Thomas Hill Green

Thomas Hill Green

(*1836, Birkin, England - + 1882)

Thomas Hill Green was a leading British philosopher and political figure and founder of the school of British Idealism. He pioneered in questioning the traditional liberal antithesis between the state and the individual. Green's lectures delivered in Oxford in 1879: “Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation” and “Prologema to Ethics” are the beginning of the transformation of English liberalism in a social liberal direction.

When reading Green's work, you will notice the emphasis on individualism which is very strong in all liberal thought. Yet, when compared to the body of preceding liberal thought, he can be seen to have replaced the formers emphasis of the autonomy of the individual with an emphasis on the “organic” society, and the value of community ethos. He stressed the individual being a part of society and addressed the obligations towards the community. The development of his ideas has to be seen in the context of the historic circumstances given during his lifetime. These were highly unequal socio-economic consequences of the industrial revolution. The drastic economic development was accompanied by poor work and health conditions.

These conditions urged him to criticize the burdens the inequities of the market system placed on the working class and demand policies which would not only in word but de facto provide for equal opportunities and liberties. The aim, according to Green, was full and equal human development. Given the extreme sense of alienation and inequalities under which many people suffered in his time, Green stressed the need for moral and ethical considerations and obligation of society as a whole to better ensure each individual's possibility of self-realization.

An expanded liberal paradigm and active political approach was, he argued, needed to improve working and living conditions. This was for ethical reasons as much as for pragmatic considerations, given the growing class-frictions in Britain, which were rising further at the turn of the century. T. H. Green played an important role in changing liberal assumptions, by moving from a ‘negative' conception of freedom, i.e. freedom from action of others, towards a more 'positive' one, including the freedom to act in a certain way.

His discussion was followed by other liberal thinkers such as David Ritchie, John Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse, all of who contributed to the movement of liberal thought away from a strict laissez-faire approach to incorporating a role for the state in social welfare. His contribution lies in the attempt to reconcile a capitalist market society with liberalism in a democratic state. Sharing with Marxism the ideal of a classless, just society, Green never parted from his conviction that it could be realized within the market system. Indeed, he shared the conviction with liberals as for example F. Hayek that a free society could only be achieved with a market economy. His spirit influenced thinkers and can be seen in the social legislation passed by Liberal governments, which laid the foundations to the welfare state. 



The New Liberalism: An ideology of Social Reform, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978


Thomas Hill-Green and the Development of Liberal-Democratic Thought, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981

Nettleship, R.L. and Nicholson, P.P. (eds.):

Collected Works of T.H.Green, Bristol, Thommes, 1997

Text by Barbara Plank

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