Josiah Royce as a Teacher

Updated: Aug 29

Cabot, Richard C. “Josiah Royce as a Teacher.” The Philosophical Review 25, no. 3 (1916): 466.

IF duration of discipleship is any criterion, my eight years as a student under Professor Royce should entitle me to speak of him as a teacher. For three years as an undergraduate and five as a graduate student I enjoyed the privilege of his instruction face to face. Outside the classroom I have now been learning from him the meaning of my own thoughts for just thirty years, as I first began to read his writings in 1885.


I think it was in 1886 that I first tasted the full flavor of his teaching when in a thesis on the ethical doctrines of his first book pointed out with proud distinctness thirteen ways in which he had strayed from the path of truth and ventured to differ from me. I left Professor Royce's ethical philosophy such a hopeless wreck that I was apologetic in presenting to him an attack so full of 'frightfulness.'

Then it was that I learned of him my first memorable lesson, how to take criticism even the most unintelligent criticism. He seemed really delighted with my onslaught. Indeed, I do not remember that he ever showed as much genuine pleasure in the reception of any of my subsequent weighty writings as he did when I fired at him this broadside of heavy metal quite irresistible and crushing as I viewed it from the gunner's standpoint. My later and milder effusions never seemed to please him so much.

This behavior of his took me completely aback. Like other undergraduates of average pugnacity, I hated and repelled criticism because it was a dangerous attack on the strongholds of entrenched truth behind which I carried on the daily business of life. That there existed on the earth a being who could tolerate yes, actually welcome criticism, contradiction, and attack, was to me a brand-new fact, one that made me blink and stagger at first, but later opened my eyes to a new and most comfortable reality. For it gradually dawned on me that Professor Royce understood my objections, received, and felt them acutely, and yet, midbie dictu, was not demolished by them.

Might it not be, then, that I too could open my ears to those who had the temerity to differ from me, might receive their bit of sincere experience and use it without being upset by it? That first lesson from Professor Royce made an epoch in my life. Instill believe that it contained one of the most important truths that I or any other belligerent thinker can learn. For he shocked me into perceiving that a man could really welcome a difference of opinion not merely with the sort of politeness that prizefighters display when they shake hands before the first round, not merely with diplomatic suavity or cynical tolerance, but as a precious gift.

I saw that Professor Royce really understood all that I meant when I attacked him, really took it in. Indeed, he could restate it better than I. This had never happened to me before. When differed in argument with Palmer, Santayana, or James, I never felt that they understood my point. They could answer me, refute me, perhaps; but they never came into my entrenched camp and fired my own guns for me with an aim better than my own.

This, then, is, I think, one of Professor Royce's chief characteristics as a teacher. He can understand, welcome, and incorporate better than any man I have known a view which attacks his own. Thus, in my case at least he prepared the way for my conversion. In the course of a few months, I came to see that the thirteen points of error which I discovered in Professor Royce’s ethics were in fact thirteen points of misunderstanding or of fractional understanding. As soon as I followed his method and succeeded in understanding the doctrines I had been attacking, I came to see that the remaining point of difference concerned chiefly the forms of wording. I still thought that some of his ethical doctrines were unwisely expressed or were weighed too heavily on one side; but his openness to see my points made it necessary, in common decency, that I should enlarge my mind sufficiently to take in his. In the end it was conversion to me in the sense of new experience. Rewording was not enough. I had to stretch my mind to get into the new ideas. But I got the courage to attempt this ever-painful process from the contagion of Royce's example. He showed me by example as well as by precept how to use one's mind, how to be genuinely converted without giving up the substance of the belief which had made one previously resist conversion. That example has always been one of the richest fruits of his teaching to me and I believe to many others.


A second and contrasting feature of his teaching comes out clearly in his seminaries namely his searching and rigid criticism of views that betray culpable ignorance of the history of philosophy. Professor Royce assumes that by the time a student’s fit for seminary work he has no right to be innocently ignorant of the history of thought. He must have some awareness of what he does not know. A man is bound to know something, he holds, of the main historic outlines of thought about the subject he deals with. The sharpest and most destructive criticism that I have ever heard from him was designed to impress upon the advanced student that philosophy means scholarship as well as speculation. The student's well-known tendency to launch forth on the tide of his own unaided meditations, profoundly ignorant of what Aristotle, Spinoza or Kant has had to say about it, is firmly checked by Royce in the interests of good scholarship.

No other teacher of philosophy in my time has carried into his seminaries so full and living a consciousness of the historic stream of philosophic thought. No one else gave me such a salutary sense of how small a chip was sufficient to float my entire stock of ideas along that majestic current. No one else gives us such shocks of disillusionment, when we hear from him and later read up sadly in the originals how many times our own fresh thoughts have been stated and better stated before, and how completely perhaps our views have been refuted.


It is further characteristic of him to assist in discussing the weak and wavering views of the muddleheaded or timid student and to direct his most searching questions at the trenchant and self-confident speaker. In seminaries that I attended a man would deposit before us some shapeless and incoherent views. Royce would melt them down in an instant and reissue them to the astonished student, new minted, clean, and finished. Then with almost miraculous innocence and sincerity he would inquire, “Would you accept that as a fair account of your main thesis?" Would I accept it! Will a man kindly allow his Ammeter to double his salary? Will a man be so kind as to accept the Nobel Prize? The chances are that he will.

One year we had informal meetings of the whole department of philosophy with the seminary students. I was fencing one evening with Santayana and getting the worst of it. Stroke by stroke he drove me to the wall till finally he was just about to impale me with the thrust of an unanswerable question, when swiftly Royce cut in and answered the unanswerable for me. Imad an instant to breathe and gather my wits. I recognized (was it not a strange coincidence?) that Royce's parry to Santayana was the very one I was about to make and following wisely this safe line of defense I escaped with my skin.

But this rescue was made not merely because of any desire to keep up the game. It was because he thought the truth was suffering from a poor defense. That provoked his instant aid. If on the other hand error was making a particularly showy and effective presentation through the mouth of some 'tough minded ‘student, Royce's criticism took on edge and was pushed home to the very end. The wind was tempered to the shorn lamb but not to the seasoned and heavy fleeced sheep.


I regard it as one of Professor Royce's greatest achievements as a teacher that he is seldom if ever entrapped by the snares of verbalism. We all know the human tendency to become devotedly attached to certain words and to insist that the philosophic heavens shall revolve around them. There is a corresponding tendency to blacklist certain phrases and to regard as anathema all that they seem to symbolize.

In formal logic Royce follows the tradition of attaching one and only one precisely defined meaning to a single word. But in the other fields of philosophy, he maintains our ordinary human right to the use of synonyms. He will play the game with any implements at hand. If bat and ball are inaccessible, he is never too proud to convey his soul by means of a turnip and a stick of kindling wood. He is hospitable to many sets of symbols, and able to pursue and to catch one's thought no matter how disguised in a pseudo-scientific mask or a heavy German wig.

Students often do not like this. They are often conservative and rigid about terms and when invited to play three old cats with a broomstick and a tennis ball will often turn sulky and stay out. But I am especially glad to have seen Royce teach by example that we should be flexible and at ease with many sets of terms always provided that by profuse exemplification we keep ourselves vividly mindful of the concrete experiences which various alternative phrases can body forth. I think it is due to his wide historic study of philosophy that he is so tolerant of many usages in philosophic terminology. He knows so many pet words of this or that philosopher that he is not inclined to hitch all his affections to one pet tool.

When students ask him questions, he does not discourage them by always having the answer on the tip of his tongue. He often has to think before answering, the most rare and precious trait in a teacher! and sometimes he takes a question under advisement and hands down his decision at a later meeting. That encourages us. Questions taken so seriously as that are apt to be asked with more seriousness and pertinacity in the future.

His power to answer questions is, I think, one of his best traits as a teacher. I heard him one winter deliver a course of lectures on Child Psychology to public and private school teachers. At the end of each lecture an hour or more was taken up with the asking and answering of questions, and I heard many teachers say that they never knew questions so brilliantly and usefully answered. For he saw all round the question and often answered what it meant as well as what it said.


Once in his seminary, a student read a paper in which the ultimate reasons for his beliefs were as he said hidden behind the veil. One followed him step by step along his approaches to the problem of Causality, Individuality, or Time. But each time that we came close to the main issues of his belief he explained to us that here we approached the edges, not indeed of Spencer’s Unknowable, but of a lineal descendant of that august Phantom. The student was like Spencer in knowing a great deal about the Unknowable. He told us precisely what we could find behind the veil but for its unhappy opacity. He bemoaned his fate like the aphasic patient who when asked, "Can you say the word horse?" answered, "O doctor, horse is one of the words that never can get across my lips."

At last, he finished. We were restless and puzzled not knowing how to strike into the discussion. But Royce showed just the suspicion of a twinkle as he pulled himself upright by the arms of his chair and asked the reader briskly, "Now, Mr. Blank, won’t you draw aside that veil and tell us what's behind it?"

The quality that made him say this is one of the unforgettable things about his teaching. He is always endeavoring to draw aside veils which are kept in place by the strenuous effort of him who at the very moment declares his sad inability to get through them. He regards it as characteristic of the human soul to deny the ground it stands on, to loudly pronounce its own dumbness and to explain that it cannot possibly say 'horse.' Sometimes by painstaking explanation, sometimes by whimsicality and shock, he is always endeavoring to make us more aware of what we are about when we think.


Professor Royce's chief fault as a teacher is, I think, his failure to invent a wholly new and effective way to teach philosophy, thereby superseding all the current methods, such as lectures, seminaries, and theses. Philosophy like most college teaching is still in its pedagogic infancy. It still awaits its pedagogic prophet who will follow the bahnbrechender example of Dickens ‘immortal pedagogue Squeers. Nicholas Nickleby was shocked by the large motor element in Squeers' plan of teaching. “W-i-n-d-e-r, Winder now go clean it."

I look to Royce or some other great teacher to abolish all the present methods of teaching philosophy in favor of some newly invented plan whereby we can say to the determinist, "D-et-e-r-m-i-n-i-s-m: now go do it." So far Professor Royce has no found time to work out the details of this method. It is the only serious fault that I can find with his teaching which I will characterize positively as I end this paper as having the maximum of scholarship with the minimum of verbal legerdemain, the maximum historic consciousness with the minimum of slavery to the past. He teaches by his example how from wounds and sore defeat to make one's battle-stay in the world of thought. He makes discussions interesting by helping the lame ducks and cooling the swelled heads. Above all he develops the student's own thought by catching him in the act of asserting what he denies, of performing what he ignores, and of possessing what he supposes himself to lack.

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