Mansel, Henry Longueville (1820–1871)

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Henry Longueville Mansel, an English philosopher and divine, was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London, and St. John's College, Oxford. He became tutor in his college, the first Wayneflete professor of moral and metaphysical philosophy at Oxford University in 1859, Regius professor of ecclesiastical history there in 1866, and dean of St. Paul's in 1868.

Mansel was at Oxford during the period when, after more than a century of slumbers, it was again beginning to take philosophy seriously. But whereas his Oxford contemporaries, such as Benjamin Jowett and T. H. Green, looked to Germany for their philosophy, Mansel looked to France and Scotland.

Indebted to various thinkers, especially to William Hamilton and Victor Cousin, Mansel was remarkably successful in assimilating their influences. Whenas on the question of the perception of an external worldhe occupied common ground with Hamilton, Mansel's version was marked by a superior clarity and relevance. Likewise, he more than did justice to what was genuinely original and valuable in Cousin's critique of John Locke's doctrine of judgment, making it the foundation of a subtle and thorough discussion of the relation of thinking to experience begun in the Prolegomena Logica and completed in the article "Metaphysics, or the Philosophy of Consciousness."

The point at issue was the relation of meaning to verification. Can we know a proposition to be true or false without first understanding the meaning of the terms involved, in the sense of being able to define each of them separately? Mansel dealt with this difficulty by making a sharp distinction between a logical judgment, in which the understanding of the terms precedes the judgment as to the truth or falsity of the proposition, and a psychological judgment, in regard to which this sharp distinction cannot be drawn, and in regard to which the understanding of the terms coincides with the judgment as to the truth of the proposition.

Mansel's main point was that the former sort of judgment must always, in the last analysis, rest upon the latter, of which the Cartesian cogito is the prime example. In this way the kind of clear-cut empirical knowledge with which science deals rests on the foundation of an essentially vague metaphysical knowledge embodied in the cogito. This doctrine, which descended through Cousin from Thomas Reid, was worked out by Mansel in the course of an excellent discussion of the problem of universals and particulars, contained in the article "Metaphysics." What nominalistic atomists had forgotten was that the individual thing is initially given in an essentially vague experience (for example, three objects seen in the far distance and just recognizably human) that withholds the details and reveals only general characteristics.

While this topic of the relation of thinking to experience was central in Mansel's work, he was equally stimulating on other questions. Somewhat in the French style, he held that the will, in the form of attention, forms an integral part of cognition. Following a suggestion of Dugald Stewart's, he tried to illuminate the difference between the presence and the absence of efforts of will by an interesting phenomenology of daydreaming and semiconsciousness. Again influenced by Reid, Mansel was awareas few were in his timeof the complexities and difficulties of the problem of our knowledge of the existence of other minds, discussing it, appropriately enough, in connection with the moral judgment. Finally, Mansel dealt interestingly with the distinction between philosophy and science. Philosophy deals with what he called facts of consciousness, whose distinctive feature is that their esse is percipi, in the sense in which René Descartes had said that, so far as philosophy is concerned, there is no difference between seeing something and thinking one sees it.

The result of this careful phenomenological analysis (the word phenomenology had been introduced by Mansel's masters, Hamilton and Cousin) was that Mansel saw human experience as inherently complex and mysterious. In the background of Mansel's philosophy there was always an explicit contrast with a rival kind of reductive analysis that regarded man as being as unmysterious in his inner workings as a pocket watch. This contrast was the key to the controversies aroused by Mansel's Bampton lectures, "The Limits of Religious Thought," delivered in 1858. Mansel held that reason tells us that if evil exists, then God cannot be both perfectly good and all-powerful. However, God's omnipotence and perfect goodness must be accepted as a matter of faith. Although God is perfectly good, we cannot know the nature of his goodness. Man's finite goodness cannot explain God's infinite goodness; they are the same by analogy, not identity.

Mansel's lectures were attacked by F. D. Maurice and Goldwin Smith, and by John Stuart Mill, who devoted Chapter 7 of his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy to Mansel's views. Mill wrote, "I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go." Mansel replied in The Philosophy of the Conditioned, and Mill in turn replied in numerous footnotes in later editions of the Examination, listing Mansel first among his critics. For Mansel man's goodness was not clear and God's goodness was inscrutable; both were equally a mystery.

Mansel's Letters, Lectures, and Reviews, published posthumously, contains, among other things, interesting articles on the philosophy of language and on mathematical logic.

See also Cousin, Victor; Descartes, René; Green, Thomas Hill; Hamilton, William; Locke, John; Logic, History of; Mill, John Stuart; Phenomenology; Language, Philosophy of; Reid, Thomas; Stewart, Dugald.


works by mansel

Prolegomena Logica. Oxford: W. Graham, 1851.

"Metaphysics, or the Philosophy of Consciousness." In Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8th ed. 1857. Published separately, Edinburgh, 1860.

The Limits of Religious Thought. Oxford and London: J. Wright for J. Murray, 1858.

The Philosophy of the Conditioned. London and New York: A. Strahan, 1866.

Letters, Lectures, and Reviews. Edited by H. W. Chandler. London: J. Murray, 1873.

works on mansel

Burgon, J. W. Lives of Twelve Good Men. London, 1888. Vol. II, pp. 149237.

Mill, J. S. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, 1865. Ch. 7.

Stephen, Leslie. "H. L. Mansel." In Dictionary of National Biography. London, 1893. Vol. 36, pp. 8183.

George E. Davie (1967)

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