William Ernest Hocking, the American idealist and philosopher of religion, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He spent his early years in the Middle West and studied civil engineering at Iowa State University. Private reading stimulated an interest in philosophy and led him to study at Harvard, where he was influenced chiefly by William James and Josiah Royce. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard University and spent most of his long teaching career there, retiring in 1943.
Although his philosophical system embodies elements of pragmatism and realism, it is primarily an affirmation of Other Mind, or God, as ultimate reality known directly and intuitively. Hocking thus stands in the idealist tradition in modern philosophy and referred to his own position most commonly as "Objective Idealism." Primitive experience, involving the knowledge of other selves and the world, is conditioned by an immediate awareness of Other Mind, standing in an I–Thou relationship to the self. Both sensory and emotive experience have cognitive connections that point beyond self to Other Mind. Hocking's emphasis is on feeling linked inextricably with idea, so that the two are joined in immediate consciousness as an "idea–feeling couple." This concept of the union of idea and feeling is the source of the strong strain of mysticism in Hocking's philosophy, but it is a mysticism that does not abandon the role of intellect in clarifying and correcting intuition. He advances the "principle of alternation" between intuition and intellect as fundamental to the appropriation of metaphysical truth.
In his first book, The Meaning of God in Human Experience (1912), Hocking developed an empirical philosophy of religion, grounded in the tradition of classical idealism and at the same time drawing heavily on the mystical experience. In so doing, he sought primarily to defend idealism against arguments of the pragmatists and realists, and he has continued this defense over the years. His Gifford Lectures of 1938–1939 and other later works show a continuing concern with the problem of "meaning in experience," of "fact and destiny," which challenges man to go beyond his day-to-day existence and seek understanding in the wholeness of things. Thus, as a philosopher Hocking dealt primarily with metaphysical and epistemological questions in a manner in which religious sensitivity played a prominent part.
At no point in his long career did Hocking devote himself exclusively to intellectual issues. He played an active role in seeking United States acceptance of the League of Nations and in the 1920s and 1930s he was especially interested in social and political problems of the Middle East. After that time he participated in a study of freedom of the press in the United States and was active in support of the United Nations and other political and ethical causes. These active concerns found expression in at least ten books and scores of articles and extended his influence far beyond the realm of academic philosophy.
– Richard C. Gilman (1967)