Welcome to our first Grote Club posting.

In future posts John Gibbins will be writing about all aspects of the mid-Victorian philosopher John Grote. John regards Grote as the most overlooked thinker of the last few centuries; and I suspect he has a point. But my own concern is with Grote’s institutional and intellectual legacy.

Grote took over the newly instituted Moral Sciences Tripos in 1855. This was a new venture at the University of Cambridge, at which a liberal education had traditionally consisted of Classics and Mathematics (Oxford did not even have Mathematics). In its first few years the new tripos had been under the guidance of the great Victorian polymath and conservative William Whewell, who had sought to bring moral philosophy into harmony with history and law in order to present a systematic refutation of what he took to be the godless and industrial radicalism of metropolitan moralists like J.S. Mill.

Under the stewardship of Grote, from 1855 to 1866, the nascent study of moral sciences in Cambridge was overhauled. History and law were hived off to form their own faculty, while logic and mental philosophy were brought in. Grote set out to establish a tradition of Cambridge moral science founded on mental philosophy and scientific psychology.

Grote’s philosophy rested upon the idea that there were two kinds of knowledge we could have about the moral world: phenomenal and real. Phenomenal moral science was like natural science – it sought for law-like regularities in observable human behaviour. The foundational phenomenal moral science for Grote was mental science, or psychology. But in addition to such scientific knowledge there was also philosophy, which generated real knowledge. This arose, for example, when the mind observed itself in the process of gathering phenomenal knowledge. Real knowledge was self-consciousness, and Grote claimed that it provided a route to knowledge of God.

To establish that we could know God was Grote’s great aim. Where Whewell had feared godless metropolitan radicals, Grote was much more concerned with a new Oxford movement, associated with Henry Mansel, which attempted to safeguard religion from science by arguing that finite human beings could not possibly know the Absolute that was God. Grote perceived (correctly, I think) that Mansel was opening the door to a dangerous agnosticism in which the triumph of science would go hand in hand with the eclipse of theology.

Grote’s dualistic epistemology, his response to Mansel, in effect proposed an alliance with the followers of J.S. Mill. Materialist (or rather, phenomenalist) moral science was to find its place within Cambridge, but only on the understanding that there was more in heaven and earth than was comprehended by any secular moral science. Furthermore, there was to be a hierarchy within the disciplines: the philosopher, the guardian of real knowledge, would have higher status and greater authority than the mere moral scientist.

Qualifications and hierarchies notwithstanding, Grote legitimized the scientific study of mind and society within Cambridge.

During Grote’s tenure of the Moral Sciences Tripos, regular meetings of those involved in the new faculty would be held at Grote’s house in the small village of Trumpington, just outside Cambridge. These meetings became known as the Grote Club, and they continued – now in the various college rooms of the members – after Grote’s death in 1866.

John Venn was one member of the Grote Club, and also a good friend of Grote himself. Venn, who is remembered today through the ‘Venn diagram’, was a logician, a self-proclaimed follower of J.S. Mill’s ‘materialist logic’.

Alfred Marshall began attending meetings of the Grote Club shortly after Grote’s death. While going on to found the Cambridge school of economics, the papers that Marshall delivered to the Grote Club in the late 1860s are concerned with mental philosophy.

In his ‘Grote Club papers’, Marshall begins by accepting Grote’s position that self-consciousness stands outside any science of the mind and then proceeds to develop a mechanical model of mental phenomena. In other words, Marshall argues that much of our mental life can be approached scientifically and, indeed, correlated with the physiological mechanisms of our nervous systems, but that some key elements of our mental life cannot be so reduced.

In my 2009 monograph on Marshall I argued that this Grotean philosophical model stood behind Marshall’s subsequent reformation of Classical Political Economy as modern or Neo-classical economic science. I argued that Marshall envisaged economics as a phenomenal moral science, which had autonomy in its proper sphere, but looked to the moral philosopher when it came to value judgments and the direction of public policy.

These days my interest has shifted to later phases in the development of moral science (broadly conceived) within Cambridge; specifically to the foundation of a new faculty of Anthropology in the early years of the twentieth century.

I perceive the legacy of Grote at work in the early years of Cambridge anthropology. The new Board of Studies of Anthropology brought together natural scientists, most notably the experimental psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, with humanist scholars such as the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick and the Classical Archeologist, William Ridgeway.

Of these Edwardian anthropologists, it was Ridgeway who commanded most authority within the university. Ridgeway was concerned with the transition from primitive myth and ritual to what he deemed ‘literature’. It seems clear to me – although this is something I will return to and explore in some depth in later posts – that Ridgeway’s division between literature and primitive myth corresponds to Grote’s distinction between self-consciousness and ordinary mental life.

Granting the ‘Grotean’ makeup of the new study of anthropology an interesting picture of Grotean moral science in Cambridge comes into view. From Grote through John Venn and Alfred Marshall, and then on through to Ridgeway, Chadwick and Rivers, we can perceive a burgeoning study of humanity and society founded upon a bifurcated mental philosophy.

The way is open to trace the – hitherto unnoticed and so unexplored – connections between what have now become quite separate fields of study; disciplines that have long thrown off their initial psychological moorings.

Can we draw a composite picture of a unified and comprehensive project of moral science founded upon a dualistic philosophy of the human mind? How are we to explain the sudden demise of this project in the interwar years? And how much had the project already fragmented before World War One, in the face of external intellectual developments such as the emergence of a new scientific idea of race and the growing study of human prehistory?

Follow me in my subsequent posts on our revitalized Grote Club in the pursuit of answers to these questions.

Photo: (c) Simon Knott (used with permission)

One thought on “The Grote Club and Beyond

  1. This is a great venture which allows the first tuely open conversation on the role, value and potential of the Grote Club for contemporary social sciences and philosophy. Well done to the authors and the site producers. John Gibbins


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