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Relating the finite to the infinite.

Leslie Stephen, the Metaphysical Society, and Intellectual Life in Victorian England.



THE METAPHYSICAL SOCIETY lasted from 1869 to 1880. The Cambridge philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick, elected the year of its founding, summed up its purpose eight years after its end. Bringing together men representing “different schools of thought,” it “sought by frank explanation of their diverse positions and frank statement of mutual objections, to come, if possible, to some residuum of agreement on the great questions that concern man as a rational being.” These questions included “the meaning of human life, the relation of the individual to the universe, of the finite to the infinite, the ultimate ground of duty and essence of virtue.”1Politicians, Anglican prelates (a Catholic one too), lawyers, journalists, men of letters and men of science participated in its discussions. (No thought was given to admitting women. The year that gave rise to the Metaphysical Society also happened to see the publication of J.S. Mill’s Subjection of Women.)

While the Metaphysical Society provided a singular forum for the growing assertiveness of agnosticism within England’s intellectual elite, it also embraced multiple shades of Christian belief: Catholic, High Church, liberal Anglican, and Unitarian. Staunch defenders of religious orthodoxy locked horns with vigorous proponents of scientific naturalism. Some of the Society’s members, however, had no difficulty reconciling religious faith with the achievements of modern science; some took up positions without any direct appeal to, or repudiation of, religious authority. Thomas Henry Huxley said of the Metaphysical Society:

Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness.”2

Huxley, like quite a few other members, had fond recollections of his participation in the debates of the Metaphysical Society. Although sharing Huxley’s agnosticism, Leslie Stephen offered a lower estimate of the Society’s worth.

The timing of Stephen’s arrival in the Society influenced his judgment of its merits…structural changes in English intellectual life in the quarter century after 1869 heightened his sense of the Society’s inadequacies.

The timing of his arrival in the Society influenced his judgment of its merits; so too the number of years that elapsed between its founding and the occasion that prompted Stephen’s assessment. Structural changes in English intellectual life in the quarter century after 1869 heightened his sense of the Society’s inadequacies. The professionalization of this life, barely detectable at the end of the 1860s, had gained a telling presence before the close of Victoria’s reign.

Stephen was elected a member of the Society in 1877, the year following the publication, in two volumes, of his magisterial History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. He had reason to welcome this recognition. The Society’s composition showed its appreciation of literary distinction (Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin), scientific prowess (Huxley, John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford), profound learning (Mark Pattison), philosophical force (Sidgwick), and a rare form of common sense (Walter Bagehot), all of which Stephen valued. It afforded ample space for the plain expression of heterodox opinions, which mattered to the author of Essays on Free-thinking and Plain-speaking (1873). Moreover, much that happened in the Metaphysical Society did not stay in the Metaphysical Society. Although its meetings in the Grosvenor Hotel were private, many of the papers presented later appeared as articles in the Contemporary Review, the Nineteenth Century (James Knowles, the pivotal figure in the creation of the Metaphysical Society, edited the former before founding the latter), as well as in the Fortnightly Review. This was the great age of periodical literature, whose influence was felt throughout the middle and upper reaches of Victorian society. A striking reciprocity characterized the relation between arguments in the Metaphysical Society and the discussions taking place in the periodicals. As papers given in the Society migrated to periodicals, so debates in the periodicals commonly informed disputes within the Society. Characteristic of such interaction was the fact that no fewer than nine of the Society’s members were periodical editors (John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review from 1867 to 1882, being one these nine). Stephen himself edited Cornhill Magazine between 1871 and 1882 (in the latter year he became the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography). His election to the Metaphysical Society confirmed his rising eminence in the public culture of his time.

Stephen’s readers learned of his views on the Metaphysical Society from the biography he wrote of his older brother, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, published in 1895 (eighteen months after his brother’s death). A prominent barrister (appointed a High Court Judge in 1879), prolific journalist, and pugnacious polemicist, Fitzjames had been one of the Society’s most active members, giving seven papers between his election in 1873 and his last appearance in 1879. Leslie says that his brother “took the liveliest interest” in the Society’s discussions.3 There was no mistaking his delight in launching scathing assaults on its Roman Catholic members. As Leslie notes, “Fitzjames … always rejoiced, like Cromwell’s pikemen, when he heard the approach of battle.”4

This warrior mentality was not part of Leslie’s make-up. Indeed, much about Fitzjames’s cast of mind did not sit well with Leslie. Duty, not inclination, moved him to write the biography. In spring 1894 Leslie told Charles Eliot Norton: “I have now undertaken a task which, in some ways, I dread—namely, to write his life. It is very difficult for me; but having offered to do it, and my offer having been evidently pleasing to my sister-in-law, I must do what I can.”5He wanted his portrait of Fitzjames to be true, which required disclosure of his defects. “I never knew a stronger man than my brother in the directions in which he was strong or a man whose strength had such sharp boundaries.”6 Having written a large portion of the book, Leslie reported to Norton that “it is about the stiffest piece of work I ever undertook.”7 The result of the struggle, pithily summed up by Noel Annan, was a book that betrayed the author’s “lack of sympathy with Fitzjames’s mind”; one that “gives the impression of a man sparring at a distance from his opponent; parrying and feinting skilfully enough but never squaring up to him.”8 Squaring up to the Metaphysical Society proved less troublesome.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration.

STEPHEN ATTENDED NINE meetings between mid-March 1877 and mid-April 1880. By the time he joined the Society, its best days were behind it. Slumping turn-out told of diminished vitality. In its early years, the Society routinely drew fifteen or more members to its meetings. More often than not, attendance dipped below ten at the gatherings Leslie took part in. His initial encounter irked him. On 13 March 1877, he presented to the Society a paper written by his brother. Writing to Norton three days later, Leslie Stephen recounted his “odd experience in controversy.” After he finished the reading, those assembled “had an inarticulate wrangle over things in general, which could not have been more rambling if we had been a party of undergraduates.” Before long, he continues, it “came to a game of random abuse, in which we each said the nastiest thing that occurred to us without the smallest reference to the context. I shall hardly go on attending meetings if this was a fair specimen.”9 Inasmuch as Stephen showed up on eight later occasions, the meeting of 13 March 1877 must not have been “a fair specimen.” He even offered two papers of his own, “Belief and Evidence” (12 June 1877) and “The Uniformity of Nature” (11 March 1879). This means he was more active than most members between the time of his election and the demise of the Society. His treatment of the Metaphysical Society rested on a sturdy foundation of personal experience rooted in a particular phase of the Society’s history. He granted that he “was not a member of the Society in its early, and, as I take it, most flourishing days”; instead he “had the honour of membership at a later period, and formed a certain estimate of the performances.”10

Stephen writes that “four out of five” members of the Society “knew nothing of metaphysics.” Most of what was said at its meetings “was the talk of amateurs…”

Stephen says that “four out of five” members of the Society “knew nothing of metaphysics.” Most of what was said at its meetings “was the talk of amateurs, not of specialists.” Discussions tended to be “very ambiguous” owing to “the very varying stages of education” of the participants, yielding a dearth of shared awareness of how the meaning “of the commonest technical terms” varied “in different periods of philosophy.” The random use of such terms frequently placed discussants “at hopelessly cross-purposes.” Stephen goes so far as to intimate that many of the “so-called discussions” were nothing of the sort. Rather they were “in the main a series of assertions. Each disputant simply translated the admitted facts into his own language.” Lacking any common agreement on first principles, participants evinced fundamentally “different modes of thought, and of diverging conceptions of the world and of life, which had become thoroughly imbedded in the very texture of the speaker’s mind.” The result showed “men each securely intrenched in his own fastness, and, though they might make sallies for a little engagement in the open, each would retreat to a position of impregnable security, which could be assaulted only by long siege operations of secular duration.” For all that, there were yet “many pleasant meetings,” and Stephen concedes that some of the subjects taken up in the Society did not call for special competence in metaphysics. Despite discussions amounting to “little more than a mutual exhibition to each other of the various persons concerned,” Stephen found it possible to “hope and believe that each tended to the conviction that his antagonist had neither horns nor hoofs.”11

A good deal of Leslie Stephen’s commentary on the Metaphysical Society echoes observations made by Henry Sidgwick in an 1888 address to the Cambridge Ethical Society. The chief difference concerns tone rather than content. Although Stephen’s critical remarks did not stray into the realm of outright rudeness, a sense of the futility of the proceedings suffuses his account. A member of the Society in its heyday, Sidgwick recalled the hopefulness animating its early years, noting that “men eminent in various departments of practical life” eagerly joined, and “for a little while the Society seemed to flourish amazingly.” The group’s heterogeneity did not stand in the way of discussions occurring “without any friction or awkwardness, in the most frank and amicable way.” Before very long, however, “it became clear to all of us that the intellectual end which the Society had proposed to itself was not likely to be attained.” Experience belied the expectation that convictional shifts would take place in response to the acknowledged superiority of one argument over another. Sidgwick’s ultimate judgment regarding the dissolution of the Society had much in common with Stephen’s. He says that “some of us felt that if the discussions went on, the reiterated statement of divergent opinions, the reiterated ineffective appeals to a common reason which we all assumed to exist, but which nowhere seemed to emerge into actuality, might become wearisome and wasteful of time.”12 Stephen’s version: “It was, I fancy, a gradual perception of these difficulties [essentially the same as those identified by Sidgwick] which led to the decay of the Society.”13

Sidgwick would leave it to Stephen to say that what happened in the Metaphysical Society was largely “the talk of amateurs, not of specialists.” It may be that Sidgwick understood how odd this dichotomy would have seemed to the Society’s founders. The centrality of general periodicals in the mid-Victorian decades attested to the presence of a common intellectual culture, one not yet splintered by disciplinary specialization. On the demand side, the middle classes, advancing in numbers, wealth, and influence, were keen to gain at least passing acquaintance with developments in literature, science, the arts, politics, and international affairs. Periodical literature both fed this demand and stimulated appetite. Meanwhile, the rise of the public schools, university reform, London’s cultural primacy, and the opportunities created by the periodical press helped forge the cohesiveness of the high-Victorian intellectual elite. Leslie Stephen delineated the make-up of this elite when discussing his brother’s standing after his return from India, where Fitzjames had served as Law Member of the Viceroy’s Council from late-December 1869 to mid-April 1872.

He was henceforth one of the circle—not distinguished by any definite label but yet recognised among each other by a spontaneous  freemasonry—which forms the higher intellectual stratum of London society; and is recruited from all who have made a mark in any department of serious work.”14

The formation of the Metaphysical Society presupposed the existence of this circle of men.

Not all members of this “higher intellectual stratum” joined the Metaphysical Society. The identity of two who did not illustrates the anachronistic nature of Leslie Stephen’s contrast between “amateurs” and “specialists”. It would not have occurred to Matthew Arnold, man of letters sans pareil, to dub himself a professional critic, let alone a metaphysician. He earned his living—hard-earned it was—as an inspector of schools. Arnold politely declined the invitation to join the Metaphysical Society, explaining that his Harrow domicile and official duties (along with his responsibility for supervising “a young Italian Prince”—Thomas of Savoy, Duke of Genoa) precluded his participation.15 Neither the duties nor the domicile kept Arnold away from the Athenaeum, where he often looked after his correspondence and wrote articles. Cecil Lang, the editor of Arnold’s letters, says that Arnold treated the Athenaeum as “the crossroads of London.”16 Election to the Athenaeum meant one had entered the ranks of the “spontaneous freemasonry” invoked by Stephen. (Thirty-nine of the Metaphysical Society’s sixty-two members also belonged to the Athenaeum.) Arnold’s specialization, if he had one, was the inspection of schools. It had no bearing on his admission to the Athenaeum or his invitation to join the Metaphysical Society.

Then there was John Stuart Mill, whose Athenaeum membership (seldom used) began in 1830. Mill’s thought became the lodestar for university men of Leslie Stephen’s generation. In 1903 Stephen remembered how Mill’s “books on Logic [1843] and on Political Economy [1848] had given him an established position. His Liberty [1859] … was accepted as a noble utterance of the truth.” Stephen’s circle “read the books as we might treatises of physical or mathematical science; and judged them as we might judge Newton’s Principia without reference to the personality of the author.”17 Sidgwick, shortly before his death in 1900, dictated a fragment of autobiography in which he alluded to the “remarkable influence” Mill “exercised over youthful thought, and perhaps I may say over the thought of the country generally, for a period of some years.”18 Did Mill’s contemporaries see him as a “professional” philosopher? Did he see himself as such? For thirty-five years he worked in the Examiner’s Office of the East India Company. (Arnold’s career as a school inspector spanned the same number of years as Mill’s career at India House.) Cumulatively speaking, Mill spent more words on miscellaneous periodical articles and newspaper writings than he did on the books that won him such renown. (Between 1869 and 1873 he published a clutch of articles in John Morley’s Fortnightly Review.) He represented the constituency of Westminster in the Parliament elected in 1865. In refusing the invitation to join the Metaphysical Society, he indicated that his “time is all pre-engaged to other occupations.”19 Those familiar with Mill’s doings in the last years of his life will know that these “occupations” mainly concerned women’s suffrage, the just claims of labor, and land tenure reform. Metaphysics formed part of Mill’s repertoire. It was not what he was about.

By 1894, when Leslie Stephen came to write his brother’s biography, the swelling tide of specialization had eroded the integrated public culture of mid-Victorian England. A cluster of forces propelled this tide. The growing prestige of natural science enabled its practitioners to enhance their professional status and enshrine the scientific method as basic to the pursuit of knowledge. In the 1850s and 1860s, university reformers strove to broaden the curriculum, end the taking of holy orders and celibacy as requirements for the holding of fellowships, open up such fellowships to competition by merit, create a career structure for college tutors, and advance learning through an expansion of the professoriate. Endowing research did not become a priority until the early 1880s, a commitment that gained momentum in the years that followed. Meanwhile, the semi-literate mass public of late-Victorian England superseded the compact literate public of the mid-Victorian era. (The Daily Mail, created in 1896, had a million readers by 1900.) Men of learning grew ever more disposed to speak to one another and less inclined to seek an audience outside their ranks. New journals, corresponding to distinct fields of intellectual inquiry, came into being. Mind, England’s first philosophical journal, was founded in 1876. The next fifteen years saw the birth of the Law Quarterly Review (1885), the English Historical Review (1886), the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1887), the Classical Review (1887), and the Economic Journal (1891). All but Mind originated after the dissolution of the Metaphysical Society. The first editor of Mind, George Croom Robertson, had been elected a member of the Society in 1872; Frederick Pollock, the first editor of the Law Quarterly Review, joined in 1879; Shadworth Hodgson, the first president of the Aristotelian Society, was among the Metaphysical Society’s earliest members. Like the death of the Society, the rise of specialized journals announced the turn under way in the intellectual life of late-Victorian England.

The shift, albeit significant, did not amount to a cashiering of the still youngish old order. There was continuity as well as change. Stefan Collini tells us that the transactions of the Aristotelian Society between 1887 and 1891 “continued to include a miscellaneous range of topics,” a fact the Society’s organizing committee lamented in the latter year.20 Another group, the Synthetic Society (1896-1909), resembled the Metaphysical Society in purpose and vocational mix. Sidgwick, an inveterate joiner of clubs and societies, took part, and not only because he happened to be brother-in-law to A.J. Balfour, a founding member of the Synthetic Society (and himself a former member of the Metaphysical Society). In 1882, Sidgwick became the first president of the Society for Psychical Research, whose parapsychological investigations encompassed telepathy, hypnotism, spiritualism, apparitions, and haunted houses. Sidgwick’s presidential address of 1888 declared: “We [the organization’s founders] believed unreservedly in the methods of modern science, and were prepared to accept submissively her reasoned conclusions, when sustained by the agreement of experts; but we were not prepared to bow with equal docility to the mere prejudices of scientific men.”21 To Sidgwick’s way of thinking, the Metaphysical Society, the Synthetic Society, and the Society for Psychical Research were all of a piece. F.W.H. Myers, a friend and fellow member of the SPR, noted that “Sidgwick possessed, in almost unique degree, that motive for dogged persistence which lay in a deep sense of the incurable incoherence of the intelligible world, as thus far grasped by men.”22

Certain features of mid-Victorian intellectual life also showed a dogged persistence. Sir Keith Thomas was not mistaken (to state the obvious) when he wrote, in the Times Literary Supplement, that in the late nineteenth century the “torch of literary culture, previously carried by the metropolitan man of letters and the serious Victorian periodical, was taken over by the professor and the learned journal.”23 All the same, key facets of the mid-Victorian intellectual scene long outlasted the Metaphysical Society, serious general periodicals and the man of letters among them.  Was there a more august man of letters, in the fifteen years after Matthew Arnold’s death in 1888, than Leslie Stephen, critic of the Metaphysical Society’s amateurism?

Bruce Kinzer is Emeritus Professor of History at Kenyon College. His books include: The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English PoliticsA Moralist In and Out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster, 1865-1868 (co-authored); England’s Disgrace?: J.S. Mill and the Irish Question; and J.S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations. He also edited The Gladstonian Turn of Mind: Essays Presented to J.B. Conacher. 

More in The Fortnightly Review: ‘Materializations‘ by James Gallant. From our archive: ‘A Defence of Modern Spiritualism’ by Alfred Russel Wallace, originally published in the Fortnightly in 1874, appears here.


  1. Henry Sidgwick, Practical Ethics. A Collection of Addresses and Essays (London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1898), 2-3.
  2. Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1900), 1:343.
  3. Leslie Stephen, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1895), 361.
  4. Stephen, Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 365.
  5. Frederick William Maitland, The Life and Letters of Sir Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth, 1906), 419.
  6. Maitland, Life and Letters of Sir Leslie Stephen, 419-20.
  7. Maitland, Life and Letters of Sir Leslie Stephen, 420.
  8. Noel Annan, Leslie Stephen. The Godless Victorian (New York: Random House, 1984), 29n.
  9. Maitland, Life and Letters of Sir Leslie Stephen, 299.
  10. Stephen, Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 362.
  11. All of the statements quoted in this paragraph derive from pages 362-5 of Stephen’s Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. The sequence in which they appear above does not invariably follow the original.
  12. Sidgwick, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
  13. Stephen, Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 364-5.
  14. Stephen, Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 302.
  15. The Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. Cecil Y. Yang, vol. 3, 1866-1870 (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 342.
  16. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 3: 98n.
  17. Leslie Stephen, Some Early Impressions (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), 71.
  18. Arthur Sidgwick and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick. A Memoir (London: Macmillan, 1906), 36.
  19. The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873, ed. Francis E. Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, vols. 14-17 in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill), 17:1583.
  20. Stefan Collini, Public Moralists. Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 212.
  21. Henry Sidgwick, “President’s Address,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 5 (1888-89), 272.
  22. F.W.H. Myers, Fragments of Poetry and Prose, ed. Eveleen Myers (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), 105.
  23. Keith Thomas, “What are Universities for,” TLS, 7 May 2010, 13.

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