British Idealism and the Concept of the Self.

Tattvavit Dāsa

British Idealism and the Concept of the Self. Edited by W. J. Mander and Stamatoula Panagakou. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. ISBN 978-1-137-46670-9.

My book review of Anglo-American Idealism: Thinkers and Ideas 1 evaluated intersections of Anglo-American idealism and Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism and mentioned the relevance of idealist thought to current issues and contemporary philosophical concerns. This related book, on British Idealism, discusses understanding our own selves. Selfhood is a “highly complex concept with multiple aspects, levels and depths, and one whose development has occurred gradually over centuries at the hands of many different thinkers,” write the editors in the introductory first chapter. (p. 20) The nature of the concept of the self in British idealism led, again, to my discerning commonalities with Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.

The second chapter considers three pioneers ofidealist thought who “laid the grounds for the conception of selfhood which later came to prominence” (p. 11) and paved the way for more influential philosophers who, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, made Idealism a British school of thought. James Frederick Ferrier developed “an original system of idealist metaphysics”; John Grote critiqued “contemporary philosophy from an idealist perspective”; and James Hutchison Stirling offered “the first detailed analysis of Hegel’s philosophy in English.” (p. 32) Other champions of British Idealism assessed in the book are F. H. Bradley, Edward Caird, T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, R. G. Collingwood, and J.M.E. McTaggart. Common to all these almost forgotten thinkers is an idealist conception of the self.

“In Ferrier’s view, the essential fact of humanity is self-consciousness; therefore, this must be the starting point for philosophy,” Jenny Keefe writes.2 “So, throughout his philosophical works he emphasizes its importance and argues that self-consciousness is the condition of knowledge, reality, freedom and religion.” Ferrier’s epistemology starts with “his primary proposition: ‘Along with whatever any intelligence knows, it must, as the ground or condition of its knowledge, have some cognizance of itself. ’ ” (p. 27) The editors comment on Ferrier’s primary idea: “The precise relationship between experience and the subject of experience is no doubt a complex and subtle one, to be sure, but at its most fundamental, the idealistic claim that all reality lies within experience is just the thesis that so-called ‘external reality’ is, in truth, no more distinct from its cognition than are our thoughts from our thinking of them. Notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, knowledge of the world is really a kind of self-knowledge, and there can be no explanation of what it means to grasp the former except through an account of our knowledge of the latter. . . . If selfhood constitutes the model for fundamental reality itself, it must be conceded that the self in its deeper being is not to be mistaken for the self as it presents itself in its everyday common-sense dress. Experience is foundational, but appearances can be misleading.” (p. 4) Nowadays, if one rejects both theses (i.e., that selfhood constitutes the model for fundamental reality and that self-consciousness is important for knowledge — unless one thinks of “knowledge” in extremely limited ways), one could hold other ideas concerning the value of personhood, its compatibility with the natural order, and its relation to transcendence. According to one contemporary personalist, while the British idealists quickly separated personality from the rest of what is real, held it apart, and thought it “to be something other than the very energies that are organized within its manifestations,” this is a mistake — a conceit on the part of human thinkers.3 According to Bill Mander, editor of the online History of Oxford Philosophy, F. H. Bradley is the greatest British Idealist because of his ground-breaking work in logic and metaphysics.4 James W. Allard summarizes Bradley’s views that “metaphysics is deeply rooted in human nature” and “is an attempt to find . . . intellectual satisfaction. . . . [W]e are naturally led to wonder about and reflect on ultimate reality, on what ‘is beyond the visible world’. For some of us who do this, ‘the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principled way of thus experiencing the Deity.’ ” (p. 47) Scholars seeking Bradley’s intellectual satisfaction of experiencing the Deity in this way can read in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam5 about the divine opulences of the famous Lord Viṣṇu — His spiritual body generated the universe, and all its perceivable aspects are situated within Him.

The editors say that generally, “One of the most characteristic features of British Idealism is its focus on philosophy of religion.” In response to “the difficulties which originated from contemporary science and biblical scholarship (the so-called ‘Victorian crisis of faith’),” the British Idealists emphasized that God “is immanent in nature, and most especially immanent in the finite self; a position whose reverse expression, of course, is to say that the finite self is implicitly infinite or divine.” (p. 5) The finite self’s implicit infinity or divinity is delimited in Caitanya Vaiṣṇava philosophy. The self is a minute portion of divinity, analogous to a drop of ocean water — qualitatively divine, but not quantitatively so.6

To give you a good dose of a British Idealist’s account of knowledge of the self that is neither skeptical nor dogmatic yet approximates a preliminary Caitanya Vaiṣṇava understanding, I condensed Edward Caird’s rigorous philosophy. Caird describes the nature of our conscious life as “circumscribed by three ideas, which are closely, and even indissolubly, connected with each other.” These three divisions within consciousness are not to be seen as an abstraction or

“rigid and absolute,” explains the scholar Phillip Ferreira. “In the final analysis, they must be understood as comprising a single, though internally diverse, experience.” (pp. 90–91) Caird’s profound threepart view of consciousness includes (1) the idea of the not-self (or object world) — simply my awareness that things ‘other’ than me and specific entities exist; (2) the idea of the self as my awareness that I am, and I am a being conscious of things that are separate from myself; and (3) the idea of God, or universal consciousness, as an awareness that includes but transcends both the ideas of self and the not-self.

Similarly, Caitanya Vaiṣṇava philosophers discern a three-part scheme: (1) matter (i.e., bodies, minds, and the world), (2) spirit (the self), and (3) the supreme controller of both. The self is part 

and parcel of the supreme Self, or Kṛṣṇa — this is mentioned in the beginning of the Bhagavad Gītā. The eternal self, as a false enjoyer and predominator, misidentifies with matter under the influence of illusion (māyā) and interacts with matter through the agency of the supreme Self within everyone’s heart, who acts as the all-pervasive observer, consenter, supporter, and the higher personal enjoyer in all bodies.

When introducing Caird, the editors note his “careful drawing out of the lessons from both Kant and Hegel about the nature of self-consciousness”. (p. 12) Kant deduced that “the self and notself imply each other,” but to Caird their difference “is only possible within a common framework,” which Caird — influenced by Hegel — insists “must be understood as something infinite or divine” and “cannot properly be understood ‘all at once’ but only gradually” through a three-fold dialectical exchange between self, not-self, and God. (p. 13)

Ferreira illuminates Caird’s (and Kant’s) view that “the awareness of self-continuity arises only through an act that, first, synthesizes (i.e. organizes according to rules) the contents of sense, and second, differentiates the self from those contents.” (p. 96) A transcendental subject’s “synthetic combination of [the] sensuous contents [of experience] is always made according to conceptual ‘rules’ (or categories) that establish precise relations between them.”

(p. 95) Caird acknowledges and insists “that the not-self/object world is law-governed and ordered throughout” (p. 91) and there are “conditions that are essential to its being but which remain merely implicit and hidden from view.” (p. 92)

Within the intelligence and the object world is a shared deep structure, and self-discovery is co-extensive with the truthful apprehension of the object world. The absence of ideas of the self and God as somehow co-extensive with the world constitutes varying degrees of defectiveness in our apprehension of the not-self. “The highest levels of understanding require that we grasp both self and God as not just co-extensive with our awareness of the object world, but as constitutive of and necessary to its existence.” (p. 92)

Ferriera concludes: “We are told that if we carefully reflect on the conditions of [conceivable] experience, we shall discover that . . . the presupposition and condition of any part can only be the whole — the whole that possesses characteristics of what we are ultimately forced to call a ‘divine intelligence’. To those who would deny this, Caird presents this challenge: Provide a self-consistent explanation of how any of the contents of experience could be known if such a whole — such an absolute — did not exist. Caird believes that this challenge cannot be met. He believes, too, that “if we think the matter through with the seriousness that it deserves, we shall see that, in the end, it is a view such as this or nothing.” (p. 105)

Now I will encapsulate the rest of the book’s chapters. A few are about reconciling the individual to the community. T. H. Green’s stance, summarized by Janusz Grygienc, is that personally identifying with “the common good may be an effect of conformity to a communal ethos, or individuals’ moral development.” (p.123) Rex Martin writes about Green’s extended notion of the self with “three dimensions: the metaphysical, the ethical and the civic.” (p. 14)

Three chapters cover Bernard Bosanquet, “a key exponent of the moral view of politics, which combines elements of ethics and metaphysics in the discussion of the nature of the state, the role of institutions, the common good, the best life, and the ideal of self-realisation.” (p. 15)

Avital Simhony writes that Bosanquet highlights “the active, energetic and self-governing capacities of the relational individual”

(p. 203) and “rejects the view of society in terms of ‘selves and others’, for it reflects ‘a purely psychological individualism’ that takes ‘the separate body as the separate self’.” (p. 216)

William Sweet focuses on Bosanquet’s theory of individuality and writes, “Development of consciousness eventually leads to the Absolute, but this process of development is also dependent on the Absolute. Thus, the realisation or development of consciousness is a realisation of the Absolute, but it is the presence of the Absolute in consciousness that enables the development to occur. The Absolute is not, then, anything over and above finite things or ‘appearances’, but rather it is, Bosanquet argues, the totality or full realization of them. . . . It is a complete system in which all things are understood in their multiple relations to one another. . . . Though many things— for example, human persons—are loosely described as individual and concrete, only the Absolute is concrete and an individual in the sense of being fully independent and self-sufficient. For Bosanquet, this Absolute is not only what is completely actual or real, but because it is real, it is the basis and principle of value and truth.” (pp. 182–83) The first verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam also declares that the Absolute Truth (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) “is independent because there is no other cause beyond Him. . . . Only because of Him do the material universes, temporarily manifested by the reactions of the modes of nature, appear factual, although they are unreal.”

Ian Winchester discusses R. G. Collingwood’s two ways to study the entire human being: as an object in our common world (via empirical methodology), and as the self, or consciousness (experienced from the first-person point of view). Their relationship, he adds, has been the subject of study by philosophical neuroscientists.

James Connelly raises “questions about the nature of the self which arise in writing biography or autobiography.” (p. 242) G. L. Cesarz discusses J.M.E. McTaggart’s conception of the self and his critique of materialism. “McTaggart concludes that the self cannot be an activity of the body. This is one of his reasons for rejecting materialistic explanations of the self and affirming that it is a spiritual substance.” (p. 265)

The last two chapters look at British Idealism as a whole. Leslie Armour writes that the defining mark of persons is their creativity, their power to frame or structure an intelligible world and generate value and meaning. W. J. Mander argues that “the true principle behind our own lives is at once the true principle behind the uni-verse itself.” (p. 289) He draws out four interconnected roles that the concept of the self plays in idealist thinking: “value, obligation, freedom, and purpose in life”. In other words, “that which completely satisfies us [i.e., value], that which obliges us” — or is “the source of our obligation,” “that which most fully would set us free” — a

“proper understanding of freedom,” [and] “that which is our proper goal.” These living concepts, with large, diverse spheres of influence strongly “claim to characterise ultimate reality.” (p. 303)

In summary, the book tells us that various kinds of understanding of true selfhood emerge from the multiple aspects of and levels of thinking about its historical development.



1 James Connelly and Stamatoula Panagakou (eds.), Anglo- American Idealism: Thinkers and Ideas (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010). My book review (in ISKCON Studies Journal, Sept. 2014) is here:

2 All italics in the quotations occur in the book under review.

3 Correspondence with Randall Auxier, Professor of Philosophy and Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University (July 30, 2020), who presented a paper at the R. G. Collingwood Society Conference in Prato, Italy, where I met him, in July 2010.


5 See A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda’s Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (Second Canto, Sixth Chapter), (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987).

6 See, for e.g., “The Nature of the Self: A Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Understanding” by Ravīndra Svarūpa Dāsa ( Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 127–32).


TATTVAVIT DĀSA is an editor and a writer, trained at Back to Godhead magazine for five years in Philadelphia. He edited the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s large photographic book Darśana, the collected poems of Srila Prabhupada, and twenty-five other books. He also wrote as many magazine articles on various topics: philosophy (Meditating on Kṛṣṇa in Athens), education (the cover story on the Kṛṣṇa-Avanti schools), traveling . . . . He has been to forty countries since meeting Srila Prabhupada in Los Angeles in January 1974. He practices Ayurveda and Iyengar yoga. Recently, he co-edited this issue of the revived ISKCON Communications Journal.