Let’s get metaphysical

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Why am I so interested in what some random bearded Victorian dude thought about anything?

Here is one reason (in three parts):

(i) An important branch of philosophy – epistemology – is concerned with knowledge and belief.

(ii) An important position in epistemology – evidentialism – holds that beliefs should only be based on relevant evidence.1

(iii) Random bearded Victorian dude William Clifford effectively kicked off evidentialism.

knowledge and belief

But there’s another reason. I find that whole Victorian context fascinating. It was a time when the ‘educated classes’ were coming to grips with the advance of science, with a dawning awareness of social responsibility, and with the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’2 of declining religious faith.

In the second half of the nineteenth century we see a world slowly emerge which our own modern world seems, for good or ill, to be shaking itself free from. We could be peering from a great distance into a clouded, shadowed, distorting mirror.

In the autumn of 1868 architect Sir James Knowles was having dinner with Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and astronomer and clergyman Charles Pritchard.

They shared a worry that declining religious belief among the educated elite would lead to general moral decline in society.3

(As an aside, it is interesting that declining religious belief, presumably about what IS, could be thought to create a moral decline, if morality is about what OUGHT to be: see Hume’s guillotine.)

The trio hit on the idea of starting a Theological Society to explore their concerns. Knowles volunteered to organise it as long as the other two agreed to join.

As with most things Victorian, no women were invited. However one of the first people Knowles invited was his friend Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, whose wife, Lady Augusta Stanley, suggested changing the name to ‘Metaphysical Society’.

William Blake Ancient of Days
William Blake, Ancient of Days

There might then be less risk of alienating potential members of a more scientific, materialist or non-believer persuasion.

Almost everyone (male) who was anyone was invited. Those who agreed to join included the prime minister William Gladstone (plus three of his cabinet ministers); William Thomson, archbishop of York; Henry Manning, Roman Catholic cardinal-archbishop of Westminster; Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist; art critic John Ruskin; Sir James Fitzjames Stephen and his younger brother Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf); biologist Thomas Henry Huxley; philosopher Henry Sidgwick; and mathematician and philosopher William Clifford.

William Ewart Gladstone
William Gladstone

John Ruskin
John Ruskin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley

Among those who were invited but, for whatever reason, declined included Cardinal (and, from 2019, Saint) John Henry Newman; poet Robert Browning; and philosophers Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

The society eventually had sixty-two members. Between 1869 and 1880 they read ninety-five papers, many of which were published in either the Contemporary Review (which Knowles edited from 1870 to 1877) or The Nineteenth Century (which Knowles founded in 1877).

The papers tended to focus on grand speculative and metaphysical issues, as the founders had intended. The founders had also hoped to facilitate some common ground between science and religion, but in this they were largely disappointed.

The society was finally dissolved in 1880. Although Huxley joked that the society died of ‘too much love’,

the actual cause of the Society’s death was due in no small part to Clifford’s address “The Ethics of Belief4

Read on.


1 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/#EviOve

2 Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.

3 Timothy J Madigan (2009), W. K. Clifford and “The Ethics of Belief”, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p18.

4 Madigan (2009), p21.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

2 thoughts on “Let’s get metaphysical

  1. Pingback: To cleave or not to cleave | some strong language

  2. Pingback: *Press This* Let’s get metaphysical #170 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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