§ 13. Agnosticism

Of the hundreds of words T. H. Huxley invented, the most familiar and most important is "agnostic." The complex term "agnosticism" was variously defined, by him and by others, sometimes as a synonym for skepticism, at other times as equivalent to the scientific method, and often given a tint of ethics, agnostics being more ethical than pious people, who base their fatih on what authority dictates. Many people thought "agnosticism" a cover for materialism, and Huxley was thus provoked to attack materialism as a philosophy both in essays, such as On the Physical Basis of Life (1868), and in letters, such as that of January 6, 1861; see § 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm.

Cardinal Newman exclaimed on the essence of science in his remark, "As if evidence were the test of truth." To Huxley, evidence was the test of truth about classification of jellyfish, our anatomical similarities with apes, spontaneous generation, protoplasm, and the historical value of scripture. Hundreds of his essays, especially those on education and criticism of the Bible (see § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible, § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis, and § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons) overtly or covertly apply the perspective of the skeptic.

Early Reflections

As a little boy, tot Tom once surpliced himself in imitation of the Ealing vicar and sermonized the maids of the Huxley household. In his teenage diary, Thoughts and Doings, lad Tom was skeptical about there being any difference between matter and soul, about morality being subjective, about Divine Government, and about the justice of a system that forces people to support a church in which they don't believe. He was a dedicated reader as a teenager, consuming not only textbooks, but works by subversives such as David Hume and Thomas Carlyle.

T. H. Huxley. Aged 20..
Sketch by himself. Hal reading.

His Rattlesnake diary contains few reflections on skepticism; it concludes with a phrase from Goethe, a phrase he would often repeat: Active Skepticism Thatige skepsis, "An Active Skepticism is that which unceasingly strives to overcome itself and by well directed Research to attain to a kind of Conditional Certainty." To Henrietta Heathorn, he described the state of doubt as a disease from which he suffered. "Depend upon it," he wrote, in language that Thomas Carlyle and Cardinal Newman would have employed, "man was not made for doubt but for belief. ... Doubt leads to little better than moral paralysis"– October 1847. In an 1854 contribution to "Science" for the Westminster Review, Huxley noted that "Mosaic geology" was "fairly dead and buried"–see Murchison, et al.

In the address Science and Religion, which appeared in the year of the Origin of Species, Huxley finds religion and science "twin sisters," but theology and science mortal enemies. Skepticism is a divine endowment.

Professor Huxley
Portrait by Maull and Polyblank, 1857

The lectures and papers of the 1850s constantly had as their basis his sense of skepticism tuned up with prophetic fervor, which attained a climax at Huxley's engagement with Bishop Wilberforce at Oxford in the spring of 1860, when Huxley claimed he would not be embarrassed by having an ape as an ancestor, however blasphemous that proposition. In the fall of 1860, his son Noel died of scarlet fever. Among the consolation letters he received was one from the vicar, social reformer, poet, novelist, and professor of history Charles Kingsley, who wondered how a parent could assuage his grief without believing in immortality. Huxley had written a highly laudatory review of Glaucus, a book by this man Kingsley whom he didn't know back in 1854–Kingsley, et al.. His long reply to Kingsley's 1860 letter expresses his disdain for the minister who shared Kingley's piety and also expresses his belief that a skeptical secularist could say "amen" and adjust to the calamity. In later letters to Kingsley, Huxley added postscripts to his alignment of skepticism with a healthy ethics. He had no objection to the possibility of immortality or miracles. This letter and later ones he wrote to Kingsley set up a program that would be concluded in the last paper he wrote in defense of agnosticism–letters to Kingsley are accompanied here by very brief prompt summaries, the letters themselves worth close reading:

September 23, 1860
On secular humanism, immortality, clerical immorality
October 4, 1860
On prayer
May 5, 1863
On what it is to be an infidel
May 22, 1863
On matter and spirit
April 12, 1866
On crib-biting and original sin

Primate coherence being the message of his lectures in the late 50s and throughout the 60s, (e.g., On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals), Huxley at the end of the decade of the sixties went on to deliver a remarkable address claiming protoplasmic coherence, "On the Physical Basis of Life," which when published sent the periodical into seven editions. In his 1864 Science and "Church Policy", he vigorously if not violently asserts that science will devastate its theological opponent in the years to come. In The Views of Hume, Kant, and Whately upon the Logical Basis of the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul (1866), he aligned the scientific method with skepticism, finding Victorian culture still a host to barbarous ideas but poised for imperial power. The audience filled the auditorium of St. Martin's hall, the address received so piously, as though the lecturer were on a pulpit, that it become a feature of the collection Lay Sermons. So that Huxley was well-prepared, in 1869, for the Metaphysical Society.

In that year, Richard Hutton, Walter Bagehot, James Knowles got up a club to discuss, in John Lubbock's words, "metaphysical and theological matters in a scientific manner!" In addition to these gentlemen, The Metaphysical Society also had as members Cardinal Manning, Dean Stanley, James Martineau, and John Ruskin. It met most often in a room of the Grosvenor Hotel. See R. H. Hutton's 1885 article The Metaphysical Society, a rememiniscence. Wilfred Ward, the son of one of the members, observed in his Thomas Henry Huxley: A Reminiscence that Huxley's disdain for clerics was ameliorated by partnership with reverends and cardinals.

Metaphysical Meeting Place
Grovenor Hotel, where Metaphysical Society met, Bersborough Room and Victory stained-glass window

Invention of "Agnostic"

At an early meeting of the Society, each member identified his religious or political position as Anglican, Roman Catholic, Positivist, and so on. Having no label, and feeling like the fabled fox without a tail, Huxley coined a word for his position: "agnostic." Although this word is sometimes defined (as in the Oxford English Dictionary ) as relating to the Unknowable, Huxley denied having that as source of the word. Having referred to the Unknowable earlier, he subsequently apologized for having wasted a capital U. "Agnostic" was coined in 1869 as an antithesis to "gnostic," one who knows the meaning of mysteries such as God. It seems to have first appeared in print in a May 29, 1869 Spectator note ("The Theological Statute at Oxford").

Pater 1, Pater 2
Pencil sketches by Marian Huxley of her father, c. 1870

During the eleven years of the Society's existence, Huxley delivered three talks, none of which was published for public consumption, on immortality and on the resurrection–The Views of Hume, Kant, and Whately upon the Logical Basis of the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul (November 17, 1869); Has a Frog a Soul, and of What Nature Is That Soul, Supposing It to Exist? (November 8, 1870); and The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection (January 11, 1876) The last of these is the most outrageous, for Huxley, though declining to subject the Savior to a physiological examination, does so and concludes that Jesus was not really, or "molecularly," dead when removed from the tomb and therefore did not undergone resurrection. For Huxley's biographical sketch of a Roman Catholic member of the Metaphysical Society, see Dr. Ward (1896). For a report by another member, see Sidgwick Account.

The 1870s opened with Huxley playing a decisive role on the London School Board, a major contributor to the design of British education. Part of that education, he insisted, should be required reading of the Bible–not for gleaning information on geology or the cosmos or our descent, but for its literary and ethical value. In a letter to his wife–August 8, 1873– T. H. delighted in the New Reformation, a gigantic movement posing free thought against "verbal delusions," freethought to win.

Throughout the seventies and into the first lustrum of the eighties, Huxley's scientific and popular work implicitly advanced the hegemony of science over formerly biblical territory. In Chapter VII of Hume, "The Order of Nature: Miracles," Huxley again affirms as he had often in letters and essays that miracles that were conceivable, such as the conversion of water into wine or the resurrection, were not to be dismissed a priori. The issue, however, is not whether they are conceivable, but whether there is adequate evidence to justify belief that they did happen; and for the scriptural miracles just mentioned and for others, e. g., immortality and the resurrection. In his denial of miracles, Hume appeared to Huxley to be only "half a skeptic"–July 6, 1878.

In Huxley's historical view, Socrates was the first agnostic; he was followed by Descartes and Hume. "It was in 1619, while meditating in solitary winter quarters, that Descartes (being about the same age as Hume when he wrote the 'Treatise on Human Nature') made that famous resolution, to 'take nothing for truth without clear knowledge that it is such,' the great practical effect of which is the sanctification of doubt; the recognition that the profession of belief in propositions, of the truth of which there is no sufficient evidence, is immoral; the discrowning of authority as such; the repudiation of the confusion, beloved of sophists of all sorts, between free assent and mere piously gagged dissent; and the admission of the obligation to reconsider even one's axioms on due demand."

"The Principles of Morals," Chapter 9, affirms that morality is useful as well as beautiful and aligns agnosticism with ethics: it is immoral not just unscientific to believe that for which there is no evidence. In a letter written to an unknown correspondent before the publication of Hume, Huxley wrote: "I find that as a matter of experience, erroneous beliefs are punished, and right beliefs are rewarded –though very often the erroneo, 18onscientious study of the facts than the right belief I do not see why this should not be as true of theological beliefs as any others"– November 18, 1876.

Hume was moderately popular: by September of 1880, 10,000 copies had been sold (compare, for example, the first printing of Tyndall book, 500 copies), and it went through five editions by 1895. A clerical reader wrote Huxley on January 19, 1881: "Your admirable sketch of Hume in the 'English Men of Letters' series was, you may be surprised to hear from a minister of the kirk, my Sunday evening's reading of yesterday." In a Nature review, Prof. Huxley's Hume (March 1879), J. Veitch complimented Huxley for his style: a "clear and succinct account of the philosophy of Hume in a style at once fresh and pointed," a "genuine and idiomatic English" unhindered by "lumbering phraseology." He found its substance less appealing: "rather too much of a bare statement of Hume's principles and conclusions." The central question that Huxley raises, the reviewer concludes, is what do we mean by knowledge: "psychology, accordingly, is the only proper basis of assertions about knowledge."

Two long attacks on Hume were published, one by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: Beckett, A Review of Hume and Huxley on Miracles, the other written by James McCosh, President of Princeton College, Agnosticism of Hume and Huxley, which has this question and observation: "Will the seducer be more likely to be kept from gratifying his lust when the highest philosophy teaches him that the soul of his victim is a mere collection of nerves? ... Agnosticism can never become the creed of the great body of any people; but should it be taught by the science and philosophy of the day, I fear its influence on the youth who might be led, not to amuse themselves with it, but by faith to receive it, would be that they would find some of the hindraneces to vice removed, and perhaps some of the incentives to evil encouraged."

The 1879 On Sensation and the Structure of the Sensiferous Organs (which would later accompany Hume ) states his often-repeated understanding that "Of all the dangerous mental habits, that which school boys call 'cock-sureness' is probably the most perilous; and the inestimable value of metaphysical discipline is that it furnishes an effective counterpoise to this evil proclivity." The phrase a priori appears frequently in Huxley's writing, for it catches a procedure which he despised.

Dean Huxley
Pencil drawing by T.B. Wirgman, 1882
THH Dean of Normal School of Science, 1881-95
Lynton Huxleys
Thomas and Henrietta - photograph by Mrs. Bailey at Lynton, 1882

Froude reports in 1882 that Carlyle had once said to him "agnostic doctrines ... were to appearance like the finest flour, from which you might expect the most excellent bread, but when you came to feed on it, you found it was powdered glass, and you had been eating the deadliest poison." Huxley once walked across the street to pay homage to his mentor Carlyle, but Carlyle, responding that Huxley was the man who said we came from apes, shunned friendship. Huxley shared Carlyle's attitude towards atheists. In 1883, George Foote, editor of the Freethinker, was prosecuted and imprisoned with some other members of his staff on a charge of blasphemy. In his defense, Foote quoted from all the important skeptics of the day, including Huxley; but he lost the case and was sentenced to twelve months hard labor. Huxley flatly informed those petitioning for help to Foote that a man should not be allowed to insult his neighbors–see May 22, 1892 and March 12, 1883, but he did sign a petition to help the blasphemer. When asked to support the burial of George Eliot in Westminster Abbey, he refused, explaining in a letter to Herbert Spencer why interement of the secularistic free-lover George Eliot would be indecent–December 27, 1880.

In many letters he wrote after his retirement, after giving up the presidency of the Royal Society and the moderation he thought that office imposed upon his delight in public controversy, Huxley returned again and again to the Thatige skepsis motto of his Rattlesnake days, for example, in letters, on truth and falsehood, to Lady Welby–November 27, 1888; on "theological bacteria," to Ray Lankester–May 25, 1889; and on the iniquity of Cardinal Newman, to Joseph Hooker–May 30, 1889; and in essays Agnosticism: A Symposium (Agnostic Annual, 1884), Agnosticism (1889, so popular that four editions of the Nineteenth Century had to be issued to satsify interest), Agnosticism and Christianity (1889), Agnosticism: A Rejoinder (1889), Agnosticism, a Fragment (n. d.), Mr. Balfour's Attack on Agnosticism (1895), and Mr. Balfour's Attack on Agnosticism II (publ. posthumously). For comment on these essays and response to them, see § 14. New Reformation.

The Great Agnostic
Portrait of Huxley in the year of publication of Collected Essays, 1893

Huxley had little trouble surrending pet theories when evidence showed them untenable, as he gave up his notions that horses had originated in Europe, that Bathybius was a transitional form between life and non-life–§ 9. Medusa et al., and that human beings were a persistent type that may have had dinosaurs as neighbors. Agnosticism may be understood then as a healthy skepticism. It may also be understood as an evasive action, so that its inventor could continue to use materialistic language while blasting materialism, in which view what Lenin observed is precise: "agnosticism serves as a fig-leaf for materialism."

Among his wife's volume of poetry–Poems of Henrietta A. Huxley–several are addressed to her husband or her husband's interests, which she shared; one of these is given in our library, An Agnostic Hymn which is much more in accord with THH's perspective than is the epitaph Henrietta composed for THH's tombstone: Tomb at St. Marylebone Cemetary; for epitaph, see § 1.

Important enough to occupy the conclusion to this Guide is from close to the beginning of his professional work to close to the end of his life, Huxley was competent at doing two things at once: specialized scientific research and popularization of science, of educational, governmental, ethical, and other general ideas. For example, choosing one year from each of four decades, we find:

1856 Observations on the Structure and Affinities of Himantopterus.
On Natural History, as Knowledge, Discipline, and Power.
1868 Remarks upon Archæopteryx Lithographica
A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It
1877 The Crocodilian Remains Found in the Elgin Sandstones
A Modern Symposium I: Influence upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief
1880 On the Epipubis in the Dog and Fox
Science and Culture.
1888 The Gentians: Notes and QueriesThe Struggle for Existence in Human Society.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden