of the following claims:

1) There are irreducible social objects. 

2) Some or all of the significant (i.e. fundamentally explanatory) psychological properties of individual human beings are social context-dependent.

3) Society has ends of its own distinct from those of its individual members.

4) Society’s ends are higher than, of superior value to, those of the individual (with the corrollaries (a) that the individual, properly viewed, is merely a means to society’s ends and (b) that this instrumental value defines the nature and limits of individual well-being.

5) The individual is internally related to society for his/her well-being. 

I briefly examine view 1), in order to separate it off from Bosanquet’s main concerns. View 2) is examined under the heading of the general nature of the individual, while views 3) – 5) belong to a discussion of the conditions of individual well-being. 

2.3 Social Objects

More in details, view 1) is the claim that there are irreducible social objects:

substances like Venice;

types like monarchy;

events like the death of Queen Victoria;

processes like the rise of capitalism;

or states like apartheid.

On this approach, statements or beliefs about social objects are irreducible to statements or beliefs which relate purely to individuals. The claim is difficult to state precisely, and it is formulated in different ways by different writers. But we can see the direction of the claim if we note a famous example “Germany invaded France“. Here is a statement, the idea would be, which cannot be paraphrased into a logically equivalent statement referring solely to interacting individuals. I mention this idea in order to distinguish it from Bosanquet’s social organicism. As we shall shortly see, Bosanquet’s language sometimes suggests such an idea when he argues that individuals are adjectival on society. 

Bosanquet refers to individual human beings as “adjectival” on society – apparently implying that society is a substance, hence an individual object or entity (Bosanquet 1927, p. 90). But most often the standard organicist claim about social objects is that we have to invoke such objects irreducibly in making statements such as that about Germany and France above. Bosanquet is simply not concerned with this kind of claim. When he refers to individuals as relatively adjectival and society as relatively substantial, this is only a loose and indirect way of saying that society is not purely a collection of externally related individuals pursuing separate ends.

Bosanquet considers the claim that individual human beings have “substantial” existence – where the substantial is the self-existent and self-explanatory. (This view of substance is to be found in Descartes and Spinoza. Note in particular Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy I.51:

By substance, we can understand nothing else than a thing which so exists that it needs no other thing in order to exist.

As Descartes recognizes, on that very tight condition, there is only one substance – namely God. (“God or Nature”, as Spinoza would add). Bosanquet says that if we take the body as substance or thing, then thinghood is only a relative matter short of the whole of reality. If we think of the mind as a thing, then we find:

(a) that the unity of consciousness is highly interrupted and incomplete; and

(b) that the whole stucture of the individual’s beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities “implies” a social medium – a network of other minds with which it connects. In recent terms, incidentally, this is very much Roy Bhaskar’s point: “Society is a necessary condition for any intentional human act at all” (Bhaskar 1979, p. 31).

Point (b) brings us, however, very close to view 2).

2.4 Conception of the Individual Relevant to Politics

According to view 2), some or all of the significant (i.e. fundamentally explanatory) psychological properties of individual human beings are social context-dependent, sociably mediated. When we examine this claim we confront Bosanquet’s view of the general nature of the individual, the social-texture thesis of 1.4 and one of his points of divergence from the Hobbes-Locke tradition. Bosanquet is particularly concerned to avoid the assumption that human individuals have a fixed, abstract, pre-social nature for the exercise of which society merely provides the scope. Lukes cites F.H. Bradley, a related thinker, as making precisely this point (Lukes 1973, p.78)

But the point itself is hardly precise. Bosanquet can best be seen, I think, as making two claims. The first is essentially Rousseau’s charge against Hobbes in the Discourse on Inequality. So much of the human motivational structure is socially mediated by speech and rationality, that to talk of a pre-social human naure which continues to operate in society is quite implausible. The second claim is that even when we acknowledge the social mediation of speech and rationality, we still have not gone far enough. What is necessary for human beings to flourish is a coherent motivational structure; and even in a social context this is something that has to be precariously built up. It is not a fixed, “given” element in human nature. To think of it as pre-social is absolutely unrealistic.

2.5 Conditions of Individual Well-Being

Such generalities aside, there are some crucial moral and political questions even if we grant this broad view of the social nature of the individual. If individuals are inherently social beings, what kindof social beings are they? There are three main positions to note, namely 3) – 5).

According to view 3), society has ends of its own distinct from those of its constituent members; view 4) has it that society’s ends are higher than those of the individual (with the corrolary that the individual, properly viewed, is merely a means to society’s ends). 

Correctly analysed, in Bosanquet’s view, individuals are not related to one another or distinct from society in a way that could make these possibilities meaningful. To contrast individual and society in such a way as to as to even ask whether one is or ought to be a means to the ends of the other, is to misconstrue the nature of both. In Bosanquet’s words, “The fact is that the  decisive issue is not whether we call the “individual” or “society” the “end”, but what we take to be the nature at once of individuals and of society” (PTS 81).

2.6 Personal Coherence

In examining this claim we confront Bosanquet’s own view of the conditions of individual well-being of the good life. The prime condition of individual well-being is personal coherence. This personal coherence is equivalent to having a coherent motivational structure and this in turn is equivalent to having a coherent set of beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities.

It may be useful at this point to expand upon the notion of coherence.

Coherence is a notion with rich metaphysical connotations for Idealism; and it enters significantly into the work of three of the members of the 19th Century School of Oxford Idealism – Bosanquet, Bradley and Joachim.  Most ambitiously, the notion was used in the analysis of existence, truth and value; it certainly plays all three roles in Bosanquet’s Gifford Lectures. However, for present purposes, we may note simply that Bosanquet is moved by the following considerations. In the first place, he is prepared to make an empirical claim that well-being, a person’s sense of satisfaction with his or her life over time, is dependent on the possession and exercise of a coherent motivational structure of beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities. Secondly, he believes that only by entering and fulfilling the requirements of a social role (or consistent set of such roles) is a coherent structure achievable. Thirdly, the aim is to provide the conditions to enable a plurality of individuals to enjoy well-being.

2.7 Social Roles

The most effective path tp personal coherence, then, is to encapsulate oneself in the requirements of a social role or consistent set of such roles. Coherence is both personal and interpersonal. It is personal as an individual meets the demans of a practice. MacIntyre (1984: pp. 28-30) characterizes “practices” as follows:

By a “practice” I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activities through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

This is a concise expression, from an independent modern writer, of the account which Bosanquet offers in PTS, of “social positions” which constitute a “vast tissue of systems”, each with its own rule or scheme of attention” (PTS, pp, 166-167; 210).

As personal coherence comes about when the individual adjusts to the demands of a practice, to the requirements of his or her social role, so also interpersonal coherence is produced. For social roles interlock in a consistent pattern.

An example may help. I am, say, a doctor, a computer programmer, a teacher, or a lawyer. There’ll be a definitive practice associated with my social role; to learn to master the practice, and to organize my life in accordance with it, is to acquire a coherent motivational structure of beliefs, desires, attitudes and activities. More than that, the network of social roles is consistent: medical, computing, educational and legal practice are not only internally but also mutually consistent – and a society needs all these roles and their associated practices.  

2.8 An Assumption in Ethical Theory

Social roles, for Bosanquet, are also moral roles; they promote the general interest through the services which they provide.

This is what may be termed an “extensional” view of morality. The idea roughly is that so long as the individual regularly and reliably meets the rquirements of morality, defined in terms of serving the general interest, moral obligation is satisfied. This runs firmly against the Kantian tradition for which moral obligation cannot be satisfied by this kind of fortunate coincidence by which the agent, in doing one thing, viz, meets the requirements of morality. Moral obligation, for Kant, is sui generis: it has its own specific conditions, spelled out in the doctrine of the categorical imperative, which must be met as such, and not by mere coincidence through doing something else.It is fair comment to observe, however, that Bosanquet is appealing to a different kind of ethical theory from Kant’s; and that this alternative approach to ethics is capable of defence.  Bosanquet’s “extensional” view of morality is not necessarily unwarranted simply because it is non-Kantian. Plainly the matter cannot be resolved within political philosophy: and here I shall simply mark Bosanquet’s view. Bosanquet expresses his view of social roles as moral roles in the chpater heading of PTS, chapter XI, “Institutions as Ethical Ideas”. Institutions, as sets of social roles and practices, serve the general interest and thus embody “Ethical Ideas” – conceptions of needs to be met by the services they provide.

2.9 Review

We now  have in place two of the main components of Bosanquet’s social organicism., his conception of the individual relevant to politics and his view of the conditions of individual well-being. We need in Section 3 to develop some of the implications of these ideas before we can best approach in Section 4, the third component, that of the type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority, and examine Boasanquet’s solution to the problem of political obligation.

3.1 State and Society in Political Philosophy 

Modern political philosophy typically recognizes a distinction between society or “civil society” and the state. To a first approximation, the state is taken to be an aspect of society, the aspect of political authority. Normally this aspect involves an attribution of sovereignty to the state, where “sovereignty” includes at least supreme coercive power and law-making authority (1.2). 

Beyond this point, views vary over the deeper relations between state and society. For Hobbes, the state is a precondition of society – no organized human interactions of any complexity are possible without the state. Locke, in a familiar contrast, takes a different view: society does not require the state, but the state is a useful remedy for social disharmonies of one kind or another, mailnly connected with the settlement of disputes. Some political theories look to absorption of society by the state, where the state is regarded as an instrument for the reconstitution of society; other theories look to the eventual disapperance of the state, as society progresses to a stage of self-regulation.

Bosanquet does not take this latter view; the state is a necessary aspect of society if society is to promote well-being. The relative distinction between society and state is, I think, inherent and permanent. Socity will always possess a stern and negative side (PTS1xi).

3.2. Ends and Limits of State Action

But what is the rationale of this “negative side” – this aspect of regulation?

The end of state actionis the good life of indivuidual well-being as outlined in the previous section. But it cannot directly promote this end; it cannot enforce a coherent motivational structure of the kind presupposed to the good life. This means, as Bosanquet expresses it, are not “in pari materia” with the end (PTS 187). The state is limited to “hindering hinderances” to the good life. Within these limits it has three central functions:

(1) To act as final arbitar of disputes.

(2) To remedy social incoherence.

(3) To protect the autonomy of society.

3.2.1 The State as Final Arbitar of Disputes

In any society of interacting individuals of the kind with which political reflection is concerned, disputes about personal interests are likely to arise from incomplete unselfishness, fallible judgement, and imperfect information (Lucas 1966, p. 2). It is therefore unsurprising that Bosanquet makes provision for the adjudication of such disputes. He does, however, make a particlar assumption about adjudication: that it is not sufficent for all such disputes to be determinable within the political system, perhaps through a variety of independent agencies. Rather, there must be some single, overarching coercive power and legal authority as final arbitar. This is the state. The grounds for Bosanquet’s assumption are not entirely clear; it is hard, for instance, to see how purely conceptual analysis could deliver this result. Bosanquet appears most likely to be relying on an appeal to practical necessity. A further point is easier to handle. If we need a criterion of “personal interests” for deciding which disputes are to be subject to the state’s adjudication, the direction in which to look is that of the conditions of individual well-being under which such interests arise. Interests are fixed by lifeplans encapsulated in social roles; and the state is to be the final arbitar on all disputes involving these interests.   

3.2.2 The State as Remedial Agent for Social Incoherence

Disputes may arise even when the network of social roles os coherent, so that each social role involves a consistent practice which organizes the lifeplans of those engaged in it and the range of social roles is complimentary and non-conflictive for persons engaged in different roles. But this picture of a coherent form of human social organization is unlikely to be realized. The practice associated with a social role may be internally inconsistent; it may also conflict with the practices associated with diffrent social roles.

Hence arises the second task which Bosanquet assigns to the state, that of remedying social incoherence of this kind.

3.2.3 The State as Protecting the Autonomy of Society

The state’s  final task emerges from the two other tasks. If disputes are to be resoluble and inconsistencies remedied between the practices associated with different social roles, this assumes a society sufficiently independent of other societies to have its affairs regulated in these ways. Accordingly the state acts to guarantee the autonomy of society against external interference, as far as it is able.

3.3 The State’s Attributes

To  accomplish its three tasks the state needs, in Bosanquet’s view, supreme coercive power and legal authority – two attributes of the state listed in 1.2. The sate’s moral authority is a more complex matter to which we shall return (4.6). But one ground of the state’s moral authority can be defined as follows.

The network of social roles, into which individuals fit their lifeplans, is also a system of morality (2.8). Social roles serve interpersonal interests, i.e. the general interest. Therefore, from the viewpoint of this morality of social roles (which has clear affinities with Hegelian Sittlichkeit), the state, in regulating and protecting society, is “the guardian of a whole moral world” (PTS p. 325). The state has a moral status by virtue of its guardianship.

4.1 State and Individual

In this section I return to the problem of political obligation as set out in the introduction (1.2) and examine Bosanquet’s main answers to the two questions into which the problem divides. For convenience of exposition I first present and discuss these answers and then draw out the type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority. The key to Bosanquet’s undestanding of consent is the notion of the individual’s “real will”. Since the Real Will also informs Bosanquest’s idea of freedom, a short discussion of freedom concludes the section.


In 1.2 I divided the problem of political obligation into two questions:

(1) Under what conditions is an individual ever morally obliged to obey the state?

(2) Under what conditions is an individual either not morally obliged to obey the state or morally obliged to disobey it?

4.3 An Informal Deduction

If we consider question (1) first, then we have the materials from sections II and III to offer the following informal deduction:

1. It is rational for the individual to enter and fulfil the requirements of a social role (or consistent set of such roles). This is because his doing so is necessary to bring about the motivational coherence on which the good life depends.

2. Since it is rational for the individual to enter and fulfil the requirements of a social role, it is also rational for him to take the necessary means to this.

3. The state is a necessary means to the individual’s entering and fulfilling the requirements of a social role.

4. Therefore it is rational for the individual to obey the state, since the state cannot provide these necessary means without obedience.

CONCLUSION 1. Therefore the individual is rationally obliged to obey the state.

5. Social roles serve the general interest.

6. Therefore social roles are moral roles.

7. To obey the state is to enter and fulfil the role of citizenship.

8. Therefore (from 6) to obey the state is also to enter and fulfil the moral role of citizenship.

9. To fulfil the requirements of a moral role is to fulfil moral obligation.10. Therefore, to obey the state is to fulfil a moral obligation.

CONCLUSION 2. Therefore, the individual is morally obliged to obey the state.This argument spells out, in relation to the individual, the ground of the state’s moral authority indicated in 3.3.

4.4 Comments on the Deduction 

Two comments are immediatly due. In the first place, we have here a case (1.2) in which the same conditions which, through their presence, answer the first question and also, through their absence, answer the second question. The individual is not morally obliged to obey the state when (to reverse the pivotal presmiss) the state is not a necessary means to the good life; and the individual is morally obliged to disobey the state when the state, through its actions or omissions, is actually harmful to the good life. So now we have the answer to question (2) as well.

4.5 An Ambiguity 

The argument as formulated suggests a certain ambiguity. The argument may well appear insufficiently sensitive to a distinction: that between the case for their being a state at all and the case for there being an obligation to obey the “this-here-now” of the state’s imperatives. The opening premises (from 1 to 3), all relate to the general case for their being a state at all. But the obligation, rational and moral, to obey the state is situationally more specific. It certainly doesn’t immediately follow that, because there is a general rational and moral case for their being a state, that therefore I ought rationally or morally to obey the state’s imperatives here and now.

Bosanquet’s answer would, I think, be that he has argued the general case for their being a state and that situationally we have to apply what he elsewhere calls “the social criterion” (Bosanquet, 1908) for deciding what the state ought in particular to do and what resulting obligation will be. As, to put the matter very roughly, the good life provides the rationale for there being a state, so  the same rationale defines the conditions for obedience and disobedience. Really, this simply takes us back to the point that the same condition which, by their presence, justify obedience to the state also, by their absence, justify disobedience.

4.6 The Real Will

But this is not Bosanquet’s full account of the state’s relation to the individual; and here we examine the further ground of the state’s moral authority indicated in 3.3. All that the argument shows, at most, is that the individual should, rationally and morally, obey the state. Bosanquet also wants to show that the individual actually does consent to the state.

To approach this further ground we need to look again at the motivational coherence which, for Bosanquet, is presupposed to the good life (2.6). The good life, we recall, requires a coherent motivational structure of beliefs, desires, attitudes, and activities.

Bosanquet is clear that a fully coherent motivational structure is an ideal to which the human individual can only approximate. That part of our motivational structure which is coherent, because it is in line with the requirements of our social role(s). Bosanquet calls it our “real will”; the residue is our “actual will”, and it includes fragmentary desires, isolated beliefs, and attitudes which clash with the requirements of our social role(s) and so on (see PTS, chapter V, “The Conception of a Real Will”). There is no notion of the will as a mental faculty of the type rejected by Ryle in chapter 3 of The Concept of Mind. The will is simply the motivational structure of which one part is coherent. It is an obvious point that these two terms “real” and “actual”, are too much alike to be desirable to mark an important distinction in moral psychology. However, three comments are in place.

One is that “real” is a much favoured term with the school of Oxford Idealism to which Bosanquet belonged. “The real is the rational”, as the Hegelian slogan goes, and the rational is the coherent. It is small wonder, therefore, that Bosanquet should reserve the term “real” for the coherent part of the motivational structure. “Actual” simply registers the fact that this disorganized part of the structure is present as an interfering factor.   

The second comment is that Bosanquet is certainly not “bifurcating the human person” in the way that Maurice Cranston suggests (Cranston, 1954, p. 31). Cranston claims that Bosanquet is splitting the individual into a “rational self” and a non-rational animal. This suggests something like a Platonic “partition of the soul” in the manner of Republic IV or Phaedrus (253C-254E) in which there are radically distinct mental elements that ineract in various ways to make up the psychic life of the individual. Nothing of the kind can be validly read off from Bosanquet’s distinction bwteen a coherent and a disorganized part of the motivational structure. The phenomena are different: Bosanquet is supposing only the kind of personal dividedness that occurs in weakness of will or self-deception – a dividedness that falls short of “bifurcation”.

The third comment simply underlines the obvious. The real will is a part of the agent’s present motivational structure; it is not a hypothetical  construct which the agent would have if he or she were (say) fully rational and completely informed.

Cranston is right, however, when he says that Bosanquet regards freedom as a power or ability. The individual is free if and only if he or she is able to lead the good life. Whatever interferes with that ability is a restriction of the individual’s freedom;  and Bosanquet accepts that the actual will can operate as a constraining factor in this regard. In Feinberg’s terminology (1973, p. 13), it is an “internal positive constraint”.

4.7 The Type of Consent Relevant to the State’s Moral Authority

One aspect of the state’s relation to the individual is that, in reinforcing the requirements of social roles (and maintaining, for example, due standards of professional practice), it reinforces the individual’s real will and in this sense increases his or her freedom. We shall return to this point in 4.8. 

But there is also a moral dimension. The agent’s real will is that part of his or her motivational structure which is in line with the “general will”, as Bosanquet turns the set of practices associated with the total network of social roles. In other words, one part of my motivational structure is coherent and fits into requirements of my social role; and all social roles are mutually consistent. 

This is all that is essentially involved in the relation of the real to the general will.

When, therefore, the state reinforces my real will, i.e. uses its legal authority and coercive power to make me fulfil the requirements of my social role, then it is reinforcing my moral motivation. This is a further ground to the state’s moral authority.

Since state action is continuous with motivation that I already have, the state in this sense enjoys my consent (1.4). Bosanquet argues (PTS 55) that there is no difference of principle between the case in which the state reinforces one part of my motivational structure against the remaining portion, when inclination and the requirements of my social role conflict (“the paradox of political obligation”) and the case in which I do so myself when inclination and duty conflict (“the paradox of ethical obligation”). Both cases exemplify “self-government”, the more so since on Bosanquet’s account duty and the requirements of my social role coincide. (5.4).

4.8 The State and Freedom

In the promotion of freedom an individual is lead to the achievement of the good life. How does the state then promote freedom or the conditions to attain freedom? As we recall, the state’s primary purpose is to “hinder hinderances” which can be characterized, as Feinberg suggests, as constraints upon human action. Feinberg has four classifications:

1) internal positive constraints

2) internal negative constraints

3) external positive constraints

4) external negative constraints 

Internal positive constraints include obsessions, compulsive habits etc.

Internal negative constraints can be characterized by lack of ability, talent, ignorance, etc. These are constraints which mar the coherence of the individual’s motivational structure and so impede the “real will”.

In acting against these contraints the state is increasing the agent’s freedom – the agent’s power to achieve the good life through a coherent motivational structure. Bosanquet does not deny that there are other views of freedom, the view for instance that the agent is free if he can act on a desire (irrespective of the coherence of his motivational structure). But since the central notion of his political and moral philosophy is that of the good life, Bosanquet offers a theory of freedom to subserve the good life. Hence freedom is viewed from the perspective of a coherent motivational structure. This is a matter of conceptual consistency, not a presuasive definition of “freedom”.

External positive constraints include physical barriers, coercive threats etc.

External negative constraints would include mainly lack of resources.

Given these four categories of constraint an individual might face, it is across these four dimensions then that the state would have to promote freedom for the individual.

Internal positive constraints would perhaps be an individual’s actuall will – the day to day desires, habits etc. that need to be suppressed and be determined by rational action.Internal negative constraints could be hindered perhaps in that the state promotes an environment in which each individual finds a suitable social role(s) to realize their own particular capabalilties or talents.

External positive constraints it seems to me less clear quite how the state could remove. Coercion within a given society could be dealt with presumably by the state, for example organized crime.

External negative constraints could be dissolved, for example, by the provision or assuring a certain level of education, through the educational system.

All these constraints can interfere with the exercise of a coherent motivational structure. There are two points to note:

In the first place, the state’s activity against such constraints is subsumed under the three tasks assigned to the state in 3.2.

Secondly, we see how Bosanquet recognizes dimensions of freedom. If freedom is a power or ability, there is certainly an asumption that the proper exercise of that power is in the fulfilment of a social role with a view to the good life of individual well-being. This is clearly a contestable view of freedom.

But it opens a correctly complex view of the constraints that may beset the individual agent. If we join this view with Bosanquet’s notion of a coherent motivational structure, we have moreover an interesting and neglected philosophical psychology. But that point cannot be pusued further here.

5.1 Conclusions

I have now sketched the positive part of Bosanquet’s political philosophy with its three main components regarding:

– The type of consent relevant to the state’s moral authority

– The conception of the individual relevant to politics

– The conditions of individual well-being

I have also used these components in setting out Bosanquet’s solution to the problem of political obligation – his answers to the two questions posed in 1.2.

I stated in section 1 that I intended my account to be critical and not merely expository; and some critical comments have been made en route. I now propose to discuss some basic criticisms that might be levelled against Bosanquet’s social organicism. 


Two points can be quickly cleared out of the way. First, when Bosanquet stresses the need for the individual to assume a social role (or consistent set of such roles) in order to acquire coherent motivational structure, there is no suggestion of an “appointed” station in life. There is nothing in Bosanquet’s political theory to rule out an equality of what Ralf Dahrendorf has called “life chances” – options for life planning. Secondly, Bosanquet’s account of the state’s tasks gives no colour to the claim, to be found in Popper and Joad, that he favours a totalitarian state (Popper, 1962, pp. 78-79; Joad, 1938, p. 182).


However, two other points are of deeper substance. They concern (1) the ethical presuppositions of Bosanquet’s social organicism and (2) the contrast between the normative and the descriptive. I shall take these points in order.  

5.4 The Ethical Presuppositions of Bosanquet’s Social Organicism

When Bosanquet remarks that “man’s moral being lies in his social being” he is not simply registering the point that moral ideals are assimilated through society or that the moral life is interpersonal. Rather, he is running a specific claim that moral obligations and the requirements of social roles coincide (4.6). When one knows what one’s social role requires then one knows what morality is required of one. One is criterial to the other.


Now, of course, there are obscurities in this brief statement of Bosanquet’s morality of social roles. Perhaps most important, the notion of a “criterial” relationship is urgently in need of clarification.  Of central relevance to political philosophy are two points, however. 

In the first place, this idea of a criterial relationship does not seem fully plausible. It would appear to rule out having moral obligations in a Good Samaritan situation; for in this kind of encounter between strangers, the parties are not linked through social roles. If, in order to meet this objection, the suggestion is made that in a Good Samaritan situation I still occupy a social role, namely that of being able to benefit a helpless stranger, then the concept of a social role is at least being stretched. In Bosanquet’s morality of social roles a key part is played by the “practices” associated with social roles; these practices induce the desiderated coherent motivational structure. But what practice is associated with the social role of being a Good Samaritan?

Secondly, if there are moral obligations outside the scope of social roles, then the state’s moral authority is correspondingly reduced. The state is not “the guardian of a whole moral world” (PTS, 325) if some moral obligations fall outside the networks of social roles which bound the state’s moral horizon.

5.6 The Normative and the Descriptive

The descriptive tone of much of Bosanquet’s positive political philosophy is unmistakable. Since one of the state’s tasks is to remedy social incoherence (3.3.2), Bosanquet clearly realizes that social roles do not infallibly serve the general interest. But the main body of his social organicism reads like descriptive moral sociology. There is a consistent network of social roles which, broadly speaking, (1) serves the general interest; (2) allows motivational coherence to the individual; and there is a state which, broadly, (3) has moral authority as the guarantor of that network. 

There are reasons, the grounds of which lie far back in Bosanquet’s metaphysics, for deying any sharp separation between “is” and “ought”; and so Bosanquet would be reluctant to avail himself of a contrast between the descriptive adequacy of his political philosophy and its potential as a social ideal.

However, in the introduction I carefully refrained from basing Bosanquet’s political philosophy on the metaphysical premisses from which he himself deduces it. From this point of view there is no reason why Bosanquet’s social organicism cannot be seen as simply defining a model for a coherent form of human social organization.

Perhaps there is no state-organized society which realizes Bosanquet’s social organicism. But we should be prepared to consider carefully the normative possibilities of a political philosophy which sets a limited role to the state, is concerned with the good life for the individual, and aims at a network of social roles which serves the general interest.


1. In the Second Treatise Locke puts forward a doctrine of the separation of powers (paras, 91, 107). But he still attributes (a1), (b1) and (c1) to the correctly operating state; the point is just that no political unit within the state combines all three attributes. The state overall still has them. 

2. The accuracy of attributing this view of the individual to J.S. Mill is open to doubt; for presumably the abstract individual would not be vulnerable to the formative social pressures against which On Liberty protests.

3. McTaggart denied this interpretation of Hegel (McTaggart 1901, chapter vii; c.f. Bosanquet’s “Hegel’s Theory of the Political Organism” Mind 1898.

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Some Suggestions in Ethics, London, 1918.

Life and Philosophy. In Contemporary British Philosophy, ed. J.H. Muirhead, London, 1924.

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