Green, Thomas Hill

Green, Thomas Hill

Green, Thomas Hill, 1836-82, English idealist philosopher. Educated at Oxford, he was associated with the university all his life. He was professor of moral philosophy there from 1878 until his death. In his Introduction to Hume's Treatise on Human Nature (1874), Green struck a heavy blow at traditional British empiricism. Rejecting sensationalism, he argued that all reality lies in relations, that relations exist only for a thinking consciousness, and that therefore the world is constituted by mind. In his Prolegomena to Ethics (1883) Green submitted an ethics of self-determination, which he epitomized in the phrase "Rules are made for man and not man for rules." Self-determination is present when humanity is conscious of its own desires, and freedom occurs when people identify themselves with what they consider morally good. Green's ethics are believed to have influenced, among others, John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. Politically, Green was a liberal; he asserted that government must represent the general will and that when it fails to do so it should be changed. See his Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1895).

See M. Richter, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and His Age (1983).

For the actor Thomas Hill, see Thomas Hill.

Thomas Hill Green (April 7, 1836March 26, 1882) was an English philosopher, political radical and temperance reformer, and a member of the British idealism movement. Like all the British idealists, Green was influenced by the metaphysical historicism of G.W.F. Hegel. He was one of the thinkers behind the philosophy of social liberalism.


Green was born at Birkin, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, where his father was rector. On the paternal side, he was descended from Oliver Cromwell. His education was conducted entirely at home until, at the age of 14, he entered Rugby, where he remained five years.

In 1855, he became an undergraduate member of Balliol College, Oxford, and was elected fellow in 1860. He began a life of teaching (mainly philosophical) in the university — first as college tutor, afterwards, from 1878 until his death as Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy.

The lectures he delivered as professor form the substance of his two most important works, viz, the Prolegomena to Ethics and the Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, which contain the whole of his positive constructive teaching. These works were not published until after his death, but Green's views were previously known indirectly through the Introduction to the standard edition of Hume's works by Green and T. H. Grose, fellow of Queen's College, in which the doctrine of the "English" or "empirical" philosophy was exhaustively examined. (The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, 4 vol. (1882–86)).

Green was involved in local politics for many years, through the University, temperance societies and the local Oxford Liberal association. During the passage of the Second Reform Act, he campaigned for the franchise to be extended to all men living in boroughs, even if they did not own real property. In this sense, Green's position was more radical than that of most other Advanced Liberals, including W.E. Gladstone.

It was in the context of his Liberal party activities that in 1881 Green gave what became one of his most famous statements of his liberal philosophy, the Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract. At this time, he was also lecturing on religion, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy.

Green died from blood poisoning on March 15, 1882, age 45.

Most of his major works were published posthumously, including his lay sermons on Faith and The Witness of God, the essay On the Different Senses of "Freedom" as Applied to Will and the Moral Progress of Man, Prolegomena to Ethics, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, and the Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract.

In addition to Green's friends from his academic life, approximately two thousand local people attended his funeral.

He helped to found the City of Oxford High School for Boys.


Hume's empiricism and biological evolution (derived from Herbert Spencer) were chief features in English thought during the third quarter of the 19th century. Green represents primarily the reaction against such doctrines. Green argued that when these doctrines were carried to their logical conclusion, they not only "rendered all philosophy futile," but were fatal to practical life. By reducing the human mind to a series of unrelated atomic sensations, these related teachings destroyed the possibility of knowledge, he argued. These teachings were especially important for Green to refute because they had underpinned the conception of mind that was held by the nascient science of psychology. Green tried to deflate the pretensions of psychologists who had claimed that their young field would provide a scientific replacement for traditional epistemology and metaphysics.

Green further objected that such empiricists represented man as a "being who is simply the result of natural forces," and thereby made conduct, or any theory of conduct, unmeaning; for life in any human, intelligible sense implies a personal self that (1) knows what to do, (2) has power to do it. Green was thus driven, not theoretically, but as a practical necessity, to raise again the whole question of man in relation to nature. When (he held) we have discovered what man in himself is, and what his relation to his environment is, we shall then know his function--what he is fitted to do. In the light of this knowledge, we shall be able to formulate the moral code, which, in turn, will serve as a criterion of actual civic and social institutions. These form, naturally and necessarily, the objective expression of moral ideas, and it is in some civic or social whole that the moral ideal must finally take concrete shape.

What is man?

To ask "What is man?" is to ask "What is experience?" for experience means that of which I am conscious. The facts of consciousness are the only facts that, to begin with, we are justified in asserting to exist. On the other hand, they are valid evidence for whatever is necessary to their own explanation, i.e. for whatever is logically involved in them. Now the most striking characteristic of man, that in fact which marks him specially, as contrasted with other animals, is self-consciousness. The simplest mental act into which we can analyse the operations of the human mind--the act of sense-perception--is never merely a change, physical or psychical, but is the consciousness of a change.

Human experience consists, not of processes in an animal organism, but of these processes recognized as such. That which we perceive is from the outset an apprehended fact—that is to say, it cannot be analysed into isolated elements (so-called sensations) which, as such, are not constituents of consciousness at all, but exist from the first as a synthesis of relations in a consciousness which keeps distinct the "self" and the various elements of the "object," though holding all together in the unity of the act of perception. In other words, the whole mental structure we call knowledge consists, in its simplest equally with its most complex constituents, of the "work of the mind." Locke and Hume held that the work of the mind was eo ipso unreal because it was "made by" man and not "given to" man. It thus represented a subjective creation, not an objective fact. But this consequence follows only upon the assumption that the work of the mind is arbitrary, an assumption shown to be unjustified by the results of exact science, with the distinction, universally recognized, which such science draws between truth and falsehood, between the real and "mere ideas." This (obviously valid) distinction logically involves the consequence that the object, or content, of knowledge, viz., reality, is an intelligible ideal reality, a system of thought relations, a spiritual cosmos. How is the existence of this ideal whole to be accounted for? Only by the existence of some "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. Human experience is God gradually made manifest.

Moral philosophy

Carrying on the same analytical method into the area of moral philosophy, Green argued that ethics applies to the peculiar conditions of social life--that investigation into man's nature which metaphysics began. The faculty employed in this further investigation is no "separate moral faculty," but that same reason which is the source of all our knowledge - ethical and other.

Self-reflection gradually reveals to us human capacity, human function, with, consequently, human responsibility. It brings out into clear consciousness certain potentialities in the realization of which man's true good must consist. As the result of this analysis, combined with an investigation into the surroundings man lives in, a "content"--a moral code--becomes gradually evolved. Personal good is perceived to be realizable only by making real and actual the conceptions thus arrived at. So long as these remain potential or ideal, they form the motive of action; motive consisting always in the idea of some "end" or "good" that man presents to himself as an end in the attainment of which he would be satisfied; that is, in the realization of which he would find his true self.

The determination to realize the self in some definite way constitutes an "act of will," which, as thus constituted, is neither arbitrary nor externally determined. For the motive which may be said to be its cause lies in the person himself, and the identification of the self with such a motive is a self-determination, which is at once both rational and free. The "freedom of man" is constituted, not by a supposed ability to do anything he may choose, but in the power to identify himself with that true good that reason reveals to him as his 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 remaining ends to themselves in the sense that their individuality is not lost but rendered more perfect, find this perfection attainable only when the separate individualities are integrated as part of a social whole.

Society is as necessary to form persons as persons are to constitute society. Social union is the indispensable condition of the development of the special capacities of its individual members. Human self-perfection cannot be gained in isolation; it is attainable only in inter-relation with fellow-citizens in the social community.

The law of our being, so revealed, involves in its turn civic or political duties. Moral goodness cannot be limited to, still less constituted by, the cultivation of self-regarding virtues, but consists in the attempt to realize in practice that moral ideal that self-analysis has revealed to us as our ideal. From this fact arises the ground of political obligation, because the institutions of political or civic life are the concrete embodiment of moral ideas in terms of our day and generation. But, since society exists only for the proper development of Persons, we have a criterion by which to test these institutions--namely, do they, or do they not, contribute to the development of moral character in the individual citizens?

It is obvious that the final moral ideal is not realized in any body of civic institutions actually existing, but the same analysis that demonstrates this deficiency points out the direction that a true development will take.

Hence arises the conception of rights and duties that should be maintained by law, as opposed to those actually maintained; with the further consequence that it may become occasionally a moral duty to rebel against the state in the interest of the state itself--that is, in order better to subserve that end or function that constitutes the raison d'être of the state. The state does not consist in any definite concrete organization formed once for all. It represents a "general will" that is a desire for a common good. Its basis is not a coercive authority imposed upon the citizens from without, but consists in 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."

Influence of Green's thought

Green's teaching was, directly and indirectly, the most potent philosophical influence in England during the last quarter of the 19th century, while his enthusiasm for a common citizenship, and his personal example in practical municipal life, inspired much of the effort made in the years succeeding his death to bring the universities more into touch with the people, and to break down the rigour of class distinctions. His ideas spread to the University of St. Andrews through the influence of Prof. David George Ritchie, a former student of his, who eventually help found the Aristotelian Society. Green was directly cited by many New Liberal politicians, such as Herbert Samuel and H. H. Asquith, as an influence on their thought. It is no coincidence that these politicians were educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Roy Hattersley has called for Green's work to be applied to the problems of 21st century Britain.


Works and commentary

Green's most important treatise—the Prolegomena to Ethics practically complete in manuscript at his death--was published in the year following, under the editorship of A. C. Bradley (4th ed., 1899). Shortly afterwards, R. L. Nettleship's standard edition of his Works (exclusive of the Prolegomena) appeared in three volumes:

  1. Reprints of Green's criticism of Hume, Spencer, G. H. Lewes
  2. Lectures on Kant, on Logic, on the Principles of Political Obligation
  3. Miscellanies, preceded by a full Memoir by the Editor.

The Principles of Political Obligation was afterwards published in separate form. A criticism of Neo-Hegelianism will be found in Andrew Seth (Pringle Pattison), Hegelianism and Personality.

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