A More Reasonable Ghost: Further Reflections on Henry Sidgwick and the Irrationality of the Universe
Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) has often been cast as the most philosophically astute of the classical utilitarians and as an epistemological foundationalist who defended a non-metaphysical form of cognitive intuitionism and, in general, set a new standard for academic philosophical ethics. Such perspectives, increasingly prominent since the revival of interest in Sidgwick in the 1970s, do capture important elements of his philosophy. But they do not fully capture Sidgwick’s reflexive, agnostic notion of reasonableness, the concerns he shared with his Idealist opponents, and his larger existential anxieties about the irrationality of the cosmos and the meaning of modernity.
This essay presents and further develops claims first made in my keynote address delivered to the conference on “Transcendence, Idealism, and Modernity” held at New College, Oxford in 2011. It sets out, in light of those themes, a number of difficulties for the standard interpretations of and philosophical engagements with the philosophy of Sidgwick.
“Now, says Kabir,
I see the world. What a bag of tricks it is!”—Kabir
“I have tried all methods in turn—all that I found pointed out by any of those who have gone before me; and all in turn have failed—revelational, rational, empirical methods—there is no proof in any of them”—Henry Sidgwick
The English moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), the author of the classic work The Methods of Ethics (1874),1 spent his entire professional life at Cambridge University, starting out, after a brilliant undergraduate career there in classics and mathematics, as a Fellow and Lecturer in Classics. After much soul searching in the 1860s, he famously resigned his Fellowship out of a guilty agnostic conscience about having sworn belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, as the position required. But he nonetheless in due course became Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy and one of the brightest intellectual lights of the late Victorian era.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Sidgwick’s reputation faded. But since the 1970s, especially, interest in his work has revived, and he has often been celebrated—by the extremely influential political philosopher John Rawls for example—as the most philosophically astute of the great classical, nineteenth-century utilitarians, and as a model of academic ethical philosophizing. As Rawls put it, in his Foreword to the Hackett edition of the Methods: “His fundamental work, The Methods of Ethics … is the clearest and most accessible formulation of what we may call ‘the classical utilitarian doctrine’.” And it “is the first truly academic work in moral philosophy which undertakes to provide a systematic comparative study of moral conceptions, starting with those which historically and by present assessment are the most significant.”2 That is, as part of a sophisticated, historically informed, critical comparative assessment of different ethical approaches, Sidgwick set out with unparalleled clarity and force the utilitarian view that maximizing happiness, interpreted as pleasurable consciousness, was the ultimate normative standard.
But if Sidgwick is reduced strictly to those terms—to a tamer, more academic, professorial version of Bentham or Mill—much is missed, not least all the ways in which, in one capacity or company or another, he was actually very good at producing powerful internal or immanent critiques of utilitarianism and shared much of the quest of many of the opponents of utilitarianism, both Intuitionist and Idealist. As Rawls also noted, Sidgwick did not, in the Methods, end up pronouncing the case for utilitarianism to be decisive. Rather, he ended up concluding that Rational Egoism, also interpreted in hedonistic terms, was as defensible as utilitarianism, and concluded “with dismay that our practical reason seem to be divided against itself,” a problem going beyond work in ethics.3
Rawls’s assessment of Sidgwick might well be called the “standard view” of Sidgwick’s philosophical legacy, or at least the standard view of it in academic philosophy in recent decades. And while it is not exactly wrong, it is not exactly right either, given how much it leaves out. Sidgwick’s worldview was deeply colored by the same religious anxieties that found expression in the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Arthur Hugh Clough, and his attitude was more pervasively and genuinely agnostic, religiously and philosophically, than his recent academic philosophical reception, the “standard view,” would suggest.4 He was in some respects the utilitarian who transcended utilitarianism. Indeed, his critical head undid the announced longings of his believing heart at so many turns that one really must wonder what that heart truly longed for. His life and work were filled with paradoxes and surprises—not least, I shall urge, the reasonableness of his complex notion of reasonableness—and they remain timely, contested, and intriguing.
Given the title of the conference at which a summary form of this paper was originally read, Transcendence, Idealism, and Modernity, one might reasonably expect to find here a reading of Sidgwick reflecting a sustained engagement with such themes as the following:
The notion of redemption presupposes a distinction between the lower, mortal, animal parts of the soul, and the higher, spiritual, immortal part. Redemption is what would occur when the higher finally triumphs over the lower, when reason conquers passion, or when grace defeats sin. In much of the onto-theological tradition, the lower-higher distinction is construed as a distinction between the part that is content with finitude and the part that yearns for the infinite.5
That sweeping summary comes from a very late piece by the late Richard Rorty, describing the western tradition that he finds unhelpful and invidiously comparing it to an interesting mix of utilitarians, pragmatists, and Nietzsche. He revises a famous line by the latter to fit his purpose: “And so the brave, imaginative, idealistic, self-improving animals had to die.”
Rorty had a great gift for making our own earthly imagination seem like enough, and spinning out visions of welcome alternatives to one form or another of Fundamentalism and Foundationalism (including the many Idealist substitutes for theology). But it is telling that in his enthusiastic name-dropping, Mill, Nietzsche, James, and Dewey come up a lot, but Sidgwick is largely absent. Despite his somewhat startling confession that he agreed with Mill about our chief moral obligation being to achieve the greatest possible happiness, Rorty did not, it seems, know quite what to do with Mill’s successor, Sidgwick. Sidgwick certainly inherited much from Mill, and, again, most historians of philosophy have not been overly reluctant to place him mainly in the Millian camp.6 But Rorty was rightly more cautious. For him, this was ultimately a contest between great visionary poems: “One offers a vision of vertical ascent toward something greater than the merely human; the other offers a vision of horizontal progress toward a planet-wide cooperative commonwealth.”7 But Sidgwick, it seems, falls between the poems. The chief aim of this essay is to indicate a few of the ways in which that is in fact so.
Getting beyond this dualism of great visionary poems and embracing the messier historical realities, the many angles between the vertical and the horizontal, is a task that pragmatists such as William James would have favored, and it is crucial for coming to terms with Sidgwick. In fact, one great irony of Sidgwick’s posthumous reputation is that, up until the Rawlsian revolution of the 1960s-70s, interest in his work was often kept alive in currents of philosophy running well outside the mainstream, currents that often flowed up in an Idealist direction.8 This filiation was not accidental. As the sections below will demonstrate, Sidgwick, despite his anti-metaphysical tendencies and occasional endorsements of the philosophy of common sense, in many ways outdid the Idealists in his anxious probing into the fate of religion and the meaning of modernity, while searching for a notably Platonic potential transcendence through his parapsychological research.
One more word of introduction, for those who know of Sidgwick’s parapsychological interests: please do not be afraid of ghosts. Consider what the great magician Houdini said to his young assistant Dorothy Young, when Young asked him about the possibility of his returning from the dead: “It’s humanly impossible, but I’ll be there in spirit.”9 On ghosts, it is good to take the wry road.
This section will set out Sidgwick’s views in more detail, but do so in an unorthodox manner, via their reception by various philosophers, particularly the Idealist Brand Blanshard (1892-1987), the better to appreciate, from the start as it were, just how far his philosophical perspective could deviate from those of Bentham and Mill and, paradoxically, how many affinities he had with some leading twentieth-century Idealists, despite his forceful general criticisms of Idealist metaphysics. It is illuminating that these Idealists appreciated Sidgwick in just the ways that they did, and that their appropriations of Sidgwick failed in just the ways that they did.
There is a frequently quoted remark by C.D. Broad, one of Sidgwick’s successors to the Knightbridge Chair at Cambridge,10 that runs “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to me to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics.”11 In recent years, Broad’s claim has been endorsed and elaborated by such prominent philosophers as Derek Parfit, in his epochal On What Matters:
In the Methods, as Broad claims, “almost all the main problems of ethics are discussed with extreme acuteness”. And Sidgwick gets very many things right. He gives the best critical accounts of three of the main subjects in ancient and modern ethics: hedonism, egoism, and consequentialism. And in the longest of his book’s four parts, he also gives the best critical account of pluralistic non-consequentialist common sense morality. Though Sidgwick makes mistakes … he does not, I believe, make many. These facts make Sidgwick’s Methods the book that it would be best for everyone interested in ethics to read, remember, and be able to assume that others have read.12
And there is clearly a great deal of Sidgwick in Parfit’s case for a nonreductive and nonnaturalistic but nonmetaphysical and nonontological form of cognitive intuitionism or rationalism, and an ethical theory (the Triple Theory) reflecting the convergence of Kantian universalizability, Scanlonian contractualism, and rule consequentialism.13 For Parfit, we have good, irreducible normative reasons to act in certain ways and desire certain things, a point with which Sidgwick would have heartily agreed, at least up to a point.
Less often cited, by Parfit or other contemporary Sidgwickian philosophers, is the philosopher Brand Blanshard’s endorsement of Broad’s assessment: “Though I cannot accept the hedonistic conclusions of Sidgwick’s book, I am inclined to agree with Broad that it is the finest work on ethics in English.”14 This was no passing hyperbole on Blanshard’s part (or on Broad’s)—he praised Sidgwick in one work after another, celebrating him as “that most perfect exemplar of the reasonable temper.”15 And like Broad, he did so during the period when Sidgwick’s reputation was in eclipse, having been largely displaced by the reputation of his student G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica (1903) and attacks on Idealism did more to set the agenda for early twentieth-century English speaking philosophy.16
Of course, on certain counts, Blanshard’s take on Sidgwick goes way back. Consider the words of E.E. Constance-Jones, a star pupil of Sidgwick’s, who wrote of him: “He was an ethical philosopher who lived his philosophy, who supplemented his written and spoken teaching by a life of the most flawless uprightness and kindliness, the most unremitting devotion to his ideal, the most genuine moral enthusiasm and an unfailing reasonableness.” “‘His work was good, but he was better’ was said of him by one who knew him well.”17 The term “reasonable” clung to him in one such portrait after another, a point that Blanshard zeroed in on in an acute way, though given his philosophical orientation, this might seem curious.
Blanshard is usually described as a rationalist and an Idealist of a type, an epistemological Idealist but not an ontological Idealist, meaning that he resisted the conclusion that the world is itself mental stuff, even if the objects of direct experience are. He was in fact profoundly influenced by those so very influential founding Oxford Idealists, F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green (an antagonist and a friend of Sidgwick’s, respectively) in metaphysics, ethics and politics, and like most Idealists he resisted the utilitarian notion of reducing the good solely to pleasurable consciousness. He was also a very determined critic of analytical philosophy as it took shape in the thirties, forties, and fifties, and it is perhaps not surprising then that he played some role in the revival of interest in Sidgwick’s work in the 1970s, when, as noted, following the appearance of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) engagement with Sidgwick (and substantive ethical and political philosophy) was put back on the Anglo-American philosophical agenda in a big way. Blanshard contributed a piece to the 1974 Monist symposium on the centenary of the publication of The Methods, and later expanded that piece into a chapter in his book Four Reasonable Men (1984).18 The other three reasonable men were Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, and Ernest Renan, but Sidgwick came off as more reasonable than all the others put together. Blanshard even had high praise for Bertrand Russell, but it was Sidgwick whom he consistently singled out as the paragon of the “rational temper.”
Obviously, Blanshard’s idealizing of Sidgwick was not the result of the Rawlsian influence, or of J.B. Schneewind’s brilliant Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (1977), which really created what could be called the field of Sidgwick studies and the renaissance of interest in him. Schneewind, to be sure, forcefully brought out how Sidgwick rejected the materialism, reductionism, associationism, psychological egoism, naturalism, and non-cognitivism of various earlier utilitarians, particularly because of his debts to Kant, Butler, Clarke, and Aristotle, and to the intuitionism of such Cambridge Moralists as F.D. Maurice, John Grote and William Whewell. This historical contextualizing of Sidgwick was pivotal, making it clear just how much Sidgwick had appropriated from non-utilitarian sources and how the Methods was not meant to be primarily a defense of utilitarianism, but an impartial inquiry into the merits of rival “methods” for determining what it is right to do, the chief contenders being commonsense or intuitional morality, egoism, and utilitarianism. Sidgwick held that Bentham and Mill had failed miserably in their ultimate justifications for utilitarianism, and that any adequate defense of the view would need to be grounded on a sophisticated philosophical form of cognitive intuitionism (as distinct from the ‘dogmatic’ intuitionism of commonsense morality). And, crucially, on a wider front, Schneewind rightly recognized that Sidgwick was like the Cambridge Moralists in his effort to find in moral experience some basis for religious belief, even if he was much less optimistic about his results.19 In a singularly revealing summary of the differences between Sidgwick and Green, one important for thinking about Blanshard’s perspective as well, he observed:
For Green, then, morality depends far more fully than is at first apparent on the spiritual reality which makes the world possible for us. His confidence that man can learn what to do in particular cases rests directly on his assurance that the divine spirit is reproducing itself in us. Practical reason is for him—and in all essentials for Bradley as well—what Butler called the voice of God speaking within us, and what Whewell described as insight into moral ideas in God’s mind. Because of this Green, like Bradley, resists any kind of system which assumes that we can know now, in principle at least, fully and completely what we ought to do. His metaphysically based concept of practical reason thus gives rise to a view profoundly different from Sidgwick’s of the expectations we should have of a system of moral philosophy. Green never altered the conviction he expressed in 1872: “I hold that all true morality must be religious, in the sense of resting upon the consciousness of God.” This conviction displays the deepest of the ties between the older intuitionism and the moral philosophy of first-generation British idealism, and shows again why Sidgwick’s severance of his use of the appeal to intuition from any reliance on such views marks one of the greatest differences between his position and theirs.20
Schneewind is surely right in claiming that Sidgwick did not accept as much of Christianity as Green did, and that he found the Idealist view too indeterminate for purposes of ethics and too incoherent for purposes of metaphysics. And of course, the Idealists returned the compliment. Bradley, whose pamphlet “Mr. Sidgwick’s Hedonism” was the harshest review of the Methods to appear in Sidgwick’s lifetime, complained “Mr. Sidgwick’s main thesis stands and falls with his view of the ‘reasonable.’ But when we ask, Has the word been explained with sufficient clearness? I think the answer must be, No.”21 Sidgwick, Bradley charged, had among other things failed to explicate what he meant by reason as “the faculty of apprehending universal truth,” leaving it obscure how reason is present “in non-reflective conscience.”
Given that Idealist inheritance, it is singularly remarkable that Blanshard, with his great debt to Bradley (whom he had met during his time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar), should praise Sidgwick above all for his reasonableness. But Blanshard had been praising Sidgwick on some of these counts from the 1920s on, with Broad as his main comrade in this but few others. Conspicuously absent in Blanshard’s account is anything like Bradley’s complaint or that of F.H. Hayward, a more sympathetic early critic who was also troubled by how peculiar some of the encomiums to Sidgwick’s notion of reason were, given Sidgwick’s reputation as a utilitarian:
Sidgwick's identification of ‘Right’ with ‘Reasonable’ and ‘Objective’; his view of Rightness as an ‘ultimate and unanalysable notion’ (however connected subsequently with Hedonism); and his admission that Reason is, in a sense, a motive to the will, are due to the more or less ‘unconscious’ influence of Kant. Miss Jones appears to think that these are the common-places of every ethical system, and that real divergences only arise when we make the next step in advance. I should rather regard this Rationalistic terminology as somewhat foreign to Hedonism. I do not think that Miss Jones will find, in Sidgwick's Hedonistic predecessors, any such emphasis on Reason (however interpreted).22
Green himself had been puzzled on this score, unable to see how Sidgwick could go so far in his account of reason and yet still defend hedonistic utilitarianism—which was anathema to the early British Idealists—rather than endorsing the self-realization of reason itself. This was something that later Idealists such as Blanshard found less problematic, if still not persuasive.23
There are many other points in Blanshard’s position of special relevance for assessing Sidgwick. Blanshard was not one to cast the “Absolute” as sharing the characteristics of a personal God. Like Sidgwick, and unlike Green, he was sympathetic to Theism and took a broad, latitudinarian view of religion, defining it as “man’s attempt to adjust himself to ultimate reality,”24 or “the attitude of the whole man—including his thought, his feelings, and the commitments of his will—toward what he takes to be ultimately true and good.”25 Thus,
To me the good life and the reasonable life are synonymous terms. Reason or intellectual insight is for me the ultimate court of appeal in questions of taste and morals as well as in questions of truth. The judgement that intense happiness is intrinsically better than intense pain seems as truly a self-evident rational insight as a judgement of mathematics. The judgement that I ought to make the world as much better as I can seems to me also a rational insight, one indeed on which the whole of ethics is founded. The weighing of my competing goods against each other, the weighing of my own goods against those of others, the ultimate decision as to what is right between conflicting claims of any kind, all rest with reason. Thus for me the reasonable life is not only one in which the mind follows with its understanding the structure of the world; it is also one in which rational insight selects the goods one is to pursue and governs both will and feeling in the pursuit of them. I have argued that the best product of education is the rational temper. It is an attitude in which self-respect is identified with the living of a rational life. The use of reason, to be sure, is a means, not an end, but rationality, the habitual appeal of reason in belief and practice, is so intimate a condition of the good life that means and end are practically one.26
Although he did not describe his ethical philosophy as utilitarian, he did allow that it was teleological, and despite the influence of Green and Bradley, he allowed that reason determined the Good to be a matter of both pleasurable consciousness (but attached to whole experiences) and impulse or drive satisfaction. In this, he was arguably not as far from Sidgwick’s hedonistic account as he sometimes claimed, given the way that Sidgwick, at least on Parfit’s account, rejected any naturalistic account of the Good. Still, for both, Right was a matter of promoting the Good, and one had irreducible normative reasons relating to both. Commonsense moral rules were ultimately grounded on their good consequences: it was Right to promote the Good, as reason showed, and commonsense morality—on which Blanshard took Sidgwick’s account as nearly definitive—was only Right insofar as it did so.
Moreover, reason, it is crucial to note here, is not a matter of Cartesian self-evidence. As Blanshard explains, in a response to none other than Richard Rorty:
my use of self-evidence is not Cartesian. There is no self-evident starting point on which I hang my deductions, nor is my acceptance of any intuition dependent on self-evidence alone. There have been innumerable insights that have offered themselves as self-evident only to turn out illusions. Even the law of contradiction I should not allow to rest merely on self-evidence … the ultimate defense of the law of contradiction is precisely that experience as a whole depends on it.27
Rorty, with his usual insight, had charged Blanshard with being as holistic as the famously holistic W.V. Quine, but ending up with a web of necessities instead of a web of contingencies, both being ways of going beyond an unfortunate dualism. What is especially striking here is how close Blanshard and Sidgwick were when it came to qualifying Cartesianism, appealing to a notion of “apparent self-evidence” and insisting on coherence with a wider web of belief.
It is indeed telling that in his major work on ethics, Reason and Goodness, Blanshard made no mention of Bradley and very little of Green, but carried on at considerable length about Sidgwick, identifying Sidgwick as a rationalist and showing point by point how his rationalism was superior to Hume’s non-cognitivism or “emotionalism,” the ever popular view that moral judgments are not cognitive matters of truth or falsity, but of the expression of emotions. Sidgwick, he explained (following Broad), held that reason covered three cognitive powers: the power of forming a priori concepts, the power of “recognizing that a conjunction of attributes is an instance of a necessary connexion between these attributes,” and the power of inferring conclusions from premises. “Sidgwick was a rationalist in the sense that he believed that reason in all three of these meanings entered into our moral judgments…. Right and good are a priori, not in the sense that we impose them on objects in knowing them, for they may belong to acts or objects without being known to do so, but in the sense that they are not given empirically, and must be intellectually grasped.”28 There is scarcely a word of criticism of Sidgwick in the book, except the following:
Of course Sidgwick’s defence of utilitarianism is a powerful one, far more so than anything here attempted; but if it is to be made plausible at this time of day, it must be defended against many objections that are now too familiar to need repeating. Why, for example, are we not offering a valid argument for a course of action if we show that it would increase human knowledge or understanding, even if it left the amount of happiness unchanged?29
But at the end of the book, Sidgwick makes another appearance, not as the object of any criticism, but rather in a quotation used in support of Blanshard’s notion of the Good:
The really good in philosophy is the sort of understanding that we are all trying to reach when we think. “The technique of the great artists in words is only a glorified form of a skill that we all seek, and in some humble degree learn to exercise.” The really good in anything is that which would give the appropriate powers of our nature their fullest and most satisfying play. Whoever finds his satisfaction in such things is getting the utmost possible out of his life.30
So, this was the angle that Blanshard brought to Sidgwick, when depicting him as the exemplar of the reasonable temper. To a degree, he found in Sidgwick claims connecting to his own more technical notion of reason as affording insight into a priori necessary truths. And this despite the fact that he, Blanshard, had completely endorsed Bradley’s statement: “To think is to judge, and to judge is to criticize, and to criticize is to use a criterion of reality … in rejecting the inconsistent as appearance, we are applying a positive knowledge of the ultimate nature of things. Ultimate reality is such that it does not contradict itself.” For Blanshard, “necessity links any thing or predicate or relation with any other if we can truly say that one could not be without the other. If shape could not be without size, or colour without extension; if orange could not be what it is without its relations to red and yellow, or a man’s sense of humour be what it is without his intelligence, then necessity in our sense is present.”31
And beyond that, for Blanshard, as for Constance-Jones, Sidgwick’s philosophical life was more telling than some of his philosophical conclusions: he was a veritable model of the good life, the life of reason in a broader sense. In Blanshard’s words:
By reasonableness I do not mean intelligence, though that may be a great help … Nor is a reasonable man necessarily a learned man, for learning may be present without even ordinary common sense. No; the reasonableness of which I am speaking is a settled disposition to guide one’s belief and conduct by the evidence. It is a bent of the will to order one’s thought by the relevant facts, to order one’s practice in the light of the values involved, to make reflective judgment the compass of one’s belief and action.32
To be reasonable is “habitually to guide one’s beliefs and actions by what reason prescribes,” and reason, on this view, is interpreted “as reflective thought,” as “an attempt to grasp things in the relations that explain them.” It is the work of education and belongs to the philosopher, the scientist, and everyone else besides, in the battle against prejudice, or “the forming of a judgment on insufficient grounds and for nonrational causes.”33
It is true that, often enough, and rather strikingly, Sidgwick’s and Blanshard’s explicit, detailed philosophical conclusions were not all that distant from each other. Sidgwick himself had expressed worries about his account of intrinsic Good in purely hedonistic terms, as pleasurable consciousness, and had more confidence in the very propositions just rehearsed—e.g., that I ought to make the world as much better as I can (along with axioms of equity and prudence). And, crucially, although Sidgwick agreed that reason included rational insight, a grasp of self-evident truth, he too resisted a purely Cartesian understanding of the notion of self-evidence, allowing that Cartesian certainty/clarity was one criterion of moral truth, but coherence and consensus also counted. Intuition was fallible, not particularly mysterious, and but one element in a reasonable epistemology. He even toyed with a more coherentist account of truth, wondering if propositions might be warranted simply because they bring coherence to the web of apparently self evident truths,34 though he always also laid great stress on the epistemological importance of the “consensus of experts,” since if others, equally qualified to judge, disagree with one’s claims to self-evident truth, that should provide grounds for doubt.35 This social epistemology may account for his taking reflective commonsense as seriously as he did. At any rate, following Aristotle (whom he took to be following Socrates), he often began with commonsense, searching for the aporiai and critically assessing its claims by the standards of certainty, clarity, coherence, and consensus. If he was less given to speculative metaphysics than the Idealists, hoping to achieve some of the same results with less baggage, he was nonetheless fairly remorseless in the way he pointed up the failings of commonsense and empiricism, resisting any reductionistic or materialistic version of them.
In fact, like Blanshard and many an Idealist, Sidgwick took an expansive view of philosophy as an effort to go beyond special sciences and piecemeal, technical inquiries to gain a vision of the whole, as is evident from his posthumous work Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations.36 If he was inspired by a certain vision of science, it was that of science as a cooperative and collaborative critical inquiry, not science as reductive materialism. As he put it in his pamphlet on “The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription,” which appeared in 1870:
What theology has to learn from the predominant studies of the age is something very different from advice as to its method or estimates of its utility; it is the imperative necessity of accepting unreservedly the conditions of life under which these studies live and flourish. It is sometimes said that we live in an age that rejects authority. The statement, thus qualified, seems misleading; probably there never was a time when the number of beliefs held by each individual, undemonstrated and unverified by himself, was greater. But it is true that we only accept authority of a particular sort; the authority, namely, that is formed and maintained by the unconstrained agreement of individual thinkers, each of whom we believe to be seeking truth with single-mindedness and sincerity, and declaring what he has found with scrupulous veracity, and the greatest attainable exactness and precision.37
This attitude was given keen expression during his resignation crisis, in 1869, but it really reflected the outlook that he had absorbed when he first joined, as an undergraduate, that famous secret Cambridge discussion society, the Apostles. The pure, sincere pursuit of truth, with an intimate group of fellow seekers, a true community of inquiry or the ‘companions of Socrates’, was an ideal that Sidgwick pursued through one discussion society after another for the rest of his life. And it was invariably as part of a quest to tackle the deepest and toughest questions life could present, philosophical and religious, an effort to grasp the Whole or find an underlying Unity in the various regions of inquiry. However much he may have criticized the metaphysics of Green and Bradley, arguments purporting to show, at least for Green, how the divine spirit or Eternal Consciousness was reproducing itself in human minds, he was no more in the camp of naturalistic utilitarians than they were. And, as the following sections will show, common sense, on his view, was conflicted, indeterminate, and open to any number of metaphysical interpretations.
Here, then, is a major Idealist affinity. Admittedly, Blanshard’s is an eclectic, diluted form of Idealism; but after all, Idealism comes in many varieties (Absolute, personal, religious, etc.),38 and if the best general characterization of it is, following W.J. Mander, as a quasi-religious alternative seeking “the defeat of materialism and the championing of spiritual values,”39 then this is a telling example, as the next section will detail, of how closely twined Idealism and Sidgwickianism could be. The Idealism that came to the fore during his time, with Green, Bradley, and many others, was something that Sidgwick knew very well indeed, and if he struggled with it at length, the struggle was often at close quarters, on common ground and in a common spirit, as Blanshard appreciated. No doubt Mander is correct in claiming that for the Idealists, “With metaphysics dominated by common sense, psychologism, and materialism, and ethics ruled by traditional intuition or calculations of utility, the ingredient lacking from nineteenth-century British philosophy was a sense of ‘spirit’, any penetration above, beyond, or beneath the appearances of things to a world of greater significance or value.”40 But Sidgwick was not unsympathetic, in his effort to infuse the spirit via an immanent critique of commonsense that appropriated the best parts of intuitionism and utilitarianism in a new synthesis, as the next section will demonstrate more fully. He longed to justify the Theistic view that there is a “Heart and Mind” behind phenomena—a “Sovereign Will that orders all things rightly.”41
A second illuminating Idealist affinity comes in the form of T.L.S. Sprigge (1932-2007), who at the end of his long and very impressive work, The God of Metaphysics, plaintively concluded:
For everyone of good will the question arises: how much is it appropriate to seek happiness, or some supposedly higher value, for oneself, and how much for other people? These metaphysical systems spell out in different ways the fact that one is not the only pebble on the beach. But it is worth taking on board the view of Henry Sidgwick that there is a special rationality both in seeking to promote one’s own happiness and in seeking to promote the happiness of conscious beings at large, and that neither of these is merely an implication of the other. For myself I am not sure that it is appropriate to seek to justify self-love before the bar of reason; it is simply an ultimate fact about what it is to be an individual, and if it is good that there are individuals, then their self-love is good. Hence it is so inevitable a part of human nature (and not only human) to have a special concern with one’s own welfare that to preach an altruism which would disparage this concern is to teach a morality which few can be expected to live by. So it is highly desirable that it be shown, if it be true, that there need not be too much conflict here. And upon the whole it is true, as these metaphysicians have striven to show.42
The metaphysicians being referred to include everyone from Spinoza to Green, Bosanquet, and William James, and Sprigge, unlike Blanshard, has no problem calling his ethics a type of utilitarianism, despite the basis of it in a metaphysical system proclaimed to be panpsychical Absolute Idealism.43 Indeed, it was just such a position that led Sprigge to become as great a champion of animal liberation as Peter Singer or any naturalistic utilitarian. Sprigge’s endorsement of Sidgwick’s dualism—about which more directly—is especially telling, since this is one of the main issues that divided Sidgwick from such Idealist contemporaries as Bradley and Green. The latter, for example, held that the self is fundamentally social or relational, is always seeking self-realization or an ideal self, and can only find that realization in the common good, in service to others. One’s true self is the social self. Although this is a very lively area of debate, even many of Green’s current admirers allow that Sidgwick had a point, and that, as David Brink has put it, following Sidgwick, Green waffled a lot, shifting between a notion of perfection involving the exercise of the “full range of an individual’s rational capacities” and one involving “the exercise of specifically moral capacities connected with the common good.” These forms of perfection are distinct, if not independent, which means that “many sacrifices the perfection of others demands will be genuine, and not all of them will be fully compensable. And this is enough to raise the spectre that there will be a kind of dualism of practical reason, not exactly between self and others, but between self-confined and other-regarding aspects of one’s own perfection.”44 One might, that is, be called on to sacrifice one’s own self-realization for the self-realization of others, or at least, sacrifice one side of one’s self-realization for another side.45
Sidgwick does indeed deserve credit for this point—his famous “dualism of the practical reason” and variations thereof—but, importantly, it was not a point that he was at all happy to have made. He felt that, like Kant, he had been “condemned by his Reason to criticize,” and that the harmony and unity of practical reason, which he sought as ardently as any Idealist, had eluded him. The apparently self-evident principles leading to utilitarianism were in a fundamental conflict with the apparently self-evident principles supporting rational egoism, with no reconciliation in sight. When completing the Methods, he despairingly wrote to a close friend:
Ethics is losing its interest for me rather, as the insolubility of its fundamental problem is impressed on me. I think the contribution to the formal clearness & coherence of our ethical thought which I have to offer is just worth giving: for a few speculatively-minded persons—very few. And as for all practical questions of interest, I feel as if I had now to begin at the beginning and learn the ABC.46
And at a later point, when somberly reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses after a nasty encounter with the economist Alfred Marshall, he wrote:
feeling that the deepest truth I have to tell is by no means ‘good tidings,’ I naturally shrink from exercising on others the personal influence which would make men [resemble] me, as much as men more optimistic and prophetic naturally aim at exercising such influences. Hence as a teacher I naturally desire to limit my teaching to those whose bent or deliberate choice it is to search after ultimate truth; if such come to me, I try to tell them all I know; if others come with vaguer aims, I wish if possible to train their faculties without guiding their judgements. I would not if I could, and I could not if I would, say anything which would make philosophy—my philosophy—popular.47
It is a weird irony that the Idealist endorsements of Sidgwick’s reasonableness discussed above appear to be coming from philosophers who were happier with and more willing to recommend his life and work than he was, as though he had found the good life without realizing it or recommending it. That is certainly a possibility, though rather a strange one if the good life is the life of reasonableness itself, as though one could be evidence driven into self-reflective ethical obliviousness, an extreme of philosophical self-effacingness.
Yet, plausibly, this is one of the paradoxes that Sidgwick himself appreciated. It is very far from clear that Sidgwick shared Blanshard’s straightforward admiration for the “settled disposition” of reasonableness. At some level, Sidgwick was genuinely agnostic about reason (and genuine agnosticism) itself—he allowed more possibilities for it to prove self-effacing or self-destructing. The Methods had been largely concerned to show that commonsense or intuitional morality could be reconciled with utilitarianism by showing how it was unconsciously utilitarian, deploying the utilitarian standard when things broke down at the everyday level of moral rules (e.g., keep promises, tell the truth, etc.). But the dualism of the practical reason pointed to the problematic conflicts at that unconscious level, that commonsense morality might be unstable and conflicted in its depths, at best clearly undecided, at worst plainly self-destructive.
And beyond that, Sidgwick infamously recognized how a consistent utilitarianism might go over as well as under common-sense morality, justifying it or some suitable alternative as better believed than the truth, and this from the standpoint of a largely, perhaps wholly esoteric utilitarian morality. He admittedly refrained from contributing, via his critical philosophizing, to the decline of conventional religious belief and morality because he believed that such a decline, at that time and place, would contribute to unhappiness and social instability—in short, not be an optimal utilitarian strategy. As he once explained, to an old friend:
In fact, the reason why I keep strict silence now for many years with regard to theology is that while I cannot myself discover adequate rational basis for the Christian hope of happy immortality, it seems to be that the general loss of such a hope, from the minds of average human beings as now constituted, would be an evil of which I cannot pretend to measure the extent. I am not prepared to say that the dissolution of the existing social order would follow, but I think the danger of such dissolution would be seriously increased, and that the evil would certainly be very great.48
Put more bluntly, he held that a “Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands”.49 On such an account, doing the right thing, in any particular case, may or may not be a matter of the individual following reason in any full-blooded, self-conscious sense; in Sidgwick’s terms, always following the dictatation of reason would not always be recommended by the dictates of Reason. In this connection, Bernard Williams famously suggested that Sidgwick’s ethical philosophy is simply an unusually clear example of the problem infecting all ethical theory—namely, its incoherent relation to practice, since the “abstract and impersonal view that is required if the theory is to be genuinely a theory cannot be satisfactorily understood in relation to the depth and necessity of those dispositions”—those dispositions being the everyday moral dispositions that such indirect forms of utilitarianism are supposed to support, whether they be matters of truth telling, friendship, or critical reasoning.50 Exactly when is one to shift to critical mode, and assess all acts by their consequences for happiness, if doing so will itself not be conducive to happiness? The question arises whether one is considering the general happiness or one’s own happiness.
In short, Self and Other, Truth and Happiness were so ably teased apart by Sidgwick, so problematized both as dualisms and as individual categories, that the wonder is that he was able to move in any direction at all. That “most perfect exemplar of the reasonable temper” did not want people to emulate his example. He confessed that he accepted his conclusions as a soldier would a difficult post. He was not at all sure that Reason could make itself whole, or even deliver the promise of such wholeness at some future time. His version of reasonableness was more genuinely agnostic and anxiety producing than Blanshard or Sprigge suggest, allowing for tragic aporias, gaps, conflicts, and paradoxes, not to mention reflexive reflections on its own role.
Thus, these examples, from what is traditionally perceived as the opposition Idealist camp to Sidgwick’s, of that portrait of him as the personification of reasonableness are somewhat paradoxical and problematic, and do not capture some of the most original elements of his philosophical orientation. Still, these Idealist appropriations have been just as important historically as the Idealist criticisms of his views; they represent concrete, living (or only recently dead) philosophical co-optings of Sidgwick coming from a very different space of reasons than the one to which philosophical utilitarians are usually confined, in the unpleasant company of economists. On the popular philosophical overviews of utilitarianism one might meet Sidgwick’s student G.E. Moore or admirer Hastings Rashdall under the designation “ideal utilitarianism,” thanks to their objective notion of the good. But there is no category called “Idealist utilitarian”—or “Idealist utilitarianism of a complex and heavily qualified variety”—which is a shame. From D.G. Ritchie to Sprigge, there have been such types.51 It is perhaps an obvious point, but one too often neglected, that one can reach various key Sidgwickian arguments, even the more utilitarian ones, by many plausible philosophical routes, from many important but different philosophical directions.
Moreover, that term “reasonable” is worth fighting for, rather than, as with Rawls and the Rawlsians, allowing it to collapse into an untenable dualism of the Reasonable v. the Rational, the latter being surrendered to a more economistic, self-interested orientation, the former being the claim to recognition of one pebble on the beach to another. Neither the Sidgwickians nor the Idealists were willing to let it go at that.
The Idealist affinities discussed in the previous section are important both for distancing Sidgwick from various views often associated with utilitarianism, and because, as this section will show, they reflect a larger, more encompassing appreciation of Sidgwick’s outlook, extending to his parapsychology, an area that many of his recent academic admirers have too often ignored. Neither Blanshard nor Sprigge (nor the non-Idealist Broad for that matter) found this aspect of Sidgwick’s life and work troubling or compromising or embarrassing. It reflected many of the larger religious and philosophical attitudes that they shared. Blanshard to some degree followed Sidgwick’s example, lecturing to the American Society for Psychical Research and joining the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal, and Sprigge also took an interest in what parapsychology might offer the philosopher.52 In many ways, Sidgwick’s deepest entanglements with certain forms (unorthodox, but rather Platonic forms) of Idealism came through his work with his colleagues in psychical research.
But as recent revelations suggest, the reasonable Sidgwick kept some very strange company, and his parapsychological quest for spiritual transcendence, and winning the battle with materialism, has for many been one of the chief reasons for suspecting his reasonableness.
Of special note here is John Gray’s provocative volume The Immortalization Commission, a work in which Sidgwick figures prominently. Gray very cleverly juxtaposes the work of Sidgwick and his colleagues—the “Sidgwick Group,” including his wife Eleanor Mildred Balfour and her brothers Arthur and Gerald, along with such friends as F.W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney—in their quest to prove by scientific means the reality of the survival of the human personality beyond physical death, against the work of the Bolshevik scientists out to develop the science needed to render physical human beings immortal, preserving Lenin in the process. As he puts it:
The Russian God-builders believed death could be defeated using the power of science. The English psychical researchers believed science could show death was a passage into another life. In both cases the boundaries between science, religion and magic were blurred or non-existent.53
These are, of course, quite different things. Indefinitely long physical life versus life on another plane of being, an afterlife on “the Other Side,” in “the Other World,” perhaps Heaven or Hell or some way station thereto, etc. But for Gray, they represent the same ethical-and scientific-failing, pointed up in his rather soaringly poetic conclusion, with its invocation of Wallace Stevens:
The hopes that led to Lenin’s corpse being sealed in a Cubist mausoleum have not been surrendered. Cheating ageing by a low-calorie diet, uploading one’s mind into a super-computer, migrating into outer space … Longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal.
The end-result of scientific inquiry is to return human-kind to its own intractable existence. Instead of enabling humans to improve their lot, science degrades the natural environment in which humans must live. Instead of enabling death to be overcome, it produces ever more powerful technologies of mass destruction. None of this is the fault of science; what it shows is that science is not sorcery. The growth of knowledge enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are.
While most people may never give up dreaming of immortality, individuals here and there can loosen the hold of the dream on their lives. If you understand that in wanting to live forever you are trying to preserve a lifeless image of yourself, you may not want to be resurrected or to survive in a post-mortem paradise. What could be more deadly than being unable to die?
The afterlife is like utopia, a place where no one wants to live. Without seasons nothing ripens and drops to the ground, the leaves never change their colours or the sky its vacant blue. Nothing dies, so nothing is born. Everlasting existence is a perpetual calm, the peace of the grave. Seekers after immortality look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos, natural or divine. Immortality is only the dimming soul projected on to a blank screen. There is more sunshine in the fall of a leaf.54
To be sure, Gray allows that things have changed somewhat, given the tides of Fundamentalism that have swept through the twentieth century. Still, he remains unimpressed by Greek gods, Orphism, and most visions of heaven, and haunted by the legacy of Frankenstein, or perhaps by the popular descendent of Dracula, Stephanie Meyer’s fictional creation, Edward Cullen, who has spent 109 years as a 17-year-old in an eternal recurrence of his senior year of high school, which must be one of the most chilling visions of eternal life ever. Gray does not directly refer to this series, but it seems to capture much of what he is out to oppose, in his indictment of the perversities of modernity. Better that the clever animals die.
Alas, the Sidgwick Group of psychical researchers does in some ways deserve this historical reproach, since so many of them, notably F.W.H. Myers (1843-1901), were too driven by the mourning of lost loves in seeking to make the connection with the Other Side. There may have been an element of this longing in Sidgwick, who lost his father and two siblings as a young child, but he seems to have been more driven by the impersonal quest that animated such Idealist philosophers as his friend Green (not a fan of parapsychology)—namely, finding an adequate substitute for the religious orthodoxy perceived as being under threat and in decline from the familiar forces of historical biblical criticism and materialist science, not least Darwinism. There is, of course, a famous Jungian distinction to be made here, concerning the better or worse ways in which one’s mind might turn to the spirits.55 But it is better to resist the temptation to be too reductive or dichotomizing—the psychical researchers were mostly complex characters and mixed bags, when it came to their motivations. The hope of a happy immortality comes in many varieties.
In fact, the psyches of the leading psychical researchers were at the least overdetermined, and not always morbid. Myers himself lastingly framed the more impersonal quest, in the famous question “Is the Universe friendly?” And he well understood the pain of lost faith, even if he was more effervescently hopeful than Sidgwick. Sidgwick’s own loss of his Anglican faith was certainly very painful to him—the poetry of Clough and Tennyson captivated and consoled him—and the pain was mostly aggravated by his various philosophical quests, as suggested in the previous section. His work in philosophical ethics (which, as Schneewind has argued, shared much with the efforts of the Cambridge Moralists to find a firm basis for religious belief in ethical experience), ended up backfiring for the most part, in that he concluded, both early and late, that ethics could not be rendered coherent and compelling without at least a Theistic argument that could reconcile the equally reasonable claims that one should promote one’s own happiness and that one should promote the universal happiness. Again, this “dualism of the practical reason,” as he called it, which has led some recent philosophers to label Sidgwick a “dual source” theorist of practical reason rather than a flat-out utilitarian, might, he allowed, be addressed in a number of ways, some more philosophical than others. But Sidgwick himself chose to devote an extraordinary amount of time and energy to seeking to re-enchant the world through the considerable authority of science itself, by showing how genuinely open scientific inquiry might demonstrate the survival of physical death and thus undercut a reductive materialism and at the least open up some possibilities for alternative worldviews, including the Theism he favored. Marina Warner has nicely captured a key point about the Sidgwick Group, in her illuminating work Phantasmagoria:
These men and women were well-to-do and well-connected; they were also philanthropic and liberal, and their work unexpectedly sustained the original link between paranormal interests and social experiment which turned esoteric quests such as psychic research and Spiritualism into a nursery of emancipatory change in education, politics, women’s status, and the approach and enterprise of scientific knowledge itself.56
It was, in short, a very Apostolic enterprise.
Thus, unlike Sprigge, Sidgwick did not believe that the Idealists or any other philosophical school had managed the reconciliation of one’s own point of view and the Point of View of the Universe nearly well enough, and he could not, like Blanshard, treat the issue with a distanced equanimity floated by a deep faith that reason would or must somehow prevail. It was in this context of doubt and dismay that he became a founder and the first president of the British Society for Psychical Research (S.P.R.), founded in 1882, and served it in many ways and capacities for the rest of his life, not least by bringing to it the much needed sobriety of judgment necessary to insure its intellectual respectability.
But in this case, too, he ended up feeling that his work had largely failed. In an intriguing piece of retrospection written in 1887, he explained:
Some fifteen years ago, when I was writing my book on Ethics, I was inclined to hold with Kant that we must postulate the continued existence of the soul, in order to effect that harmony of Duty with Happiness which seemed to me indispensable to rational moral life. At any rate I thought I might provisionally postulate it, while setting out on the serious search for empirical evidence. If I decide that this search is a failure, shall I finally and decisively make this postulate? Can I consistently with my whole view of truth and the method of its attainment? And if I answer “no” to each of these questions, have I any ethical system at all?57
Such skeptical caution in this department, along with his motivation for such studies, in some ways reassured Blanshard and many others of his reasonableness.58
It is no exaggeration to say that the S.P.R. has never recovered the respectability that it had during Sidgwick’s tenure, in part for good reasons. Gray’s book, which draws heavily on Archie Roy’s The Eager Dead,59 tells the tale of how, after the deaths of Gurney, Sidgwick and Myers, the surviving members of the Sidgwick Group became convinced, from the so-called cross-correspondence cases,60 that they were receiving messages from their departed colleagues, and even went so far as to conspire in an Other Worldly Eugenics scheme to give birth to a new Messiah who would bring peace to the world. The image of Eleanor, former Principal of Newnham College, and her brothers Arthur, former Prime Minister, and Gerald devoting endless hours to this very strange and very secret “Plan” is disturbing, and does point, as Gray suggests, to something like the Russian initiative—as though they were taking a very can do approach to Heidegger’s “only a god can save us now” challenge. After all, the disarming simplicity and too literal Christian format of this Plan, “Unto Us a Child is Born,” as a template for a new religion, is no longer being left to God the Father (apparently absent), but is instead being engineered by a set of disembodied scientific psychical researchers working on the Other Side, a new if ethereal intelligence operation for the Empire. Or as Gray puts it, the afterlife here features a familiar set of individuals, all steeped in and communicating the ideas and images of the classics , King James Bible, Tennyson etc., such that dying “was only a move from one wing of a great country-house to another, a shift in which nothing was lost.”61 Given the pervasive racism and imperialism of this historical context, with all the fears of degeneration and degradation that the Balfours were loudly voicing from the 1890s on, it is alarming to think of the new scope of such eugenicist planning, and of what form of world peace was being envisioned.
The Child was Born, but rather spectacularly failed to live up to expectations, though he did end up a Benedictine monk. Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant (1913-1989) was the earthly child of (the adulterous) Gerald Balfour and the medium “Mrs. Willett,” actually the prominent social reformer Winifred Coombe-Tennant, and the supposed “spirit child” of Edmund Gurney, the long deceased psychical researcher from the Sidgwick Group. A fine man, but no Messiah.
The supposed mechanics of this effort are not easy to grasp. Roy, in The Eager Dead, quotes at length W.H. Salter’s summary:
Besides Myers & ‘Phyllis’, the communicating group consisted of Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney, who with Myers were the principal founders of the S.P.R.: Francis Maitland Balfour, elder brother of G.W.B., who was killed in an Alpine accident in 1882; Mary Catherine Lyttelton, who died on Palm Sunday 1875; and Laura Tennent, of the Glenconner family, who was the first wife of Alfred Lyttelton, and died in 1886.
The references to the two last-named are cryptic in M.V. scripts and she did not recognize them. There were also cryptic references to Arthur Balfour, who as a young man had been deeply in love with Mary Lyttelton (M.L.). These references to M.L., A.J.B. and to some curious particulars connected with her final illness, death, and burial, only became intelligible many years later through the more explicit reference in Mrs. Willett’s scripts beginning Palm Sunday 1912. This is one of the most important developments in the whole affair. Thus the identification of this group of seven, i.e. Myers, Sidgwick, Gurney, F.M. Balfour, ‘Phyllis’, M.L. and Laura, constitutes what is called ‘The Story’.
(2) The Plan
This group of seven, all dead when the scripts began, is represented as being engaged in one plan of worldwide importance. They are not represented as being the only persons so engaged, but as a group standing in a special relation to the group of automatists, and to the group of interpreters, i.e., G.W. Balfour, J.G. Piddington, Alice Johnson, etc. Many other persons, not named, are said to be acting with them, and friends dying since the scripts began, such as A.W. Verrall & S.H. Butcher, are regarded as additions to the group.
The ultimate purpose of the Plan is to bring about a state of peace between nations and of social justice. This was of course a matter of great interest to Mrs. Willett but there are clear references to it in the quite early M.V. scripts. The allusions are made in various ways, especially through references to the predictions of the ‘Pax Augusta’ to be found in “Vergil’s Eclogue” (4th) and several passages of the Aeneid e.g. I 257-VI and VIII.
Before, however, this can come about, two things must happen: first, there are to be wars—note the plural. This is all discussed in Piddington’s paper, in Proceedings XXXOOO, which you should read. Second, a breed of human beings fit to live in a world of peace has to be born. This is a matter of ‘psychological eugenics’ as the scripts call it, in which the pioneer psychological work of Gurney, and the researches in genetics of F.M. Balfour, will be of importance. This is concisely treated by H.V. in a talk she gave [to] the American S.P.R. in 1950; a summary is printed in A.S.P.R. Journal for April 1951…
A very difficult problem of interpretation is connected with ‘psychological eugenics’. Is the Plan intended to produce a race or breed of ‘children of the spirit’, fitted to introduce the Age of Peace, not of course a race in the national sense, but a number of persons with the requisite gifts of mind and character?
Or has it a more restricted personal aim?
Different passages in the whole body of scripts could be quoted to support either interpretation. The wider aim seems to me to be supported by Vergil’s lines ‘Romanos, rerum dominos, gentunque togatam’ [‘Romans, lords of the world, the race that wears the toga’], in early M.V. scripts. Mrs. Willett’s scripts, however, favour the more personal view, and point with increasing emphasis, first to Alexander and then to Henry as being of a very special, one might say, unique importance in the Plan. In this view G.W. Balfour, interpreter of her scripts, concurred; but some others, who have read the scripts, J.V. and I, for instance, and I believe Lady Balfour, are not entirely convinced.
I have said nothing about cross-correspondences. There is no doubt that in the main the exposition of them in Proceedings XXI, XXII etc. is correct as far as it goes. In the light of later developments in the scripts, however, they cannot now be regarded as isolated incidents, or as the most important elements in the scripts: but they must be taken with the whole scriptic context as being inseparable from the Story and the Plan.62
Thus, the idea, apparently, and on the more “personal” interpretation, was that the deceased psychical researchers, especially Gurney and Myers, had pushed Winifred Coombe-Tennant to have another child, such that this:
spiritually designed and influenced infant would be planned by the workers on the other side, including the scientist Francis Maitland Balfour. The child would grow up singularly gifted, to the extent that in some unspecified way he would be able to achieve the gigantic task of reconciling the nations so that they would cooperate in a lasting peace. This peace, they said, would usher in a golden age of prosperity and happiness 63
Augustus Henry was eventually, as an adult, informed that he had been programmed to usher in the Age of Aquarius (or a reinvigorated Age of Empire, as the case may be), but by that time it was fairly clear even to his mother that the “Plan” was not working out. And of course, Henry Sidgwick himself had died disappointed and agnostic to the end well before the Plan was hatched; he knew nothing of the cross correspondence cases, and the work of the Sidgwick Group of psychical researchers had mainly demonstrated, to his mind, how extraordinarily difficult it would be to push any line of argument based on psychical research to the philosophic-religious synthesis that he hoped to achieve. At best a case for telepathy might be made out, but that might undercut rather than support much of the supposed evidence of survival, since communications from the dead might, for instance, be dismissed as telepathic communications from those who knew the dead, or from persons on the point of death, etc.64
To be sure, this early psychical research did yield certain important results, but they were not the results that Sidgwick had sought. As I suggested in Henry Sidgwick, Eye of the Universe, the psychical researchers, Myers especially, actually ended up leaving it quite unclear what the human personality that might survive death actually was, since they compiled reams of evidence to show the complexities of unconscious processes and fragmentary nature of the conscious self. Arguably, Sidgwick’s psychical research pushed him farther than he realized toward making the case he glancingly suggested in The Methods, in a passage that has much impressed such eminent philosophers as Gray and Parfit:
I do not see why the Egoistic principle should pass unchallenged any more than the Universalistic. I do not see why the axiom of Prudence should not be questioned, when it conflicts with present inclination, on a ground similar to that on which the Egoists refuse to admit the axiom of Rational Benevolence. If the Utilitarian has to answer the question, ‘Why should I sacrifice my own happiness for the greater happiness of another?’, it must surely be possible to ask the Egoist, ‘Why should I sacrifice a present pleasure for a greater one in future? Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons? … Grant that the Ego is merely a system of coherent phenomena, as Hume and his followers maintain; why, then, should one part of the series of feelings into which the Ego is resolved be concerned with another part of the same series, any more than with any other series?65
The proper functioning of the “telescopic faculty,” the intertemporal neutrality of self-interest, seemed to go with a metaphysics of personal identity over time as akin to the unity of consciousness at any given time. Why, Parfit and others have asked, did Sidgwick not develop such reflections on the significance of personal identity, addressing the dualism by such means?
The answer is: he did, at least to some extent, but in the context of his psychical research. And the loss of the unity of the self revealed through psychical research was both synchronic and diachronic, in essence a vision of split or multiple personality as only an extreme example of a normal condition in which intrapsychic conflict was modeled as akin to interpersonal conflict.66 What the evidence the Sidgwick group accumulated really confronted them with was a radical dethroning of the autonomous conscious self. As Myers put it:
[It] is rather sanity which needs to be accounted for; since the moral and physical being of each of us is built up from incoordination and incoherence, and the microcosm of man is but a micro-chaos held in some semblance of order by a law and swaying hand, the wild team in which Phaeton is driving, and which must needs soon plunge into the sea.67
Of course, the right language for describing this self, “I,” persona, etc., is very tricky. As Myers put it, in trying to explain how he cast mind as both a multiplicity and a unity: “My contention is, not … that a man (say Socrates) has within him a conscious and an unconscious self, which lie side by side, but apart, and find expression alternately, but rather that Socrates’ mind is capable of concentrating itself round more than one focus, either simultaneously or successively. I do not limit the number of foci to two.”68
The general thought is much more than, and much more specific than, the familiar refrain about the broodingly introspective and inner, Hamlet-like structure of modernity. It is rather the same note sounded by James at length, albeit in less Idealistic terms. In many ways following on Sidgwick, James appreciated how the “axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places–they are strung upon it like so many beads.” He was attuned to how:
That unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.
But at the same time, he had nothing but praise for Myers on the Subliminal Self, quoting him on how “Each of us is in reality an abiding psychical entity far more extensive than he knows”. Myers, he held, had revealed “whole systems of underground life.”69 The boundaries of the self may not be watertight, and James, as Sprigge has observed, was not averse to the thought that we are all but parts of some “mother sea of consciousness.”70 But this problematized any notion of “the pinch of individual destiny.”
Now, a big part of the evidence leading Myers to the conclusions sketched above had to do with automatic writing, and he was persuaded during his lifetime that he had been in touch with his beloved departed, Annie Marshall. But in the two significant cases that he juxtaposes in Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, his own with “Clelia” and Sidgwick’s experiments with his friend John Jermyn Cowell, the point is simply how surprising and manipulative one’s own unconscious can be. As Sidgwick put it, “we were continually surprised by evidences of the extent to which his [Cowell’s] unconscious self was able to puzzle his conscious mind. As a rule, he knew what he was writing, though he wrote involuntarily; but from time to time he used to form words or conjunctions of letters which we were unable to make out at first, though they had a meaning which we ultimately discovered.”71 And Myers remarks of the Clelia case: “The indisputable evidence for complex subliminal mentation which this case seems to me to furnish lies in the fact that here Mr. A’s pen wrote not only unintelligible abbreviations, but absolute anagrams of sentences; anagrams, indeed, of the crudest kind, consisting of mere transpositions of letters, but still puzzles which the writer had to set himself to decipher ab extra.” It was the kind of game playing spiritualists might attribute to trickster spirits, like the Pooka featured in that wonderful Jimmy Stewart film Harvey.
So, this was a much richer vein of material than Hume’s phenomenalism for casting doubt on the unity of the self, as normally construed, and suggestive of how many selves with their different interests the human personality might harbor (including the uprush of subliminal genius, of a creatively superior subliminal self). It anticipated in some ways the rich philosophical literature on personal identity that recent decades have witnessed, which is full of puzzle-cases featuring split brains, split selves, etc. But again, oddly enough, even though Sidgwick had been conducting these experiments as early as the mid 1860s, he made very little use of this research in his philosophical works, including the Methods. Although he was very intrigued by Buddhism and the possibilities for a reductionist view of personal identity, he may well have worried in his usual way that more selves might also mean more conflicts or divisions within reason, with the dualism becoming a multiplex of practical reason that would be even more intractable.72 How could fragmentation and a nest of trickster selves solve the problem? But the deeper anxieties and doubts that formed such a large part of his actual daily life and philosophical thinking, and that motivated him to pursue the studies he pursued, are largely veiled in his academic philosophical work by a sober, judicious style that too rarely cracks.
There is something odd about this aggressive compartmentalizing, but Sidgwick was a master at it—indeed, was so split up when managing his message in different genres and for different audiences that he was a good case in point of multiple selves, albeit ones that were very finely attuned to what would play as respectability to this audience or that. One can by and large read Sidgwick the philosopher, Sidgwick the political economist, Sidgwick the political theorist, Sidgwick the literary critic, Sidgwick the classicist, Sidgwick the psychical researcher et al. without much of a clue that the other Sidgwicks exist. It was this talent that he deployed on behalf of his close friend John Addington Symonds, who otherwise, without Sidgwick’s careful advice and censorship, would probably have gone the way of Oscar Wilde. Sidgwick well knew that psychical research could be as explosively controversial as Symonds’s celebration of Greek love, and he was quite painstaking in his efforts to guard the respectability of his various inquiries both by avoiding premature publication and by striving to keep the failure of one line of inquiry from bringing down other lines. In an 1885 passage from the journal that he kept (and regularly exchanged with Symonds), he explained, in a telling example:
Had rather an agitating discussion at Massey’s about the book on ‘Phantasms of the Living.’ Hitherto we have agreed that Myers & Gurney are to write it jointly, but I have come to the conclusion that all our appearances in print ought to be conducted on the principle of individualizing responsibility. In this obscure and treacherous region, girt about with foes watching eagerly for some bad blunder, it is needlessly increasing our risks to run the danger of two reputations being exploded by one blunder: it is two heads on one neck: ‘hoc Ithacus velit.’ Let us have the freest and fullest mutual criticism—so that if possible each of us may feel himself morally responsible for our friends’ blunders—but let the responsibility before the world be always to one, that we may sell our reputations as dearly as possible.73
Damage control, crisis management—these were the qualities that led friends and family to celebrate “Henry’s wisdom.”74 And it would be hard to deny that he was often very wise about such matters. Certainly, his academic philosophical reputation has benefited from the way in which he carefully cordoned off his academic philosophizing from his efforts in parapsychology, politics, etc.
Of course, this does mean that Sidgwick censored material of the first philosophical relevance for his thinking about the dualism of practical reason and possible responses to various Idealists in their account of the “True Self,” or what one is when one understands and loves.75 Perhaps the “True Self” is not so easily recognized, by oneself or others. The Idealists, whether personal or Absolute, were primarily concerned with individual minds as either autonomous wholes themselves or parts of some larger whole, such as the “Eternal Consciousness,” the cosmos construed as one vast mind or mind-like entity. Sidgwick himself often adopted the language of whole and part, when describing the dualism, and often sounded as convinced as any Idealist of the intuited unity of the self.76 But with the psychical researchers he pointed to a foundational concern with the unity of any mind, personal or Cosmic, one deeply problematic for any notion, personal Idealist or whatever, of a true “abiding” self-finding abiding or unfolding self-realization in the common good. Given these results, a new story about the progression of mind was needed, as Myers realized. This would involve a different form of Idealism from those of Green, Bradley, Caird, and company.77 Whether and how it was, like other forms of Idealism, to be entangled with the anxious racist and imperialist politics of the late Victorian era and early decades of the twentieth century remains to be fully determined, though there is obviously much ground for suspicion.
Still, perhaps these remarks do hint at a deeper fear stimulated in Sidgwick by the dualism of practical reason, a fear of a great Cosmic unraveling, the loss of unity, of wholeness, of balance, perhaps of God or the moral order of the Universe. It is some such fear that makes better sense of Sidgwick’s anxieties about the dualism. He could sympathize, but only go so far with Myers, who found solace in the very Idealistic thought that “That which lies at the root of each of us lies at the root of the Cosmos too. Our struggle is the struggle of the Universe itself; and the very God-head finds fulfillment through our upward-striving souls.”78 From the horizontal effort to bring together the different regions of consciousness and self there would, for Myers, emerge a more vertical spiritual progression, and one that might solve the familiar puzzle of how one can transcend oneself and still be oneself, somehow better realized. Sidgwick, true to form, was less confident and more agnostic, as are Myers’ current admirers. The speculative metaphysics left too many hostages to fortune. But for all that, he did find in Myers a true soulmate, a close companion in this particular community of inquiry.
Cracks in the mask did come, of course, most famously in the conclusion of the first edition of the Methods, when Sidgwick concluded his account of the dualism of practical reason with the chilling words:
Hence the whole system of our beliefs as to the intrinsic reasonableness of conduct must fall, without a hypothesis unverifiable by experience reconciling the Individual with the Universal Reason, without a belief, in some form or other, that the moral order which we see imperfectly realized in this actual world is yet actually perfect. If we reject this belief, we may perhaps still find in the non-moral universe an adequate object for the Speculative Reason, capable of being in some sense ultimately understood. But the Cosmos of Duty is thus really reduced to a Chaos: and the prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure.79
In the second edition, this became the much more tepid: if “it appears that the edifice of physical science is really constructed of conclusions logically inferred from premises intuitively known; it will be reasonable to demand that our practical judgments should either be based on an equally firm foundation or should abandon all claim to philosophic certainty.”80 Abandoning all claim to philosophic certainty does not seem nearly as bad as being really reduced to a Chaos, and it is the latter, not the mere spectre of pragmatism, that better captures Sidgwick’s lifelong concerns.
Noteworthy in this connection is the gloss that he puts on the dualism just before his conclusion in the second edition:
For, if we find an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct, we seem forced to the conclusion that they were not really intuitions after all, and that the apparently intuitive operation of the Practical Reason is essentially illusory. Therefore it is, one may say, a matter of life and death to the Practical Reason that this premise should be somehow obtained. And I cannot fall back on the resource of thinking myself under a moral necessity to regard all my duties as if they were commandments of God, although not entitled to hold speculatively that any such Supreme Being really exists. I am so far from feeling bound to believe for purposes of practice what I see no ground for holding as a speculative truth, that I cannot even conceive the state of mind which these words seem to describe, except as a momentary half-willful irrationality, committed in a violent access of philosophic despair. Still it seems plain that in proportion as man has lived in the exercise of the Practical Reason—as he believed—and feels as an actual force the desire to do what is right and reasonable as such, his demand for this premise will be intense and imperious. Thus we are not surprised to find Socrates—the type for all ages of the man in whom this desire is predominant—declaring with simple conviction that “if the Rulers of the Universe do not prefer the just man to the unjust, it is better to die than to live.” And we must observe that in the feeling that prompts to such a declaration the desire to rationalize one’s own conduct is not the sole, nor perhaps always the most prominent, element. For however difficult it may practically be to do one’s duty when it comes into conflict with one’s happiness, it often does not seem very difficult, when we are considering the question in the abstract, to decide in favour of duty. When a man passionately refuses to believe that the ‘Wages of Virtue’ can ‘be dust,’ it is often less from any private reckoning about his own wages than from a disinterested aversion to a universe so fundamentally irrational that ‘Good for the Individual’ is not ultimately identified with ‘Universal Good’.81
It is, plausibly, this spectre of an unfriendly universe, of a perverse Cosmos and a fragmented self in which reason is schizophrenic or indeterminate, and the Wages of Virtue all too often dust, that most deeply disturbed Sidgwick philosophically, that best accounts for his intense anxieties over the dualism, even if he sometimes articulated the issue in drier, more limited terms.82 His Socratic enterprise of testing commonsense morality ended up threatening to collapse into Aeschylean horror, rather than in an answer to Glaucon’s challenge in the Republic. He could see how a truly tragic world might at least enable pure sacrifice, moral heroism, but he did not think most people would really be able to embrace such a worldview beyond a certain point. He doubted that he could. The allusions here to “wages” are clearly to Tennyson’s poem of that title, the last stanza of which runs:
The wages of sin is death: if the wages of Virtue be dust,
Would she have heart to endure for the life of the worm and the fly?
She desires no isles of the blest, no quiet seats of the just,
To rest in a golden grove, or to bask in a summer sky;
Give her the wages of going on, and not to die.83
In A.C. Bradley’s commentary on Tennyson, this poem is invoked in reference to Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and the following possible explication of Tennyson’s attitude floated: “And would it have been just to make him merely that he might die? … Or perhaps … the idea is rather: To make him such that he thinks himself immortal when he is really not so, would be unjust.”84 Like Tennyson, Sidgwick felt that a belief in immortality was a fixture of commonsense, a near universal and very natural belief.85 The third stanza of the Prologue to “In Memoriam” signals the key issue:
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou has made him: thou art just.86
For Sidgwick, who adored Tennyson, this question of having the heart to endure when the Cosmos has turned out to be so productive of cruel delusions about the nature of the self and its duties, and so horribly hopeless with respect to immortality and the moral structure needed to underwrite the righteous, was surely another aspect of his own “disinterested aversion” to an “irrational” universe. He would often sum up his own religious tendencies with reference to “In Memoriam,” explaining how his own very human heart, if not his philosophical conscience, could never give up the minimum of faith expressed in the lines:
No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying, knows his father near;87
Thus, when Rawls, in The Law of Peoples, remarks that if justice be impossible “we must ask, with Kant, whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth,”88 he might just as well have cited Sidgwick. On this reading, and it is admittedly not the only possible reading, Sidgwick’s dualism posed or pointed to a larger threat, not only of the collapse of reason, but the collapse of any hope in the friendliness of the Universe. At least when the light is made to shine upon his work in this way, Sidgwick’s anxiety appears to have another very real source—namely, that the moral arc of the universe, so inspiring to Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, may not be bending toward justice. The hope for the future life is this hope, and with it the hope for achieving that psychic balance that eludes us in this world, and avoiding the awful aimlessness, as Tennyson put it, of a world without God.
Clearly, this is a suggestion to the effect that there is rather more going on with Sidgwick’s dualism than indicated in the narrower philosophical debates over impersonal v. personal reasons for action, internal v. external reasons for action, objective v. subjective reasons for action, etc.—between, that is, moral rationalism and rational egoism, which is the way the dualism is constructed in most current accounts of Sidgwick’s philosophy. In Parfit’s recent reformulation, Sidgwick’s better, reconstructed point is primarily that “When one of our two possible acts would make things go in some way that would be impartially better, but the other act would make things go better either for ourselves or for those to whom we have close ties, we often have sufficient reasons to act in either of these two ways.”89 This is certainly a plausible reconstruction at one level—a level at which Sidgwick would have admired its philosophical clarity—but it leaves Sidgwick’s intense fears and anxieties about the dualism something of a mystery, to be dismissed as “sombre overstatements.”90 It is, in fact, scarcely recognized in the philosophical literature on Sidgwick how, when he expressed worries about the great Cosmic alternatives of Pessimism versus Optimism, his views were deeply informed by the sophisticated philosophical accounts of Cosmic Pessimism presented in the works of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, whose views he treated with great respect. The rather abrupt ending to Outlines of the History of Ethics might seem even bleaker than the final lines of the first edition of the Methods. Sidgwick concludes the Outlines with summary accounts of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, leaving the reader with this: “Hartmann's practical conclusion is that we should aim at the negation of the will to live, not each for himself, as Schopenhauer recommended, but universally, by working towards the end of the world-process and the annihilation of all so-called existence.”91
Still, Sidgwick’s larger philosophical self manifestly harbored that deeply Tennysonian sense of the costs of skepticism that on many counts was closer in spirit to the sensibilities of the Idealists, both early and late, than to those of his utilitarian forefathers. As Gauld has neatly put it, if “Clough was the poet of Sidgwick’s retreat from Christianity, Tennyson—though he never followed Sidgwick down the road, or blind alley, that led to the dualism—was the poet who best reflected his prolonged endeavour to remain a theist, and a believer in some relatively benign form of after-life.”92 Tennyson, it should be noted, became an honorary member of the Society for Psychical Research, whose quest for a wider, non-materialistic conception of Mind or Spirit that could be gleaned through rigorous empirical research was deeply appealing to him.
To be sure, the Idealists were more buffered by a conviction of Reason’s wholeness and ultimate harmony, even if this was worked out through some form of historical progression. But Sidgwick nonetheless shared with them a sense that Reason, practical and theoretical, needed to heal and unify itself, and to fill the void left by the receding religious consciousness. If Sidgwick could not follow them in their metaphysics, and picked apart Green’s claims for a “spiritual principle” in nature, for an Eternal Consciousness of which individual minds are but parts, etc., his project nonetheless shared their sense that practical reason needed to be harmonized—and this not merely by well-designed social institutions—leaving no fundamental conflict between “Own Good” and “Other Good.” This was no mere fetishizing of determinateness in ethics. It was a concern about just how tragic the Cosmos might really be.
And illuminatingly, it was Blanshard who so insightfully stressed this very point, in his description of Sidgwick’s dualism:
For even if self-sacrifice were sometimes clearly called for by reason, was it just that a person should be penalized for being rational? He could not see that a world so ordered could be just. Was it just that a person who sacrificed his good for that of others should lose that good forever, should never be compensated for that loss? That surely would be unjust and reflects its injustice upon the creator who so arranged things. And since ordinary life did not supply such compensation, it must occur, if at all, in another life.93
The issue is not merely to determine what normative reasons one ultimately has, but to determine whether the structure of those reasons could be consistent with Theism and/or cosmic justice. How hard on the human heart and its hopes will the reasons that we have turn out to be? And what hopes can one reasonably harbor, for the “reasonable temper”?
Clearly, even during periods when he got his hopes up,94 Sidgwick was always the voice of restraint and doubt in the business of parapsychology, never, as Eleanor admitted, persuaded that he had found “the truth he sought.” He was indeed skeptical, a tough critic, not just with respect to evidence accumulated through psychical research, but also with respect to the ambitious projections of more social theoretical prophets—Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spencer, and so on. Myers too, for that matter. Can one really imagine him treating “the Plan” for a new Messiah any differently? As the cross-correspondences themselves suggest, even his supposed spirit was skeptical, communicating such messages as “We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of living by being born…. The solution to the Great Problem I could not give you—I am still very far away from it and the abiding knowledge of the inherent truth and Beauty into which all the inevitable uglinesses of Existence finally resolve themselves will be yours in due time.”95 That is the kind of thing a reasonable ghost would say, or at any rate, the ghost of Sidgwick.
Still, for better or worse, although Blanshard’s account of Sidgwick captures a key feature too often missed, his notion of reasonableness does not do justice to this side of Sidgwick. Sidgwick’s “reasonableness” does not fit Blanshard’s claim that “we can call a life reasonable when it succeeds in ordering and harmonizing given desires, urges, and impulses in such a way that they provide for the largest fulfillment.”96 It was more a matter of being able to take a fallibilistic, experimental stance even towards such basic categories as the Inner and the Outer, the Subliminal and the Superliminal, the Probable and the Improbable, the Canny and the Uncanny, the Real and the Surreal, the Conscious and the Unconscious, the Material and the Immaterial, and even the Reasonable and the Unreasonable. Consider James’s pragmatist rule on judging one’s visions by “their fruits,” an approach to the reasonable that was endorsed by Jung in his never-ending struggle with his often deeply disturbing visions. We must paint the picture of Sidgwick’s outlook somewhat differently, in more Jamesian terms, allowing for more ups and downs, twists and turns, general imbalances, and strange guests and gusts—the judicial mind thrown off its foundations by impossible questions about admissible evidence.97 Being evidence or reason driven may have been part of it, but much of Sidgwick’s attractive force came from his struggles over how to orient himself to evidence or reason in the first place, what perspective to take on, for example, reports from impeccable witnesses about “impossible” paranormal events. As James noted, “Sidgwick was celebrated for the rare mixture of ardor and critical judgment which his character exhibited. The liberal heart which he possessed had to work with an intellect which acted destructively on almost every particular object of belief that was offered to its acceptance.”98 But Sidgwick, for his part, admired James’s more expansive attitude to no end, particularly his courage in recognizing, with respect to psychical research: “Vast, indeed, and difficult is the inquirer’s prospect here, and the most significant data for his purpose will probably be just these dingy little mediumistic facts which the Huxleyan minds of our time find so unworthy of their attention.”99
One can well enough imagine him initially getting worked up about and embracing the idea that a new religion—a new new covenant or re-sacralizing of ethical experience—was urgently called for. His initial (and very keen) enthusiasm for Theosophy was touchingly innocent, and made poignant by the devastating de-bunking of the movement carried out by his own S.P.R. comrades, largely at his own behest and expense. More impressive was his genuine sympathy for the new Walt Whitman worship promoted by Symonds, one of his dearest friends. Symonds, like C.D. Broad at a later date, did not at all welcome the prospect of an afterlife, and was somewhat amused by his friend’s obsession with ghosts. But, like so many others, including Freud and Jung, he immediately saw the relevance of Myers’s work on the unconscious, the subliminal self, for his own research on the history of same sex love and theory of the innateness of sexual orientation. The self that loved and the self that understood might stand in any number of different relationships to one another—there was no simple “Repressive Hypothesis” here, or Other not sublated. The journal exchanges between Sidgwick and Symonds demonstrate just how much more open-minded and wide-ranging Sidgwick’s philosophizing was, and the depth of his sense of the possibility of intrapsychic conflict, and of the conscious self being sophisticated Phaeton like, by an unconscious self with its own loves and understandings. Symonds confronted him, as no one else did, with the stark—and very horizontal—possibility that there really was no comfort to be had even in Theism’s friendly universe. How his transcendental enthusiasms could survive his own reflections and his own friendships is a genuine puzzle, but he had, I believe, that capability, not unlike James and Jung, to negotiate philosophically a balanced imbalance, between sanity and insanity, doubt and faith, Cosmic Pessimism and Cosmic Optimism.100
Part of this surely involved resisting what James labeled “a certain blindness in human beings”—this:
absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.101
James had a very keen sense of just how hard it was, despite one’s best efforts, to get to the Point of View of the Universe from the field of pinched individual destinies, and how often the effort produced blindnesses and their correlative invisibilities—Ellison’s Invisible Man, say. An aspect of the appeal to happiness here is the decidedly non-Benthamite sense that the unfamiliar varieties of it carry a demand for dialogical respect, perspectives worth hearing prior to legislating. And some of James rubbed off on Sidgwick, whose horizontal moves were probably better than his vertical ones.102
1. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, seventh edition (London, 1907). Unless otherwise indicated, all references to the Methods are to this edition.
2. Rawls, “Foreword,” The Methods of Ethics (Indianapolis, 1981), p. v.
3. Ibid., p. vi.
4. On genuine agnosticism, I follow Anthony Kenny’s The Unknown God (London, 2004). Kenny’s work often shows a deeply Sidgwickian sensibility, when dealing with “the question which haunts the life of every person, who is genuinely agnostic: is religion a snare and a delusion, or is it something precious and glorious?”
5. Rorty, An Ethics for Today, ed. G. Vattimo (New York, 2010), p. 12.
6. See, for example, Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (New York, 1902).
7. Rorty, Ethics, p. 17.
8. Though Idealist verticality is in many cases not “other worldly”; the big issue is the uniformly mental (rather than physical) nature of this world and the rejection of a dualist account of mind and matter. On such views, the Cosmos is more like a great Mind than a great Machine.
9. Obituary for Dorothy Young, New York Times, March 27, 2011.
10. And an analytic philosopher who was intimately familiar with and appreciative of the work of the Idealists, particularly J.M.E. McTaggart, and with Sidgwick’s parapsychological research, an interest that he shared.
11. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930), p. 143.
12. Parfit, On What Matters, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2011), I, p. xl.
13. See Bart Schultz, “Review Essay: Go Tell It On The Mountain, Derek Parfit’s On What Matters.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 44, No. 3, March 2014. A revised version is available online.
14. Blanshard, “Autobiography,” in P. S. Schilpp, ed., The Library of Living Philosophers: The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard (LaSalle, IL, 1980), p. 43.
15. Blanshard, Reason and Goodness (New York, 1961), p. 446.
16. For a brief account of Moore’s dealings with some leading Idealists, see Schultz, “Review: G. E. Moore: Early Philosophical Writings,” eds. T. Baldwin and C. Preti, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, August, 2012.
17. Constance-Jones, “Book Review: Ethics and Religion,” Ethics, 11 (2), 1901, p. 236.
18. Blanshard, Four Reasonable Men (Middleton, CT, 1984).
19. In certain respects, this paper is expanding what Schneewind argued about Sidgwick and the intuitionists to cover the Idealists as well.
20. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977), p. 409.
21. Bradley, Mr. Sidgwick’s Hedonism (London, 1877), p. 7.
22. Hayward, “A Reply to E. E. Constance Jones,” International Journal of Ethics, 11 (2) (1900–1), p. 361.
23. In his magnum opus, The Nature of Thought, Blanshard went so far as to say that the best argument for hedonism was simply that Sidgwick believed in it—see The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (New York, 1940), I, p. 391.
24. Blanshard, “Autobiography,” p. 184.
25. Ibid., p. 180.
26. Blanshard, The Uses of a Liberal Education (LaSalle, IL, 1973), p. xvi.
27. Blanshard, “Reply to Richard Rorty,” in Schilpp, ed., Brand Blanshard, (pp. 756-73), p. 763.
28. Blanshard, Reason and Goodness, pp. 95-96.
29. Ibid., p. 260.
30. Ibid., pp. 419-20.
31. Blanshard, Reason and Analysis, p. 423 and p. 477.
32. Blanshard, Four Reasonable Men, p. 247.
33. Ibid., pp. 251-53.
34. See Marcus G. Singer, Henry Sidgwick: Essays on Ethics and Method (Oxford, 2000), p. xxxii, which notes how close some of Sidgwick’s remarks were to Idealist conceptions of truth.
35. See especially his Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays, ed. James Ward (London, 1905).
36. Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations, ed. James Ward (London, 1902). This work also has Sidgwick allowing that “it seems best that the general investigation of the grounds of our belief in such conclusions as are held to be based on experience should be combined with the study of what may be known, or has been thought to be known, by a non-empirical method about mind, matter, and their relations, or about the ‘absolute reality’ that ‘underlies’ or is ‘implied in’ the world empirically known: especially since … the notion of ‘verification by experience’ appears to be inadequately analysed and defined in ordinary thought” (p. 118).
37. Sidgwick, “The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription” (London, 1870), pp. 14–15.
38. Indeed, a bewildering number of complex varieties, as expertly shown by W. J. Mander, British Idealism: A History (Oxford, 2011), the best overall work on the subject.
39. Mander, ed., Anglo-American Idealism, 1865-1927 (Westport, CT, 2000).
40. Mander, British Idealism, p. 24.
41. A. Sidgwick and E.M.S. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick, A Memoir (London, 1906), p. 604.
42. Sprigge, The God of Metaphysics (Oxford, 2006), p. 544.
43. See especially, Sprigge, The Importance of Subjectivity (Oxford, 2011), p. 263, where he calls his form of utilitarianism “way of life” utilitarianism. Sprigge was much influenced by both Bradley and James, as will be shown in the following section.
44. Brink, Perfectionism and the Common Good (Oxford, 2003), pp. 122-23.
45. As Roger Crisp reminded me (private correspondence), there are interpretations of Mill that “bring him much closer to the late nineteenth century liberal idealists,” such as Brink’s “Greenian” interpretation of Mill’s view of the good, evident in Mill’s Progressive Principles (Oxford, 2013). Mill’s late essays on religion also point in this direction.
46. Sidgwick and Sidgwick, Memoir, p. 277.
47. Sidgwick and Sidgwick, Memoir, pp. 394–96.
48. Sidgwick and Sidgwick, Memoir, p. 357.
49. Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 489–90.
50. Bernard Williams, “The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and the Ambitions of Ethics,” The Cambridge Review, 7 May (1982), p. 191.
51. Bill Mander has suggested to me that he would “add Berkeley and Lotze to the list, but worry about Ritchie,” who, he allows, “claimed that he was combining self-realization and utility” but did so in what was perhaps an “unsuccessful marriage” (private correspondence).
52. See Sprigge’s insightful essay “Could Parapsychology Have Any Bearing On Religion?” Parapsychology, Philosophy and the Mind: Essays Honoring John Beloff, Fiona Steinkamp, eds., (Jefferson, NC, 2002), pp. 127-45. Sprigge, like many Idealists, did not see why parapsychological evidence was necessary for the rejection of materialism, since a priori arguments could justify that. But he did allow that it could help justify belief in the survival of physical death (a matter on which he remained agnostic). Also relevant here is Sprigge’s masterful James & Bradley: American Truth and British Reality (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1993), which congenially argues that the two title figures “usually considered diametrically opposed, share many main premises and some main conclusions, while the contrasts between their views are all the more interesting just because they share so much” (p. 573).
53. Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (New York, 2011), p. 3.
54. Ibid., pp. 235-36.
55. And as Marina Warner aptly notes: “when poets and novelists project metamorphing personalities and destablilized identities, they have recourse to the venerable languages of ghost possession and the supernatural, and then attempt … to refashion them to appeal to contemporary readers and resonate with their experience.” Phantasmagoria (Oxford, 2006), p. 380.
56. Warner, Phantasmagoria, p. 239.
57. Sidgwick and Sidgwick, Memoir, pp. 466–7. It should be noted that, in keeping with his esotericism, Sidgwick’s linking of the dualism to his work in psychical research was given its most unguarded and forceful expression in his private writings, though he did explain in his presidential addresses to the S.P.R. that he and his friends had gone into that line of work out of concern over the “painful division and conflict” between religion and materialistic science. For an excellent summary of Sidgwick’s work and results, see Alan Gauld, “Henry Sidgwick, Theism, and Psychical Research,” in Bucolo, Crisp, and Schultz, eds., Henry Sidgwick: Happiness and Religion (Catagnia, 2007), pp. 160-259.
58. Again, see Gauld (2007) for an excellent summary of Sidgwick’s work in psychical research.
59. Roy, The Eager Dead (Sussex, 2008).
60. The “cross-correspondence” cases were cases in which different mediums would independently receive messages from “the Other Side” that needed to be pieced together, like an intellectual jigsaw puzzle, in order to make sense. They were part of a gigantic batch of “scripts” produced by the mediums by (mostly) automatic writing, which would need to be interpreted by the psychical researchers. See Gauld (2007).
61. Gray, Immortalization, p. 90.
62. Quoted in Roy, The Eager Dead, pp. 446-48. Italicized words in the quoted passages are underlined in the original. “Phyllis” was the code name for Myers’s lost love Annie Marshall, who tragically committed suicide in 1876. “M.V.” refers to Margaret Verrall, one of the “communicators.” The references to the Palm Sunday case concern the supposed communications from Arthur Balfour’s deceased true love Mary Lyttleton, who died tragically on Palm Sunday 1875; her communications from “the Other Side,” relating intimate details of her relationship with Arthur Balfour unknown to anyone else, went far to convince the psychical researchers of the reality of posthumous survival.
63. Ibid., p. 318. Interestingly, Henry Augustus was mentored at Cambridge by none other than Broad.
64. This was a big and very troubling issue for Sidgwick, since he did think the case for telepathy (a term coined by Myers) was compelling, endorsing Myers’s statement:
We hold that we have proved by direct experiment, and corroborated by the narratives contained in this book, the possibility of communications between two minds, inexplicable by any recognised physical laws, but capable (under certain rare spontaneous conditions) of taking place when the persons concerned are at an indefinite distance from each other. And we claim further that by investigations of the higher phenomena of mesmerism, and of the automatic action of the mind, we have confirmed and expanded this view in various directions, and attained a standing-point from which certain even stranger alleged phenomena begin to assume an intelligible aspect, and to suggest further discoveries to come. Thus far the authors of this book, and also the main group of their fellow-workers, are substantially agreed.
Myers, et al., Phantasms of the Living (Hyde Park, NY, 1962), p. xx.
65. Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 418-19.
66. Hence, in a very strange way, Sidgwick might have agreed with his arch critic G.E.M. Anscombe, who claimed, in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” that moral philosophy remained in limbo pending the development of a defensible philosophical psychology. Sidgwick’s parapsychology was in effect an effort to determine what psychological material an ethically relevant philosophical psychology needed to address. Ironically, given Anscombe’s invocation of the ancients, Sidgwick’s interests in the possible existence of an immaterial self were more truly Platonic than anything in her work.
67. Myers, quoted in Gray, Immortalization, p. 100.
68. Quoted in Kelly and Kelly, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (Lanham, MD, 2007), p. 82.
69. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in William James: Writings 1902-1910 (New York, 1987), p. 457 and p. 217.
70. Sprigge, “Could Parapsychology,” p. 143.
71. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, 2 vols. (London, 1903), II, p. 122.
72. In this, he would have been prescient, given the very fruitful uses of the language of different selves in current cognitive psychology, such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (New York, 2011), which suggests just such a wider range of conflicting selves, including very basic processes of cognition bearing on hedonistic calculation. In any event, as Janet Oppenheim observed of Myers, “Aiming above all to prove that the human personality survived bodily death, he had virtually destroyed the human personality.” The Other World (New York, 1987), p.127.
73. Quoted in Schultz, Eye, p. 322. These lines were not included in the Memoir, which carefully censored much of Sidgwick’s journal for Symonds. The journal is reproduced in full in Schultz et al., The Complete Works and Select Correspondence of Henry Sidgwick.
74. For an extensive account of the parallels between Sidgwick’s management of Symonds’s reputation and his management of the public face of psychical research, see Schultz, Eye, chaps. 5 and 6 especially.
75. It should also be noted that Sidgwick was remarkably reticent, even in his philosophical writings, about the exact nature of Mind and Matter. He was impressed enough with the results of physiology, but also held, as Gauld notes, that “the prima facie disparateness of mental facts and nervous changes, the apparently total absence of kinship between them, puts in the way of any materialistic synthesis an obstacle difficult to overleap” (see Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations, p. 54). On such a view, psychology, it seems, had at the least to deal with “double facts” and stay open to the possibility of purely mental causation, as in telepathy.
76. See for example, Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, H. Spencer, and J. Martineau, ed. E.E. Constance-Jones (London, 1902), p. 3. Of course, the Idealist accounts of the self varied widely, especially depending on whether one was a personal or Absolute Idealist; for Bradley, the self was ultimately but part of the tissue of experiences forming the Absolute, not what it appeared to be in the world of appearances. And interestingly, as Sprigge has compellingly shown, Bradley was in many ways the critic of psychical research whose challenges James (and by extension Sidgwick) often seemed to be trying to meet. For Bradley, “we have no reason to believe anything that such spirits say, inasmuch as the normal conditions on which we can rely upon the testimony of others do not hold,” and in truth “the very meaning of survival is unclear, for the main criterion of this, bodily identity, used in this life, cannot apply.” But most importantly, in “all this Bradley is very much the ‘refined’ supernaturalist criticizing the crass supernaturalism of which James was the avowed champion. There may be a crass supernatural but what is spiritually significant is as present in this world as it could be in any other. In all equally there can be the expression of goodness, truth, and beauty, and all must equally play their role in constituting absolute experience” (Sprigge, James and Bradley, pp. 569-72).
77. As Mander (2011) observes, the early British Idealists often denied that “they were drawn beyond this world to some other,” drawing instead “a division within this world, between the higher and the lower” (p. 6). But at the same time, “there ran a deep religious current through all of the idealist thinkers, and a common conviction that human reason had the power not only to reach the transcendent but to give it sufficient content to ground human hopes” (p. 138). And that there was a vein of mysticism in such figures as Bradley and McTaggart would be hard to deny.
78. Myers, Human Personality, II, p. 277.
79. Sidgwick, Methods, first edition (London, 1874), p. 473.
80. Sidgwick, Methods, second edition (London, 1877), p. 469.
81. Ibid., pp. 468-69.
82. It is for such reasons that I believe that John Gray had a point, when insisting on the philosophical relevance of Sidgwick’s psychical research in his review of Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do— Singer replied: “Gray does refer to The Point of View of the Universe, but only to say that although the book discusses Sidgwick’s ‘dualism of practical reason,’ the book barely mentions Sidgwick’s interest in psychical research. Psychical research is of no relevance to the aims that Dr. Lazari-Radek and I had in writing our book, which, as we say in the preface, is not a study in the history of ideas, so it should not surprise Gray that we pay it scant attention”. What this reply does not acknowledge is the potential ethical/philosophical relevance of Sidgwick’s psychical research insofar as it was something of an early version of Parfit’s explorations of the ethical/philosophical relevance of personal identity. That Parfit’s work on personal identity is profoundly relevant to the viability of Sidgwickian utilitarianism would be difficult to deny. See Schultz, “Persons, Selves, and Utilitarianism,” Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 4 (July 1986), with a “Comment” by Derek Parfit.
83. Tennyson, The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, introduction by D. Hodder (London, 2008), p. 656. See also Sidgwick’s touching essay, “Alfred Tennyson,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 5 (1892), pp. 315-18.
84. Bradley, A Commentary on Tennyson’s In Memoriam (London, 1923), pp. 81-82. Bradley was in fact the brother of F. H. Bradley.
85. See Schultz, Eye, especially p. 442. Tennyson’s racism is also detailed by Schultz.
86. Tennyson, In Memoriam: A Norton Critical Edition, E. Gray, ed., (New York, 2004), p. 5.
87. Ibid., p. 92.
88. Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, 1999), p. 128. Referring to Kant’s views, Sidgwick wrote: “the importance of the conception of the moral government of the world, in giving the required systematic coherence to Ethics, seems to me so great that I cannot consent to discard this consideration—even provisionally—in seeking a ‘working philosophy’ of Theism.” Sidgwick and Sidgwick, Memoir, p. 605.
89. See Parfit, On What Matters, p. 137, and D. Phillips, Sidgwickian Ethics (New York, 2011). See also the important discussions in the Book Symposium on Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, with original contributions by Bart Schultz, Roger Crisp, Brad Hooker, Derek Parfit, and Mariko Nakano, and replies by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer. Etica & Politica (Trieste: University of Trieste, March 2016), available here.
90. And admittedly, Sidgwick’s views on Cosmic justice go beyond his narrower accounts of equity, the axiom that what is right for one must be right for anyone similarly situated.
91. Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (Indianapolis, IN, 2008), p. 283. Sidgwick’s accounts of these thinkers are models of accuracy and concision, and he had clearly mastered Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, works that in many ways played into his parapsychological interests.
92. Gauld, “Theism,” p. 188.
93. Blanshard, Four Reasonable Men, p. 213.
94. And, after an abyss of despair in the late 1880s, Sidgwick’s hopes did revive somewhat in the 90s, particularly when the results with the American medium Leonora Piper came in. The Piper case largely converted James—who was no mere impartial observer in this business—to a belief in the personal survival of physical death, and Sidgwick, though more guarded, was also deeply impressed. Again, see Gauld (2007). Intriguingly, according to family reports, Sidgwick insisted that he be buried in a wicker coffin, which suggests that he may have had some sympathy for the late Victorian “Earth to Earth Society,” which recommended the use of perishable wicker coffins rather than those used in traditional burials. This movement developed in opposition to the cremation movement, which was profoundly controversial. See Schultz, Eye, p. 801, note 73, and Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford, 1996), p. 204, but also Thomas Laqueur’s remarkable The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, 2015). Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago, 2003) is also suggestive.
95. Schultz, Eye, p. 726.
96. Karsten Harries, “Brand Blanshard,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 64 (5) (1991), p. 116.
97. Must, that is, with Adam Phillips, allow for a notion of reasonableness that can do justice to the virtues of being off balance: “the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness”. Phillips, On Balance (New York, 2010), p. xiii.
98. James, “The Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher,’” in William James: Writings 1902-1910 (New York, 1987), p. 1250.
99. Ibid., p. 1264.
100. Again, there is no simple “hydraulic” or “return of the repressed” model of self or society here—that in itself was, as Freud more or less admitted to Jung, meant as a “dogma” or “unshakeable bulwark” against “the black tide of mud … of occultism.” If anything, Freud repressed his tendencies toward genuine agnosticism. See C.G. Jung, The Red Book, S. Shamdasani, ed. (New York, 2009). Unlike Sidgwick, he was unable to suspend judgment and wait for the fruits. It might be added here, as a point of clarification, that nothing in this ebook should be taken as supporting such efforts as those of the Templeton Foundation, which seeks to promote, among other things, academic philosophy of religious significance or relevance. Although I was approached by that Foundation some years ago, I declined the opportunity to finalize the submission of a grant proposal that they had encouraged.
101. James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings””.
102. For very helpful remarks and encouragement, I would like to thank Bill Mander, Roger Crisp, Alan Ryan, J. B. Schneewind, Peter Singer, and Anthony Skelton.
Bart Schultz is Senior Lecturer in the Humanities (Philosophy) and Director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1987. His books include Essays on Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge, 1992), Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe (Cambridge, 2004, winner of the American Philosophical Society’s Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for 2004), Utilitarianism and Empire (Lexington, 2005), and The Happiness Philosophers: Lives of the Eminent Utilitarians (Princeton, 2016). He is on the Editorial Board of Utilitas, the leading professional journal of utilitarian studies, and serves on the Board of Directors of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization). Through the Civic Knowledge Project he has developed a number of public ethics programs, including the precollegiate philosophy program Winning Words, winner of the 2012 American Philosophical Association’s PDC Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs.
Text copyright © 2016 Bart Schultz
Cover photograph by Bart Schultz of the probable birthplace of Henry Sidgwick in Skipton, Yorkshire, UK.
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First published February 2016.
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