The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 1. The economics of Ricardo

ENGLISH philosophy may be said to have touched lowwater mark in or about the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. The general public had ceased to be occupied with matters of speculative thought, and the universities did little or nothing to keep an interest in them alive. Writing in 1835, John Stuart Mill complained that philosophy was falling more and more into disrepute and that great events had ceased to inspire great ideas.

  • In the intellectual pursuits which form great minds [he said], this country was formerly pre-eminent. England once stood at the head of European philosophy. Where stands she now?… Out of the narrow bounds of mathematical and physical science, not a vestige of a reading and thinking public engaged in the investigation of truth as truth, in the prosecution of thought for the sake of thought. Among few except sectarian religionists—and what they are we all know—is there any interest in the great problem of man’s nature and life: among still fewer is there any curiosity respecting the nature and principles of human society, the history or the philosophy of civilization; nor any belief that, from such inquiries, a single important practical consequence can follow.
  • About the same time, or a few years earlier, similar views concerning the low estate of English philosophy had been expressed by Sir William Hamilton and by Thomas Carlyle; and a foreign observer—Hegel—had spoken with scorn of the usage of the word “philosophy” in the English language.

    The writers who made this complaint were foremost in bringing about a change. Without any approach to philosophical method, Carlyle forced upon public attention ideas concerning the ultimate meaning and value of life, and, in his own way, had an influence upon the thought of his time which may be compared with that of Coleridge in the generation immediately preceding. Hamilton and Mill were the leaders of a marked revival of interest in speculative topics, which reinstated philosophy in its due place in the national culture; and this revival took two different directions connected with their diverse views and training.

    Philosophy, however, had not merely to overcome the public indifference referred to by John Stuart Mill; it had also to contend against itself, or, at least, against its dominant form. The Benthamite creed, which was in the ascendant, was not favourable to speculative enquiry. “The great problem of man’s nature and life” was regarded as solved in a sense which made metaphysics and theology alike impossible; ethical principles were held to be finally settled by Bentham, so that nothing remained but their application to different situations; even political and social theory, the field of the chief triumphs of the utilitarians, was divorced from history and from every ethical idea save that of utility; psychology, however, remained in need of more adequate treatment than Bentham could give it, and James Mill supplied the school with a theory of mind which was in harmony with their other views.