Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)

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

1. Life

Henry Sidgwick’s entire life fell within the reign of Queen Victoria and his entire career within the domain of Cambridge University, where he went from a brilliant undergraduate performance at Trinity College to become Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1883. He began his career as a classicist, but throughout his life extended his research and teaching into new disciplines: primarily moral theory, epistemology and metaphysics, political economy and political theory. His impact on the moral sciences at Cambridge was profound, and he was the guiding spirit behind Newnham College, one of England’s first women’s colleges. A long-standing member of the elite Cambridge discussion group, the Apostles, Sidgwick taught in a style that was, as W.R. Sorley put it, ‘a training in the philosophical temper – in candour, self-criticism and regard for truth’. His best-regarded work has always been The Methods of Ethics (1874), but he also wrote major treatises on The Principles of Political Economy (1883) and The Elements of Politics (1891), as well as a primer on the history of ethics and numerous essays and reviews. Various posthumous works also appeared, thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (née Balfour), whom he had married in 1876 and who collaborated with him on many projects.

The sole interruption in Sidgwick’s Cambridge career came in 1869, when he resigned his fellowship because he could no longer in good conscience subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles as required by law. Although he kept a lectureship and the tests were abolished in 1871, this was a formative event in his life, both stimulating and prefiguring his struggles with the foundations of ethics – as shown by his pamphlet on The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription (1870). His years of ‘storm and stress’ over religious questions led him from historical biblical criticism to philosophy and psychic research. He was a founder and the first president of the Society for Psychical Research, and his scientific investigations of purported psychical phenomena complemented his philosophical investigations into the ‘deepest problems of human life’, since he thought that evidence for personal survival of death might provide rational grounds for religious belief and ethical conduct.

Citing this article:
Schultz, Bart. Life. 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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