Leonard Hobhouse

Leonard Hobhouse

(*1864, St.Ives, Cornwall - +1929, Alencon, France)

One can clearly see a red thread running through the manifold work of Leonard T. Hobhouse, as an academic at the Universities of Oxford and London, liberal theorist and prolific journalist: a firm dedication to progressive change and improvement of life. His approach to political issues was from the standpoint of a philosopher of evolution and sociology, and he is seen by some as the greatest constructivist philosopher of his time.

His work is a direct response to the poor socio-economic conditions prevailing in England at the time he lived, and an attack on the intellectual currents underpinning it. As a leading thinker of the English school of thought termed ‘social liberalism' or ‘new liberalism', he advocated a significant role for the democratic state in the provision of basic social welfare, employed a language of humanitarianism, social obligation, public duty and social reform. He opposed the widespread trust in the application of evolutionary theory to social theory, belief in natural selection and imperialist thinking. His work aims to show how personal liberties and collective liberties can be reconciled, and how a liberal society does not necessitate a minimal state, but rather a democratic, active state to enable people to develop their true selves furthest.

In marked difference to classical liberalism's exclusive focus on individualism and assumption of a necessarry conflict between an individual's freedom and societal relations, Hobhouse held the idea of “harmony” between the individual as a private person and member of society. This idea led him to reassert the supremacy of communal values without having to compromise on the liberal exaltation of individuality.

Starting from the individual, he identified elements of harmony within each person ‘between feeling and action and experience'. When it came to social relationships, he saw those same principles at work writ large. Based on the notion of a rational and self-expressing personality, social interaction was argued to be unproblematic, as ‘the individual has no moral rights in conflict with the common good, as therein every rational aim is included and harmonized' (The Elements of Social Justice, p.40).

It is his concept of ‘harmony' and the possibility of societies to arrive at a common will, which have called for criticism among other thinkers. These noted that Hobhouse could not endorse competition --traditionally seen as positive and necessary by liberals-- as a positive human characteristic, because of the friction it caused to harmony, and because of its eschewal of the common perspective.

Furthermore, his great trust in the compatibility of people's interests, values and goals might be questioned, given the diversity of values and conceptions of the ‘good life'. This diversity in turn calls into question his insistence on an integrating sphere of public morality and lets one ask whether there is after all a trade- off involved between personal and communal rights and duties.

Reading his work remains rewarding, for at least three reasons. Firstly, his great attention to the relation and interdependence-- between social, economic, and political liberties-- and concrete elaboration of liberties and their corresponding restraints, is timeless. Secondly, his discussion of the history of various kinds of political theories and ideas, which he opposes, as e.g. German Idealism, the Manchester School, naturalist/evolutionary social theories, and Marxism, offers to the reader a very comprehensive understanding of the evolution of liberal political thought as well as its contenders. Finally, it reminds us of the variety within liberalism and need to rethink assumed and taken-for-granted anti-theses, as e.g. between individual and societal liberties, taking into account changed circumstances.



Democracy and Reaction ,1905; Development and Purpose,1913; Liberalism,1912


L.T. Hobhouse and the development of liberal-democratic theory, 1976


Liberalism and Liberal Politics in Edwardian England, Allen& Unwin, London, 1986

J.Meadowcroft (ed.):

Hobhouse: Liberalism and Other Writings, Cambridge Univ.-Press, 1994

Text by Barbara Plank

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