Martineau, James (1805–1900)

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James Martineau, an English philosopher and religious leader, was born in Norwich. He was a brother of Harriet Martineau, the novelist and economist. James Martineau attended school in Norwich and Bristol and went on to study for the ministry under the Unitarian auspices of Manchester New College at York. He accepted a call to a congregation in Dublin in 1828 and was married later the same year. In 1832 he became minister to a dissenting congregation in Liverpool. He occupied this post for twenty-five years, but for most of that period he was also teaching philosophy and other subjects at Manchester New College, and when the college was moved to London in 1857, he moved with it. From 1869 to 1885 he served as principal of the college. Despite the criticism aroused by his views on religious and theological matters, he was regarded as the foremost spokesman of Unitarianism in England and was revered by many in other religious groups as well for his impressive contributions to the literature of hymn, private prayer, and sermon.

In accordance with the then prevailing tendency of Unitarian thought, Martineau was brought up to accept the doctrines of associationism, egoism, and necessitarianism as taught by David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. In his early teaching he used works by James Mill and Thomas Brown as texts, but the difficulties he had in defending their views, together with his own growing sense of the inadequacy of their philosophy as a basis for a Christian outlook, led him rapidly toward a new general position. By 1839 he concluded that necessitarianism was incompatible with that sense of "the personal origin and personal identity of sin" which is central to Christianity. During the next half-dozen years he worked out the implications of this point. The results were first published in 1845 and 1846 in two long reviews (reprinted in Essays, Reviews, and Addresses ) that outlined the positions he was to develop and defend for the rest of his life. Although he learned much from a year of study in Berlin in 1848 and 1849, German philosophy did not really change his thought. He remained far more a follower of Bishop Butler and Thomas Reid than of Immanuel Kant or G. W. F. Hegel.

At the basis of all of Martineau's constructive thought is the view that we must accept as true certain deliverances of consciousness that appear to give us directly information about the external world, the self, and morality. Neither Kant nor William Hamilton nor J. S. Mill seemed to him to have given us reason to distrust the intuitions of the mind, and since these intuitions present themselves as reliable, we are entitled to have faith in them until reasons against them are produced. Martineau's intuitionism is the philosophical counterpart of the very great emphasis he placed, in interpreting religion, on personal religious experience. It is in such experience, he held, that one must look for revelation, not in messages delivered by others nor in traditions preserved by organized groups. Philosophically, both epistemology and ethics lead directly to justifications of religious belief.

From the very start of knowledge, Martineau argued, we are aware of a self and a not-self, and we are aware of these not as simply passively there but as being actively related. We thus intuit ourselves as willing and the world, in turn, as an expression of will. The former intuition is at the basis of our understanding of causality, which cannot be explained in terms of succession of phenomena, and the idea of causality finds its mature expression in the belief that God is the noumenal cause of the phenomenal order. Science, which deals only with phenomena, cannot upset our belief in God, but the increasing unity of the laws and theories that science discovers acts as a confirmation of our intuitive belief in the unity of the cause of nature.

If the "natural" attributes of God, such as omnipotence and intelligence, are revealed through our experience of the external world, the moral attributes are revealed to us primarily in our moral experience. Martineau argued very carefully that the central subject of moral judgment is motives or "springs of action," not acts or consequences. He held that whenever there is more than one motive competing to direct our action, we are intuitively aware that one of the motives is higher than the others.

"The moral faculty," he said, "is not any apprehension of invisible qualities in external actions, not any partition of them into the absolutely good and absolutely evil, not any intellectual testing of them by rules of congruity or balances of utility, but a recognition, at their very source, of a scale of relative values lying within ourselves," relative because a given motive may be higher in relation to one alternative, lower in relation to another. To be good is to choose to act on the relatively higher motive. Once this choice is made, consideration of consequences comes in to aid in selecting the particular act that will best express the motive in the actual circumstances. It is the first choice only that is morally relevant, though the second is, of course, important. Since the moral value of both agent and act is wholly determined by his choice of motive, Martineau went to considerable pains to defend absolute freedom of the will. The arguments rely heavily on the concept of cause developed in his epistemology. In our own willing we learn something of the nature of God's activity; the realization that there is an authoritative demand on us to act on the relatively higher motive is the chief revelation of God within our moral experience. The authoritativeness of the demand can be explained only in theistic terms, and the content of the demand reveals to us God's moral nature.

Martineau's style is extremely florid and his exposition quite diffuse. In his epistemological and metaphysical writings he seems often to have missed the point of an opposing theory or to have been content with very weak arguments for his own. But his ethics, as an account of the ethics of motive, if not highly original, is in conception and in execution one of the finest that has ever been presented.

See also Brown, Thomas; Butler, Joseph; Egoism and Altruism; Epistemology; German Philosophy; Hamilton, William; Hartley, David; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Mill, James; Mill, John Stuart; Priestley, Joseph; Reid, Thomas.


Works by Martineau include A Study of Spinoza (London: Macmillan, 1882); Types of Ethical Theory, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885); A Study of Religion, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888); The Seat of Authority in Religion (London: Longmans, Green, 1890); and Essays, Reviews, and Addresses, selected and revised by Martineau himself (London: Longmans, Green, 18901891).

For an account of his life and philosophy, see James Drummond and C. B. Upton, Life and Letters of James Martineau (London: J. Nisbet, 1902); criticism of the ethics will be found in Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau (London: Macmillan, 1902).

J. B. Schneewind (1967)