Ruth Barton

Huxley, Agnosticism, and the X-Club

In assessing the “climate of opinion” in Victorian Britain, and more specifically the context of the evolution debates and narratives of conflict between science and religion that bolstered them, I have been engaging with a number of articles and books about prominent nineteenth-century dramatis personae, including Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Whewell, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and others.

Several articles on Huxley and his X-Club are worth mentioning. Bernard Lightman’s “Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: the Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy” (2002) challenges the traditional interpretation that Huxley invented the term “agnostic” in 1869. In 1889 Huxley published a trilogy of essays on the history of agnosticism in the periodical The Nineteenth Century, arguing that he first coined the term in 1869. His friends at the X-Club, however, were surprised at the fact. Lightman finds it strange that Huxley’s inner circle of friends were unaware of the origins of its coinage. “If the members were so open about their religious heterdoxy,” writes Lightman, “and if agnosticism was an important weapon in the attempt to challenge the power of the Anglican establishment, then why did [some of its members] first learn that Huxley had coined the term ‘agnostic’ twenty years after the fact?”

According to Lightman, Huxley’s relationship with the term is far more complicated than traditional accounts. “Not only was he reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883, his restricted rhetorical use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was also compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics.” Indeed, “Huxley found that he could not control the public meaning of ‘agnosticism’ and that consequently its value as a rhetorical weapon was limited.” By 1889, Huxley realized he need to take control of his neologism by revealing that he was solely responsible for its creation. As such, “historian have been fooled by Huxley’s self-serving reconstruction in 1889 of the history of agnosticism.”

In 1889 Huxley claimed he initially paraded the term at the Metaphysical Society. But this is not reflected, Lightman points out, in the papers he delivered to its members. In papers presented in 1869, 1870, and in 1876, “none of them use the terms ‘agnostic’ or ‘agnosticism.'” Even more glaring, few journals used the new term in discussion of Huxley’s work. Indeed, in the pages of periodical reviews, such as Blackwood Magazine, Contemporary Review, and Scribner’s Monthly, “Huxley was seldom seen as the chief threat to religious orthodoxy.” It was not until 1873, in an article published by St George Mivart in the Fortnightly Review, when Huxley was identified, not as the inventor of the term, but as a prominent leader of the “agnostic philosophy.”

But it was Richard Holt Hutton, theologian, journalist, and editor of the The Spectator, who gave the term its widest circulation. In an article on “Pope Huxley” in the 1870 issue of The Spectator, Hutton referred to as “a great and severe Agnostic.” Interestingly enough, he did not assert that Huxely was responsible for coining the term.

Circulation of the term increased from 1879 to 1883. Yet none of Huxley’s published work during this time contain references to his coinage. It was James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, who was “partly responsible for the increased currency of the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘agnosticism’ in this period, as well as throughout the rest of the decade and into the next.” Other authors who discussed agnosticism directly at this time were Bertha Lathbury (1880), J.H. Clapperton (1880), Louis Greg (1882), Rev. Prebendary W. Anderson (1881), B. Thomas (1881), J. Henry Shorthouse (1882), G. Matheson (1883), and others. But in none of these articles is Huxley credited with the term. Indeed, in a Catholic journal, The Month (1882), it is Spencer, not Huxley, who is treated as the “typical representative of atheistical agnosticism.”

Finally in 1882 an article in the pages of Notes and Queries James A.H. Murray credits Huxley with coining the term in 1869. Late in 1883, Huxley was forced “out of the closet” by Charles Albert Watts when the latter published a private letter from Huxley in his periodical Agnostic Annual. On 17 November 1883 the Academy carried a story on Huxley’s contribution to Agnostic Annual. Huxley quickly wrote to the Academy that he made no such contribution and that in fact Watts had played a trick on him. This was apparently newsworthy, as The New York Times entered the show with its own story on the Watts-Huxley debacle in 10 December 1883.

From 1884 to 1888 agnosticism became a hot topic of debate. While in 1884 J. Murray’s A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles noted Huxley’s role as its inventor, “Huxley’s relationship to agnosticism was overshadowed…by the spectacle of two unbelievers [namely, Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer] engaged in bitter controversy in the pages of Nineteenth Century.” Other journal gladly became involved in the debate. The debate raged on in 1887 and 1888, when Francis Darwin’s Life and Letter of Charles Darwin (1887) brought to the fight Darwin’s own religious beliefs—or lack there of. During this time “renegade secularists were equally taken by the lure of agnosticism,” including C.A. Watts, William Steward Ross, Richard Bithell, Frederick James Gould, and Samiel Laing. In the work of these men, “Spencer, not Huxley, was the master…as they were inspired by Spencer’s vision of an Unknowable deity.”

From 1884 to 1888, Huxley was still reticent to take full credit of the term. What finally caused his intervention in the controversy, writes Lightman, was accusations of materialism. “Huxley defended himself by saying that earlier in life he could not find a label which suited him, so he ‘invented’ one, calling himself ‘Agnostic.'” But by the time he published his trilogy in 1889, it was a “belated attempt to regain control.” Others were to “endow it with the meanings which he could not accept.”

Ruth Barton’s “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990) and “‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others’: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864” (1998) demonstrates how the X-Club was more than “just friends” fraternizing. Founded in 1864, the X-Club was a private, informal society where members could engage in frank discussion about literature, politics, and science over dinner. Moreover, they could plot together on how to achieve common goals, such as the advancement of research, the infiltration and control of important scientific institutions and societies, and the bid to undermine the cultural authority of the Anglican clergy. “The club was for serious research, against aristocratic patronage of science, for a naturalistic world view, and against the commercialization of science.”

In the first paper, Barton analyzes the “politicking which brought X-Club members to position of power and status in the Royal Society.” The Royal Society was full of “disciplinary rivalries, class interests, institutional interconnections and research priorities.” The X-Club represented the most dominant interest group of the Royal Society in the mid-Victorian period. Members were “energetic and ambitious reformers of science,” which included Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), John Tyndall (1820-1893), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Archer Hirst (1830-1892), George Busk (1807-1886), John Lubbock (1834-1913), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Everyone of these figures, except for Spencer, was active in the Royal Society. Darwinian in orientation, “its members were engaged in developing and propagating naturalistic account of physical and human phenomena. They opposed all suggestion that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically determined boundaries.” They were, as Frank Turner put it, “scientific naturalists.”

The influence of this “small coterie in the affairs of the Royal Society” is revealed in the minutes of X-Club meetings and letters between members. For instance, “personal friendship and disciplinary alliance both played significant parts in the procedures of suggesting, nominating and voting which preceded the award” for the Royal Medal. They also played a substantive role in the election of Royal Society Council members, including changing it Presidents. Indeed, according to Barton, “the X-Club devoted enormous energy to gaining power.” Because the Royal Society represented science, members of the X-Club did all they could to espouse a redefinition of science within a naturalistic worldview.

When members of the X-Club succeeded in gaining Spottiswoode the Presidency, his most memorable act was the push to have Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey. “They were successful, and on Tuesday 25 April 1882, Spottiswoode, Lubbock, Hooker, Huxley, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Derby, and the American Ambassador, accompanied by Alfred Russel Wallace and Dean Farrar of Westminster, were pall-bearers in the Abbey funeral.” This was immensely symbolic, and Darwin was “presented as a middle-class saint.” “It was an irony of which they seemed unaware,” write Barton, “that the greatest symbolic achievement of the X-Club was not the separation of theology from science, but the conflation of science, church and state in Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey.”

In the second paper, Barton rehearses some of the material found in the previews paper. What is new, and deeply intriguing, is her emphasis that X-Club members formed “alliances…beyond professional science.” They formed alliances with “germanizing theologians, Christian socialists, humanitarian ethnologists, and liberals associated with John Stuart Mill aligned “Science” with liberal forms in theology and in social policy.” Indeed, “commitments to naturalistic explanation and to melioristic social reform linked them to these groups.”

Several books in this area I have been recently paging through include Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003). This is more than another biography of Huxley. It is an account of the way that a particular cultural identity—the Victorian ‘man of science’—was constructed through processes of negotiation and collaboration between naturalists such as Huxley and their families, colleagues, friends, and adversaries. Through a close reading of private correspondences, White builds up a portrait of Huxley and his relationships, with his wife, fellow men of science, educational reformers, clergymen, and so on. White provocatively depicts Huxley as a defender of high culture, even as an elitist.

Another is Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004). Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian is among several recently published books on Wallace, and this book acts as an important synthesis, a thematic study bringing together aspects of Wallace’s career. Why Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, became “elusive” is difficult to say. Perhaps it is because Wallace is “difficult to pigeonhole…into any neat category. Many labels have been applied to him: field naturalist, biological theorist, socialist, spiritualist, theist, land nationalizationist, philosopher and ethicist.” In finding a more satisfactory answer, Fichman examines Wallace’s range of social contacts (including North American psychologist William James), his marginal annotations in his books, as well as his copious publications (he continued to publish in his old age, including three books written in his eighties). According to Fichman, Wallace was actively marginalized by a circle of practitioners who wielded great influence in scientific affairs from the 1860s and who promoted a naturalistic model of science. That circle were members of the X-Club.

More recently, Nicolaas A. Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin (2009) tells an engaging tale of how Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist and early chum of Charles Darwin, became the talented, twisted, vindictive, and ultimate loser of the Darwinian Revolution. Owen is somewhat of a tragic figure in narratives of science. All good stories need an evil person to balance the virtues and fortunes of a hero, and unfortunately Owen took up (or portrayed as taking up) the role. Rupke’s Richard Owen, however, problematizes this simplistic narrative.

Rupke situates Owen’s work within the social, institutional, and political context, and how it affected and constrained both his work and its reception. Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from Rupke’s study is how Owen’s reputation had been systematically distorted and degraded by Darwin, his scientific followers, and several generations of historians. This theme becomes prominent in Owen’s bitter conflict with Huxley, who “in spite of Owen’s generosity…began chipping away at his patron’s work and reputation,” using as much duplicity, malice, and dishonesty as possible.

In these works, and others, we get a better sense of the “climate of opinion” of these nineteenth-century debates. If there was ever conflict between science and religion, it was neither created by science nor religion. Rather, it was clearly orchestrated by “men of science” the likes of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, William Spottiswoode, John Tyndall, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, George Busk, John Lubbock, and Herbert Spencer. Such imagined conflict is still fabricated today, from something of a reincarnated X-Club, in the Brights Movement, which membership includes biologists Richard Dawkins and Richard J. Roberts, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett, stage magicians and James Randi and Penn & Teller, among others.


John Tyndall, the Pantheist

John Tyndall’s Belfast Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 has been said to be the “chief pronouncement of materialism of the nineteenth century.”

But according to Ruth Barton’s “John Tyndall, Pantheist: A Rereading of the Belfast Address” (1987), Tyndall was an admirer of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, leading representatives of idealist philosophy. As Frank Turner has shown, in “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), Tyndall’s attraction to idealism, although something of a paradox, consisted more than just an appeal to its social theory; it also included an appeal to its metaphysics. “The Belfast Address,” Barton argues, “was a conscious and deliberate attempt by Tyndall to set scientific ‘materialism’ in the larger context of natural supernaturalism” of figures such as Carlyle, Emerson, and Fichte. Indeed, Tyndall often qualified his views on materialism, asserting that it cannot be “a complete philosophy of life,” and warning his listeners that “the ‘materialism’ here professed may be vastly different from what you suppose.”

In the first section of this paper Barton provides some insightful comments regarding the British Association and the context for its meeting in Belfast. A later post will specifically address this, along with Barton’s other essays, “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990), and “Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others”: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864″ (1998). Here the focus is on Barton’s comments on the Belfast Address and Tyndall’s idealist and pantheist beliefs.

At its core, “the Belfast Address was an argument for the adequacy of materialism as a philosophy of science.” But this materialism must be seen in the context of other recurring themes in the address, including “wonder,” “religious awe,” “artistic creativity,” “sexual passion”; in other words, human feelings. While the first part of the address introduces the atomic theories of the ancients, in the second part Tyndall argues that “the mind’s capacity to form clear, coherent pictures of physical conceptions is the basis of theory formation in science. Such a picture is called Vorstellung in German, and the act of picturing, vorstellen. The closet English translation is ‘imagination.'” Interestingly enough, Tyndall uses the example of Giordano Bruno rather than Copernicus as marking the end of the so-called “stationary period” in science. According to Tyndall, Bruno came close to “our present line of thought” in pondering the problem of life. Following the work of Friedrich A. Lange’s The History of Materialism and Criticism of Its Present Importance (first published in 1865), Tyndall writes

Nature, in her productions,  does not imitate the technic of man. Her process is one of  unravelling  and unfolding. The infinity  of forms under which matter appears was not imposed upon it by an external artificer;  by its own intrinsic  force and virtue it brings these forms forth. Matter is not the mere naked, empty capacity which philosophers have pictured her to be, but the universal mother, who brings forth all things as the fruit of her own womb.

Through such anthropomorphism of the “universal mother,” Tyndall presents matter as having the capacity for life.

The “analytic tendency” of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, says Tyndall, explained the motion of matter by “a detached Creator, working more or less after the manner of men.” By contrast, Goethe, Carlyle, and other “men of warm feelings” with “minds open to the elevating impressions produced by nature as a whole, whose satisfaction, therefore, is rather ethical than logical,” usually adopt “some form of pantheism.” In his concluding remarks, Tyndall asserts:

Believing, as I do, in the continuity  of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered  and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental  evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial.

Introducing epistemological arguments from John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Tyndall concludes that “we cannot know the real nature of the external world, although there is no doubt as to its existence: ‘Our states of consciousness are mere symbols of an outside entity which produces them and determines the order of their succession, but the real nature of which we can never know.’ All—the nature of matter, the evolution of life, of species, and of mind—is inscrutable mystery.”

According to Barton, Tyndall sought unity between objective knowledge and moral and emotional nature. Tyndall found this unity “not in materialism but in a cosmical life that is manifested in both matter and mind, thought and emotion.”

Yet in the polarized popular debate of the 1870s, Protestant and Catholic defenders of orthodox Christianity saw the Belfast Address as an attack. As Bernard Lightman as shown more recently in “Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address,” in Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds.) Science Serialized: Representation of Sciences in the Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (2004), “through the periodical press, a concerted effort was made to transform Tyndall’s image in the public eye from the respected popular lecturer well known to genteel audiences at the Royal Institution into the aggressive and radical materialist.”

But according to Barton, Tyndall’s “materialism was located within a broader idealist metaphysic.” In saying that his conclusions were the same as Bruno, adding a footnote in the printed version of the address  reminding the reader that “Bruno was a ‘Pantheist,’ not an ‘Atheist’ or a ‘Materialist,'” Tyndall was claiming for himself the title of “Pantheist.” But more than labels, Tyndall’s arguments and concepts show patterns belonging to “romantic idealism,” writes Barton. In romanticism a new conception of nature was central, where qualities traditionally attributed to God are now found in nature. “The divine is immanent in the world, and…the world is the garment of God.” The true religion is a “sense of dependence on, participation in, or union with the great universal life.”

“These aspects of idealism,” Barton claims, “are all found in Tyndall’s writings.” Besides the Belfast Address, Tyndall’s personal philosophy is also recorded in his journal and correspondence between is protégé, friend, and member of the “X-Club” Thomas Hirst. In a journal entry marked 1847, for example, Tyndall, on reading Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Presrnt and Chartism, commented, “His position is sometimes startling—to many he will appear impious…I however thank the gods for having flung him as a beacon to guide me amid life’s entanglements.” And after reading Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Tyndall recorded: “the writer must be a true hero. My feelings toward him are those of worship [or] transcendent wonder’ as he defines it.” But Carlyle’s ideas were one among many that Tyndall subscribed to. In 1848, after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tyndall subsequently bought his works. Later in the year he also bought Fichte’s Characteristics of the Age, and in October he began reading romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel. In a later speech to his pupils at Queenwood, Tyndall described his time studying these authors as a religious purpose: “It was not merely to understand physical laws, for ‘what are sun, stars, science, chemistry, geology, mathematics, but pages of a book whose author is God! I want to know the meaning of this book, to penetrate the spirit of this author and if I fail then are my scientific attainments apple rinds without a core.'” Reading Kant, Schlegel, Fichte, Emerson, and Carlyle, and many others was part of Tyndall’s continuing search for the meaning of the whole.

Following Schlegel, Tyndall claimed that “God does not allow his existence to be proved…[It] must be adopted with the vividness of feeling.” Writing to Hirst, Tyndall said he considered Emerson and Carlyle to be pantheists “in the highest sense”:

I dropped an hour ago upon a very significant  passage in the Sartor. ‘Is there no God then, but at best an absentee God sitting idle ever since the first Sabbath at the outside of his Universe and seeing it go?’ At the ‘outside‘ of his universe. I imagine Carlyle’s entire creed is folded in this sentence…With Carlyle the universe is the blood and bones of Jehovah—he climbs in the sap of trees and falls in cataract.

Tyndall declared William Paley’s God in Natural Theology no better than atheism. Indeed, as Barton puts it, Tyndall “preferred the organic analogy of the universe as a tree to the mechanical analogy of the universe as clock.”

During the twenty years before the Belfast Address, Tyndall was far from materialism. In a number of essays and speeches, however, he elaborated on materialism and its limits, for the materialist debates were raging in places such as Germany. Although he began formulating his own version of materialism and determinism during these years, Tyndall consistently “assured his hearers that the matter of which he spoke was not the matter described by theologians and philosophers; rather, matter is ‘essentially mystical and transcendental,'” and “science, by its limitations, maintained mystery.”

Barton concludes that “Tyndall, like Huxley, Hermann con Helmholtz, and [Friedrich A.] Lange, advocated materialism as a methodology, a program, or a maxim of scientific research, but not as a general philosophy” of life.