The Cambridge Mind and the Claim for ‘Knowableness’

Many theories, and their abridgements, seek to describe the character and identity of the Cambridge Mind. The engagement is essentially contested, meaning that the alternatives are so dependent upon such diverse, but committed foundational beliefs, narratives and values, that agreement is impossible.

Yet the endeavour is of great importance when we consider the goal, an answer to why Cambridge University since 1830, has produced many of the greatest thinkers, theories and inventions of the modern world.

My contribution here is that Cambridge intellectuals between 1830 and 1880, produced and reproduced radical hypothesis with dramatic effects: that the universe was knowable, that nothing within the human cognitive framework excluded complete rational knowledge, and that religions should not be allowed to govern, nor censor, research exploration.

My own list of factors, which have engaged my published work, include two essential ingredients: that intellectuals are fashioned, and leaders reproduced, within vigorous ‘knowledge networks’, and that a knowledge is ‘organized’ in structures, institutions and practices to reproduce the achieved  knowledge.

The first is premised upon the idea that knowledge is social in form, word and impact; that it is constructed in conversations between fellow knowers and explorers; and that economies of scale arise when coteries gather catalytic mass in one place. My research points out the impact of these features within the Cambridge Network from 1830-1860 and The Grote Club 1860-1870.

The second ingredient requires that the knowledge produced must be effectively reproduced and embedded locally, nationally and globally, extending the knowledge conversations to other and wider conversationalists and users. The required organizational features that have effected these tasks includes: design of degrees, Syndics, Course Boards, courses of study; curriculum, set books; learning resources such as lecture theatres, laboratories, museums, and libraries; learning methods such seminars, tutorials, examinations, quality peer reviews and assessments. As Edward Schils put the points in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1922, (Olsen & Voss eds., 1979, 46-7):

The universities were vouchsafed the vocation because they appeared to be the best imaginable instrument for the performance of the dual cognitive function. They could not only produce more knowledge, more reliably and more continuously than any other learned organisation, but they could transmit it, thus making provision for the persistence of that progress. No other arrangement of intellectual activities could approximate their success in this regard[1].

Cambridge led the way in Britain in the nineteenth century in both departments of the production and reproduction of knowledge (Gibbins 2001; 2005; 2007).

But success required other ingredients:  leisure that a secure income provides, to allow engagement with knowledge; and a declared mission to design, store and reproduce knowledge, for interested stakeholders ranging from states to companies; from professions to the voluntary bodies. The belief, faith, agreement and commitment to the idea that knowledge is worth having, and its corollary, that it is achievable, are foundational to this form of life and endeavour. It is on this second element, that knowledge is achievable, that I wish to turn now.

John Grote (1813-1866), and his Cambridge contemporaries, countered a myriad of sceptical claims limiting the scope of possible human knowledge of the world ,with one about knowableness (Grote 1900, 202).  That the world is knowable is a contested proposition in the history of Western thought, unpopular in epochs where religious beliefs trumped others. The consensus for Christians, after Aquinas, was that half of what was important to a good life, was knowable in largely Aristotelian terms, but the reset, the top of the triangle reaching towards God and the Divine, was at best ‘revealed through a glass darkly’.  In the higher realms, we were obliged to rely upon beliefs, hope and charity. In pagan religions knowledge is hidden, accessible rarely, via and only via some invocative esoteric paranormal practices.

That the world and universe are in principle knowable are ideas we can trace to the ancient Greeks and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in particular. They accepted the principle and set about deciding on the best methods for the divergent tasks of knowing the self, others, the Gods, nature, the right, beautiful and their Forms. If there was an order in the universe, it should be knowable. But the major premise was soon to come under question, especially in the hands of the sceptics and cynics. If all knowledge is known via the senses, then not only may they deceive us but we are stuck behind the veil or mask that ascribes these senses, according to Diogenes. Zeno’s Paradoxes reveal that logic itself produces limits to what reason can tell us reliably.

In the modern period, empirical and rationalist epistemologies further limited our capacities to know the world. For empiricists, like Hobbes, Locke, Hume and the Mills, if all knowledge is inducted from sense experience, the external world can be only ‘a constant possibility of sensation’. For rationalists on the other hand, like Descartes in the Meditations, knowledge is constrained by the limits of the body and experience. Confidence in existence is then  erected on the fragile argument that, ‘to be thinking must prove that I am a thinking being’. The intuitional schools, such as that of the Moral Sentiments or Senses, also painted themselves into the unknowability corner.

What we know for certain in regard to morality, according to Hutchinson and Shaftsbury,  is our innate, immediate senses and sentiments, like care, benevolence and fairness. But we cannot extrapolate beyond to know the right, the good and the beautiful – only their sensed impressions.

But the real crisis outside of theology got progressively worse with the Kantian argument that, on the basis of sense experience,  the real ‘thing in itself’, was inaccessible and unknowable. Similar conclusions flourished in the nineteenth century, the Scots Dugald Stewart and William Hamilton, and Dean Mansel in Oxford arguing that, as each thought conditions, the unconditioned thought is inaccessible (Mansel, 1866). Even amongst the Oxford Idealists knowableness was not agreed, Frederick H Bradley arguing that Absolute Reality was beyond human cognition and judgement. Related were theories of relativity and relativism, the claim being that reality, as absolute, was inaccessible because all experiences and judgements  are true only relatively to others (Grote 1900, 284-288).

John Grote coined both terms to identify and characterize this supposedly decisive argument against the possibility of any truth, let alone absolute truth (Grote 1865, 62-7, 183, 228-9, 245; 1900, 303-5, 310-312). This unknowability played well in societies imbued with the Christian narrative of an unknowable God. Relativity played well in societies imbued with the new scientific positivist ‘spirit of the age’. It is this quandary, this paradoxical position around unknowability, that called forth the argument for knowableness and knowability and absolute truth amongst Cambridge minds.

The first evidence of a Cambridge knowledge network committed to the premise of knowability concerns a group of theologians and philosophers in the eighteenth-century university – known as the Cambridge Platonists. Benjamin Whichcote, Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, John Smith, and John Balguy argued that both God, his will, truth and the external world are knowable on Platonic principles, namely that the one Realty is spiritual and knowable by reason and intellect.  What they refused to accept was the unknowability of the world. Hobbes’ empiricism, then Shaftsbury’s and Hutchinson’s arguments for moral senses, became the main focus of their attacks.

This Platonist position was developed and its range expanded into many disciplines in the 1830s by a coterie of Cambridge scientists whose Baconian mission was embodied in the Cambridge Network, captured recently in, Reforming Philosophy: Victorian Debate on Science and Society, Chicago and London. 2006, and The Philosophical Breakfast Club:  Four Remarkable friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World  (Snyder, 2006, 2012). Charles Babbage (analysis) , James Clark Maxwell (natural philosophy), George Airy (mathematician, astronomer),  Richard Jones (political economist), John Herschell (astonomy), The Network included several polymaths, Augustus De Morgan (mathematician, Logician), William Whewell and George Peacock.

Their mission followed that of their revered Trinity sage Francis Bacon, as set out in his New Atlantis. If ‘knowledge is power’, then it is the mission of scholars to know everything,  both for the good of mankind, and to realise the will of God. The role of the University, the curriculum, research, the Breakfast Club, and all scholarship, is to annihilate the unknowable, the conditioned, the relative and the ‘thing in itself’, and then explore the universe of the knowable.

In his numerous books on Liberal Education, the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Moral Philosophy as well as on Tideology and Geology, Whewell practiced what he preached. He not only coined the term ‘scientist’, to professionalise such explorers of the physical world, but he advanced their cause with a new Tripos on the Natural Sciences, new Laboratories, Fellowships, and Prizes for the leading contributors. To those who argued that science acted to undermine faith in God, he and his network friends, stayed true to the formula that as God created the world and rational humans, that knowledge would lead into and onto God’s providential universe.

Such a faith was shaken in their colleague Adam Sedgwick, with the unveiling of the theory of evolution by fellow university scholar, Charles Darwin. But Charles Kingsley,  then Regius Professor of History there,  restored equilibrium in the Cambridge script, with the rationale that, God’s creative greatness must have spanned millions, rather than thousands of years. Cambridge withdrew religious censorship of research and teaching incrementally during the century, definitively siding with the authors of Essays and Reviews in 1862, when forced to defend themselves in Law Courts from accusations of heresy.

But it was in the fields of theology, history and philosophy where the pre-Grotian argument for knowability, had developed. As with the case for liberty, so withy knowableness, humanists owe a great debt to modern Christian theology and practice. In history a movement known as Liberal Anglicanism developed Vichean and German philosophic themes of distinct forms of knowledge, exploring reality from diverse perspectives, locating knowledge as a contingent historical unfolding. Historians in this movement included Julius Hare, Milman, Stanley and Arnold. Their theologians were identified amongst Broad Churchmen, believing in the knowability of God via ordinary forms of experience and knowing, and the idea of Christianity as knowing God in imminent experience and activities.

For classicists and poets the belief was essentially Coleridgian, as represented by Table Talk, Aids to Reflection, and The Statesman’s Manual. Gods providential purposes imbued the whole world and would be revealed in all studies, but especially philosophy. This spirit was captured succinctly in Guesses at Truth by Julius Hare (1838) and in The Broad Stone of Honour (1822) by Kenelm Henry Digby.

Amongst philosophers after Whewell, the task of promoting knowability was undertaken by Grote Club members John Grote, Frederick Dennison Maurice, Henry Sidgwick and John Venn. I shall discuss the arguments of the first two here.

‘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: the present generation seem to have more than one most bright field of speculation open before them, and what I want more than anything is to prevent their enterprize being dampened by being told , whether on the ground of notionalism or positivism, that to know about God, to form a notion of an ideal, or what should be done, or what they and the human race should aim at – that this and much like it is visionary and beyond the reach of human faculties: nor do I wish to prevent the truth of  their look at nature, and the sincerity of their of their investigation of it, being vitiated by suspicion and fear that they will be brought to conclusions inconsistent with all this, and which will force them to renounce their best birthright’ 1865, xxxii

By positivism, Grote means the phenomenalist, view that only conclusions arrived at by evidence and arguments judged appropriate to science, be counted as valid. By notionalism, he means the near opposite, trying to realise or evidence logical concepts and notions. The first error is evidenced in John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic, which Grote unpicks with care; while the second derives from Kant’s idea of the noumenal realm, unknown via experience itself, leaving the ‘thing in itself’ stranded in an unknowable limbo. Grote identifies the source of the unknowable in William Hamilton and Herbert Spencer, arguing that ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing of ‘are two ends of a scale – the whole of which scale allows knowledge of all things. Grote also coined the term relativism, according to Leslie Stephen, to capture another error, in which absolute knowledge is deemed impossible, because both experiences and judgements are conditioned,, or relative, to other elements in an event, experience or system.

What Grote, and his network members pursued, was the claim of the full knowability of the universe. Grote’s ‘reconstructive idealism’ (Gelber, 1954) in his Exploratio Philosophica, allowed the world we know, to be accounted for in language, thought and theory. Grote’s Treatise on the Moral Ideals (1876) makes a clear case for moral knowledge, gained using exactly the same means and processes as knowledge of the rest of the world, while his Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870) dismisses the limited, abridged ,rationalistic account of moral knowledge and activity produced by J. S. Mill in his Utilitarianism (1862).

Even in the fields of theology Grote refused to condone censorship of scholarship in any direction, producing one of the most coherent defences against the accusations of heresy, for the authors of Essays and Reviews (Grote ,1862). Like Ferrier, Grote defended knowability by saving ignorance for things that can be known. We cannot know the future, or, The Future State, so that is the unknown not a case of ignorance or the unknowable (Grote 1871). The same is true of trying to know concepts experientially,  it’s a case of nonsense, not unknowability.

Henry Sidgwick, in his Methods of Ethics of 1874, arrogated the task of finding the best methods for gaining moral knowledge, and helped considerably.  John Venn set about stabling the range of Belief then improving the validity of inductive logic and probability theory. Grotes’s successor as Knightbridge Professor , Frederick Maurice, confronted Mansel then reduced Bishop Butlers divinely inspired Conscience to the social self, reminding the actual self ,what it really ought to do. Joseph B Mayor made the scriptures, Cicero and Ancient Philosophy accessible though the application of hermeneutic methods, as well as bringing Grotes’s work to press.

The theological battles engaged by Cambridge theologians with Mansel were about the limits set to knowledge of God, amongst the limiting conditions of all human knowledge. As with the Tory High Church opponents of John Balguy and the other Cambridge Platonists, the deduction to be refuted was that, without cognitive knowledge of God, congregations had to accept ‘regulation’, defer to belief, have faith in the wisdom of the King as Leader of the Church. Mansel’s similar Tory arguments, directed audiences to this same conclusion in his The Limits of Religious Thought of 1848. Of the Holy Trinity, he argues, ‘The doctrine itself must be unconditionally received, not as reasonable, nor as unreasonable, but as scriptural’ (1848, 180). What his Cambridge opponents including Whewell, Maurice and Grote argued, was that God, his will, precepts  and deeds, were reasonable, readable and knowable by humans applying ordinary faculties; and the same with the universe (Cook 2009, 95-108)

These, anti-regulative arguments,  had the liberal and democratic implications, intended by Broad Church members, that congregations were empowered to know and act upon Gods will and his wisdom, without authorization or dissemblance by the Crown and his Bishops. The Cambridge Triumvirate of J B Lightfoot, F J Hort and B F Westcott – all identified with Grote, did more than any other theological thinkers in the nineteenth century, to dispel the aura of the unknowablility of God, of the supernatural and to encourage new scientific and hermeneutic approaches to holy subjects, as witnessed in  John Seeley’s Ecce Homo and Natural Religion (Seeley: 1866; 1882).

From 1880, Cambridge theology and philosophy, had assured scholars that religion cannot, and will not, seek to censor scholarly research. Deborah Bloom, in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, explores how Henry Sidgwick and his Cambridge based friends, went even further, into researching claims about the supernatural scientifically, by founding and operating experimentally, the British Society for Psychical Research (Blum, 2006).

By the end of the nineteenth century the Cambridge Mind was attuned to the simple proposition that  the universe was knowable, an agreement that was to give them a distinct advantage in the twentieth century in the Search for a Theory of Everything. In this the Cambridge Network, the Grote Club, and the Triumvirate were formative, achieving success well before the famed epoch of Cambridge philosophy.

Of even more significance, was the legitimacy these groups gave to new disciplines, methods and ways of doing research. All and every disciplinary voice would, and should, be allowed to provide evidence of what is true – each offering a piece in the jigsaw, a partial but still a valid perspective, on reality. Evidence of divergent observations, facts and conclusions, paradigm conflicts and disagreements, does not prove that we have divergent qualities, of and within,knowers, nor divergent qualities or limits of the known, nor divergent faculties of knowing – but reveal the fruitfulness of many different perspectives. Nor does the wide differentiation of findings, theories and facts across disciplines suggest that absolute knowledge is impossible. Grote coined relativism to express the former errors. His own view is,

that the knowing power at bottom to be one, and these various manners of perception are simply the same kind of thing as if we looked at an object through different coloured glasses: there are different manners of seeing the thing, but one reality and one truth. There is not one manner of knowledge, one fact, for the man who looks through red glass, and another for the man who looks through  blue: knowledge in this sense is always absolute, never relative (Grote 1900, 310).

By the dawn of the twentieth century, there was a consensus in Cambridge, that the universe was knowable; that there were neither epistemological nor metaphysical limits to humans gaining knowledge, and that religions, had no valid grounds, nor rights, to limit exploration and research. Any new limits to knowledge production, reproduction, transfer and application, were to be self imposed, being ethical, political, organizational or technological. In addition absolute knowledge was within human grasp, so long as long as we speak and think clearly, adjudicate the proper boundaries between disciplines and modes of experience. Much of the success of modern Cambridge can be attributed to the formation and embodiment of the idea, and ideal, of the knowableness of the universe that the Grote Club proffered.

Indicative Bibliography

Bloom, Deborah., Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, London: Penguin Press, 2003

Cook, S. J. 2009 The Intellectual Foundations of Alfred Marshall’s Economic Science: A Rounded Globe of Knowledge, Cambridge,

Gibbins, John R. ‘Constructing Knowledge in mid-Victorian Cambridge: The Moral Sciences Tripos 1850-1870, in Teaching and Learning in 19th Century Cambridge edited by Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, Cambridge, 2001.

Gibbins, J. R.,   “‘Old Studies and New’: The Organisation of Knowledge in University Curriculum,” in The Organisation of Knowledge, edited by Martin Daunton, London, 2005

Gibbins, J.R., John Grote, Cambridge University and the Development of Victorian Thought, Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2007

Grote, John., ‘Old Studies and New’.  Cambridge Essays, II, 74-114 London: John W. Parker & Son., 1856

Grote, John., Exploratio Philosophica: Rough Notes on Modern Intellectual Science, Part I, Cambridge. Deighton, Bell & Co. 1865 (Republished in 1900 with Part II by Cambridge University Press; Thoemmes, Bristol 1993).

Grote, John., An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (edited by Joseph Bickersteth Mayor), Cambridge. Deighton, Bell & Co. 1870 (Re-published by Thoemmes 1990)

Grote, John., ‘On a Future State’, The Contemporary Review, 18, 133-140. 1871a

Grote, John., ‘Thought versus Learning’.  Good Words, 12, 818-823. 1871b

Grote, John., A Treatise on the Moral Ideals, (edited by Joseph Bickersteth Mayor), Cambridge. Deighton Bell & Co., 1876

Grote, John ., Exploratio Philosophica, Part II (edited by Joseph Bickersteth Mayor) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1900

Mansel, Henry., The Limits of Religious Though, London, 1848

Mansel, Henry, The Philosophy of the Conditioned, London and Edinburgh, 1866

Maurice, Frederick . D. The Conscience: Lectures on Causistry, London, (1st edition 1868 Cambridge). 1872.

Schils, Edward., ‘The Order of Learning in the United States: The Ascendancy of the University’, in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1922, Olsen and Voss eds., Baltimore and London, 979.

Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, London: Macmillan, 1874

Snyder, Laura., Snyder, L. L., Reforming Philosophy: Victorian Debate on Science and Society, Chicago and London. 2006

Snyder, Laura., The Philosophical Breakfast Club:  Four Remarkable friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World. New York, 2012

Venn, John., The Logic of Chance, London and Cambridge. 1866

Venn, John.,  Characteristics of Belief, London and Cambridge. 1869

Venn, John., Symbolic Logic, London, 1881

Venn, John., The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic, Cambridge ,1889

Whewell, William., History of the Inductive Sciences, Cambridge, 1837a

Whewell, William., On the Principles of English University Education, London and Cambridge, 1837b

Whewell, William., Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Founded Upon their History, London. 1840

Whewell, William., On the Fundamental Antithesis of Philosophy, Cambridge, 1844

Whewell, William., The Elements of Morality Including Polity, Cambridge,  1845a

Whewell, William., On a Liberal Education in General, and with Particular Reference to the Studies of the University of Cambridge, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1845b

[1] Ibid., 46-47.

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