It is somewhat ironic that Henry Sidgwick, who of all philosophers is most well-known for seeking ‘the point of view of the universe’, is typically thought of as a quintessentially English philosopher, in the Anglophone tradition. But it is becoming ever more widely recognized that Sidgwick is a moral philosopher who is not only world-class, but globally relevant. Sidgwick’s discussions of some of the most central and significant issues in human life – the relation between religion and morality, the nature of the good, the demands of practical reason, public morality, the source of ethical knowledge, free will – are among the deepest and most profound of all time. Indeed it is (surprisingly, given the amount of disagreement in philosophy) common to hear his masterpiece The Methods of Ethics cited as the best work in ethics, period.
There are, then, many reasons for reading Sidgwick today, as Schultz brings out in his contribution to this volume. The book emerged from a pair of international conferences at the University of Catania, convened by Bucolo. In the primarily secular context of contemporary Anglophone philosophy, Sidgwick’s agonizing over theism is often seen as little more than a curiosity explicable in terms of the crisis of religion in late nineteenth century thought. This view of Sidgwick is in various ways a distortion, one corrected in part by the focus in Catania on Sidgwick’s views of religion from a theist, primarily Catholic, perspective. Bucolo sees Sidgwick as a theist, who sought in religion the ultimate moral “sanction”, and demonstrates the links between Sidgwick’s Anglo-Saxon Utilitarianism and pragmatic attitude to ethics with Italian Idealism and Spiritualism. Acocella considers whether the notion of divine justice can be made consistent with Sidgwick’s conception of ethical experience, considering some broader issues of the relationship between theism and morality. Sidgwick, of course, was deeply concerned with the effects of any particular morality, and Vigna wonders whether this leads to too dispersed a conception of goodness, while Mangion is more positively inclined towards Sidgwick, asking whether his open-minded attitude towards theism might not serve humanity better in the twenty-first century than fundamentalist theism on the one hand or secular materialism on the other. That open- mindedness, and its relation to the empiricist world view and methodology more generally, is brought out in Gauld’s piece.
As is clear from the above, it is difficult to compartmentalize Sidgwick’s thought. His thinking about morality resonates and connects with his thinking about religion, politics, epistemology, and so on. Naturally, some of the essays in the volume move beyond primarily religious matters to other central issues in Sidgwick’s thought. Nakano-Okuno considers how best to characterize Sidgwick’s ethical theory as a whole, arguing that it has a great deal more in common with Kantian ethics than is usually thought, a point also brought out by Ryan in his comparison of Sidgwick with Mill on the one hand and Dewey on the other. Crisp focuses less on morality and more on prudence, explaining Sidgwick’s hedonistic conception of the good and defending it against several objections, ancient and modern. That distinction between morality and prudence, central to Sidgwick’s thought is itself questioned by Skorupski in his paper, which draws out themes from the thought of T.H. Green as a backdrop against which to examine Sidgwick.
On 30 June 1900, having known for about two months of the imminence of his death, Sidgwick wrote to Baron F. von Hügel:
"It is a deep satisfaction to any one who has to look back on his life’s work as something nearly finished to think that the incompleteness of his work and the imperfection of his manner of performing it have not altogether obscured his ideal from the recognition of his fellow-men."
(Arthur and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 592)
Sidgwick’s achievements in philosophy were great, but he is of course right to say that his work will remain incomplete until we have answers to all of the questions he pursued with such vigour and insight. This volume continues that work, and its very existence is welcome further evidence that Sidgwick’s ideal remains in view.
"His [Sidgwick’s] whole-hearted acceptance of the methods and achievements of natural science never hid from him, as it does from so many, the standing miracle of man as thinker, artist, organizer and moral agent. This perfect balance, which Sidgwick so conspicuously possessed, does not make for exciting and spectacular systems of philosophy and politics. These are the work of men who seldom hear and never heed what Clifford called "that still small voice which whispers Bosh!" How numerous and how rancorous they are to-day, and what a relief it is to escape for an occasional hour from them and their new and nasty Jerusalems into the golden afternoon of Victorian civilization and the Sidgwickian atmosphere of good sense and sweet reasonableness!."
(C. D. Broad, “Henry Sidgwick”, in Ethics and The History of Philosophy, Selected Essays, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, LTD, 1952, pp. 68-69)
C.D. Broad’s enthusiasm for Henry Sidgwick, one of his most illustrious predecessors as Knight bridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, has very frequently been remarked and often been emulated. And one might be forgiven for thinking, at first blush, that the contents of this volume demonstrate the point. There is in these pages much warm testimony on behalf of Sidgwick’s reasonableness, much celebration of his Socratic search for truth and of his wise recognition of "the deepest problems of human life", as he often put it. Moreover, as Roger Crisp and Placido Bucolo note, this admiration is not confined to the cultural boundaries of Sidgwick's English context. His appeal is at least as cosmopolitan now as it was during his lifetime, when his work was praised in Hungary, Japan, Germany, and many other countries beyond the English-speaking world. Again, this volume would seem to support the point.
But the papers here would also appear to suggest something new. This work is no nostalgic celebration of "the golden afternoon of Victorian civilization", if there ever was any such thing. The authors here are not escaping the current world, more rancorous than ever, by turning backwards to a more "reasonable" time. Sidgwick himself did not deem his times all that reasonable – as with so many things, he could not make up his mind about the direction of history or his place in it. If he tried to maintain a certain balance between critical reason and sympathetic hope, this was, as he explained, like a philosophical soldier taking up a difficult post. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many of the contributors to this volume find Sidgwick’s work to be, not a turn to the past, but a possible path to a better future. Sidgwick’s Socratic questioning was aimed at issues that have turned out to be of continuing if dismaying relevance: the meaning of self-interest and the conflict between self-interest and ethical duty, the grounds for religious belief in an age of Darwinian science and critical analysis of biblical texts, and the possibilities for the growth of international justice and the limitation of war, to name a few. His ethical views, largely utilitarian, spoke and speak to professional philosophers, to be sure. He wrote the academic book on ethics that John Stuart Mill should have attempted. But his arguments and hopes are now animating philosophers who are much more than academic professionals – witness Peter Singer, whose work on animal liberation and bio-ethics has helped change the world.
Mill and Sidgwick, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer all represent the ability to both doubt and act, to be duly sceptical of "exciting and spectacular systems of philosophy and politics", while recognizing that the world desperately needs such critical intelligence as can be mustered, and that the continuation of the status quo carries the serious risk of oblivion. We must move forward as best we can.
The centenary of the death of Henry Sidgwick has recently been celebrated in Great Britain, and we hope that this International Congress will be its reverberating echo in order to bear witness through various, authoritative voices to the ever-growing consent to his work by nations of various cultures.
Henry Sidgwick has always been highly respected but without being very famous, one of the reasons being, it is said, that he did not use language to prophesy but rather to pedantically clarify interior conflict. He was, and still is, the philosopher of self-examination. But it is a self-examination that presumes a freedom that not only attempts to merely satisfy a psychological state but which rather tends towards a universal, ethical end. Inside this self-examination, every battle is won in relationship to every universal good which, therefore, cannot be identified with any of the, divinities or concepts of the various historical eras. It is not the fragmentary, sectional or particular good of our days. In fact, even if each one of us has a different idea of good, in order to maximize it, we must harmonize it with that of the others. Sidgwick tries to avoid any conflict and to find the remedy to get round it. To reach this aim, he uses two types of language that represent a strong dialectic always present in all of his themes. For those fond of astrology, this would represent, through his contrasting proposals, the manifestation of his zodiac sign, Gemini, which as in Dante, leads him to a contra-position and then composition.
In his letters, his journal and in the proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research, he uses an imaginative language, passionate, intimate, poetic and direct; but when he writes his treatises, this language becomes ex cathedra, impersonal, distant, as if he were speaking from another planet and consequently, boring.
The good to which his conscience refers is not only that of his experience, the God of his fathers, but the good of all, even if the God of his fathers continues to have not only an important personal function, but also an equally important historical function for the conservation of Classical Civilization, i.e. Jewish- Christian, Greek and Roman. Right up to the end, he continues to believe in the historical, social function of the Christian Church, even giving major importance to the role in this respect of the Church of Rome. In his search for the Universal and what it comprises, every concept of particular good confides in a god, necessary for everyone, that gives hope to reach a complete harmonization and rationalisation of morals. But in the intimacy of one's conscience, this is the God of the Sermon on the Mount: He who can rationalize and harmonize the principal of Egoism with that of universal Utilitarianism.
So, his Theism leads to peace and not towards sectarianism and wishes to give an example and not impose a threat. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount exalts the self-sacrifice of the humble, the just and the pure in heart present in the universal history of the world and united by a sense of duty. As few of the new generation readers of Sidgwick have knowledge of the Bible, they will never understand his cultural, religious background, which we want to reflect in the Congress. They will never realize that many of his maxims and principles were taken from the Old and New Testaments.
Sidgwick would like a Christianity purified of every prejudice and superstition in which self-examination becomes that pure intelligence through which, when Man eventually finds himself in the presence of God, he can justify himself by saying "I have a theory on the origins of the Gospels which is really the best I could form on the evidence; and, please, this ought to do as well". (Henry Sidgwick, Letter to H. G. Dakyns, December 22, 1864, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 123-124)
We must agree with Bart that this sentence is clearly rather sarcastic, but Sidgwick’s sarcasm is directed at very formal and dogmatic people, the Pharisees of his and all ages. For Sidgwick meeting God, or the Good, means meeting Harmony, Coherence and Justice, which, whether they come from a Supreme Being or from within ourselves, produce rational, logical arguments and theories. All his life Sidgwick tries to provide coherent theories. However, like Jacob or Job, in moments of anguish he questions and challenges God, speaking to him in words which, in that particular situation, seem adequate. In his never-ending process in the dialectic method, he often feels the need to give concessions to Empiricism to obtain some proof in favour of Theism. But each time he loses faith in the conviction that "emotional Theism will shine in more and more upon mankind through the veil of history and life", he ends up in a dark tunnel and so he goes back to his faith in Theism (Henry Sidgwick, Letter to H. G. Dakyns, November 26, 1864, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 122). His Theism is not an action of proselytism: as it cannot be disproved and neither can it be imposed on other religions, but it is essential; he feels that "beliefs in Godand in immortality are vital to human well-being"(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to Lord Tennyson, 1895, in Arthur and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 538). It imprints on every personal conscience the means of harmonizing sentiments, inclinations, pre-dispositions and reasons. Thus, his Theism can be harmonized with other religions like that of Buddha, Confucius and others so that they accept the principles of Justice, Prudence and Rational Benevolence. The more we believe in God and these principals, the more we are able to suffer for our duty in the hope of receiving a reward from Divine Justice; in fact he says "I have a stronger instinctive repugnance to cause pain or annoyance to any human being"(Henry Sidgwick on recommencing his Journal, April 12, 1888, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 485). This theory has a working example in Sidgwick throughout his life. Even when he is in doubt (but, then, does Christ not have doubts on the Cross?), he hopes that his faith in God is real and he proposes to"act as [though] it was"(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to Major-General Carey, August 8, 1880, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 34). His"cardinal doctrine… seems [to be]… that of Jesus of Nazareth"(Henry Sidgwick, Sidgwick Papers, Wren Library, CambridgeUniversity, Add. Ms. d. 70, taken from Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 42). So he can show the way but cannot dictate to others and in his mildness, he is similar to Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus Christ and all those people slaughtered by cruel tyrants or cynical businessmen. It is this man who suffers rather than he gives pain to others and this is the essential lesson for other men to avoid becoming beasts. It can be said that Sidgwick is a valid universal thinker of yesterday, today and tomorrow, a citizen of humanity.
We would all like to thank the Academic Authorities of the University of Catania and in particular, the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy and the Department of Human Sciences for hosting this Congress to celebrate this wise man, so closely linked to Classical thought, in which Sicily had a great part to play in Magna Greece.
We would like also to offer our sincere thanks to Gillian Cousins for her most valuable collaboration in formulating correctly in both versions the many idiomatic expressions typical of the English language. Heartfelt thanks also go to Dr. Francesca Mangion who, for three years, has devoted her time and energy to dealing with and translating both the correspondence of the illustrious participants and their essays which, we hope, will remain a genuine testimony in the proceedings of this Congress.
Published with the agreement of the authors
©2008-2009 Hortense Geninet