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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 19. Richard Price and Joseph Priestley

Richard Price, a native of Glamorgan, who became a unitarian minister in London, left his mark on more than one department of thought. His Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771) made a distinct advance in the theory of life assurance. His Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt (1771) is said to have contributed to the reestablishment of the sinking fund. He was drawn into the current of revolutionary politics and became a leading exponent of their ideas. His Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America made him famous in two continents. The preface to the first edition was dated 8 February, that to the fifth edition 12 March, 1776. Additional Observations on the same subject appeared in 1777, and a General Introduction and Supplement to the two tracts in 1778. The revolution in France was the occasion for A Discourse on the Love of our Country, delivered on Nov. 4, 1789; and this he closed with a Nuncdimittis: “After sharing in the benefits of one Revolution, I have been spared to be a witness to two other Revolutions, both glorious.” This Discourse had the further distinction of provoking Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But, famous as his political partisanship made him at the time, Price has a better title to be remembered for his first work, A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1757; 3rd edn., revised and enlarged, 1787).

Price has the mathematician’s interest in intellectual concepts and his power of dealing with abstractions. In philosophy, he is a successor of Cudworth and Clarke, and the theories of knowledge of both Locke and Hume are attacked at the roots. The understanding or reason (he argues) has its own ideas, for which it does not depend upon sense-impression. Necessity, possibility, identity, cause are instances of such abstract ideas. They are “intelligible objects” discovered by “the eye of the mind.” Reason is thus “the source of new ideas”; and among them are the ideas of right and wrong; these are simple ideas and perceived by an immediate “intuition” of the understanding: “morality is a branch of necessary truth.” The system which Price bases on this view has become, more than any other, the type of modern intuitional ethics.

Joseph Priestley had many points of sympathy with Price. They belonged to the same profession—the unitarian ministry—and they were prominent on the same side in the revolutionary politics of the day. But, in spite of this similarity and of their personal friendship, they represent different attitudes of mind. Price was a mathematician, familiar with abstract ideas, and an intellectualist in philosophy. Priestley was a chemist, busied in experiments, a convinced disciple of the empirical philosophy and a supporter of materialism. He was the author of The History and present State of Electricity (1767), and, afterwards, of numerous papers and treatises on chemical subjects, which recorded the results of his original investigations and have established his fame as a man of science. He came early under the influence of Hartley and published a simplification of his book—omitting the doctrine of vibrations and laying stress solely on the principle of the association of ideas; but he rejected Hartley’s view of mind as an immaterial principle and held that the powers termed mental are the result “of such an organical structure as that of the brain.” His philosophical views were expressed and defended in Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit (1777), in The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity (1777) and in A Free Discussion (1778) on these topics with Price; and he also published (1774) An Examination of the doctrines of Reid and others of the new school of Scottish philosophers. Of greater interest than these, however, is the short Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768). This forms a contrast to the a priori arguments in which Price delighted—although its practical tendency is the same. It propounds “one general idea,” namely, “that all people live in society for their mutual advantage,” and draws the conclusion that their happiness is “the great standard by which every thing relating to that state must finally be determined.” Priestley thus set the example, which Bentham followed, of taking utilitarian considerations for the basis of a philosophical radicalism, instead of the dogmas about natural rights common with other revolutionary thinkers of the period. He did not anticipate Bentham in using the famous utilitarian formula (as he is often said to have done), but he did precede him in taking the happiness of the majority as the test in every political question, and he made it easier for Bentham to use the same standard in judging private conduct.