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Sidgwick's Epistemology

  • JOHN DEIGH (a1)


This article concerns two themes in Bart Schultz's recent biography of Henry Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe. The first is the importance of Sidgwick's conflict over his religious beliefs to the development of his thinking in The Methods of Ethics. I suggest that, in addition to the characteristics of Methods that Schulz highlights, the work's epistemology, specifically, Sidgwick's program of presenting ethics as an axiomatic system on the traditional understanding of such systems, is due to the conflict. The second is the relative neglect into which Methods fell in the first part of the twentieth century, neglect Schultz attributes to changes in philosophical fashions and to the undue influence of the Bloomsbury literati on British intellectual culture. I suggest that there is a deeper explanation, which lies in Sidgwick's program of presenting ethics as an axiomatic system on the traditional understanding of such systems. Such programs, I argue, became obsolete in analytic philosophy owing to changes in how axiomatization in mathematics was understood that resulted initially from the rise of non-Euclidean geometries and ultimately from the collapse of Frege's and Russell's logicism.



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1 The fellowship was restored to him years later after the religious tests were repealed.

2 Schultz, Bart, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe (Cambridge, 2004).

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all references will be to the 7th edn. (London, 1907); reprint edition (Indianapolis, 1981). Hereafter referred to as ME.

4 Sidgwick, Arthur and Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred, Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (London, 1906).

5 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9–10th edns. (London, 1903), vol. 32, p. 618.

6 Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edn. (Cambridge, 1911), vol. 25, p. 39. Leslie Stephen, in the obituary for Sidgwick he published in Mind, also concentrates more on Sidgwick's service to higher education than his philosophical work. See Stephen, ‘Henry Sidgwick’, Mind 10 (1901), pp. 1–17. When Stephen does take up Sidgwick's writings in the last third of the obituary, he writes (p. 12), ‘Sidgwick . . . found time in the midst of these labours to produce his three books, the Methods of Ethics in 1874, the Principles of Political Economy in 1883, and the Elements of Politics in 1891.’ Thus Stephen too, in summing up Sidgwick's accomplishments in life, gives the impression that Sidgwick's philosophical work was of secondary importance.

7 Eye of the Universe, p. 4.

8 Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930), p. 143.

9 I will use ‘axiom’ and ‘postulate’ interchangeably.

10 ME, p. 341.

11 ME, p. 338.

12 See Schneewind, J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977), pp. 63–4.

13 ME, p. 100.

14 ME, p. 102.

15 Eye of the Universe, p. 9.

16 Prichard's appeal to a special moral faculty is evident in ‘Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?’, Mind 21 (1912), pp. 21–37. Ross's, by contrast, is tacit. Ross says in the preface to The Right and the Good (Oxford, 1930), ‘I owe the main lines of the view expressed in my first two chapters to [Prichard's] article “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” ’ (p. v) and does not say anything later to suggest that he means to depart from Prichard's view when he writes, e.g. of the human mind's ‘a priori insight into certain broad principles of morality’ (p. 14).

17 ME, p. vii.

18 ME, pp. vii–viii. Sidgwick added a footnote to this remark in 1884 saying that it now appeared to him ‘to require a slight modification’. But he gave no indication as to what slight modification he had in mind.

19 Eye of the Universe, p. 176. See also p. 188.

20 Schultz's defense of philosophical intuitionism contains one noteworthy confusion. Because some common-sense ethical opinions are easily mistaken for self-evident truths, Sidgwick introduced several criteria for judging whether a proposition that appears to be self-evident can be safely regarded as such. That is, because judgments of self-evidence are prone to error, Sidgwick argued, one cannot rely solely on one's intuitive powers to discern, upon clear and careful reflection, whether the truth of a proposition is manifestly evident. Rather, to avoid error, one must withhold judgment of self-evidence from a proposition that appears, upon careful reflection, to be self-evident, if one cannot formulate it in clear and precise terms or if it conflicts with other propositions of whose self-evidence one is equally convinced or if its truth is denied by other minds whose judgment one respects. Hence, one should put forth as self-evident propositions only those that one can formulate in clear and precise terms, that appear upon careful reflection to be self-evident, that are mutually consistent with each other, and that are generally accepted by others whose judgment one respects. (See ME, pp. 348–342.)

Sidgwick, then, offers these criteria as safeguards against error in judging of an ethical proposition P that it is self-evident. He does not offer them as additional warrants for judging or believing that P. If P is self-evident, its self-evidence is not only all the warrant one needs for one's intuitive judgment that P to be knowledge that P but it is the only warrant that could qualify one's judgment as knowledge. Schultz misses this point because he confuses the ethical proposition P with the metaethical proposition, call it P*, that P is self-evident. He therefore misconstrues Sidgwick's observations about our liability to judge falsely that P* even when the truth of P appears manifestly evident to us upon clear and careful reflection as implying that we may still lack knowledge of P even when P is self-evident and we judge that P in virtue of its appearing to us, upon clear and careful reflection, to be self-evident. As a result, he sometimes misconceives of self-evidence as a property that comes in degrees and does not on its own justify one's believing the proposition it characterizes. See, e.g., Eye of the Universe, pp. 200–1; and cf. Sidgwick, ‘The Establishment of Ethical First Principles’, Mind 4 (1879), pp. 106–11.

21 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. (Cambridge, 1991), p. 28.

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