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  • Consonances between Indian Thought and Josiah Royce's Developing Absolute
  • Steven A. Miller

Few American thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were acquainted with Eastern traditions of thought. Early Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were happy exceptions to this, with each showing passing familiarity of and an approving attitude toward the Bhagavad-Gita and other early Vedic texts. Other thinkers of the period, including Walt Whitman and Bronson Alcott, were influenced to varying degrees by Indian thought. Despite this limited fascination with the intellectual traditions of the East, rare was the thinker who made an effort to encounter these texts on their own terms by learning the languages in which they were written. One notable exception who did indeed make this effort was Josiah Royce (1855-1916), who undertook independent study of Sanskrit while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley,1 and then took up formal engagement with the language while abroad in Leipzig and Göttingen in 1875-1876.2

Royce's teacher at Leipzig was the German philologist Heinrich Hübschmann, and at Göttingen, he studied with Adalbert Bezzenberger. Upon Royce's return to the United States on a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in the autumn of 1876, he enrolled in a Sanskrit course offered by the orientalist Charles Rockwell Lanman. He and Lanman became close friends, and when both eventually were appointed to the faculty at Harvard University (Lanman arrived in 1880; Royce in 1882), they continued working on the language together.

One would assume that this background in and consistent exposure to the academic study of Sanskrit would make Royce particularly attentive to the ways in which Indian thought could be misunderstood. This, however, was not automatically the case, for, in the opinion of an early commentator on [End Page 60] the relationship between Royce and Indian thought, Royce's writings include statements "containing both grains of truth and error, and resulting from vast generalizations based on an insufficient examination of details in a vast literature."3 Nevertheless, it is clear that Royce took Indian thought seriously enough to include occasional references to the tradition in his work.4 Royce almost always used these quotations to bolster points he was trying to make, though, and there are important similarities that may be seen between his early metaphysics and an Upanishadic conception of the Absolute. It will be the task of this paper to show the harmonies between these positions and then to explore how Royce's later metaphysics of the community developed away from that conception and into greater consonance with that of Mahāyāna Buddhism. My claim here is not that Royce is an important interpreter of Indian traditions or even necessarily that he was all that well-versed in Indian thought but rather that this shift in Royce's published work has important similarities with one that occurred historically in Indian philosophical traditions. The meaning of these transitions, whether in Indian thought or Royce's writings, will be made clearer by looking at its occurrence for both of them. Ultimately, this will then reveal an important commonality in the development of ethico-religious thinking and make its significance more fully apparent.

I. "Early" and "Late" Royce

Interest in Royce's work has revivified in the past ten years, after multiple decades of relative neglect,5 following a peak in the years 1965-1972. The majority of scholarship on Royce's relationship to Indian thought occurred in the years 1952-1979. This literature is nicely surveyed in the only piece on Royce and Eastern thought written during the recent revival, Frank M. Oppenheim's "Royce's Windows to the East."6 There, Oppenheim argues for Royce as facilitator, interested in these traditions primarily "in order to dialogue with Asian thinkers and invite other Westerners to do the same."7 This sets Royce in the role of interested and sympathetic outsider, taking up Eastern traditions for the sake of mutual understanding rather than acquiring original insights for his own development.

Another view of Royce's interaction with Indian thought is presented in the earliest piece on the topic, Kurt F. Leidecker's Josiah Royce and...


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