A Brief Biography of Brand Blanshard



Brand Blanshard

August 27, 1892 - November 18, 1987





Progressive Living

"I have tried to show finally—and this was the hardest task of all—that reasonableness, so often painted in dull, unattractive gray, is the most desirable of all human virtues. Though it involves discipline and restraint, which are always unpopular, its restraints are tickets of admission to a wider world of happiness, understanding, and effectiveness. It is indeed the great need of mankind."

—Brand Blanshard
    Four Reasonable Men


On the Importance and Reputation of Blanshard

Who was Brand Blanshard, and why should anyone care?

By any informed estimation, Blanshard was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. By our estimation he is, simply, the most important modern philosopher, and one of the dozen most important who has ever lived.

Why? One short, simple answer would be: he never lost sight of what was most needed in philosophy, or in life. Another would be: virtually everything he wrote in a long lifetime was extraordinarily clear, fair, and of the highest conceivable quality. But perhaps the truest answer that could be offered is this: if it was the rationalism of the Greeks that provided them with the tools for laying the foundations of Western civilization, then Blanshard is one of only two major philosophers of the 20th century who can be said to have not only re-laid much of what had been silted over, but also to have extended those foundations.

What was the gist of his philosophy? A short statement can't possibly do his thought justice, but he can be "classified" as to the kind of philosopher he was. Blanshard was, then, once again, a rationalist. Rationalist philosophers believe in the importance and effectiveness of reason; that is, in the ability of reason to get hold of the nature of things. They incline to the belief that truth is not relative, that there really are such things as good and evil, that there is good art and bad art; and all of this not as a matter of subjective or arbitrary opinion, but in light of objective standards of truth, morality, and even artistic quality. Blanshard was also a firm believer of the importance of reason and reasonableness in life. In this he provides the polar opposite to the conniving opportunism of, say, a Machiavelli—or a Kissinger. In general, then, to the extent that moral relativism and political opportunism are the characteristic diseases of our era one can find in Blanshard's work what is perhaps the definitive cure; and yet an individual farther from an intolerant, narrow-minded moralism would be hard to imagine.

Possibly because so much of what is to be found in Blanshard flies in the face of most 20th century philosophy and what has become "conventional wisdom" most philosophers, unable to challenge him effectively, seem to have simply chosen to ignore him instead. This may have been more or less a matter of professional necessity. As we just noted, in the course of his work Blanshard challenged the foundations of nearly every form of relativism and rendered them implausible if not absurd. And if Blanshard's assessment of relativism was right, many reputations in 20th century philosophy (and in many other fields as well, especially anthropology) would stand shattered. So given a choice between shattered reputations and nearly universal embarrassment, challenging Blanshard, or simply ignoring him, most philosophers seem to have chosen . . . to salvage their reputations by ignoring him. This is, perhaps, the single most disgraceful episode in all of modern philosophy.

Blanshard's personality has probably also contributed to this neglect. He was essentially modest and disinclined to any form of self-promotion; and the oracular pseudoprofundity of a Heidegger or a Wittgenstein, into which almost anything may be read, and about which countless academic papers may therefore be written, is nowhere to be found in Blanshard. Blanshard always knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it, about as clearly as humanly possible. Professional interpreters aren't needed. Indeed, Blanshard is one of the very few major philosophers whom almost anyone may read profitably.

Blanshard's Politics

Blanshard devoted his formidable analytical skills to establishing a sturdy intellectual foundation for civilized life. While a political theory might easily be built upon this foundation, he himself did not do so. This can hardly be because he was politically indifferent. It is abundantly clear that he was not. Rather, it seems more probable that he thought it necessary to deal with first things first.

Most of what he did have to say concerning politics can be found in a short chapter in Reason and Goodness and in a short rejoinder in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard. There he says: "my political theory, such as it is, grows directly out of my ethics." And we find three propositions:

(1) All problems involving a choice between values are moral problems. (2) All political problems involve a choice between values. (3) All political problems are moral problems.

This leads directly to the question: what was his theory of ethics?

Here again, a short statement can't do his thought justice; but, once again, we can at least classify his position. Blanshard was a proponent of an ethics of self-actualization, of the sort that we find in Aristotle. What follows politically from such an ethic? This is a large and interesting question, one most capably taken up, perhaps, by Thomas Hurka, another intellectual descendant of Aristotle. For the intensely interesting details, I refer the reader to Section III of Hurka's Perfectionism. What can be said here, very broadly, is this: an ethics of self-actualization isn't notably compatible with contemporary conservatism. Blanshard was a liberal. So is Hurka. To state one key reason succinctly: a life fully lived doesn't require immense wealth, but such a life is utterly incompatible with poverty, lack of leisure time, and, still more, financial insecurity.

On the other hand, however, one strand of liberalism has, since the earliest days of the Progressive Era, embraced relativism. Liberals of that persuasion will find nothing to comfort them in Blanshard. Indeed, the idea that "everything is relative" has, under Blanshard's withering assault, lost any shred of plausibility or intellectual respectability.


The Life of Blanshard

Blanshard's autobiography may be found in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp (the best one-volume introduction to Blanshard currently available). A brief biographical sketch may also be found in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. The following short biography draws upon those two sources.  Other biographical material may be found in the autobiography of his brother, Paul Blanshard, Personal and Controversial: an Autobiography.  (I am not aware of any other biographical material, but would be very pleased to be advised of any such).

Blanshard was born in miniscule Fredericksburg, Ohio, on August 27, 1892, one half of a pair of fraternal twins. His father was Francis Blanshard, a Congregationalist minister, and his mother was Emily Coulter. Both were Canadians who later became American citizens. In 1893 Blanshard's mother died in a fire in Toronto, and his father, frail of health and oppressed by his wife's death, died in 1904. Consequently, Blanshard was raised by his reclusive, puritanical paternal grandmother, Orminda, initially in Grand Rapids, then in Edinburg, Ohio (south of Akron). Orminda supported herself and the twins on $450 a year, a sum she received from a Methodist church in Canada.

Blanshard was educated in a two-story, wooden schoolhouse in Edinburg, but the little family soon moved to Bay View, Michigan on the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of Petoskey. This was a rural area, and Blanshard enjoyed fishing and playing in the woods there. He also worked as a caddy at the local golf course, as a dishwasher, and as a ticket taker. In the latter job Blanshard was able to hear some notable speakers, listen to musical performances, and view some theater, all of which awakened intellectual interests. In his mid-teens Blanshard also worked as a junior reporter for a paper in Petoskey, and took up debate in school there.

In search of better schools, Orminda moved the family to Detroit. There Blanshard studied in much better facilities, became interested in the sciences and in languages, and further developed his interest in debate, at which he excelled. He also enjoyed baseball.

On graduation from high school he attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Greek. Though Blanshard didn't enjoy his major much, he did take a course in philosophy, motivated by a need to settle in his own mind various religious issues, and he further developed his interests in baseball and debate. Having fallen in love with philosophy, in his junior year he made application for a Rhodes scholarship, and was accepted.

Blanshard was entranced with Oxford and flourished there. He came to know T. S. Eliot and the philosopher Bradley, who was to influence him profoundly. His student stipend was enough to allow him to travel to Germany, but his timing was rather bad, as Germany was about to launch itself into war. He managed to get out, but found that Oxford wasn't the same, with everyone enlisted in the war effort. For his part, Blanshard volunteered in the British Army YMCA and ended up in Bombay, where his duty was to keep up troop morale. From India he went on to Amara. Here he was exposed to some of the horrors of war, which made a deep impression on him. In 1916 he returned to Bombay, which afforded him an opportunity to deeply engage another culture and to understand something of its effects on human life. He was unable to return home by the usual route because of a submarine blockade, and so traveled east to Singapore, China and Japan, and from there to the west coast, finally arriving back in Bay View in 1917. An insurance policy of his father's allowed him to go to Columbia for a year to study with John Dewey.

In personal manner Dewey suffered something in comparison with Bradley, and Blanshard wasn't much influenced by his ideas either. The little known W. P. Montague provided a better personal and professional example, infused as he was with "common sense, intellectual clearness, and a large and quiet sanity." (This isn't a bad characterization of Blanshard's own intellectual tenor.) At the end of his year at Columbia he was awarded a Master's degree. He was subsequently drafted into the Army and, hurried a bit by the press of circumstances, he married a fellow student at Columbia, Frances Bradshaw.

Blanshard served in France during the war, and as it came to an end became a faculty member in a makeshift school for soldiers. When this wound down, he made his way back to England to resume his studies at Oxford, and he was finally able to have a honeymoon. Blanshard studied with Horace W. B. Joseph, who was to prove an even more decisive influence than Montague, and who provided the stimulus to many of Blanshard's mature views.

Graduating from Oxford, Blanshard felt the need for an American doctorate to better secure employment. He was admitted to Harvard, where he studied for a year, supported by a Sears scholarship and by his wife. The philosopher C. I. Lewis was appointed to oversee his thesis. On graduation he secured a post at his old alma mater, the University of Michigan, but his first year there was harrowing, and he was so overworked he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. He was later charged with producing a summary of current thought in psychology for use by social workers, and became interested in the contrast between reason as utilized by philosophers and reason as accounted for by psychologists (in an interesting parallel to Edmund Husserl's interests in mathematics and psychology). The fruit of this investigation was the fascinating and immensely valuable two volume study The Nature of Thought. A colleague of Blanshard's at Michigan was Edgar Carritt, who became a fast friend; but it was his temperament and character, rather than his substantive thought, that proved influential. (Blanshard: "there was an athletic, no-nonsense vigor and stoicism about his character that was a tonic to weaker brethren.")

Receiving in 1925 an invitation to teach at Swarthmore, Blanshard jumped ship, and was satisfied enough to spend 20 happy years there.

Blanshard became president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1941, and in 1943 was appointed to the Board of Officers of that association. The task of the Board was to report on the function of philosophy in liberal education and in the development of a free and reflective life in the community. This was a task much enjoyed by Blanshard, and it yielded the book "Philosophy in American Education."

In 1944 Blanshard was invited to take a position at Yale, where he taught theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics.

Blanshard was invited to deliver the Gifford lectures in Scotland in 1952, and he spent ten months there doing so. He devoted the first ten lectures to "Reason and its Critics" and the second series to "Reason and Goodness." A subsequent invitation to deliver the Carus lectures afforded him the opportunity to develop the core of a trilogy of books, perhaps his most important, which he describes as "supplements" to The Nature of Thought. These are: Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness, and Reason and Belief. He describes these in this way: "Reason and Analysis defends my conception of reason in the light of contemporary analytic theories; Reason and Goodness applies the conception to ethics and politics; Reason and Belief applies it to the chief forms of Christian theology." Better books in the field of philosophy do not exist.

During the remainder of his tenure at Yale, Blanshard lectured at over 140 universities by invitation. He retired in 1961. His wife died in 1966, and he remarried in 1969.

Blanshard, the sanest voice in all of philosophy, and possibly the ablest exponent of reason and reasonableness the world has ever had, died November 18, 1987.

An online resource with numerous original Blanshard essays may be found here.
Several .mp3 formatted recordings of Blanshard discussing philosophy with a student may be heard at this link.

Blanshard's Reason and Goodness and Reason and Analysis are reviewed in the PL Philosophy Field Guide. Navigation options may be found below.
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