Item 47 - MS notes dictated by Henry Sidgwick: 'Autobiographical Fragment'

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Add. MS c/105/47


MS notes dictated by Henry Sidgwick: 'Autobiographical Fragment'


  • 13–15 Aug 1900 (Creation)

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2 docs: letter, with envelope

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Henry Sidgwick was born in Skipton, Yorkshire in 1838, the son of the Revd William Sidgwick, headmaster of Skipton Grammar School, and Mary Crofts. He attended Rugby School, where his cousin, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson was a master. Thence he entered Trinity in 1855 where he was elected to a scholarship in 1855. He gained University honours by becoming Bell Scholar in 1856 and Craven Scholar in 1857. In 1859 he was 33rd Wrangler, Senior Classic and 1st Chancellor's Medallist. He became a Fellow of Trinity in that year also.

Although Sidgwick gained a University lectureship in classics, his thoughts began to turn to philosophy, perhaps influenced by his membership of the Grote Club. At the same time he also threw himself into the cause of University and College reform, forming a powerful alliance with Henry Jackson. In the few years after the death of Whewell in 1866, the party of reform were able to achieve a number of their goals, but the religious tests on Fellowships of Trinity still remained, and Sidgwick felt duty-bound to resign his Fellowship in 1869 on grounds of conscience.

In the same year Sidgwick exchanged his lectureship in Classics for one in Moral Sciences and strove to help develop a school of philosophy in Cambridge. In 1875, Trinity appointed him Praelector in Moral and Political Philosophy and in 1885 he was elected Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy and re-elected to his Trinity Fellowship. He held the chair until 1900.

Sidgwick was a strong supporter of the education of women and served at times both on the governing bodies of Newnham and Girton; his wife Eleanor (née Balfour), whom he married in 1876, was Vice-President of Newnham. He died in 1900.

Sidgwick's major publications were Methods of Ethics (1874), Principles of Political Economy (1883), and Elements of Politics (1891)

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In Nora Sidgwick's hand. Declares his aim: to give an account of his life - mainly his inner intellectual life - 'as shall render the central and fundamental aims that partially at least determined its course when apparently most fitful and erratic, as clear and intelligible as [he] can.' Refers to biographical information in 'the Life of Edward Benson' [by A. C. Benson], in which he noted 'the great change that took place about the middle of [his] undergraduate time', which was triggered by his becoming a member of the discussion society known as the Apostles. Refers to a description of the latter in the late Dean Merivale's autobiography. Describes the spirit of the society as that of 'the pursuit of truth with absolute devotion and unreserved by a group of intimate friends, who were perfectly frank with each other and indulgent in any amount of humourous [sic] sarcasm and playful banter....' Emphasises the importance of sincerity, but not necessarily of gravity in its discussions. Had at first been reluctant to join the society, as he believed that it would interfere with his work for his two triposes, but came to feel that no part of his life at Cambridge was so real to him as the Saturday evenings he spent at the meetings at which Apostolic debates were held.

It was many years before he was to embrace the study of philosophy as his life's work: the reasons for this were partly financial. He had to accept the Classical lectureship that was offered to him on October 1859, and therefore had to devote a considerable amount of time to classical study. He also allowed himself 'to be seduced into private tuition as a means of increasing [his] income.' Adds that Cambridge vacations being long, he had a good deal of spare time, and he began a systematic study of philosophy, reading J.S. Mill's works. Discusses the influence that the latter had on him, but adds that he was 'by no means [then] disposed to acquiesce in negative or agnostic answers', and hat he had not in any way broken with the orthodox Christianity in which he had been brought up, though he had been sceptical of it.

Refers also to his study of theology and political economy. In 1862 he was very impressed by Renan's Essai [Études] d'histoire religieuse, and derived from that work that it was 'impossible really to understand at first hand Christianity as a historical religion without penetrating more deeply the mind of the Hebrews and of the Semitic stock from which they sprang.' This led him to devote much time to studying Arabic and Hebrew. Refers to an article he wrote on [J. R. Seeley's] Ecce Homo in the Westminster Review of July 1863, in which he reveals the provisional conclusions that he had formed with regard to Christianity. Says he found some relief from the great internal debate on the subjects of Christianity, Scepticism and Agnosticism in the renewal of his linguistic studies. His study of Arabic and Hebrew literature and history led him to think that he might secure one of the two professorships in Arabic at Cambridge. Believed that the inclusion of theology in the remit of the single chair of Moral Philosophy made it unlikely that he would attain this, since he was neither a clergyman nor orthodox.

Began to realise that the study of Arabic and Hebrew were drawing him away from 'the central problems which constituted [his] deepest interest', and the study of philosophy and theology began again to occupy more of his time. He accepted the examinership in the Moral Sciences Tripos, and was later offered a lectureship in Moral Science in exchange for his classical lectureship, and accepted. Determined to throw himself into the work of making a philosophical school in Cambridge. Had meanwhile been led back to the study of philosophy 'by a quite different line [of thought]', which led him to question whether he should keep his fellowship or not. Refers to his work The Methods of Ethics, and thoughts systematised therein. Note here by Nora Sidgwick refers to remarks made by Henry in relation to the 'miraculous birth' [of Jesus], the Resurrection and Ascension.

Also refers to psychical research, and his desire to attain direct proof of continual individual existence, 'which he regarded as necessary from an ethical point of view.' In relation to the education of women, states that he took up this cause 'as a piece of practically useful work for mankind', and that he turned his thoughts towards it after he had given up his fellowship.

Nora adds that the above information was written down from recollection 'not immediately after he said it.' Envelope accompanies 105/46-50. Addressed to Nora Sidgwick at Newnham College. Label "some MS notes, including 'Autobiographical Fragment', and 'Henry's instructions about his unfinished work etc.'"

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