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Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. The Metaphysical Society (1869-1880): Intellectual Life in Mid-Victorian England

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, 282 p.
Jean-Paul Rosaye
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Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. The Metaphysical Society (1869-1880): Intellectual Life in Mid-Victorian England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, 282 p. ISBN: 9780198846499

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  • 1 Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. The Papers of the Metaphysical Soci (...)

1It is the aim of the editors of this collection of essays to provide more than just a companion to the critical edition of The Papers of the Metaphysical Society 1869–1880, which they had previously published through Oxford University Press in 2015.1 As a matter of fact, since its release, this critical edition has already brought impetus to the study of the Metaphysical Society, which—so far and since A. W. Brown’s post-war biographical sketch—had been surprisingly scarce given the notoriety of some members of the Society in their own time (William Gladstone, John Ruskin, Walter Bagehot, Leslie Stephen, Henry Sidgwick and T. H. Huxley, to name but a few). So, it is indeed a good thing this neglect is put to rights eventually, and there is no denying the essays of this book will push scholarly research further and inaugurate new perspectives in our contemporary rediscovery of Victorianism. After all, critical artistry nowadays can no longer ignore the contents of 95 papers written by more than 60 first-rate thinkers in the heart of the Victorian Age.

2According to the editors, the central issue behind the creation and the history of the Metaphysical Society resides in an attempted philosophical re-foundation, carefully though sometimes aggressively elaborated, through the proceedings of the Society during the 1870s, and it is their opinion that only an interdisciplinary approach is sure to unveil the true significance of this crucial moment in the Victorian history of ideas. Hence, the overall method employed is typical of the history of ideas: the reader is offered a contextualization of the Metaphysical Society, an exploration of its speculative potential, and an assessment of the intellectual traditions it stemmed from or generated.

3The Introduction sheds some light on the emergence and development of the Society, while providing a very useful analysis of the state of scholarly research, ancient and current, not only on the Society itself but also on a few leading themes of the mid-Victorian period (the Liberal dilemma, the ‘Victorian crisis of faith’, the fight for what Frank Turner had labelled ‘Cultural Authority’, etc.). The book is structured into three sections, of rather equal length, presenting studies by individual scholars penetrating into the concepts in the papers produced during the Society’s meetings as well as exploring the intellectual profile of some interesting individuals that animated the debates. Lastly, the book evaluates in a postscript the obvious legacy of the Metaphysical Society and even its relevance to more contemporary questioning.

4The first section examines the social and political challenges at stake behind the constitution of the Metaphysical Society, such as the nature and scope of intellectual interactions and networking in Victorian times, and the fallacy of a supposed Liberal unifying scheme, which has constituted for a very long time the main contention for the existence of a characteristic Victorian specificity. The second focuses on the ‘Miracles’ controversy, a debate deeply entrenched since Hume first set it out and grown so intense in the nineteenth century that it eventually triggered a determined Idealist stance that was to imprint a sustained mark on the British philosophical destinies until the new century. As historians of British philosophy know, this controversy inspired F. H. Bradley’s first intervention on the British philosophical scene, The Presuppositions of Critical History (1874). Arguably, it was Bradley’s pamphlet, together with T. H. Green’s philosophical teaching at Balliol College, that activated and strengthened an already deeply-entrenched Idealist vein in the British philosophical scene; and the revival of this ‘Platonic Tradition’ (J. H. Muirhead) gradually imposed the rule of an intricate Kantian-Hegelian-(neo)Platonic metaphysical persuasion. But, mentioning the fortunes of British Idealism in the late-Victorian period is not meant to underestimate the importance of the Metaphysical Society’s attempts to reconcile the two declining philosophical schools of the time, empiricism and intuitionism. This classical theme—and very Sidgwickian endeavour—is examined thoroughly by the third and last section.

5The whole book articulates a general concern for the treatment of the main theses supporting some kind of Victorian singularity, at the same time it conceptualizes on its fragmentariness revealed by the inner workings of the Metaphysical Society. The reader interested in the Victorian Age will not find a mere collection of essays but a new reflexive and largely updated biography of the Metaphysical Society coupled with a very thorough treatment and reassessment of the main intellectual trends running through the nineteenth century.

6What is perhaps one collateral effect of the book, if one takes all the essays, the introduction and the postscript together, is the underlying motif that the Metaphysical Society had been created to solve problems that went far beyond what it could satisfactorily achieve. The issues the founders of the Society decided to tackle, with the help of some of the most famous intellects of the time, were more than just technical ones: a religious crisis, a declining philosophical power, set within the general context of a civilization that was moving fast forward. The idea that they could formulate a cultural re-foundation while maintaining exhausted presuppositions or amateurish intellectual recipes, and mixing them all with still-immature naturalistic pronouncements was doomed, as the scientific revolution of the twentieth century proved beyond doubt. This is yet another lesson the Victorians can teach us for our present purposes.

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1 Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. The Papers of the Metaphysical Society 1869-1880, 3 vols., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Jean-Paul Rosaye, « Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds. The Metaphysical Society (1869-1880): Intellectual Life in Mid-Victorian England »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 92 Automme | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 15 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Paul Rosaye

Université d’Artois

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