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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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T. H. Huxley was by training a biologist, but he had
strong philosophical interests and as a champion of
Darwinism he became a major intellectual figure in
the nineteenth century. In his “Science and Christian
Tradition” (in Collected Essays), Huxley remarks that
agnosticism is a method, a stance taken toward putative
religious truth-claims, the core of which is to refuse
to assent to religious doctrines for which there is no
adequate evidence, but to retain an open-mindedness
about the possibility of sometime attaining adequate
evidence. We ought never to assert that we know a
proposition to be true or indeed even to assent to that
proposition unless we have adequate evidence to sup-
port it.

After his youthful reading of the Scottish meta-
physician William Hamilton's Philosophy of the Un-
(1829), Huxley repeatedly returned to
questions about the limits of our possible knowledge
and came, as did Leslie Stephen, to the empiricist
conclusion that we cannot know anything about God
or any alleged states or realities “beyond phenomena.”
Whether there is a God, a world of demons, an immor-
tal soul, whether indeed “the spiritual world” is other
than human fantasy or projection, were all taken by
Huxley to be factual questions open to careful and
systematic empirical investigation. In short, however
humanly important such questions were, they were also
“matters of the intellect” and in such contexts the


central maxim of the method of agnosticism is to “fol-
low your reason as far as it will take you, without
regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In
matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions
are certain which are not demonstrated or demon-
strable” (Huxley, pp. 245-46). Operating in accordance
with such a method does not justify “the denial of the
existence of any Supernature; but simply the denial
of the validity of the evidence adduced in favour of
this, or that, extant form of Supernaturalism” (p. 126).
Huxley found that he could no more endorse materi-
alism, idealism, atheism, or pantheism than he could
theism; they all claimed too much about essentially
contested matters. Huxley felt that people espousing
such world views were too ready to claim a solution
to the “problem of existence,” while he remained
painfully aware that he had not succeeded in coming
by such a solution and in addition retained “a pretty
strong conviction that the problem was insoluble” (pp.

This conviction is at the heart of his agnosticism.
Huxley was convinced that Kant and Hamilton had
established that reason fails us—and indeed must fail
us—when we try to establish that the world is finite
in space or time or indefinite in space or time, rational
or irrational, an ordered whole or simply manifesting
certain ordered features but not something properly
to be called an ordered whole. Answers to such ques-
tions reveal something about our attitudes but can
never provide us with propositions we can justifiably
claim to be true or even know to be false. Agnosticism
is a confession of honesty here. It is “the only position
for people who object to say that they know what they
are quite aware they do not know” (p. 210).

Such skepticism concerning the truth-claims of reli-
gion and metaphysics, including, of course, meta-
physical religiosity, should not be taken as a denial that
there can be reliable knowledge. Rather Huxley
argued, as John Dewey did far more systematically
later, that we can and do gain experimental and ex-
periential knowledge of nature, including human na-
ture, and that this, by contrast with so-called “super-
natural knowledge,” becomes increasingly more exten-
sive and reliable. And while remaining an agnostic,
Huxley saw in science—basically the scientific way of
fixing belief—a fundamental and well grounded chal-
lenge to the authority of the theory of the “spiritual

Whatever may have been the case in the seventeenth
century, there was in Huxley's time a state of war
between science and religion. Huxley took science to
be a challenge to claims of biblical infallibility and
revelation. The whole supernatural world view built
on the authority of the Bible and revelation must come
under scientific scrutiny and when this is done it be-
comes gradually apparent that the use of the scientific
method and appeals to scientific canons of criticism
give us a far more reliable method of settling belief
than do the scriptures and revelation.

To commit ourselves to the Bible as an infallible
authority is to commit ourselves to a world view in
which we must believe that devils were cast out of
a man and went into a herd of swine, that the deluge
was universal, that the world was made in six days, and
the like. Yet such claims are plainly and massively
contravened by our actual empirical knowledge such
that they are quite beyond the boundaries of respon-
sible belief. About such matters, Huxley argues, we
ought not to be at all agnostic. Moreover, we cannot
take them simply as myths, important for the biblical
and Christian understanding of the world, if we are
to take seriously biblical infallibility and the authority
of revelation. For the Jewish-Christian world view to
establish its validity, it must provide us with adequate
grounds for believing that there are demons. But there
is no good evidence for such alleged realities and to
believe in them is the grossest form of superstition
(Huxley, p. 215).

Even if we fall back on a severe Christology, we
are still in difficulties, for it is evident enough that Jesus
believed in demons and if we are to adopt a radical
Christology and take Jesus as our infallible guide to
the divine, we are going to have to accept such super-
stitious beliefs. Such beliefs affront not only our intel-
lect—our credibility concerning what it is reasonable
to believe—they also affront our moral sense as well
(p. 226). Yet once we give up the Gospel claim that
there are “demons who can be transferred from a man
to a pig,” the other stories of “demonic possession fall
under suspicion.” Once we start on this slide, once we
challenge the ultimate authority of the Bible, and
follow experimental and scientific procedures, the
ground for the whole Judeo-Christian world view is

Huxley obviously thinks its credibility and proba-
bility is of a very low order; an order which would
make Christian or Jewish belief quite impossible for
a reasonable and tolerably well informed man. Those
who claim to know that there are such unseen and
indeed utterly unseeable realities, are very likely peo-
ple who have taken “cunning phrases for answers,”
where real answers are “not merely actually impossi-
ble, but theoretically inconceivable.” Yet as an agnostic
one must always—even for such problematical trans-
cendental claims—remain open to conviction where
evidence can be brought to establish the truth of such
transcendent religious claims.

Leslie Stephen in his neglected An Agnostic's


Apology (1893) remarks that he uses “agnostic” in a
sense close to that of T. H. Huxley. To be an agnostic,
according to Stephen, is to reject what he calls “Dog-
matic Atheism,” i.e., “the doctrine that there is no God,
whatever is meant by God...”; it is, instead, (1) to
affirm “what no one denies,” namely “that there are
limits to the sphere of human intelligence” and (2) also
to affirm the controversial empiricist thesis “that those
limits are such as to exclude at least what Lewes called
'Metempirical knowledge'” (p. 1). (“Metempirical
knowledge” is meant to designate all forms of knowl-
edge of a transcendent, numinal, nonempirical sort.)

Stephen makes apparent the empiricist commit-
ments of his conception of agnosticism in charac-
terizing gnosticism, the view agnosticism is deliberately
set against. To be a gnostic is to believe that “we can
attain truths not capable of verification and not needing
verification by actual experiment or observation” (ibid.,
pp. 1-2). In gaining such a knowledge gnostics in
opposition to both Hume and Kant claim that by the
use of our reason we can attain a knowledge that
transcends “the narrow limits of experience” (p. 1). But
the agnostic, firmly in the empiricist tradition, denies
that there can be any knowledge of the world, includ-
ing anything about its origin and destiny, which tran-
scends experience and comprehends “the sorry scheme
of things entire.” Such putative knowledge, Stephen
maintains, is illusory and not something “essential to
the highest interests of mankind,” providing us, as
speculative metaphysicians believe, with the solution
to “the dark riddle of the universe” (p. 2).

In a manner that anticipates the challenge to the
claims of religion and metaphysics made by the logical
empiricists, Stephen says that in addition to the prob-
lem of whether they can establish the truth or probable
truth of “religious truth-claims” there is the further
consideration—actually a logically prior question—of
whether such putative claims “have any meaning”
(p. 3).

It should be noted that Stephen does not begin “An
Agnostic's Apology” by discussing semantical diffi-
culties in putative religious truth-claims but starts with
problems connected with what W. K. Clifford was later
to call “the ethics of belief.” We indeed would all
want—if we could do it honestly—to accept the claim
that “evil is transitory... good eternal” and that the
“world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom,
however dark it may appear to us” (p. 2). But the rub
is that many of us cannot believe that and in a question
of such inestimable human value, we have “the most
sacred obligations to recognize the facts” and make
our judgments in accordance with the facts. But the
facts do not give us grounds for confidence in the
viability of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Rather we are
strongly inclined when we inspect these beliefs to
believe they are wish fulfillments. And while it may
indeed be true that for the moment dreams may be
pleasanter than realities, it is also true that if we are
bent on attaining a more permanent measure of happi-
ness, it “must be won by adapting our lives to the
realities,” for we know from experience that illusory
consolations “are the bitterest of mockeries” (ibid.).
The religious platitudes “Pain is not an evil,” “Death
is not a separation,” and “Sickness is but a blessing
in disguise” have tortured sufferers far more than “the
gloomiest speculations of avowed pessimists” (ibid.).

However, the problem of meaning cuts to a deeper
conceptual level than do such arguments about the
ethics of belief. Where Judeo-Christianity does not
have a fideistic basis, it is committed to what Stephen
calls gnosticism. But does not such a doctrine fail “to
recognize the limits of possible knowledge” and in
trying to transcend these limits does it not in effect
commit the gnostic to pseudo-propositions which are
devoid of literal meaning? Logical empiricists later
answered this question in the affirmative and while it
is not crystal clear that Stephen's answer is quite that
definite, it would appear that this is what he wants
to maintain. And if that is what Stephen is maintaining,
there can, of course, be no knowledge of the divine.

Stephen raises this key question concerning the
intelligibility of such gnostic God-talk, but he does
little with it. Instead he focuses on some key questions
concerning attempts by theologians to undermine
agnosticism. He first points out that an appeal to rev-
elation is no answer to the agnostic's denial that we
have knowledge of transcendent realities or states, for
in claiming to rely exclusively on revelation these
theologians acknowledge that “natural man can know
nothing of the Divine nature.” But this Stephen replies,
is not only to grant but in effect to assert the agnostic's
fundamental principle (p. 5). He points out that H. L.
Mansel in effect and in substance affirms agnosticism
and that Cardinal Newman with his appeal to the
testimony of conscience does not provide a reliable
argument on which to base a belief in God nor does
he undermine the agnostic's position, for “the voice
of conscience has been very differently interpreted.”
Some of these interpretations, secular though they be,
have all the appearances of being at least as valid as
Newman's, for all that Newman or anyone else has
shown. Moreover, on any reasonable reading of a prin-
ciple of parsimony, they are far simpler than Newman's
interpretation. Thus Newman's arguments in reality
prove, as do Mansel's, that a man ought to be an
agnostic concerning such ultimate questions where
reason remains his guide and where he does not make
an appeal to the authority of the Church. They, of


course, would have us accept the authority of the
Church, but how can we reasonably do so when there
are so many Churches, so many conflicting authorities,
and so many putative revelations? Where reason can
only lead us to agnosticism concerning religious mat-
ters, we can have no ground for accepting one Church,
one religious authority, or one putative revelation
rather than another. We simply have no way of know-
ing which course is the better course. Agnosticism,
Stephen concludes, is the only reasonable and viable

Like Huxley, and like Hume before him, Stephen
is skeptical of the a priori arguments of metaphysics
and natural theology. “There is not a single proof of
natural theology,” he asserts, “of which the negative
has not been maintained as vigorously as the
affirmative” (p. 9). In such a context, where there is
no substantial agreement, but just endless and irre-
solvable philosophical controversy, it is the duty of a
reasonable man to profess ignorance (p. 9). In trying
to escape the bounds of sense—in trying to gain some
metempirical knowledge—philosophers continue to
contradict flatly the first principles of their prede-
cessors and no vantage point is attained where we can
objectively assess these endemic metaphysical conflicts
that divide philosophers. To escape utter skepticism,
we must be agnostics and argue that such metaphysical
and theological controversies lead to “transcending the
limits of reason” (p. 10). But the only widely accepted
characterization of these limits “comes in substance
to an exclusion of ontology” and an adherence to
empirically based truth-claims as the only legitimate

It will not help, Stephen argues, to maintain that
the Numinous, i.e., the divine, is essentially mysterious
and that religious understanding—a seeing through a
glass darkly—is a knowledge of something which is
irreducibly and inescapably mysterious. In such talk
in such contexts, there is linguistic legerdemain: we
call our doubts mysteries and what is now being ap-
pealed to as “the mystery of faith” is but the theolog-
ical phrase for agnosticism (p. 22).

Stephen argues that one could believe knowledge
of the standard types was quite possible and indeed
actual and remain skeptical about metaphysics. It is
just such a position that many (perhaps most) contem-
porary philosophers would take. In taking this position
himself, Stephen came to believe that metaphysical
claims are “nothing but the bare husks of meaningless
words.” To gain genuine knowledge, we must firmly
put aside such meaningless metaphysical claims and
recognize the more limited extent of our knowledge
claims. A firm recognition here will enable us to avoid
utter skepticism because we come to see that within
the limits of the experiential “we have been able
to discover certain reliable truths” and with them “we
shall find sufficient guidance for the needs of life”
(p. 26). So while we remain religious skeptics and
skeptical of the claims of transcendental metaphysics,
we are not generally skeptical about man's capacity
to attain reliable knowledge. Yet it remains the case
that nothing is known or can be known, of the alleged
“ultimate reality”—the Infinite and Absolute—of tra-
ditional metaphysics and natural theology (p. 26). And
thus nothing can be known of God.