John Grote: Victorian Philosophy in the Modern World

Simon Cook and Chris Donohue have brought an audience to, and focus upon, the Grote Cub for good reason: it played a crucial role in developing the emerging social sciences in Cambridge, Britain and America in particular. Here I wish to focus on, and explore, the man who founded, grounded and expounded the Club’s ethos and practices – Professor John Grote (1813-1866). In future blog posts we will explore several crucial elements of his life and corpus: the family and networks that grounded him; the unique methods he learned from the Cambridge Network; the intense analysis of his experience of Being in the term ‘personalism’ he coined; the recognition that as thinking was conducted in language, that conversation was core to knowing the world; a brilliant critique of Mill’s dominant utilitarian thinking, and his own unique ethical and political theories. Latter we can explore some of the many Montaignian insights on human nature and conduct.

A brilliant student member of the Club, Henry Sidgwick, aged 22, wrote to a friend that John Grote retained an eclecticism, ‘certainly retained, with the freshness, indecisiveness of youth till the day of his death…’This was attractive to young scholars. In later reviews of Grote’s posthumous publications, he uses a similar vocabulary, littered with ‘friendly’, ‘eager’, ‘astute’, ‘independent’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘effective’ and ‘good sense’. He notes that John neither intended, nor achieved the foundation of a new ‘school’ of philosophy, and indeed opposed in all ways possible to the ‘odium ethicum’ or ‘warfare’ that purveyed intellectual debate in mid-nineteenth century Britain.

Better routes offered themselves: like ‘to clear the ground’, not contest it; thinking things out for ourselves rather than following the thoughts and prescription of others; exploring ourselves and others rather than learning the cannon; ‘companionship’ and friendship rather than teaching; spending time unpacking what is known within the vocabulary of used ‘ordinary languages’ of the time, rather than slavish reading of ancient languages and books; meeting the minds of others in real conversation about things that count to us, rather than following the corpus and agendas of others. John had a faith ‘in our intelligence’, a ‘belief’, that, ‘the more we can find out about ourselves, our human life and powers, and our real prospects, the better and the happier we shall be…’. ‘What we want: what we mean to do with ourselves, what ends we wish to gain what it is well we should do, what we are called upon to do: this is the region of ideals, of freedom, and of choice…’.

More profoundly too, Grote altered the focus of view as to where knowledge was to be gained: from outside to inside; from adding new facts to unpacking the implications within what is known already, from aggregation of discoveries to discrimination within what is known, from fretting about what is unknowable to discrimination about what is knowable and known, from searching for the essential foundation of things in something, to just starting from somewhere and working things out for ourselves anew in many new directions. Less about, ‘Old Studies and New, more about all studies, more explorations and more education.’

What allowed Grote to exercise such confidence and freedom was not just a faith in human beings, intellect and imagination, but a clever form of eclecticism that he inherited form Gambatista Vico and the Cambridge Liberal Anglicans around him. Vico’s insight was that different approaches, languages and methods were appropriate and productive with different objects of study. Look for nature’s logic (causality) in anything natural; look for God’s motives in anything divine; and hermeneutic human reason in any artefact. If broadened and explored we get the proposition that we will be able to harness even greater rewards if we allow and encourage a greater plurality of explorations of the world from as many perspectives as can be shown to be productive. ‘For the best thing that I can hope, and the thing which I most wish, for anything which I may say, is that it may be improved upon: that the present generation seem to have more than one bright field of speculation open before them, and what I want more than anything is to prevent their enterprize being damped… by theological, ethical, political, philosophical or other misconceptions or misrepresentations.’

Apart from the social sciences Grote championed, like economics, politics, psychology, law, history, philology, glossology, anthropology and comparative studies, he specifically wished to defend the new discrete natural sciences, like ‘comparative mental anatomy’ and ‘animal intelligence’, which were questioned and censored in his lifetime, ‘Nor do I wish to prevent the truth of their look at nature, and the sincerity of their investigation of it, being vitiated by the suspicion and fear that they will be …. brought to conclusions … which will force them to renounce their best birthright’.

This whole ethos and practice was to provide Grote Club members and many others with the confidence to think new and original thoughts, to create new and innovative theories, methods, curricula and ways of knowing. But what of the man, the ‘peculiar intelligence?

John was born in a large county mansion in Beckenham in Kent in 1813, within a family of prosperous, cosmopolitan and well connected bankers. Migrating from Germany, Belgium and Holland from the seventeenth century, John’s own family descended from Andreas Grote who had arrived, with considerable capital, in 1731. Partnerships with Kruger and then Prescott, proved successful, to a point where George Grote Snr. (1762-1830), could nurture a thriving family of one girl and ten boys, the most famous of which was George Grote Jnr.(1794-1871) the historian of Greece, Philosophical Radical, Member of Parliament for Westminster.

George and John were fluent and versed in most European languages past and present, and conversed in many. What grated, what hampered, what distressed the children, was their mother’s increasingly narrow adoption of evangelical religion. As it expanded its range and scope, first father, then eldest son then the rest escaped into professions, often in the Empire as far away as possible. Third youngest, John was lucky to have his imagination stimulated on a visit to Cambridge University on one of his mother’s educational tours. On condition that he took holy orders, his mother allowed entry to the university in 1831, and he was inducted into the most intellectually stimulating environment in England at the time – Trinity College and the Cambridge Network. A litany of tripos honours followed in both mathematics and classics, followed by holy orders. A short and unhappy curateship away from the university ended when Trinity granted him the nearby living and spacious Rectory of Trumpington, where the Grote Club met and dined originally, and where ‘Groteries’ met regularly.

Friendships, which John considered even more to his philosophical education than teaching and reading, focused on the genius polymath Robert Leslie Ellis, Edward Harold Browne, extended to cover his brothers Benthamite network in London, through which he also met J.M.W Turner and Robert Southey, to travelling and reading groups around Britain and Europe. A Harvard visitor on an extended stay, Charles Astor Bristed, considered John Grote and Robert Ellis to be the two best minds in Cambridge. John was elected Professor when William Whewell retirement from the Knightbridge Chair of Causistry and Moral Philosophy in 1855, and set about reforming its name and scope, removing theological obligations and focusing upon philosophy. His proposal to both professionalize disciplines and free them from religious limitations became the rationale of the new Moral Sciences Tripos, which gave the impetus to elect a new breed of Moral Sciences Tutors for the Colleges. Skilling them up was the mission Grote fashioned for the Grote Club.

Parish affairs, essay publishing, University and College administration took an excessive toll on his time and writing. A mark of the man is reflected in the fact that despite these pressures, when a crisis hit with the death of his brother Andrew and wife in India, John readily adopted their daughter Alexandrina Jessie Grote. With no wife, he employed a young well educated Governess, who the family suspected, wrongly, would become John’s wife. Ally grew into a scholar, who married one of the Grote Club’s leading members, Joseph Mayor, and whose children, grandchildren and onwards have become leading scholars. On Alley’s marriage, John hosted a day of feasting for all of the village and University members he could accommodate, and later, he and Ellis chartered and paid for a train to take the villagers of Trumpington to an exhibition in London. Allie’s daughter Alice, later described John as the most handsome, charming and gifted of the brothers.

Pressure of work, wanting to get it right, wishing to avoid more ‘warfare’, did not slow Grote’s writing but rather his publications. Having typeset a devastating critique of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, written as each part came out in 1862, John hesitated to publish before ordering the typeset broken up, a revised version being delayed until 1870. He had completed in 1864 the positive philosophy that powered the critique, but he hesitated again, deciding instead to write the epistemological and methodological prolegomena that would underpin the positive ethics. He died in 1866 of rheumatic fever shortly after the first volume of his best book, Exploratio Philosophica, was published in 1865. Joseph Mayor became literary editor and published five books and several essays on the basis of surviving manuscripts, but fearing misuse by subsequent editors, Mayor destroyed most of the papers in 1916. What survives is now is cataloged online at the ‘Mayor Papers’ in the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

John Grote’s legacies are only now undergoing analytic and historical recovery and re-construction, with the online Grote Club site becoming a prominent actor. Only sustained historical scholarship and readers’ engagement and conversation around Grote’s picture of who we are, what we can know and become will determine whether my efforts at re-evaluation in John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought, (Imprint Academic, 2007) will achieve its purpose. Of one point I can concur with Michael Oakeshott: ‘John Grote is a lesson on how to reflect’, and add, ‘a lesson in how to think’. Enjoy.

One thought on “John Grote: Victorian Philosophy in the Modern World

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    An excellent post by John Gibbins, author of John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought (Imprint Academic, 2007). John is the foremost expert on this significant Victorian figure. Here he explains the man behind the Grote Club and his challenging ideas in his historical setting.


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