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Metaphysical Societylocked

(act. 1869–1880)
  • Christopher A. Kent

Metaphysical Society (act. 1869–1880), included sixty-two of Victorian Britain's leading minds in the realms of theology, philosophy, and science. Founded in April 1869, it held its first regular meeting in June of that year, and its last in November 1880. Once a month from November to July members convened at the Grosvenor Hotel in London to dine and then listen to and discuss 'with absolute freedom' a printed, pre-circulated paper from one of them that addressed some knotty and often controversial matter.

The society's founder was the architect and editor James Knowles, not himself a thinker of particular distinction but a man of wide-ranging interests. He was an alert and tactful impresario of ideas who as editor of the Contemporary Review and founding editor of The Nineteenth Century exhibited his prowess as an intellectual lion hunter. In the pages of these and other journals would appear versions of many of the society's papers.

Alfred Tennyson provided the inspiration for the society. As an ardent student of the Arthurian legends, Knowles had won the poet laureate's friendship and, for no fee, designed Aldworth, his Sussex house. Tennyson had been an early member of the Cambridge Apostles, the celebrated secret discussion society of intellects, and continued to wrestle manfully with the spirit of the age in his poetry. Speculative conversations between Tennyson, Knowles, and the astronomer Charles Pritchard about the fraught relationship of science, religion, and morality—that was being explored in the 1860s in the writings of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Mill, and the English Comtists—inspired Knowles to suggest a 'Theological Society' to discuss such matters 'with the freedom of an ordinary scientific society' (Brown, 20). Starting with the leading broad-churchman A. P. Stanley, whose wife Lady Augusta Stanley suggested replacing ‘Theological’ with ‘Metaphysical’ to make the proposed society more inviting to scientists, Knowles won the support of an impressively diverse cluster of eminences including Henry Manning, the Roman Catholic archbishop, the leading Unitarian thinker James Martineau, R. H. Hutton, editor of The Spectator, Dean Henry Alford, first editor of the Contemporary Review, and W. G. Ward, editor of the Dublin Review. (Despite her role in defining the society's remit, Augusta Stanley was not a member; nor was any other woman.)

Some declined the invitation to join. John Stuart Mill wished the society well but said he was too busy. So did his friend Alexander Bain, the founder of Mind. John Henry Newman, shocked that Manning would agree to join such a society, refused. Herbert Spencer excused himself, fearing that the intellectual excitement would threaten his health. Thomas Carlyle was not asked in the expectation of a refusal, and perhaps because of his temper. Another valetudinarian, Charles Darwin, seems also not to have been asked, his dislike of such gatherings being well known. But his ‘bulldog’, the famously combative Thomas Henry Huxley, eagerly accepted and became one of the society's most active members. Robert Browning refused to join, while Matthew Arnold and G. H. Lewes were apparently not asked.

Members additional to the original twenty-three were elected by ballot with the customary one blackball in ten excluding. (The only known candidate thus rejected was the ubiquitous Lord Houghton, perhaps on account of his levity.) The distinction of the sixty-two members is remarkable. Only five of them, the classicist and amateur scientist Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (1820–1894), the learned Catholic priest Robert Clarke (1844–1906), the politician Lord Arthur Russell (1825–1892), the psychologist James Sully, and the Unitarian theologian Charles Barnes Upton, did not have entries in the original Dictionary of National Biography (which was co-edited by a member of the society, Leslie Stephen).

Knowles, who never gave a paper, became the society's honorary secretary and organizational genius, but the society's presiding spirit was Tennyson, though he attended infrequently, rarely spoke, and never gave a paper. His one contribution to the proceedings was his poem 'The Higher Pantheism', read by Knowles in his absence, which launched the society's first meeting. Lines such as:

Law is God say some: no God at all says the fool;For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool

capture something of the intellectual climate in which the society came into being. Any concern that frankness might jeopardize civility at its meetings was allayed by an early, prickly exchange between two of its best debaters, Huxley and Ward, who occupied opposite intellectual poles. Both men backed off, and the society's proceedings henceforth were conducted with careful courtesy.

The society held a hundred meetings, hearing ninety-five papers, of which ninety survive in printed form. Of the sixty-two members, thirty-eight read papers, forty of them coming from seven members: Hutton and James Fitzjames Stephen (seven each), Manning, Lord Arthur Russell and Henry Sidgwick (six each), and William Benjamin Carpenter and Frederic Harrison (four each). As the society's name suggests, the papers tended to circle around large speculative issues: how God, immortality, and the will related to law, matter, and causation; what can we know, or should we believe, about deity, reality, and humanity. It was the founders' hope that from these meetings would emerge some common ground between science and religion. That hope went largely unfulfilled: rather what came out of the meetings was a respectful recognition of bedrock differences.

The number of scientists (broadly defined) in the society was possibly a dozen, and with the exception perhaps of Huxley they were not of the first rank, being chosen for their readiness to address the sort of issues which professional scientists increasingly considered not their domain. Interestingly John Tyndall, whose celebrated 1874 Belfast address to the British Association flatly asserted that science would expel theology from 'the entire domain of cosmological theory' (Brown, 236), did not give a paper to the society. Like Huxley and the amateur scientist Sir John Lubbock he was also a member of the scientists' prestigious X Club. The mathematician W. K. Clifford, one of the society's nine Apostles (the others being Tennyson, Alford, Sidgwick, Fitzjames Stephen, Edmund Lushington, F. D. Maurice, Frederick Pollock, and Roden Noel), gave three notable papers which took the ‘materialist’ view of mind and morals. Other scientists like the Unitarian W. B. Carpenter (who gave four papers) and the Catholic St George Mivart (three papers) were deeply invested in reconciling science and religion, as was Pritchard who gave no paper. The society included four medical men: John C. Bucknill, a co-founder of the leading neurologists' journal Brain, Sir William Gull, Sir Andrew Clark, and the largely forgotten James Hinton, a thinker of remarkable originality whose ideas interestingly anticipate Freud's, and who once stated that 'happy Christian homes are the dark places of the world' (Brown, 124). All but Clark gave a paper.

Christian theology was ably represented in the society. Among the sixteen members in holy orders were three scholarly Anglican bishops, Alfred Barry, Connop Thirlwall, and C. J. Ellicott; two successive archbishops of York, William Thomson and the witty W. C. Magee; and two future cardinals, Manning and F. N. Gasquet. All but Barry and Thirlwall gave one or more papers; Magee and Manning were particularly vocal. Protestant dissent was represented almost exclusively by Unitarian intellectuals thanks to Hutton, whose close friend Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist, and Bagehot's close friend W. R. Greg were active members along with Martineau, Carpenter, and Hutton himself.

If the society was significant for marking the intellectual fracture zone between science and religion, it was similarly situated between religion and philosophy. Four of the society's most notable intellects were Mark Pattison, a non-believing Anglican priest, Leslie Stephen, who renounced holy orders, John Morley, who refused them at some personal cost, and Sidgwick, who conscientiously resigned his Cambridge fellowship because he no longer held the beliefs they required. Pattison, a brilliant intellectual historian avant la lettre, gave two noteworthy papers; Sidgwick's seven papers are indicative of his importance to the emergence of philosophy as an independent academic profession. Both Morley and Stephen, also able intellectual historians, were exceptional in their rather critical views of the society. Morley, who gave one paper, sniffed at the members' 'bad metaphysics' (Brown, 229), while Stephen, who gave two, observed that their talk was that of amateurs. Yet they were editors respectively of the Fortnightly Review and Cornhill Review, two journals dedicated to the amateur ethos of higher journalism. This ethos was shared by seven other journals edited by members, including Fraser's Magazine, edited by James Anthony Froude, who gave two papers, and Macmillan's Magazine, edited by the silent George Grove. The new ethos of specialized academic journalism was embodied in the newly founded Mind, edited by George Croom Robertson (who gave two papers).

The future philosopher–prime minister Arthur Balfour, Sidgwick's brother-in-law, was a latecomer to the society; there he joined William Gladstone, who gave no paper but chaired the society in 1874–5. Although avoiding the explicitly political, the society included three of Gladstone's cabinet ministers—Robert Lowe, the first earl of Selborne [see Palmer, Roundell], and the eighth duke of Argyll [see Campbell, George Douglas], though none gave papers. However, the Liberal MP Lord Arthur Russell gave six. Social issues seem also to have been avoided, although papers were given by Ellicott and Hutton on euthanasia and by Magee on hospitals for the incurable. Of John Ruskin's three papers, one was about basing social policy on natural selection.

The Metaphysical Society was peacefully dissolved in November 1880. The general view was that its members had said what they had to say on their favourite topics and were largely repeating themselves. If no great reconciliation of science and religion had been effected, members had perhaps gained a more respectful appreciation of what divided them.


  • A. W. Brown, The metaphysical society: Victorian minds in crisis, 1869–1880 (1947)
  • R. H. Hutton, ‘The Metaphysical Society: a reminiscence’, Nineteenth Century, 18 (Aug 1885), 177–96
  • P. Metcalf, James Knowles: Victorian editor and architect (1980)