Grote, John (1813–1866)

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John Grote, the English moral philosopher and epistemologist, was born at Beckenham in Kent. He was a younger brother of George Grote, the historian. Grote studied classics at Cambridge and became a fellow of Trinity College in 1837. He took orders in the Church of England and eventually obtained a church living at Trumpington, where he resided until his death. In 1855 he succeeded William Whewell as Knightbridge professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge. For a number of years an informal group, sometimes called the Grote Club, met regularly with him for philosophical discussion; Henry Sidgwick and John Venn were among its members.

Grote's writings were concerned primarily with ethics and theory of knowledge. He thought the former the more important study and intended the epistemological discussions in his Exploratio Philosophica to serve as prolegomena to his moral theory. Throughout his work he criticized the claim that only science or the "positive standpoint" could give us truth. Science treats perception simply as the action of one body on another, and it investigates the antecedents and concomitants of all thoughts and feelings indifferently. Hence it can give no adequate account of truth or falsity in thought. Philosophy, which is the study of thought and feelings as we are directly aware of them from within, can deal with truth and falsity, but it cannot give causal explanations. Hence the positive and the philosophical standpoints can lead us to truths that supplement each other. Grote argued with considerable acuteness that confusion of these standpoints was responsible for many of the difficulties of traditional theories of perception and knowledge, but he confessed himself unclear as to how they were related.

In ethics, Grote argued that utilitarianism overlooked the fact that man is essentially as active a creature as he is a sentient one. Concentrating only on human sentience, utilitarianism provides a theory of the good in feeling, but since it says little about right acting, it is unable to give an adequate account of the right distribution of good. The attempt to construct a positive science of morality is misguided and hopeless, since it omits the "ideal" element, or conception of what ought to be, which is central to morality. An ethical principle cannot be derived from facts alone, nor can it usefully be made true by definition; hence a basic intuition is required. There is, however, an important utilitarian element in morality, and that element provides a necessary check on possibly spurious intuitions. Grote suggested that the old conflict between utilitarianism and intuitionism should be seen as a conflict between partial views of a whole truth.

Grote held that the philosophical standpoint was more fundamental than the scientific. He gave a number of reasons for this. Underlying them is the view that the attempt to come to a rational understanding of the world implies the belief that the world is already rational, which implies in turn the belief that it is the creation of a mind. But mind, Grote held, can be understood as such only from the philosophical standpoint. The attempt to act morally in the world presupposes, similarly, a belief that the world is morally ordered, and this implies a belief in a moral governor. Grote interpreted these beliefs theistically. His development of them anticipated in many ways the absolute idealism of the generation after him. He argued that all truth is systematically interconnected; that truth is ultimately to be understood as coherence, rather than correspondence; and that the distinctions of perception and conception and of necessity and contingency are relative. In ethics he worked toward a view emphasizing self-development and man's duty in his station.

It has been said that Grote should be viewed as the first of the Cambridge analytic philosophers, and certainly his great respect for ordinary language and ordinary thought, his persistent attempts to find and remove logical confusions, his insistence on the importance of clarity, and his pursuit of it in detailed and painstaking criticism have obvious affinities with the work of that group. There is, however, little evidence to show that he had much direct influence on anyone, and his writing, which is difficult and prolix, has been very little studied despite its acuteness and considerable originality.

See also Epistemology; Ethics, History of; Intuitionism and Intuitionistic Logic; Sidgwick, Henry; Utilitarianism; Venn, John; Whewell, William.


With the exception of Exploratio Philosophica, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, U.K.: Deighton, Bell, 1865), Grote's main writings were edited from his papers and published posthumously by his literary executor, J. B. Mayor. They are: Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K., 1870); Sermons (Cambridge, U.K., 1872); Treatise on the Moral Ideals (Cambridge, U.K.: Deighton, Bell, 1876); and Exploratio Philosophica, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, U.K., 1900). There are also some papers, of which the most interesting is a series called "Glossology" in the Journal of Philology, 1872 and 1874. Further details may be found in Mayor's prefaces to the volumes he edited. There are no detailed secondary studies, but G. Watts Cunningham, The Idealistic Argument (New York: Century, 1933) has a chapter on Grote.

J. B. Schneewind (1967)