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Thomas Hill Green


GREEN, THOMAS HILL (1836-1882), English philo sopher, the most typical English representative of Neo-Kantianism or Neo-Hegelianism, was born on April 7, 1836, at the rectory of Birkin, Yorkshire. He was educated at Rugby and Balliol college, Oxford, of which he was, in 186o, elected fellow. His life, hence forth, was devoted to teaching in the university—from 1878 until his death (at Oxford on Mar. 26, 1882) as Whyte Professor of Moral Philosophy. His lectures form the substance of his two most important works, viz., the Prolegomena to Ethics and the Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation published post humously.

Hume's empiricism, combined with a belief in Spencer's biolog ical evolution, coloured English thought during the third quarter of the i9th century. By reducing mind to a series of unrelated atomic sensations, this teaching destroyed the possibility of knowledge, and, by representing man as a "being who is simply the result of natural forces," it made any theory of conduct unmeaning; for life in any intelligible sense implies a personal self which (I) knows what to do, (2) has power to do it.

Green, in reacting to the attitude of his day, raised again the question of man's relation to nature. To ask "What is man?" is to ask "What is experience?" for experience means that of which I am conscious. The facts of consciousness which alone we are jus tified in asserting to exist, are valid evidence for whatever is logi cally involved in them. Now the chief characteristic of man is self-. consciousness. The simplest mental act, the act of sense-percep tion, is never merely a change, physical or psychical, but the consciousness of a change, and of a distinction between the self and the object. Knowledge consists, in its simplest equally with its most complex constituents,, of the work of the mind. To know is to relate. The assumption of Locke and Hume that the work of the mind is arbitrary because not "given to" man is unjustified by the results of exact science, with the distinction, universally recognized, which such science draws between truth and false- . hood, between the real and "mere ideas." This (obviously valid) distinction logically involves the consequence that the object of knowledge is an intelligible ideal reality, a system of thought rela tions. The existence of this ideal whole presupposes a "principle which renders all relations possible and is itself determined by none of them"; an eternal self-consciousness which knows in whole what we know in part. To God the world is, to man the world becomes.

Carrying this analytical method into moral philosophy, Green held that ethics applies to the peculiar conditions of social life that investigation into man's nature by metaphysics began The pre-supposition of ethics is the spiritual nature of man. Self reflection reveals to us human capacity, human function, with, consequently, human responsibility. It brings out certain poten tialities in the realization of which man's true good must consist. The idea of some "end" or "good" which man presents to himself as desirable for the realization of his true self, constitutes motive, and the determination to realize the self in some definite way constitutes an "act of will," which is neither arbitrary nor ex ternally determined. The identification of the self with such a motive is a self -determination, which is at once both rational and free. Freedom is not a supposed ability to do anything but the power to identify one's self with that true good which reason reveals as one's true good. This good consists in the realization of personal character; hence the final good, i.e., the moral ideal, as a whole, can be realized only in some society of persons who, while retaining their individuality, find this perfection attainable only when their separate individualities are integrated as part of a social whole. Society is as necessary to form persons as persons are to constitute society.

The law of our being, so revealed, involves civic or political duties. Moral goodness cannot be limited to the cultivation of self-regarding virtues, but consists in the attempt to realize in practice that moral ideal which self-analysis has revealed to us as our ideal. From this arises the ground of political obligation, for the institutions of political or civic life are the concrete em bodiment of our moral ideas. As society exists only for the proper development of persons, these institutions are valuable according a., they develop the moral character of individual citizens. It is obvious that the final moral ideal is not realized in actually existing civic institutions but the same analysis which demonstrates this deficiency points the direction for a true de velopment. Hence arises the conception of rights and duties which should be maintained by law, as opposed to those actually main tained; with the further consequence that it may become occa sionally a moral duty to rebel against the state in the interest of the state itself, that is, in order better to subserve that function which constitutes the raison d'etre of the state. The state does not consist in any definite concrete organization formed once for all. It represents a "general will" which is a desire for a common good. Its basis is not an external coercive authority but the spiritual recognition, on the part of the citizens, of that which constitutes their true nature. "Will, not force, is the basis of the state." Green's teaching was, directly and indirectly, the most potent philosophical influence in England during the later 19th century, while his personal example in practical municipal life did much to bring the universities more into touch with the people. His criti cism of the older empiricism, and the cogency of the reasoning by which his constructive theory is supported is generally recognized. His position, however, presents important difficulties. No ex planation is given of the fact (obvious in experience) that the spiritual entities of the Universe appear material. Certain ele ments in feeling seem to resist any attempt to explain them in terms of thought. Again, there is a certain vagueness about Green's spiritual principle and its reproduction in individuals as well as about his idea of moral perfection.

Prolegomena to Ethics appeared in 1883, and R. L. Nettleship's standard edition of his Works in 3 vols. in 1888. The Principles of Political Obligation was published separately in 1901. See Andrew Seth (Pringle Pattison), Hegelianism and Person ality; articles in Mind (1884) by A. J. Balfour and H. Sidgwick, in the Academy (xxviii. 242 and xxv. 297) by S. Alexander, and in the Philosophical Review (vi., 1897) by S. S. Laurie; W. H. Fairbrother, Philosophy of T. H. Green (1896) ; D. G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference (1891) ; H. Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green (1902) ; J. H. Muirhead, The Service of the State: Four Lectures on the Political Teaching of T. H. Green (1908) ; A. W. Benn, English Rationalism in the XIXth Century (1906) ; J. MacCunn, Six Radical Thinkers (Iwo). Y. L. Chin, The Political Theory of Thomas Hill Green (5920).

moral, self, political, ideal, true, life and ethics