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Walter Bagehot: What would his "Metaphysicians" have thought of today's academic disputes?

Bad-tempered exchanges between academics are scarcely new. Karl Popper once infuriated Ludwig Wittgenstein by implying that the latter was threatening him with a poker. Wittgenstein thought that was below the belt. No holds were barred, however, in a recent month-long mêlée in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement under the heading “Leibniz and consciousness”. Galen Strawson began by accusing Daniel Dennett of holding “the silliest view that has ever been held in the whole history of the human race”. Dennett responded by asking: “Hasn’t Strawson been doing philosophy long enough to know that refutation by caricature is a mug’s game?” Then Nicholas Humphrey denounced Strawson (“a slippery customer”) for “casually” misquoting Leibniz, whereupon Strawson reminded readers that Humphrey had already responded to a bad review in the Guardian by claiming that Strawson was seen by philosophers as “an embarrassment to their profession”. Leibniz himself — who liked to develop his theories through a cosmopolitan correspondence, notably with Antoine Arnaud and Samuel Clarke — would certainly have been embarrassed by the invocation of his name in such company. All these professorial pugilists are paid not only to “do” philosophy but to be exemplars for the young. Abuse is no less vulgar when it is delivered ex cathedra.

Philosophers haven’t always set such a bad example. How very differently our Victorian ancestors conducted themselves is demonstrated by three monumental volumes of The Papers of the Metaphysical Society, 1869-1880: A Critical Edition edited by Catherine Marshall, Bernard Lightman and Richard England (OUP, £320). This private dining club met regularly at various hotels; after dinner a paper would be given on such arcane subjects as “Has a frog a soul?”, followed by lengthy and learned discussions into the night.

What made the Metaphysicians unique was the calibre of the membership. Besides leading philosophers (Sidgwick, Martineau, Croom Robertson) they included the then Prime Minister (Gladstone) plus a future one (Balfour), the Poet Laureate (Tennyson), scientists (T.H. Huxley), critics (Ruskin), editors (Bagehot), historians (Froude, Seeley), divines (Cardinal Manning, Dean Stanley), writers (Leslie and James Fitzjames Stephen), among many other eminent Victorians.

The members espoused every variety of religious and irreligious opinion, but the Christians were deeply divided between Anglican churchmen (themselves split into High, Low or latitudinarian) and Roman Catholic converts, while the assorted heretics, agnostics and atheists rarely agreed with one another either. The then editor of the Spectator, R.H. Hutton, wrote a lively account of one such meeting; what struck him and others was the “extraordinary fermentation of opinion in the society around us”, but what impresses us was the courtesy and respect for one another shown by all members, however deeply contradictory their convictions. Huxley said that the society died of “too much love”. Today’s logic choppers would surely look down on the Metaphysicians as old-fashioned amateurs, but they might like to ponder why it is that such a society, embracing the entire intellectual elite, would be so unthinkable today.

 
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