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Lighting the Way: Royce's Role

By Mary Daily

Published Jul 1, 2019 8:00 AM

The man for whom UCLA’s flagship building is named was a proponent of idealism and devotion to a cause — fitting for the university’s legacy of optimism and service.


Royce Hall under construction, between 1927 and 1931. Courtesy of University Archives.

Philosopher Josiah Royce never set foot on the UCLA campus, yet the university’s first and flagship building, constructed in 1929, bears his name. Born in 1855 in Grass Valley — where his parents, English emigrants, were Forty-Niners who never found gold — Royce saw California as “the sad state wherein I had the odd fortune to be born ... a philosophically barren area.” He grew up poor, stocky and lonely. Still, he became known as the first major American philosopher to be born west of the Mississippi.

But Royce was nevertheless a product of the University of California. At age 15, he enrolled at the Oakland campus and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in classics from Berkeley in 1875. He received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., but then returned to Berkeley to teach composition and literature for four years. From 1882 until his death in 1916, Royce taught at Harvard — where he was a colleague of Provost Ernest Carroll Moore, who later became UCLA’s first chief executive — and where he taught Charles H. Rieber, who became the first dean of UCLA’s College of Letters and Science.


Josiah Royce in 1895. Courtesy of JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images.

As the Westwood campus was being built, Rieber told Moore he thought the new library should be named for Royce, who “knows everything,” but Moore thought Royce’s name would be spoken more often if associated with the chief classroom building. At that time there were no plans to name any campus buildings for any person, but Moore hoped that the “Southern Branch” of the UC would represent the thinking and tradition of Royce.

A leading proponent of idealism, Royce believed in an absolute truth and in the concept that human thought and the external world were unified. He believed in tightly binding oneself to others to benefit a noble cause, which would give direction as to what to do and how to live. Loyalty, he wrote, gives life meaning and cures hesitancy; happiness and satisfaction come from devotion to a purpose outside oneself. Royce also espoused the existence of an “Absolute Knower,” a finite mind that encompasses all truth.

Considered one of the great philosophical thinkers of his time, Royce published 13 books, including a history of California, and 200 articles and reviews. After studying in Germany, he brought back to the U.S. the German academic goal of truth-seeking over simply transmitting knowledge and culture. In so doing, he sowed the seeds of scientific inquiry and propelled universities into a leadership role in research, changing American higher education forever.

UCLA is not the only institution with a building named for Royce: A branch of the Grass Valley Library is named for him, as is Josiah Royce Hall at Fresno High School and Royce House, a dormitory at Johns Hopkins.

LIGHTING THE WAY is a look back at UCLA's history with a Centennial lens during the 14-month Centennial Celebration.