Sidgwick, Henry

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Sidgwick, Henry



Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), English economist, does not have an obvious place in the standard histories of economic or social thought. His name is not associated with any particular theory or policy, and much of his influence was exerted through his teaching and his participation in the affairs of Cambridge University.

Sidgwick was born at Skipton in Yorkshire, where his father was an Anglican clergyman and headmaster of the local grammar school. From his earliest years it was clear that Sidgwick was destined for academic success. After attending Rugby, he went to Cambridge and achieved distinction there, both in classics and mathematics. In 1859 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College; he remained at Cambridge for the rest of his life.

At the beginning of his academic career Sidgwick taught classics, but he was soon drawn into the field of social science and in 1867 exchanged his lectureship in classics for a lectureship in moral sciences (what would now be called social sciences). Much of his intellectual effort as a teacher at Cambridge was directed toward improving the curriculum: he was influential in raising the status of the social sciences, and he helped pave the way for the economics tripos. Thus, he may be regarded as one of the pioneers who facilitated the emergence of the “Cambridge school” of economics. He also furthered the cause of university education for women (his wife became principal of Newnham College in 1892), and he played a part in the movement for greater religious toleration at the university.

His writings ranged over a number of fields: in addition to his early classical studies, he wrote on politics, philosophy, and economics and, more remote from his central concerns, attempted to make research on psychic phenomena (then a particular vogue in England) scientifically respectable. All who came in contact with Sidgwick seem to have agreed about his intellectual and moral stature; Marshall spoke of him as his “spiritual father and mother,” and John Neville Keynes described him as the most intellectually gifted man he had ever met.

Sidgwick’s written contributions to economics are to be found mainly in his Principles of Political Economy (1883). This work is a useful bench mark by which to judge the state of the discipline in the period between J. S. Mill’s Principles (1848) and the first edition of Marshall’s Principles (1890). The text is primarily a re-exposition of Mill, with traces of the emergent marginalism of Jevons and Marshall. Like Marshall, Sidgwick had a strong desire to emphasize continuity in economic thinking, rather than his own originality. As he put it, “The special aim ... is to eliminate needless polemics by a guarded restatement of traditional doctrines, with due recognition of the advances made in economic theory by recent writers” ([1883] 1901, p. ix). The book contains some corrections and clarifications of Mill’s analysis (for example, the distinction between movements along a demand schedule and shifts from one demand schedule to another, which is so blurred in Mill, is clearly made and explained by Sidgwick), and the influence of Marshall is obvious.

The most important sections in Sidgwick’s Principles are those dealing with methodology and the analysis of government interference. Sidgwick restated the methodological position, first enunciated within the context of economics by Senior and Mill, whereby the “science” and the “art” of political economy are to be logically differentiated: “The first gives information as to what happens, without pronouncing whether it is good or bad; the second judges that what happens or would happen under certain conditions is the best thing that could happen” (ibid., p. 36). However, Sidgwick (ever a moderate) refused to adopt the extreme position of Cairnes, and later of Robbins, according to which the economist qua economist has no special qualifications in the normative area of his studies.

The core of Sidgwick’s major contribution is contained in his discussion of the art of political economy (book 3). He was at pains to dissociate economic science from the political doctrines of laissez-faire and suggested various conditions under which state interference in the productive process may become desirable: one important condition is the divergence of private and social benefits. Here Sidgwick’s analysis constitutes the prototype of the Marshall-Pigou approach. However, he did not present a general a priori case for government ’ interference whenever this divergence obtains—each situation has to be considered on its own. He stated the case for interference with the distribution of income—necessitated by an unregulated economic system—with much more generality, except for reservations about the possible effects of interference on production. He argued for much greater equality of income, to be achieved by deliberate government fiscal policy, basing his argument on the “general acceptance” of two propositions of Bentham’s, which may be summarized as follows: utility increases as wealth increases, but at a decreasing rate. Sidgwick did not make clear the methodological status of these propositions; we are not told whether they are judgments or testable (and tested) hypotheses.

Sidgwick’s influence on social thought and policy is difficult to assess. Although he expressed grave doubts about the feasibility of a total socialist solution, his rejection of any general theoretical reasons for nonintervention and his emphasis on the need to look at every case individually place him squarely in the English Fabian tradition.

Bernard Corry

[For the historical context of Sidgwick’s work, see the biographies ofMillandSenior; for discussion of the subsequent development of Sidgwick’s ideas, see the biographies ofMarshall and Pigou.]


(1874) 1901 The Methods of Ethics. 6th ed. London: Macmillan.

(1883) 1901 The Principles of Political Economy. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan.

(1891) 1908 The Elements of Politics. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.


Keynes, John Neville 1900 Henry Sidgwick [obituary]. Economic Journal 10:585-591.

Keynes, John Neville (1908) 1963 Henry Sidgwick. Volume 3, pages 757-759 in Robert Palgrave, Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy. New York: Macmillan.

Marshall, Alfred (1890) 1961 Principles of Economics. 9th ed. 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan.

Mill, John Stuart (1848) 1965 Principles of Political Economy, With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. 2 vols. Edited by J. M. Robson. Collected Works, Vols. 2, 3. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Sidgwick, Arthur; and Sidgwick, Eleanor 1906 Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir. London and New York: Macmillan.

Sidgwick, Henry (1838-1900)

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Sidgwick, Henry (1838-1900)

First president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, a professor at Cambridge University who filled the chair of moral philosophy, and who once was described as "the most incorrigibly and exasperatingly critical and sceptical mind in England." F. W. H. Myers (who pursued investigations with Sidgwick) and Edmund Gurney made their cooperation with the fledgling SPR contingent upon his acceptance of the presidential post.

Sidgwick was born May 31, 1838, at Skipton, Yorkshire, England. He attended Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge (fellow, 1859-69). In 1876, he married Eleanor Mildred Balfour, the sister of Arthur James Balfour, later British Prime Minister.

In his first presidential address to the SPR, on July 17, 1882, Sidgwick used plain words:

"We are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live, that the dispute as to the reality of these marvelous phenomena of which it is quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses could be shown to be trueI say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity."

He declared that he did not expect to produce evidence of a better quality than that of Sir William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Augustus de Morgan, but wanted a great deal more of it. Speaking on scientific incredulity he concluded:

"We have done all that we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But when he has nothing else left he will allege that. We must drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy."

For 18 years Sidgwick claimed an active share in the work of the SPR, contributed many important studies to the Proceedings, and helped the investigations by his personal means. He edited the society's Journal in 1885.

He died without admitting any reality to either telekinesis or ectoplasm. But as early as 1864 he wrote to a Mr. Dakyns, a friend: "I (fancy I) have actually heard the raps " and added: "However, I have no kind of evidence to come before a jury. So keep it still till I blaze forth." He never blazed forth.

He had sittings with mediums Frank Herne and Henry Slade and materialization séances with C. E. Wood and Annie Fairlamb in his own home at Cambridge under the most stringent test conditions, as testified by Myers's notes. Eleanor Sidgwick published an account of those she attended in the SPR Proceedings (vol. 4) and admitted that it was exceedingly difficult "but not perhaps impossible" to impute the results to imposture. In justice, however, it should be added that the most astounding and conclusive phenomena, according to Myers, occurred in the absence of both Sidgwicks.

It is more widely known that Sidgwick was impressed by the phenomena of Eusapia Palladino, which he witnessed with his wife on the Ile. Roubaud in 1894, as the guest of Charles Richet. During the latter part of Palladino's stay there, her phenomena were less spectacular, and he then took a leading part in the sittings held at Cambridge in 1895 that resulted in her exposure. He had a number of sittings with Leonora Piper in 1889-90 and retained the keenest interest in her trance phenomena.

He died August 28, 1900. The first communications purporting to come from Sidgwick after his death were obtained through Rosina Thompson on January 11, 1901. According to J. G. Piddington, who was present, the diction, manner, and voice were astonishingly lifelike, and he felt that he was indeed speaking with and hearing the voice of the man he had known. The written communications that followed the oral one bear out a striking resemblance to Sidgwick's handwriting. The first such script was received through Thompson in Piddington's presence. Other messages, of varying evidential value, were received through the hand of Margaret Verrall.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. New York: Schrocken Books, 1968.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Sidgwick, Henry. "Canons of Evidence in Psychical Research." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1888-90).

. "Disinterested Deception." Journal 6 (1894).

Sidgwick, Henry, A. Johnson, F. W. H. Myers, Frank Podmore, and Eleanor Sidgwick. "Report on the Census of Hallucinations." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 10(1894).

Henry Sidgwick

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Henry Sidgwick

The English philosopher and moralist Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was the author of The Methods of Ethics, which has been described as the "best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written."

Henry Sidgwick was born in Yorkshire and attended Rugby before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. After a distinguished undergraduate career, he was elected a fellow in 1859. Because he could not in conscience subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles as a condition for holding a fellowship, Sidgwick resigned but remained at Cambridge as a lecturer. He became Knightbridge professor of moral thought in 1883. Together with his wife, Eleanor, a sister of Arthur Balfour, the British prime minister, he helped to establish Newnham, the Cambridge University college for women. Sidgwick was also one of the founders and the first president of the influential Society for Psychical Research. In addition to the classic The Methods of Ethics (1874), Sidgwick's writings include Principles of Political Economy (1883), Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886), The Elements of Politics (1891), Practical Ethics (1898), Philosophy: Its Scope and Relations (1902), and Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays (1905). During his long association with Cambridge, Sidgwick taught and influenced several important future thinkers, including John McTaggart, G. E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell.

Ethical methodology concerns the ways in which men make decisions about how they should act. Sidgwick, as an ethical historian, saw that ethical decisions resulted from a particular conception of the end or purpose of life. Philosophers have been divided into two groups on this subject: those who think that happiness is the chief purpose of existence, and a minority group that acknowledges that there are ends other than happiness, such as self-realization or perfection, that are also intrinsically desirable.

The methods of non-Eudamonistic ethics rest on some type of intuition into the nature of moral principles that extend beyond happiness. The philosophic difficulty of intuitionalism is its inability to establish the universal validity of such insights as transcendent values. Sidgwick described happiness ethics as utilitarian and distinguished between systems that aim at the happiness of individuals (egoistic hedonism) and those that aim at happiness for all. In these systems, methodology consists of designating actions as right or wrong in terms of the amount of happiness produced for the self or for others. Sidgwick admitted that he distrusted intuitional systems because of their subjectivity, and he considered himself to be a utilitarian until he came to perceive "the profound discrepancy between the natural end of action, private happiness, and the end of duty, general happiness."

Thus the central problem of ethics for Sidgwick was located in the conflict between personal inclination and duty toward others. Eventually Sidgwick admitted that without some sort of religious sanction, the attempt rationally to demonstrate the ethical necessity of extending self-love to love for others was a failure.

Further Reading

A biography by A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (1906), contains useful sources and a complete bibliography. The best secondary references are C. D. Broad's Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930) and Ethics and the History of Philosophy (1952).

Additional Sources

Schneewind, J. B. (Jerome B.), Sidgwick's ethics and Victorian moral philosophy, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 1977. □