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  • George Holmes Howison:“The City of God” and Personal Idealism
  • James McLachlan

American Personalism is sometimes referred to as having East and West Coast varieties: Boston Personalism, founded by Bordan Parker Bowne and carried on by Edgar Sheffield Brightman, Peter Bertocci, and Martin Luther King, Jr. among others, and California Personalism, founded by George Holmes Howison and carried on by Ralph Tyler Flewelling.1 But like so many shorthand notions it doesn't quite work. No one really carried on Howison's "multi-personalitarianism." Howison created a radically democratic notion of personal idealism that extended all the way to God, who was no more the ultimate monarch, no longer the only ruler and creator of the universe, but the ultimate democrat in eternal relation to other eternal persons. It is no wonder Howison found no disciples among the religious, for whom his thought was heretical, or the non-religious, who thought his proposals too religious; only McTaggart's idealist atheism or Thomas Davidson's Apeirionism seem to resemble Howisons personal idealism.

By all accounts George Holmes Howison was one of the great philosophical teachers of his age. He helped create the philosophy department at the University of California at Berkeley, started the Howison Library with the gift of his books, and participated in one of the great philosophical debates of his age. But Howison himself believed he had discovered a great truth and preached it. Ralph Tyler Flewelling called him a "Prophet of Freedom" (1957, 5). His biographers John Wright Buckham and George Malcolm Stratton, who compiled a selection of his articles, described him as an Old Testament prophet. William Ernest Hocking, who had been a younger colleague of Howison at Berkeley, said "Howison comes as near to Elijah the prophet, and in some ways to Simon Peter, as any human being I expect to meet in my time" (quoted in Buckham and Stratton 1936, 13). This prophet label captures two aspects of Howison's life and character: his absolute belief in the person and, like Abraham, his wanderings from St. Louis to Boston, and to Germany, his one year appointments, and work as a philosophical tutor, until finally settling in California while discovering and securing a place to preach his doctrine. For Howison, personal idealism was more than a philosophical position, it was the Truth. But he created no school and had no disciples. This was a [End Page 224] great disappointment to him. Once on learning that several of his former students no longer believed in a personal God, Howison lamented: "How can it be? Has all my teaching been in vain?" (13). Rather than being flattered when a former student congratulated him on his success as a teacher, since many of his former students, including Arthur O. Lovejoy, Sidney Mezes, and C. M. Bakewell, were teaching at the finest schools in the country, Howison replied grimly: "Yes, but not one of them teaches the truth" (13).

As recently as William Werkmeister's A History of Philosophical Ideas in America (1949, 122–32), Howison was still included with Whitehead, Royce, James, Peirce, and Dewey, as one of the most important American philosophers of the twentieth century. Then, for a time Howison's name all but vanished from philosophical discussion. The 1967 MacMillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy carries an entry on Howison by Boston Personalist Peter Bertocci, but the recent Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy carries no entry on Howison.2 This in part because Howison's philosophical fate seems tied to his main philosophical rival, Josiah Royce. Howison is Joe Frazier to Royce's much larger Mohammad Ali (Frazier did win the first match). As analytic philosophy for a time buried idealism in America, Howison disappeared; but as interest in Royce has revived so has interest in Howison and their debate. But also Howison is a religious thinker whose pluralist "City of God with the True God at its Head" is so radically, delightfully heretical that traditional philosophers of religion would not touch it if they knew about it. This is unfortunate because Howison's "City of God with the True God at its Head" is more than a historical oddity; it is a valuable critique of both traditional theism...