Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC073-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

4. Epistemology and other works

Sidgwick also explored the epistemological issue of whether such a postulate was unwarranted. If physical science is indeed based on self-evident premises, then practical philosophy should seek such a foundation as well. However,

We find that in our supposed knowledge of the world of nature propositions are commonly taken to be universally true, which yet seem to rest on no other grounds than that we have a strong disposition to accept them, and that they are indispensable to the systematic coherence of our beliefs, – it will be more difficult to reject a similarly supported assumption in ethics, without opening the door to universal scepticism.

(The Methods of Ethics 1907: 509)

His intuitionism was scarcely unthinking or mystical – he was only converted to it by the claim that mathematics could find no other basis – and was based on the view that inferential knowledge presupposes significant non-inferential knowledge. And as such works as ‘Criteria of Truth and Error’ show, he rejected any ‘simple infallible criterion’ for ultimate knowledge and favoured a sophisticated fallibilist criterion for ‘the humbler task’ of ‘excluding error’. For this, he advanced a threefold test: intuitive or Cartesian verification (clarity and certainty on careful examination), discursive verification (system and coherence) and ecumenical verification (consensus). The second test, he allows, ‘is of special and pre-eminent importance’, since ‘the ideal aim of philosophy is systematization – the exhibition of system and coherence in a mass of beliefs which, as presented by Common Sense, are wanting therein’, but, he adds, ‘the special characteristic of my philosophy is to keep the importance of the others in view’.

Sidgwick has been cast as both an early practitioner of Rawlsian reflective equilibrium and a prescient critic of it, but such attempts to dress his moral methodology for contemporary debates often read him selectively and out of his historical context. He was moved by the intellectual, cultural and political tensions of the Victorian era; religious scepticism, moral scepticism and the threat of egoism in theory and practice came to form an unholy trinity against which he would contend in one arena after another. Even The Methods does not fully convey the persistence and ingenuity with which he engaged ‘the deepest questions of human life’ or the way in which his meta-ethics were at once intuitionist and fallibilist, commonsensical and dialectical.

Indeed, Sidgwick’s work is rarely appreciated even as a comprehensive account of utilitarianism, covering political, legal and economic theory. The Principles gives a penetrating treatment of distributive justice from the utilitarian standpoint, and The Elements and The Development of European Polity carry the classical tradition far beyond the simplicities of Austinian jurisprudence and ahistorical Benthamism, with a complex approach to the art of politics that balances analytic, historical and comparative methods. Such works reveal how, for Sidgwick, egoism was hardly a potentially cogent alternative for reformulating morals and politics, but was rather the view capable of inspiring most of what he found politically abhorrent: class or party conflict at home and neo-Machiavellianism in foreign policy.

In the end, Sidgwick’s inquiries into epistemology and politics were, in his eyes, no more successful than his inquiries into religion, ethics and psychic research. Yet beyond his enduring accomplishments in clarifying utilitarianism and advancing substantive moral and political theory, it is perhaps the very tension between his subtle, penetrating scepticism and his longing for a rational faith and morality that make him one of the most fascinating representatives of his age.

Citing this article:
Schultz, Bart. Epistemology and other works. Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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