Deep thoughts rescued from long obscurity

John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought

July 13, 2007

John Grote (1813-66) has long enjoyed the academic obscurity he seemingly sought, what with his meagre scholarly output during his lifetime. Although he received passing mention in Noel Annan's celebrated essay on "The Intellectual Aristocracy" - which duly and rather dully noted that he was a professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge University and the leader of an animated discussion club that met at his vicarage, Trumpington - most of the commentary on him has been as unnotable as its subject.

The great and continuing fame of his classicist older brother George, the philosophical radical and friend and ally of John Stuart Mill, never rubbed off on John, who disagreed with George on nearly every count except the spelling of the family name.

But the younger Grote has now found a friend and admirer the like of which has not been seen since the flower of his Trumpington "Grote Club". John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought is the result of decades of archival research by John Richard Gibbins from Newcastle University, who surely knows more about Grote than many members of the Grote Club did. And if Gibbins allows that Grote's life was pleasantly indolent - "apart from friendship, music and walking his life was dedicated to conversation, private study and the life of the mind" - the years of research have only deepened his admiration for the man: "What is clear is the profundity of John Grote's mind and writings, and the error in those who have ignored his works for so long."

Why have so many been in such error for so long?

Gibbins's book tells a complex story over the course of its four much too repetitive parts. The heart of the book, parts two and three, provides a detailed account of Grote's major, largely posthumous works - Exploratio Philosophica, An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy and A Treatise on the Moral Ideals . This makes a case for Grote as a seminal, homegrown idealist, a penetrating critic of naturalism and utilitarianism for failing to do justice to the active and creative side of human agency, and the first realisation of the "Cambridge Spirit" in philosophy, with its emphasis on candour and linguistic clarity. Grote "saw in human history a great endeavour for human social improvement or self-realisation, which often led to regress but which overall witnessed man's ascent to the moral absolute, the Good and Right".

There is no reducing away the truth that persons can know and persons are free and progress happens. And, Gibbins says, Grote suggested that God is "the architect of the universe, and it is His mind and intelligence we meet when thinking or acting in the world".

Grote's more sceptical younger colleague Henry Sidgwick, who dominated Cambridge philosophy after Grote's death, deemed him thoughtful but unsystematic. But for Gibbins, Grote was a deeper philosopher than either his older brother or Sidgwick, both utilitarians seeking to strangle idealism in its cradle.

Gibbins's sympathy for idealism - which calls for far more defence than he provides - surely helps explain his enthusiasm for Grote, which appears to be rivalled only by his enthusiasm for the late conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, "the British philosopher closest to Grote's epistemology". It was Oakeshott who helped set Gibbins on the path leading to this book, which loops around to celebrate Grote as the route to Oakeshott, a circuitous journey that many might take as an argument against progress in philosophy.

If one cannot help but admire the dedicated research reflected in this work - and the sheer love of its subject - one can wish that the effort might have made Grote come to life a bit more. But the prose is soggy, and the book feels like a long bibliographical essay studded with peculiar diagrams suggestive of classroom presentation. This is, to be sure, a book that can teach a great deal about the Victorian era, Cambridge University and John Grote - not to mention Oakeshott. But it is a mine for serious scholars, not a draw for the passing public. Grote probably would have preferred it just that way.

Bart Schultz is senior lecturer and director of the Civic Knowledge Project in the division of the humanities, University of Chicago. His is author of Henry Sidgwick , Eye of the Universe and co-editor of Utilitarianism and Empire .

John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought

Author - John Gibbins
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Pages - 400
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 9781845400071

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