W.K. Clifford and “The Ethics of Belief,” by Timothy J. Madigan (Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge, 2009, ISBN 1-84718-503-7) 202 pp. Cloth $29.99.
“It is wrong, always and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything for insufficient evidence.” Many secular humanists will recognize on sight the breathtakingly skeptical credo of William Kingdon Clifford (1845–1879), short-lived wunderkind of nineteenth-century London letters. An accomplished mathematician and redoubtable philosopher (not to mention an amateur athlete whose aerial feats seem more the stuff of Spider-Man than Victorian intellectual history), Clifford was the youngest thinker ever invited to join the fabled Metaphysical Society. There he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tennyson, Gladstone, and T.H. Huxley. Before this august assembly, he delivered the 1876 lecture from which I took the quotation that begins this review. Titled “The Ethics of Belief,” the essay was a brilliant, fiery call for nearly universal skepticism, challenging its listeners to give credence only to those propositions and beliefs they could themselves prove. To Victorian intellectuals caught in the fury of that era’s Crisis of Faith, Clifford’s essay served up a corrosive tonic whose ingestion must surely have seared away the last vestiges of faith. So it seemed to rationalists who embraced its forbidding evidentialism—and to champions of the church who struggled to reply to it. One measure of the essay’s power is that its best-known riposte, William James’s credulistic “The Will to Believe,” was composed in 1897. Twenty-one years after its arrival, Clifford’s magnum opus still demanded rejoinder.
“The Ethics of Belief” was milestone reading in my own development as an unbeliever. An all but lapsed Catholic college sophomore, I was assigned to read “The Ethics of Belief” and “The Will to Believe” back-to-back for a theology class at the Jesuit university I attended (yes, really). Most of my classmates recoiled from Clifford’s hard-mindedness and repaired to James’s embrace as one might stagger to a comfy sofa after losing a tavern brawl. But not me; asked for my reaction, I happily opined that “Clifford is obviously right; meanwhile this James fellow is a propagandist for intellectual irresponsibility, so clever that he is dangerous and probably merits being watched.” (I later learned that my earnest young Jesuit instructor was not at all surprised that I wound up editing a secular humanist magazine.)
While I’m dwelling on personal history, I should disclose that author Timothy J. Madigan is a previous editor of Free Inquiry and my comrade-in-arms in no small number of globe-trotting humanist exploits. Much as Clifford might disapprove, don’t let my disclosure get in the way of your believing that this short scholarly appreciation is a superb and surprisingly comprehensive introduction to an under-appreciated Victorian thinker.
The book grew out of Madigan’s doctoral dissertation, a document whose prolonged gestation his friends feared might outlast the interval between “The Ethics of Belief” and “The Will to Believe.” As such, it reflects Madigan’s deep study of Victorian social and intellectual history.
The book’s first chapter sets up the cultural context of the era. Driven in part by the unsettling philosophies of Locke, Hume, and Mill and in part by scientific discoveries that ranged from geological and astronomical clues to the age of Earth and the universe to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Victorian intellectuals saw the biblical verities they’d grown up on decisively upturned. As a result, they experienced what may have been, historically speaking, a uniquely intense crisis of faith. Clifford’s own passage from orthodoxy to agnosticism mirrored his times, much as his own thinking further roiled his contemporaries.
Next Madigan traces Clifford’s life and philosophy. Here he makes clear that Clifford’s contributions far exceeded the “ethics of belief” controversy. He was one of the first Victorian thinkers to draw out the ethical implications of Darwinian theory. He made significant contributions to mathematics, introducing English mathematicians to ideas of non-Euclidean geometry then bubbling in Europe. (Though they never knew each other, it is intriguing that both Clifford and his principal intellectual heir, Bertrand Russell, excelled in both philosophy and mathematics.)
Next comes an insightful analysis of “The Ethics of Belief.” Despite his enthusiasm for Clifford, Madigan is relentlessly candid in identifying where Clifford’s epistemic severity exceeds what real humans living real lives can realistically live up to. Madigan capably profiles the critics of “The Ethics of Belief,” from Clifford’s contemporaries to William James to latter-day commentators including C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Rorty, Susan Haack, and others.
Perhaps most impressively, Madigan closes with the bracing argument that “The Ethics of Belief” still merits our attention “even if its ethical and epistemological assumptions are no longer tenable.” Drawing on early twentieth-century philosopher Hans Vaihinger’s concept of “as if” thinking, Madigan reinterprets Clifford’s essay as an exercise in virtue ethics. We are urged to view Clifford’s bombastic language and impossibly stringent epistemology as a sort of anthem, a “heuristic principle” by means of which Clifford exhorts his readers to fulfill their capacities in the direction of “moral betterment and epistemic perfection.” With due apologies to the U.S. Army, Madigan argues that Clifford’s unapproachable rigor spurs each of us to, well, be all that we can be.
Amazingly, Madigan achieves all this in just 186 pages exclusive of bibliography and index. His writing is historically and philosophically scrupulous yet rewardingly accessible to any educated reader. W. K. Clifford and “The Ethics of Belief” is that ultimate rarity: an uncompromising philosophical history that nonspecialists can read not just with pleasure but with gusto.
If I live that long, I can’t wait for Madigan’s next book.