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  • The Critically Loyal Interpreter: Oppenheim on Royce’s Philosophy of Religion
  • Robin Friedman

Over the course of a fifty-year scholarly career, Frank M. Oppenheim, SJ, has devotedly studied and encouraged others to study the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916). Early in my own study of Royce, I read and learned a great deal from Oppenheim’s book Reverence for the Relations of Life. I met Oppenheim at a 2007 conference at Harvard on Royce and William James, and he encouraged my continued study. Thus, I am honored to participate in this issue of The Pluralist celebrating Oppenheim’s thought and his study of Royce.

In spite of all the efforts of Oppenheim and other scholars, Royce remains too little known.1 It is tempting to ask why a contemporary scholar would devote painstaking and devoted attention over a lifetime to the work of Royce. The answer lies in Oppenheim’s works themselves. Although he studies the breadth of Royce’s work in logic, ethics, philosophy of science, history, and other important areas, Oppenheim’s focus is on Royce as a religious philosopher. Oppenheim interprets Royce as a continuously developing and creative thinker who worked toward a rich, inclusive, humane, and religiously based philosophy that offers a view of life and insights not readily found in naturalism or in analytic philosophy, with its focus on abstractions, and also not found in some continental philosophies with their subjectivisms. Oppenheim articulates what he finds valuable in Royce even while offering criticism from his own committedly Christian perspective. Oppenheim’s work as a loyal yet critical interpreter of Royce makes Oppenheim worth knowing and shows that Royce is worth knowing.

In this paper, I study Oppenheim’s work on Royce’s philosophy of religion. In so doing, I give some attention to Royce’s religious thought in his own right for those readers who may find it unfamiliar. The exposition, I trust, has its own value and will help readers new to Royce and Oppenheim [End Page 23] to appreciate and get to know both thinkers. The paper studies the method of interpretive musement that Oppenheim finds critical to Royce and works to the conclusion that philosophy for both Royce and Oppenheim teaches the importance of religion in terms of Spirit and community.

In the first part of this paper, I discuss Oppenheim’s basic approach to Royce and his identification of Royce’s three “maximal insights.” In the second part, I contrast Oppenheim’s approach with other scholarly approaches to Royce. The fullest expression of Oppenheim’s understanding of Royce is in his four books,2 each of which has properly been described as “a model of excellence in scholarship and critical insight.”3 In the third part of the paper, I discuss Oppenheim’s second book, Royce’s Mature Philosophy of Religion, which offers Oppenheim’s most sustained discussion of Royce’s philosophy of religion and of interpretive musement. I then offer concluding observations about Oppenheim and Royce on philosophy of religion.

Oppenheim on Royce’s Religiously Transformative Insights

In 1962, Oppenheim received his PhD from Saint Louis University with a dissertation titled “Royce’s Mature Idea of General Metaphysics.” Although his understanding of Royce has deepened over the years, his basic approach to Royce has remained consistent. Oppenheim’s approach to Royce is stated in each of his books and in many articles.4 Perhaps the clearest statement of Oppenheim’s view is from the preface to his first book, Royce’s Voyage Down Under (1980), in which Oppenheim argues that Royce’s thought developed through three “transformative insights” he experienced in 1883, 1896, and 1912.

Oppenheim finds an early “pre-formed” period in Royce’s thought that began in 1878, after Royce received his PhD from Johns Hopkins and continued through early 1883 when he began to teach philosophy at Harvard. Heavily under the influence of Kant, Royce was skeptical of the possibility of a firm basis for knowledge. Royce believed during these years that both ethical and empirical knowledge claims depended on the adoption of and reliance on a series of “postulates” or “hypotheticals” that could not be proven (Royce’s Voyage Down Under viii).

For Oppenheim...


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