The Blanshard brothers were then reared in near-poverty by their paternal grandmother, Orminda Adams Blanshard, first in Bay View, Michigan, later in Detroit. Blanshard nevertheless appears to have experienced a robust American boyhood, whose highlights included a variety of odd jobs, baseball, and debate, at which he excelled.
Blanshard studied at the University of Michigan, discovering philosophy while majoring in classics. After a mere three years at Michigan, he obtained a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where he studied under Horace W. B. Joseph, who greatly influenced him, and met F.H. Bradley and T. S. Eliot. Upon the outbreak of World War I, he interrupted his studies and joined the British Army YMCA, which sent him to Bombay and Amhara, where he witnessed poverty and the horrors of war at first hand. German submarine warfare forced him to return to the USA via Japan. He then obtained his M.A. at Columbia University, studying under W. P. Montague and meeting John Dewey. From Columbia, he went straight into the US Army, serving in France. Once demobilized, he returned to Oxford to complete his BA (Hons), then did his doctorate at Harvard under Clarence Irving Lewis.
After a short teaching stint at Michigan, he taught at Swarthmore College, 1925-44, then spent the remainder of his career until his 1961 retirement at Yale University, where he served as chairman of the Department of Philosophy for many years. In 1952, he delivered the Gifford Lectures in Scotland.
In 1918, Blanshard married Frances Bradshaw. It came as a great blow to him when Frances died in 1966. He completed her book Frank Aydelotte of Swarthmore, and published it in 1970. In 1969, after what he later described as "loneliness, failing health, and failing motives," he married Roberta Yerkes, a daughter of his Yale colleague Robert M. Yerkes. Brand Blanshard died, at the age of 95, in New Haven, Connecticut.
Blanshard was a rationalist who espoused and defended a strong conception of reason during a century when reason came under philosophical attack. Generally regarded as one of the last great absolute idealists and strongly influenced by British idealism (especially F.H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet), he nevertheless departed from absolute idealism in some respects. Blanshard distinguished epistemological idealism (the position that all objects of direct experience exist only in consciousness) from ontological idealism (the position that the world in itself is mental, or made of mind-stuff). He accepted epistemological idealism but, unlike Berkeley, Hegel, Royce, or Bosanquet, was not prepared to take the extra step to ontological idealism. He allowed that the material world, and the atomic particles of which it is thought to be composed, may exist independently of mind. In this sense, he did not accept the basic dictum of Berkeleian ontological idealism, that esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived).
Strongly critical of positivism, logical atomism, pragmatism, and most varieties of empiricism, he held that the universe consists of an Absolute in the form of a single all-encompassing intelligible system in which each element has a necessary place. Moreover, this Absolute -- the universe as a whole -- he held to be the only true "particular", all elements within it being ultimately resoluble into specific "universals" (properties, relations, or combinations thereof that might be given identically in more than one context). He regarded his metaphysical monism as essentially a form of Spinozism.
Also strongly critical of reductionist accounts of mind (e.g. behaviorism), he maintained to the contrary that mind is the reality of which we are in fact most certain. Thought, he held, is that activity of mind which aims at truth, and the ultimate object of thought is full understanding of the Absolute. Such understanding comes about, in his view, through a grasp of necessity: to understand (or explain) something is to see it as necessitated within a system of which it is a part.
On Blanshard's view, the Absolute is thus not merely consistent (i.e. noncontradictory) but positively coherent, shot through with relations of necessity and indeed operating purely deterministically. (Blanshard held the law of causality, properly understood, to be a logical law and believed that effects logically determine their causes as well as vice versa.) Strictly speaking, he admitted, we cannot prove that there are no atomic facts, bare conjunctions, or sheer surds in nature, but we can take it as our working hypothesis that relations of necessity are always to be found; until and unless this hypothesis meets with absolute defeat, we are justified in adopting it at least provisionally. (Blanshard might have argued, but did not, that this hypothesis is in fact indefeasible, since we could never know that two facts were really, rather than merely apparently, unconnected by any necessity at all.)
In his early work The Nature of Thought, he defended a coherence theory of truth. In his later years, however, he came to think that the relation between thought and object was sui generis and might be described, about equally inadequately, as either "correspondence" or "coherence"; at any rate, he admitted, the "coherence" between thought and its ideal object differs from the coherence that may obtain among thoughts. He also backed away from his early (more or less Bradleian) claim that the ultimate aim of thought was identification with its object.
He defended a strong doctrine of internal relations. He maintained, with longtime friend and philosophical colleague A.C. Ewing, that the doctrine would have caught on far better had it been more accurately described in terms of "relevance" rather than of "internality"; his doctrine on this point was that no relation is entirely irrelevant to the natures of the terms it relates, such relevance (and therefore "internality") being a matter of degree. One of Blanshard's most important exchanges on this topic was with philosopher Ernest Nagel, who attacked the doctrine of internal relations -- indeed, Blanshard's entire conception of reason -- in his essay "Sovereign Reason". Blanshard's fullest published reply appears in his book Reason and Analysis.
Sympathetic to theism but skeptical of traditional religious and theological dogma, he did not regard his Absolute as having the characteristics of a personal God but nevertheless maintained that it was a proper subject of (rational) religious inquiry and even devotion. Defining "religion" as the dedication of one's whole person to whatever one regards as true and important, he took as his own religion the service of reason in a very full and all-encompassing metaphysical sense, defending what he called the "rational temper" as a human ideal (though one exceedingly difficult to achieve in practice). His admiration for this temper extended his philosophical loyalties across "party lines", especially to the one philosopher he regarded as exemplifying that temper to the greatest degree: Henry Sidgwick. (He also spoke highly of Bertrand Russell.) Theologically, Blanshard was raised Methodist but tended toward theological liberalism from an early age, a tendency that became more pronounced as he grew older. Beginning during his time at Swarthmore he maintained a lifelong connection with the Religious Society of Friends despite personal disagreements with some of Quakerism's generally accepted tenets (notably its pacifism).
In ethics he was broadly utilitarian; however, he preferred the term "teleological" since the term "utilitarian" suggested that all goods were instrumental and he believed (with e.g. H.W.B. Joseph and W.D. Ross) that some experiences were intrinsically good. He also denied that pleasure is the sole good, maintaining instead (with T.H. Green) that experiences are good as wholes and that pleasure is not, strictly speaking, a separable element within such wholes. Disagreeing with G.E. Moore that the "naturalistic fallacy" is really a fallacy, he gave an entirely naturalistic analysis of goodness, holding that an experience is intrinsically good to the degree that it (a) fulfills an impulse or drive and (b) generates a feeling-tone of satisfaction attendant upon such fulfillment. He regarded the first of these factors as by far the more important and held that the major intrinsic goods of human experience answer to the basic drives of human nature; he maintained that these two factors together provide not merely a criterion for but the actual meaning of intrinsic goodness. (He defined all other ethical terms, including "right", in terms of intrinsic goodness, a right act, for example, being that act which tends to produce the greatest amount of intrinsic goodness under the relevant circumstances.)
The little that Blanshard wrote on political theory (mainly in Reason and Goodness) owed much to Green and Bosanquet. These two philosophers, he held, had rescued Jean-Jacques Rousseau's confused doctrine of the general will and placed it on a rationally defensible footing: Our "real will" (in Bosanquet's terms) or "rational will" (in Blanshard's) is simply that which we would want, all things considered, if our reflections upon what we presently desire were pursued to their ideal limit. Blanshard argued that there is excellent reason to regard this "ideal" will as in fact real, and contended that it provided the foundation for a rational political theory: the State is justified if, and precisely insofar as, it helps individual human beings to pursue and achieve the common end which is the object of their rational will. He did not develop this doctrine to the point of advocating any specific form of political organization or social structure. In his Schilpp autobiography, he admitted to an early sympathy for socialism and to having voted the "straight Democratic ticket" over the previous 40-odd years.
A firm believer in clarity of exposition and himself one of the ablest writers of philosophical prose in the English language, he wrote an essay "On Philosophical Style" in defense of the view that philosophical profundity need not (and should not) be couched in obscurity and obfuscation.
The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard (Open Court, 1980), edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, is volume XV in the Library of Living Philosophers series. This capstone work contains Blanshard's 183-page autobiography, detailed responses by Blanshard to his critics, and a complete bibliography.