Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

John Venn, James Ward, and the Chair of Mental Philosophy and Logic at the University of Cambridge

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

John Venn, James Ward, and the Chair of Mental Philosophy and Logic at the University of Cambridge

Article excerpt

In 1897, the University of Cambridge finally created a second professorial chair in philosophy, in part at the urging of Henry Sidgwick, the incumbent in the one chair that existed up to that time. The existing chair was identified as the Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy, and, indeed, Sidgwick was best known for his work in ethics. The new chair was to be named Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic; Sidgwick not only lobbied for it, he backed it financially as well. Who the candidates were for the position and what happened when the chair was filled provide a commentary on the direction of British philosophy and on wider currents in academe at the end of the Victorian era.

The double-barreled scope of the chair's mandate is an issue in itself. There is some evidence that the original plan was to have two new endowed chairs, one in Mental Philosophy and one in Logic.1 Somewhere along the way, financial constraints limited the new expenditure to a single chair, which was given the names of both fields. However, the two fields may not have seemed such strange bedfellows then as they would today. Mental Philosophy, soon to be called Psychology, and later, Philosophy of Mind, concerned itself with mental operations and phenomena of all sorts: ideas, memory, feelings, and the will. As Psychology was not a separate discipline at that time, Mental Philosophy also included studies of sensation and perception and other topics that mostly emerged from physiological studies and later formed the basis of the emerging new independent discipline of experimental psychology.

Logic was also a wider term than it has since become, encompassing all forms of reasoning and judgment that might be made by a thinking mind. In the nineteenth century, there had been, as it were, a rebirth of the study of logic among British philosophers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British philosophers had firmly turned away from logic as an unnecessary formalization of reason, viewing it as a throwback to medieval scholasticism. Only at Oxford was it actively taught across the board to undergraduates as part of a liberal education. As John Passmore remarks,

[Benjamin] Jowett said of logic that it was neither an art nor a science but a dodge. That is a reasonably accurate description of the logic taught-or, rather, learnt parrot-fashion-at an Oxford which used as its text Aldrich's Artis Logicae Compendium (1691), a hotch-potch of technical terms, carefully disposed in mnemonic verses to assist the uninterested powers of recollection of the undergraduate, for whom logic was, until 1831, a compulsory subject.2

But a revival was underway, beginning with Richard Whately's Elements of Logic in 1826, which defended the Aristotelian syllogism as a necessary mental process that takes place in all correct reasoning. Whately's defense of traditional logic brought the subject to life again. John Stuart Mill then brought it to center stage with his System of Logic in 1843. Mill saw logic as an investigative tool for the analysis of all philosophical issues. All empirical knowledge of the external world was to be gained through a process of inductive logic. William Whewell, the Knightsbridge Professor from 1838 to 1855, had published his History of the Inductive Sciences in 1837 and his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in 1840. Whewell's subject matter was the natural sciences. Mill extended induction to be the basis of the social sciences as well. He disagreed with Whewell on many points and as a result started a lively debate and re-examination of the nature, scope, and methods of logic. These were the years when the social sciences were just coming into their own, seeking a foundation as respectable as the natural sciences. Anything that could help to clarify their methods would be of great interest.

There was another aspect of logic that made it of particular interest in these years: the vitalism-reductionism debate over whether life was essentially reducible to the laws of chemistry and physics. …

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