See biography by B. Kuklick (1972, repr. 1985); studies by G. Marcel (tr. 1965), P. L. Fuss (1965), T. F. Powell (1967), B. B. Singh (1973), F. M. Oppenheim (1980), and J. Clendenning (1985).
Royce grew up in pioneer California, very soon after the Gold Rush. He received the BA from the University of California, Berkeley in 1875 where he also accepted an instructorship teaching English composition, literature, and rhetoric. After some time in Germany, where he came to admire Hermann Lotze, the new Johns Hopkins University awarded him in 1878 one of its first four doctorates, in philosophy. He taught a course on the history of German thought, which was “one of his chief interests” because he was able to give consideration to the philosophy of history (Pomeroy, 6). He then taught philosophy, first at the University of California, Berkeley, then at Harvard from 1882 until his death, thanks to the good offices of William James, who was at once Royce's friend and philosophical antagonist.
Royce stands out starkly in the philosophical crowd because he was the only major American philosopher who spent a significant period of his life studying and writing history, specifically the American West, “As one of the four giants in American philosophy of his time […] Royce overshadowed himself as historian, in both reputation and output” (Pomeroy, 2). During his first three years at Harvard, Royce taught many different subjects such as English composition, forensics, psychology and philosophy for other professors. He finally received a position as a professor in 1892. During this time he suffered a breakdown and took a semester off during which he did most of his historical writing (Pomeroy, 3).
In 1883 he was approached by a publishing company who asked him to write the state history of California, “In view of his precarious circumstances at Harvard and his desire to pursue the philosophical work for which he had come east, Royce found the prospect attractive […]. He wrote to a friend that he was ‘tempted by the money’” (Pomeroy 3). Royce viewed the task as a side project, which he could use to fill his free time. Royce spent a significant period of time writing histories of California, enjoying it so much that he began to write novels set in California in which he was able to include his philosophical ideas. The books were considered to be “the fictional counterpart to his history, in which he developed similar philosophical themes” (Pomeroy, 5). In 1891 his historical writing career came to an end, but not before he had published several novels, reviews of California’s historical volumes, and articles in journals.
Two key influences on the thought of Royce were Charles Peirce and William James. In fact, it can be argued that a major way Peirce's ideas entered the American academy is through Royce's teaching and writing, and eventually that of his students. Peirce also reviewed Royce's The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885). Some have claimed that Peirce also supervised Royce's Ph.D., but that is impossible as Peirce arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1879.
Royce is also perhaps the founder of the Harvard school of logic, Boolean algebra, and foundation of mathematics. His logic, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mathematics were influenced by Charles Peirce and Albert Bray Kempe. Students who in turn learned logic at Royce's feet include Clarence Irving Lewis, who went on to pioneer modal logic, Edward Vermilye Huntington, the first to axiomatize Boolean algebra, and Henry M. Sheffer, known for his eponymous stroke. Much of Royce's writings on logic and mathematics, reminiscent in some ways of Bertrand Russell's much better known Principia Mathematica, and on scientific method, are reproduced in Royce (1951, 1961).
In recent decades, Royce appears not to have attracted as much attention as other now-classic American philosophers, such as Peirce, John Dewey, and his Harvard colleagues William James, and George Santayana. Philosophers influenced by Royce include Brand Blanshard in the United States and Timothy L.S. Sprigge in the United Kingdom.