Thomas Hill Green
Thomas Hill Green (7 April 1836 – 15 March 1882) was an English
philosopher, political radical and temperance reformer, and a member
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.
2.1 What is man?
2.2 Moral philosophy
2.3 Philosophy of state action
2.4 Influence of Green's thought
3 Works and commentary
4 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
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 for
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
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 David
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
Green was involved in local politics for many years, through the
University, temperance societies and the local
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 that sense,
Green's position was more radical than that of most other Advanced
Liberals, including William Ewart 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 political philosophy, the Lecture on Liberal Legislation and
Freedom of Contract. At this time, he was also lecturing on
religion, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy.
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
Green died of blood poisoning at 45. In addition to Green's friends
from his academic life, approximately 2000 local townspeople attended
He helped to found the City of
Oxford High School for Boys.
Hume's empiricism and biological evolution (including 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 nascent
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
Green further objected that such empiricists represented a person as a
"being who is simply the result of natural forces", and thereby made
conduct, or any theory of conduct, meaningless; for life in any human,
intelligible sense implies a personal self that (1) knows what to do,
and (2) has power to do it. Green was thus driven, not theoretically,
but as a practical necessity, to raise again the whole question of
humankind in relation to nature. When (he held) we have discovered
what a person in themselves are, and what their relation to their
environment is, we shall then know their function—what they are
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
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 humans, that
in fact which marks them 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 recognised 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 [by that
very act] unreal because it was "made by" humans and not "given to"
humans. 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
recognised, 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 humans the
world becomes. Human experience is God gradually made manifest.
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 human 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 realisation of which
human's true good must consist. As the result of this analysis,
combined with an investigation into the surroundings humans live in, a
"content"—a moral code—becomes gradually evolved. Personal good is
perceived to be realisable 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 humans present to themselves as an
end in the attainment of which he would be satisfied; that is, in the
realisation of which he would find his true self.
The determination to realise 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
This good consists in the realisation of personal character; hence the
final good, i.e. the moral ideal, as a whole, can be realised 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 realise 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 realised 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. There exists a "general will" that is a
desire for a common good that cannot be easily reconciled as there is
an antagonism between the "common good" and the "private good": such
as: "... interest in the common good, in some of its various forms, is
necessary to produce that good, and to neutralise or render useful
other desires and interests". Its basis is can be conceived as
coercive authority imposed upon the citizens from without or it can be
seen as a necessary restriction of individual liberty in light of a
social contract, but this consists in the spiritual recognition or
metaphysics, on the part of the citizens, of what constitutes their
true nature, some conceptions and complicating factors are elaborating
questions concerning: "Will, not force, is the basis of the state.",
"Citizen Rights Against the State", "Private Rights. The Right to Life
and Liberty", "The Right of the State Over the Individual in War",
"The Right of the State to Punish", "The Right of the State to Promote
Morality ", "The Right of the State in Regard to Property", and "The
Right of the State in Regard to the Family".
Philosophy of state action
Green believed that the state should foster and protect the social,
political and economic environments in which individuals will have the
best chance of acting according to their consciences. But the state
must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which
ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention
could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby
stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should
intervene only where there is a clear, proven and strong tendency of a
liberty to enslave the individual. Even when such a hazard had been
identified, Green tended to favour action by the affected community
itself rather than national state action itself — local councils and
municipal authorities tended to produce measures that were more
imaginative and better suited to the daily reality of a social
problem. Hence he favoured the "local option" where local people
decided on the issuing of liquor licences in their area, through their
Green stressed the need for specific solutions to be tailored to fit
specific problems. He stressed that there are no eternal solutions, no
timeless division of responsibilities between national and local
governmental units. The distribution of responsibilities should be
guided by the imperative to enable as many individuals as possible to
exercise their conscientious wills in particular contingent
circumstances, as only in this way was it possible to foster
individual self-realisation in the long-run. Deciding on the
distribution of responsibilities was more a matter for practical
politics than for ethical or political philosophy. Experience may show
that the local and municipal levels are unable to control the harmful
influences of, say, the brewery industry. When it did show this, the
national state should take responsibility for this area of public
Green argued that the ultimate power to decide on the allocation of
such tasks should rest with the national state (in Britain, for
instance, embodied in Parliament). The national state itself is
legitimate for Green to the extent that it upholds a system of rights
and obligations that is most likely to foster individual
self-realisation. Yet, the most appropriate structure of this system
is determined neither by purely political calculation nor by
philosophical speculation. It is more accurate to say that it arose
from the underlying conceptual and normative structure of one's
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 helped found the Aristotelian
John Dewey wrote a number of early essays on Green's thought,
including Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal.
Green was directly cited by many social 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
Roy Hattersley 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:
Reprints of Green's criticism of Hume, Spencer, G. H. Lewes
Lectures on Kant, on Logic, on the Principles of Political Obligation
Miscellanies, preceded by a full Memoir by the Editor.
All three volumes are available for download at Internet Archive
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 (1887).
Hume and Locke, Apollo Editions, 425 Park Avenue South, New York, NY
10016, 1968 (Reprint of Thomas Y. Crowell Company edition). Contains
Green's "Introductions to Hume's Treatise of Human Nature" and also
Green's "Introduction to the Moral Part of Hume's Treatise"
Contributions to liberal theory
Thomas Hill Green
Thomas Hill Green – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
^ Robin George Collingwood, R. G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and
Oxford UP, 2013, p. 220.
^ Thomas, Geoffrey, "Thomas Hill Green", 1836-1882
^ Ian Adams and R. W. Dyson, Fifty Major Political Thinkers (2007). p.
^ 'The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. by T.H. Green and T.H.
Grose, 4 vol. (1882–86)
^ Hanover Historical Texts Project
^ Alexander Klein, The Rise of Empiricism: William James, Thomas Hill
Green, and the Struggle over Psychology Archived 4 November 2007 at
the Wayback Machine.
^ Nicholson, P. P., “T. H. Green and State Action: Liquor
Legislation’, History of Political Thought, 6 (1985), 517–50.
Reprinted in A. Vincent, ed., The Philosophy of T. H. Green
(Aldershot: Gower, 1986), pp. 76–103
^ New Statesman – Forgotten favourites – Politics of aspiration. T
H Green was the first philosopher of social justice. Today's cabinet
ministers would do well to read him, writes Roy Hattersley
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Green, Thomas Hill". Encyclopædia
Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Articles in Mind (January and April 1884) by
A. J. Balfour
A. J. Balfour and Henry
In the Academy (xxviii. 242 and xxv. 297) by S. Alexander
David George Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference (London,
W. H. Fairbrother, Philosophy of T.H. Green (London and New York,
S. S. Laurie The
Metaphysics of T H Green an article in the
Philosophical Review (Volume vi, March 1897) pages 113 to 131
Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the ethics of T.H. Green, Mr. Herbert
Spencer, and J. Martineau (London, 1902)
Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant (London, 1905)
A. W. Benn, The History of English Rationalism in the Nineteenth
Century (1906), volume ii, pp. 401 foll.
H. Sturt, Idola theatri, a criticism of
Oxford thought and thinkers
from the standpoint of personal idealism, 1906.
J. H. Muirhead, The Service of the State: Four Lectures on the
Political Teaching of T. H. Green (1908)
W. D. Lamont, Introduction to Green's moral philosophy, 1934.
J. Pucelle, La nature et l'esprit dans la philosophie de T.H. Green;
la renaissance de l'idéalisme en Angleterre au 19e siècle, 1960.
M. Freeden (1978) The New Liberalism: An ideology of Social Reform,
Oxford, Clarendon Press.
I.M. Greengarten (1981) Thomas Hill-Green and the Development of
Liberal-Democratic Thought, University of Toronto Press.
Geoffrey Thomas (1988) The Moral Philosophy of T. H. Green (
Avital Simhony (1993) "T.H. Green: the common good society", History
of Political Thought 14(2):225–247.
Dimova-Cookson, Maria (2001). T.H. Green's Moral and Political
Philosophy: A Phenomenological Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bauman, Richard (2002). Human Rights in Ancient Rome. Routledge.
David O. Brink (2003) Perfectionism and the Common Good: Themes in the
Philosophy of T. H. Green, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Carter, Matt (2003). T.H.Green and the Development of Ethical
Socialism. ISBN 978-0-907845-32-4.
Dimova-Cookson, Maria; Mander, William J. (2006). T. H. Green: Ethics,
Metaphysics, and Political Philosophy.
Oxford University Press on
Demand. ISBN 978-0-19-927166-5.
Morrow, John (2007). T.H. Green. Ashgate Publishing.
Thomas Hill Green
Thomas Hill Green and Charlotte Byron Green in St Sepulchre's
Cemetery, Oxford, with biography
Thomas Hill Green
Thomas Hill Green at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Thomas Hill Green
Thomas Hill Green at Internet Archive
Prolegomena to Ethics (1883)
Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1883)
Works (excluding Prolegomena to Ethics) edited by R L Nettleship in
three volumes (first published 1885): Volume 1: Introductions to
Hume's Treatise; and Mr
Herbert Spencer and Mr G H Lewes: their
application of the doctrine of
Evolution to Thought; Volume 2:
Lectures: on (a) the Philosophy of Kant; (b) Logic, including J S
Mill's System of Logic; (c) the different senses of freedom as applied
to will and to moral progress; and (d) the Principles of Political
Obligation; and Volume 3: Miscellanies and Memoir
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