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Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds., The Papers of the Metaphysical Society 1869-1880. A Critical Edition

Oxford: OUP, 2015. 3 vols. ISBN: 978-0-19-964304-2
Bénédicte Coste
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Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds., The Papers of the Metaphysical Society 1869-1880. A Critical Edition, Oxford: OUP, 2015. 3 vols. ISBN: 978-0-19-964304-2

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  • 1 First resolution of the Society at the preliminary meeting on 21 April 1869, rpt. in Alan Willard B (...)

1With its sixty-two members, and ninety-five papers delivered each month between January and July, the Metaphysical Society was a Victorian ‘unique debating experiment’ (1). Founded by architect and soon to become an influential editor James Knowles, it lasted from 1869 to 1880 and contributed ‘to define and control a set of values that could guide metaphysical belief, scientific practice, and social utility’ (1). Although not all members were present on each meeting, and although some ceased to appear, the Metaphysicians, men exclusively, belonged to the Victorian intellectual aristocracy. T. H. Huxley, Cardinal Manning, J. Ruskin, J. Tyndall, J. Fitzjames Stephen, W. Hutton, L. Stephen, to name but a few, would deliver a paper written on the occasion and circulated beforehand with the aim ‘to collect, arrange and diffuse Knowledge (whether objective or subjective) of mental and moral phenomena’,1 before a debate ensued. If some absences look conspicuous such as that of M. Arnold, who was not approached, whereas J. S. Mill, H. Spencer, and J. H. Newman declined, a characteristic feature of the Society was the variety of its members’ denominations: Anglicans, Catholics and Unitarians rubbed shoulders with deists, atheists, and agnostics, all being committed to find a common ground and a common terminology to discuss metaphysical, religious, scientific, moral, and philosophical issues.

2Like Tyndall and Huxley, some Metaphysicians represented a new generation of scientists not always Oxbridge-educated, including Lubbock, Spencer and others, who had previously formed the X Club in 1864. The X Club also met during monthly dinners to reflect on means and ways to secularize and professionalize science and to reject natural theology, a task that materialized in Nature, the first issue of which was published in 1869. The Metaphysical Society was the heir to that experiment, and played a hitherto unexplored role in shaping some major Victorian debates. Membership did not preclude official membership to other clubs such as the political ones: it entailed a sustained engagement in discussion and different degrees of tolerance depending on the member’s personality and opinions. W. K. Clifford and Cardinal Manning may stand at both ends of the religious spectrum, they share the same obstinacy and brilliance to argue their antagonistic points. Most papers read and discussed ended up as articles in leading periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review, the Contemporary Review or the Nineteenth Century created by Knowles in 1877 after he resigned from the editorship of the Contemporary, and which proved a perfect forum for publicizing some of the debates of the Society. Knowles’s ‘Symposia’ prolonged, extended and systematized the debates of the Metaphysicians. By publishing them, the editor of the Nineteenth Century contributed to the Victorian intellectual democracy.

3Arguably, the Metaphysical Society must have looked like some undergraduate group engaged in discussing miscellaneous topics when compared to some Oxbridge debating societies or the Cambridge Apostles. Contemporary scholars are likely to think otherwise in considering the incredible variety of those topics—from ‘Euthanasia’ (paper no. 38 by Charles Ellicott, 8 July 1873) to ‘Generic and Symbolic Images’ (Paper no. 93 by Frederick Pollock, 9 March 1880)—along with their sometimes surprising and mind-pricking titles such as Huxley’s ‘Has a Frog a Soul; and of What Nature is that Soul, Supposing it to Exist?’ (Paper no. 11, 8 November 1870). The editors of OUP’s critical edition rightly contend that ‘the Metaphysical Society and what it produced deserves to be given its rightful place in the Victorian history of ideas’ (25). The Society stands apart both for its aims and the eminence of its members, all of whom welcomed any form of knowledge including knowledge that came from religious opponents. As the Metaphysicians proposed ‘new ways of thinking’ (25) for the increasing complexity of the Victorian society, their papers constitute a seminal archive to explore not only Victorian intellectual transformations but the transformation of the intellectual debates themselves.

  • 2 See Henry Wace, ‘The Ethics of Belief. A Reply to Professor Clifford’, Contemporary Review 30 (June (...)

4The editors also call to read the papers together, firstly to see the ‘friendly dialogue’ and ‘heated clashes’ of the Metaphysicians (24), secondly to have an unparalleled experience of some private discussions before their publication as individual contributions. Although not all of the papers were published, this annotated edition allows readers to measure the extent of those revisions, partly induced by the original debates but more often than not almost similar to the original version. It is also instructive to see who among the Metaphysicians, was most pliable to suggestions, and to trace the private intellectual origins of some notable public controversies, such as the controversy over W. K. Clifford’s ‘Ethics of Belief’ in 1877.2 Philosophers reading the text along W. James’s The Will to Believe (1897) tend to neglect the fact that Paper no. 61, delivered in April 1876, was part of a debate within the Society on the evidence for miracles. That much awaited edition should therefore suggest philosophical recontextualizations and spark further studies on the interface between public and private dialogues, or on Victorian non-scientific controversies that took place in the leading periodicals of the day, another seminal although under-explored field.

  • 3 Christopher A. Kent, ‘Metaphysical Society (act. 1869-1880)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biograp (...)
  • 4 Ruth Barton, ‘X Club (act. 1864–1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University (...)
  • 5 Richard Holt Hutton and James Knowles, ‘The Metaphysical Society: A Reminiscence’, Nineteenth Centu (...)

5Indeed, the Metaphysical Society has long enjoyed a legendary status due to non-publication of the papers although the ODNB devotes an excellent article to the Society by C. Kent,3 as it has on the X Club by Ruth Barton.4 Leading members such as R. H. Hutton and J. Knowles published remembrances as early as 1885 in the Nineteenth Century,5 others mentioned it in relation to their biographies of former members—such as Leslie Stephen in his Life of his brother Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. Some published the papers read by individuals, as is the case of Laura Russell’s private edition of Papers Read at the Metaphysical Society by Lord Arthur Russell in 1896. For many members, those papers were seen as private and destroyed afterwards. Increasing professionalization and academic specialization may also account for the discreet presence of the Society in memories and scholarship since it took some 70 years to have A. W. Brown’s pioneering monograph on the Society in 1947. For his long-time standard study, Brown also gathered materials for a complete edition that remained unfinished. The present editors have followed in his footsteps and traced a complete set of papers from Mark Pattison at Harris Manchester College’s Library, Oxford. They have reprinted and fully annotated the papers, added an extensive Bibliography, a much needed Biographical register for each member, a Biographical Index to some eminent thinkers mentioned in the Papers, and a highly useful Index, therefore allowing scholars and students to have a thorough access to that fascinating series of reflections about the seminal 1870s for the first time.

  • 6 T. H. Huxley, ‘Agnosticism’, Nineteenth Century, vol. 25 (February 1889), 16994.

6OUP’s beautifully produced edition also makes compelling reading because the three volumes allow a finely-tuned and nuanced knowledge of what some elite Victorians thought on metaphysical, social, religious, political and scientific issues. As the editors note in their comprehensive Introduction, it would be reductive to see the Society as a forum for the contest between science and religion in the 1870s; it was a forum ‘unique in attempting to engage “great men” from all branches of metaphysical opinion to openly and honestly investigate the fundamental questions of the time’ (8). Focusing more precisely on the relationship between the discoveries of science and the teachings of religion, the Society’s members sought a common ground which could nourish their personal values in matters of duty, personal ethics, and social policy. Their different religious affiliations resulted in attempts to clarify terminology: Huxley coined the word ‘agnosticism’ during the first meeting of the Society, but was careful not to publicly state his beliefs before 1889 during the controversy on agnosticism raging in the Nineteenth Century.6 The more advanced members were eager to demonstrate how a ‘rational science of ethics could emerge’ (8), the more conservative ones vindicated the claims of religious ethics. Those multi-faceted questions led to some notable controversies in the 1880s, which, this time, were public and constitute a novel manner of democratizing the Society’s debated issues. For more than a decade, the Metaphysicians fought to keep the original spirit alive: the demise of their Society showed that no common ground could be found any longer between individuals with different creeds and values, but far from envisaging that result as negative, all members continued to explore all important issues of their time. They had dispelled one illusion at least. It is therefore all the more important for scholars to have an edition replete with explanations, references, and insights to explore the private side of the genealogy of those debates, before they became public.

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Notes

1 First resolution of the Society at the preliminary meeting on 21 April 1869, rpt. in Alan Willard Brown, The Metaphysical Society. Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), 2627.

2 See Henry Wace, ‘The Ethics of Belief. A Reply to Professor Clifford’, Contemporary Review 30 (June 1877), 42–54.

3 Christopher A. Kent, ‘Metaphysical Society (act. 1869-1880)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/45584, accessed 8 March 2014]

4 Ruth Barton, ‘X Club (act. 1864–1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/92539, accessed 8 March 2014]

5 Richard Holt Hutton and James Knowles, ‘The Metaphysical Society: A Reminiscence’, Nineteenth Century, vol. 28 (August 1885), 177–96.

6 T. H. Huxley, ‘Agnosticism’, Nineteenth Century, vol. 25 (February 1889), 16994.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds., The Papers of the Metaphysical Society 1869-1880. A Critical Edition », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 27 mai 2016, consulté le 24 juin 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2684

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Bénédicte Coste

University of Burgundy

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