A trailblazer rescued from a footnote

July 6, 2007

How did a Cambridge cleric who influenced everyone from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Bertrand Russell get airbrushed from the canon of Western philosophy? Keith Sutherland investigates

Ludwig Wittgenstein is often regarded as the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. His posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) redefined the discipline: philosophers no longer spend their time wrestling with intractable metaphysical problems; instead they seek to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. Wittgenstein's "ordinary language" philosophy is regarded as revolutionary and profoundly original.

But is it? No doubt all philosophy is "nothing but a footnote to Plato", but we might want to be a little more specific in unravelling the intellectual context of the "later" Wittgenstein, and a good place to start is in the library of Wittgenstein's own college - Trinity, Cambridge.

In a groundbreaking new book, John Grote , Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought - the product of four decades of archival research - the political philosopher John Gibbins points out some extraordinary parallels between the later Wittgenstein and the writings of an obscure Victorian clergyman and Trinity scholar named John Grote (1813-66). Trinity College library contained Grote's Papers on Glossology , which were published posthumously between 1872 and 1874 in the Journal of Philology . In these articles, Grote made the claim - radical for its time - that the use of words is their meaning, and that these are both socially defined: "We think in language, what we do when we think is have an inward conversation using social concepts which have agreed social meanings."

The rest of Grote's corpus was devoted to the patient analysis of the use of language and the pinpointing of linguistic errors or "category mistakes" - an analytic approach that was later to reach full elucidation in Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind . Removing linguistic errors, clarifying language usage and coining new words where redefinition would only add to confusion were central to Grote's enterprise of clarifying thinking and hence solving philosophical, ethical and political problems.

Grote challenged the philosophical convention that placed thought prior to language. We cannot think until we can speak; thinking and writing are the servants of language. Grote debunked the foundationalist claims of antiquarians, philologists, logicians and structuralists by arguing that "words mean what they are simply used for, not what there may be in them of fossilised meaning, or what these elements or components mean". Usage is relative to contexts, local conventions and varying social practices. (Grote, interestingly, coined the word "relativism", along with a number of other influential neologisms including "phenomenalism", "notionalism" and "felicific calculus".)

Is the similarity with the later philosophy of the celebrated Trinity scholar Ludwig Wittgenstein merely coincidental? As Jane Heal, Wittgenstein scholar and professor of philosophy at Cambridge, put it: "Does it follow that there is an important influence of Grote on Wittgenstein, comparable to the influence of Schopenhauer or Frege or Sraffa or any of the hundreds of other people Wittgenstein read or talked to?" Gibbins makes explicitly causal claims only where precise documentary evidence exists; contextual analysis and the analytic rebuilding of Grote's philosophy take precedence.

However, the circumstantial evidence for an intellectual connection between Grote and Wittgenstein is strong. The link is via what Gibbins refers to as the "Cambridge network". Wittgenstein encountered at Trinity a philosophical milieu that Grote and the Grote Society (a philosophical discussion club and the likely precursor of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club) had helped transmit and shape. Debates within the fields of philology, hermeneutics, and comparative philology were well documented in mid-19th-century Trinity - in books and in the pages of the Cambridge-based Philological Museum, Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology and the Journal of Philology . These journals had captured groundbreaking conversations on the origin of the meaning of words. Along with Grote's Papers on Glossology , statements by such Trinity figures as Richard Trench, Frederic Farrar and John Donaldson were readily available to Wittgenstein. There is also a link to Grote's editor and literary executor, Joseph Mayor. The latter's son, R. J. G. Mayor, a Cambridge philosopher and member of Cambridge's elite intellectual secret society the Apostles, moved in the same circles as Wittgenstein, G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell.

According to Gibbins, Grote may have influenced many other philosophers in addition to Wittgenstein. Russell derived his contrast between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description from William James, who admitted his indebtedness to Grote in a footnote in the first edition of Principles of Psychology (but he withdrew the acknowledgement in subsequent printings). John Passmore, philosopher and author of A Hundred Years of Philosophy , quipped that this famous distinction "travelled from one Cambridge man to another, via Cambridge, Mass".

In his later years, Russell claimed, in true Clinton-speak, "not to remember having read John Grote" (even though Grote's books were advised reading when he was sitting the moral science tripos at Cambridge). "Russell continued to ignore the attribution and reference to Grote's theory well after the latter's reputation in this area was widely known," writes Gibbins. Unfortunately, Russell also undid Grote's effort to transcend the problems of phenomenalism and returned Britain to a dispute that should have ended 50 years before.

G. E. Moore's "naturalistic fallacy", the famous "is-ought" distinction of Principia Ethica, also has a precursor in Grote's Exploratio Philosophica (1865), Examination (1870) and Treatise (1876). Others at Cambridge with published attributions to Grote include Leslie Stephen, James Ward, G. F. Stout, W. R. Sorley and C. D. Broad; and, at Oxford, Edward Caird, Bernard Bosanquet, Francis Bradley, Lord Asquith, E. F. Carritt, Hastings Rashdall, H. W. B. Joseph, J. A. Smith and Anthony Quinton.

The distinguished philosopher Michael Oakeshott, notorious for under-citing his sources, nevertheless confessed his enormous debt to Grote - primarily towards the end of his life in correspondence with Gibbins. Oakeshott read the whole of Grote's corpus as a young Cambridge scholar; he picked up the Exploratio , Treatise and Examination in a second-hand bookshop in the 1920s and described them as the work of "a vastly interesting and remarkably independent thinker". Oakeshott's first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), focuses on the logical distinction between the categories or "arrests" of knowledge - practice, history, science, poetry (aesthetics), philosophy and so on - and the dangers of confusing them. His argument owes a clear debt to Grote both were concerned that the languages of history, philosophy and science were becoming hopelessly muddled, and that practice and science were "making a takeover bid for the whole terrain of explanation".

Grote's influence continued throughout Oakeshott's life - his emphasis on freedom as a "postulate of all our thinking and acting, without which neither would make sense" was reflected in the mature Oakeshott's On Human Conduct . Furthermore, Grote's critique of the application of philosophical abstractions to human affairs was a precursor to Oakeshott's famous polemic Rationalism in Politics . To Oakeshott, who warmly encouraged Gibbins with his research, Grote's work provides "a lesson in how to reflect".

Gibbins' John Grote is beginning to sound a little like Forrest Gump, putting in an appearance at every key moment in the development of modern philosophy. If this is true, then why on earth has nobody heard of him? Even the philosopher Ted Honderich, a previous holder of the Grote chair at University College London (established by John Grote's brother, George) told me that he had never heard of the "unknown John Grote", who merits only brief footnotes in most histories of philosophy and was notably omitted from The Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Philosophers .

Grote was certainly a lot more than an "obscure clergyman" in his own time he was the occupant of the Knightbridge chair in moral philosophy at Cambridge, a protegee of William Whewell, and author of a devastating and frequently cited critique of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism . Grote's Cambridge idealist school was an important influence on the later and better-known Oxford school of T. H. Green. Gibbins considers it highly likely that the Oxford idealists would have read Grote's major essays Bosanquet and Bradley most certainly did. Furthermore, Grote's idealism was an indigenous English philosophy, not just an "importation of Hegelianism".

So why has he been airbrushed from the canon? Grote may have been his own worst enemy - the Westminster Review of 1865 described his books as "almost unreadable" and claimed that Grote did "great injustice to himself" by his rambling treatment of his subject. Henry Sidgwick opined that Grote's written work suffered from a "perplexing prolixity"; although Sidgwick was a pupil of Grote, he turned on his mentor in later life, accusing him of producing a "collection of sketches... without order or coherence". Missing Grote's point about the priority of language over thinking, Sidgwick would probably have passed the same verdict upon Wittgenstein's seminars, language games and "notey" writing style.

But there may have been darker motives behind Sidgwick's claim that Grote was guilty of a "lax syncretism". Sidgwick liked to see himself as the "saviour of Cambridge philosophy" and, according to Gibbins, this led him to disparage the contribution of his predecessors. Sidgwick was principally concerned with securing his own place in the history books, which required him to paint a depressing picture of mid-Victorian Cambridge as conservative, sterile, narrow, indolent and reactionary, prior to the late-Victorian intellectual renaissance under... Henry Sidgwick. However, the continuities between the two men are overwhelming, both in their philosophical methods and writing, and their ethical methods and prescriptions. Through the Grote Society, Grote had a contemporary and a lasting influence on scholars as diverse as the economist Alfred Marshall, the logician John Venn and Sidgwick. As holder of the Knightbridge chair, Grote affected generations of scholars who encountered his revised and professionalised moral sciences tripos reading list and tutors, who included Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), Henry Roby and Leonard Courtney.

Grote acknowledged candidly his indecisiveness, indolence and other character flaws - on at least one occasion he withdrew work from the printers and ordered the type to be broken up. Tragically he died prematurely, aged 53, leaving many manuscripts but no clear formulation of his philosophy. The editor of his posthumous publications, Mayor, seems to have struggled with his mentor's work and was chided by the Cambridge historian John Seeley for the long delay in publishing Grote's manuscripts. Moreover, Grote's contemporaries appear not to have been fully in tune with the logic of his work and failed to realise its power and originality. Mayor eventually decided, in 1916, to destroy most of the unpublished manuscripts, and Gibbins's continuing research was only made possible by the rediscovery in 1989 of the remnants in the possession of Lady Teresa Rothschild (the daughter of Grote's adopted niece, Alexandrina Jessie Grote, who married Joseph Mayor).

These manuscripts are now deposited as the Mayor Papers in the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, fittingly lodged between the papers of Wittgenstein and the educationist R. A. Butler, but most scholars are unaware of their importance or even their existence.

Grote was a generous critic, always striving to find common points with an eclectic mix of philosophers and despising the emerging form of personalised and intemperately partisan criticism. This generosity was often mistaken for indecision, but Oakeshott claimed that Grote's very unwillingness to form a "system" or school (with its attendant following) was his greatest virtue: he was "always much more certain about what will not do than concerned to construct a doctrine of his own", Oakeshott said.

This, along with his conversational style, led Passmore to write: "Grote's philosophy is in a manner an early, perhaps the first, example of that Cambridge spirit, which was to reach its culmination in the work of G. E. Moore." Gibbins, who is director of postgraduate skills development at Newcastle University, extends Passmore's claim to encompass the work of Wittgenstein and Oakeshott. Now is the time for Grote's influence to be recognised and for the history of Cambridge University and the development of Victorian thought to be rewritten. Indeed, in the words of one reviewer, Gibbins has "activated a time bomb" beneath much of the received history of modern philosophy.

Keith Sutherland is executive editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies and publisher, History of Political Thought and Collingwood and British Idealism Studies. John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought by John Gibbins will be reviewed next week.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments