Brand Blanshard

Brand Blanshard (1892-1987) was an American philosopher known primarily for his defense of reason. A powerful polemicist, by all accounts he comported himself with courtesy and grace in philosophical controversies and exemplified the "rational temper" he advocated.



Born in Fredericksburg, Ohio, on 27 August, 1892, Percy Brand Blanshard (his full name) was one of a pair of fraternal twins (the other being freethinker Paul Beecher Blanshard). In 1893 their mother, Emily Coulter Blanshard, died of severe burns from an accident with a kerosene lamp. Their father, Francis Blanshard, moved the family first to Grand Rapids, Michigan, then to Edinburg, Ohio, in 1899. Francis suffered from consumption and was advised to seek a drier climate by moving west; he did so in 1902 to serve as a pastor in Helena, Montana, and then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he died in 1904. Following his death the brothers remained in the care of their grandmother, Orminda Adams Blanshard. Eventually the family moved to Bay View, Michigan, and then to Detroit.

Blanshard studied at the University of Michigan and then at Oxford University (the latter as a Rhodes Scholar). He taught at Swarthmore College from 1925 until 1944 and then spent the remainder of his career at Yale University, where he served as chairman of the department of philosophy for many years. He retired from teaching in 1962.

Blanshard was married twice. In 1918 he married Frances Bradshaw, to whom he remained happily wedded until her death forty-eight years later in 1966. After her death, which came as a great blow to him, he finished and edited her book Frank Aydelotte of Swarthmore, bringing it to publication in 1970. In 1969, after two and a half years of what he later described as "loneliness, failing health, and failing motives", he married Roberta Yerkes (the daughter of Blanshard's colleague Robert M. Yerkes), who was his wife until his own death in 1987.


Blanshard was a rationalist who espoused and defended a strong conception of reason during a century when reason was under various sorts of 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 and was not much directly influenced by G.W.F. Hegel. Among American philosophers, his closest affinities were arguably with Josiah Royce.

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 and do 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.)

Blanshard wrote but little on political theory, and the little he did write (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 commending any specific form of political organization or social structure. In his own personal politics he acknowledged an early sympathy for socialism and remarked in his autobiography that he had voted the "straight Democratic ticket" for some forty 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.


Blanshard's major works are The Nature of Thought (1939), Reason and Goodness (1961), Reason and Analysis (1962), and Reason and Belief (1974). His autobiography and some thirty exchanges with other philosophers are published in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard (1980; Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed.), a volume in the Library of Living Philosophers. His last published work, Four Reasonable Men (1984), comprises sympathetic biographical accounts of four exemplars of the rational temper: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, and Henry Sidgwick. Blanshard was also the author of numerous essays, articles, reviews, and speeches; see the Schilpp volume for a complete bibliography.

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