William Ernest Hocking

American philosopher (1873-1966)

William Ernest Hocking (August 10, 1873 – June 12, 1966) was an American idealist philosopher at Harvard University. He continued the work of his philosophical teacher Josiah Royce (the founder of American idealism) in revising idealism to integrate and fit into empiricism, naturalism and pragmatism. He said that metaphysics has to make inductions from experience: "That which does not work is not true. His major field of study was the philosophy of religion, but his 22 books included discussions of philosophy and human rights, world politics, freedom of the press, the philosophical psychology of human nature; education; and more. In 1958 he served as president of the Metaphysical Society of America.


  • Only the man who has enough good in him to feel the justice of the penalty can be punished; the others can only be hurt.
    • The Coming World Civilization (1956), p. 7.
  • Man is the only animal that contemplates death, and also the only animal that shows any sign of doubt of its finality. This does not mean that he doubts it as a future fact. He accepts his own death, with that of others, as inevitable; plans for it; provides for the time when he shall be out of the picture. Yet, not less today than formerly, he confronts this fact with a certain incredulity regarding the scope of its destruction.
    • The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience (1957), p. 5.
  • I find that a man is as old as his work. If his work keeps him from moving forward, he will look forward with the work.
    • As quoted in The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Inspirational Quotes (2005) by Wendy Toliver, p. 18.

The Meaning of God in Human Experience (1912)

  • What our view of the effectiveness of religion in history does at once make evident as to its nature is--first, its necessary distinction; second, its necessary supremacy. These characters though external have been so essential to its fruitfulness, as to justify the statement that without them religion is not religion. A merged religion and a negligible or subordinate religion are no religion.
    • Ch. II : The Work of Religion in History, p. 22.
  • We are driven to confess that we actually care more for religion than we do for religious theories and ideas: and in merely making that distinction between religion and its doctrine-elements, have we not already relegated the latter to an external and subordinate position? Have we not asserted that "religion itself" has some other essence or constitution than mere idea or thought?
    • Ch. IV : The Retirement of the Intellect, p. 38.
  • However rich we may become in knowledge of the deeper causes of historical results, we forgo all understanding of history if we forget this inner continuity,--i.e., the conscious intentions of the participants in history-making and their consciously known successes.
    • Ch. V : Religion's Dilemma in Respect to Theory, p. 58.
  • Nothing can stir the "depths" of mind, but total out-of-doors. We call "depth," last dregs, etc., that in man which only ultimate facts and happenings can interest; that which the near and usual can neither rouse nor ruffle. Somewhere in each man, we imagine, there lies an ultimatum, to be backed by all his energies from all reservoirs, ordinary and extraordinary,--what can elicit from any man such ultimatum and ultimatum-backing?--nothing that has not somewhere in it the word All! There are such things, we think, as ruling passions, "deepest desires," in any man some nameable or unnameable last ambition--what can set such a depth on fire?--nothing but some total opportunity (real or believed real), discovered in the wide world beyond the self.
    • Ch. IX : The Retreat into Subjectivity, p. 105.
  • Love and sympathy are the activity of the idea. And in their exercise, the idea is enlarged. The lover widens his experience as the non-lover cannot. He adds to the mass of his idea-world, and acquires thereby enhanced power to appreciate all things. Is not this the sufficient solution of that long-standing difficulty between 'egoism and altruism?' The altruist alone can accumulate that treasure of idea through which all things must be enjoyed that are enjoyed. No one has, or can have, any 'egoistic' satisfaction except as a consequence of so much effective love of reality as there is in him by birth or acquisition.
    • Ch. XI : Idea in Organic Union with Feeling, p. 135.
  • Every social need, such as the need for friendship, must be a party to its own satisfaction: I cannot passively find my friend as a ready-made friend; a ready-made human being he may be, but his friendship for me I must help to create by my own active resolve.
    • Ch. XII : The Will as a Maker of Truth, p. 140.
  • For maturity is marked by the preference to be defeated rather than have a subjective success. We as mature persons can worship only that which we are compelled to worship. If we are offered a man-made God and a self-answering prayer, we will rather have no God and no prayer. There can be no valid worship except that in which man is involuntarily bent by the presence of the Most Real, beyond his will.
    • Ch. XII : The Will as a Maker of Truth, p. 140.
  • As in reply to the skeptic or agnostic, who asserts in despair that there is no absolute truth. The dialectician retorts: Then at least your own assertion must be absolutely true. There must be some absolute truth, for you cannot assert that there is none without self-contradiction. As in Descartes' case, the doubter is reminded of himself. There, in his own assertion, is a certainty from which he cannot escape.
    This turn of thought which reminds the enquirer of himself, we shall call the reflexive turn. It reappears in all discoveries of the Absolute. It is clinching--but is likely to disappoint, even as Descartes' result disappoints. For the skeptic finds that he also was in search of objective truth: and that the absolute truth of his statement is irrelevant to his quest. Whence his skepticism toward objective truth remains unanswered.
    • Ch. XIV : The Need of an Absolute, p. 192.
  • A person who wills to have a good will, already has a good will--in its rudiments. There is solid satisfaction in knowing that the mere desire to get out of an old habit is a material advance upon the condition of submergence in that habit. The longest step toward cleanliness is made when one gains--nothing but dissatisfaction with dirt.
    • Ch. XIV : The Need of an Absolute, p. 197.
  • There is, then, in these matters some absolute finding in the seeking: salvation is, to seek salvation, for in seeking it one has already abandoned mortality and his sin.
    • Ch. XIV : The Need of an Absolute, p. 198.
  • This merely formal conceiving of the facts of one's own wretchedness is at the same time a departure from them--placing them in the object. It is not idle, therefore, to observe reflexively that in that very Thought, one has separated himself from them, and is no longer that which empirically he still sees himself to be.
    • Ch. XIV : The Need of an Absolute, p. 198.
  • If I can reconcile myself to the certainty of death only by forgetting it, I am not happy. And if I can dispose of the fact of human misery about me only by shutting my thoughts as well as myself within my comfortable garden, I may assure myself that I am happy, but I am not. There is a skeleton in the closet of the universe, and I may at any moment be in the face of it. Happiness is inseparable from confidence in action; and confidence of action is inseparable from what the schoolmen called peace -- that is, poise of mind with reference to everything I may possibly encounter in the chances of fortune.
    Now this perfect openness to experience is not possible if pain is the last word of pain. Unless there is something behind the fact of pain, some kind of mystery or problem in it whose solution shows the pain to be other than what it pretends, there is no happiness for man in this world or the next; for no matter how fair the world might in time become, the fact that it had been as bad as it is would remain an unbanishable misery, unbanishable by God or any other power.
    • Ch. XV : The Need of a God, p. 218.
  • Religion is bound up in the difference between the sense of ignorance and the sense of mystery: the former means, "I know not"; the latter means "I know not; but it is known."
    • Ch. XVI : The Original Sources of the Knowledge of God, p. 235.
  • And indeed, no man has found his religion until he has found that for which he must sell his goods and his life.
    • Ch. XVI : The Original Sources of the Knowledge of God, p. 237.

Present Status of the Philosophy of Law and of Rights (1926)

  • For those who have only to obey, law is what the sovereign commands. For the sovereign, in the throes of deciding what he ought to command, this view of law is singularly empty of light and leading. In the dispersed sovereignty of modern states, and especially in times of rapid social change, law must look to the future as well as to history and precedent, and to what is possible and right as well as to what is actual.
    • Preface (20 May 1926), p. vii.
  • When law was held to come direct from the gods, it required a bold man and a prophet to propose a change in it. Perhaps it is still true that a law-maker ought to be something of a prophet. But if so, we are committed in western lands to the belief that prophetic capacity is widespread: the making of law goes on everywhere merrily and apace.
    In the midst of this vast labor it becomes clear to us that the more we relieve the gods of their burdens, the more we need to know what the gods know, the general principles on which law should be made. And if this knowledge were universal, and were applied in good faith, the law-makers themselves would in turn be relieved! In either case, then, we are bound to keep trying for a systematic grasp of those principles of law which we now possess in vague and fragmentary fashion.
    • Ch. I : What is Behind Us?, p. 1.
  • Principle I : Legal rights are presumptive rights.
    • Ch. VI : Presumptive Rights, p. 58.
  • Law deals not with actual individuals, but with individuals artificially defined. We cannot say that law-makers are under an illusion to the effect that all men are equal. They do not even suppose them all alike in being reasonable, or in being well informed about the law, or in being morally sensitive about their own rights or the rights of others. Law-makers have probably never been blind about the conspicuous facts of human difference. Nevertheless, the law in every community — and not alone in modern communities — proposes to treat certain large groups of individuals as were alike "before the law."
    • Ch. VI : Presumptive Rights, § 20, p. 58.
  • Principle II : The presumptions of the law are creative presumptions : they are aimed at conditions to be brought about, and only for that reason ignore conditions which exist.
    • Ch. VI : Presumptive Rights, § 24, p. 62.
  • A presumption of equality may be contrary to present fact, and yet not contrary to a desideratum. We are not as a fact all equally fit to live, equally responsible, or equally deserving of the protection of the law: but it will hardly be doubted that it would be desirable if we were.
    But further, the presumption of a desired condition is, in any group of plastic minds, a force tending to bring about the thing presumed, i.e., to create it. It aids a boy to reach maturity to treat him as if he were a little older than he is. A little older: for the presumption loses its effect if it is too wide of the actual fact. The fundamental presumptions of the law are justified on this basis and to this extent: if they are too wide of the truth to be creative, they are not justified.
    • Ch. VI : Presumptive Rights, § 24, p. 63.
  • Principle III : Presumptive rights are the conditions under which individual powers normally develop.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, p. 68.
  • Nothing is more evident, I venture to think, as a result of two or three thousand years of social philosophizing, than that society must live and thrive by way of the native impulses of individual human beings.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 30, p. 68.
  • Without good-will, no man has any presumptive right, except the right or opportunity to change his will, so long as there is hope of it.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 32, p. 73.
    • Principle IV : There is one natural right and one only.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, p. 74.
  • It is right, or absolute right, that an individual should develop the powers that are in him. He may be said to have a "natural right" to become what he is capable of becoming. This is his only natural right.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 33, p. 74.
  • Wherever moral ambition exists, there right exists.
    And moral ambition itself must be presumed present in subconsciousness, even when the conscious self seems to reject it, so long as society has resources for bringing it into action; in much the same way that the life-saver presumes life to exist in the drowned man until he has exhausted his resources for recovering respiration.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 33, p. 75.
  • The only thing that can set aside a law as wrong is a better law, or an idea of a better law. And the only thing that an give a law the quality of better or worse is the concrete result which it promotes or fails to promote.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 35, p. 76.
  • Pure community is a matter of no interest to any will; but a community which pursues a common good is of supreme interest to all wills; and what we have here said is that whatever the nature of that common good … it must contain the development of individual powers, as a prior condition for all other goods.
    • Ch. VII, Natural Right, § 35, p. 77.
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