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Summary Article: Palmer, George Herbert from Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

American, b: 19 March 1842, Boston, Masachusetts. d: 7 May 1933, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cat: Idealist. Ints: Moral theory. Educ: Harvard; two years studying in Germany and visiting Paris were his only substantial breaks from Cambridge, Massachusetts; in 1870 he obtained a theological degree from Andover Theological Seminary. Appts: Instructor in Greek at Harvard in 1870; produced a translation of the Odyssey, but transferred to Philosophy two years later and continued to teach until 1913; built the philosophy department and served as Chairman when James, Royce, and Santayana were hired; he was, however, more a ‘philosopher’s philosopher’ and less a public figure than James and Santayana, and his colleagues regarded him with respect; played a variety of roles in the administration of the university. He had a continuing interest in literature and wrote about George Herbert, Browning, and Shakespeare.


Main publications:
  • (1887) The New Education, Little, Brown & Co Boston. .
  • (1901) The Field of Ethics, Houghton Mifflin Boston. .
  • (1903) The Nature of Goodness, Houghton Mifflin Boston. .
  • (1911) The Problem of Freedom, Houghton Mifflin Boston. .
  • (1919) Altruism: Its Nature and Varieties, Scribner New York. .
  • (1930) The Autobiography of a Philosopher, Houghton Mifflin New York, Greenwood Press, 1968. .

  • The Nature of Goodness (1903), widely thought to be Palmer’s best work, centres on a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic goodness. Extrinsic goodness is goodness which a thing possesses by virtue of its ability to produce something else. Intrinsic goodness is a property which belongs to certain wholes so organized that every part is good for every other part. Like most idealist thinkers, Palmer associated the good with self-realization, but his self-realization involved a social order. He spoke of the ‘conjunct self and the ‘separate self’. The conjunct self is composed of relations with other selves. It may seem that this logically implies the priority of the separate self, since there must be something to be related, but Palmer argues that the ‘separate self considered by itself is unintelligible.

    He believed strongly that philosophy departments should be staffed by people who disagreed with one another and insisted on a strongly pluralistic atmosphere at Harvard—one from which he drew much of his inspiration. One can see the influence of his colleagues in his work. He is most like Royce in his own ethical theory, but overall much more cautious and constantly critical of wide-ranging speculations. Like James, he appreciated down-to-earth examples. Although both The Nature of Goodness and The Field of Ethics (1901) contain distinctions and analyses which are still useful, and Palmer continues to be remembered in American intellectual history, especially in the history of higher education, his work has attracted little critical attention from contemporary philosophers.

    Sources: Edwards; WWW(Am).

    LESLIE ARMOUR
    © 1996 Routledge

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