Henry Sidgwick, 1838-1900

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Portrait of Henry Sidgwick

Henry Sidgwick was born in the year after Queen Victoria took the throne, and died six months before she died. Perhaps it was a fateful coincidence. In many ways, Henry Sidgwick was the quintessential Victorian, the perfect 19th Century English academic.

Educated at Rugby, Sidgwick entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1855. Graduating in Classics and Mathematics in 1859, laden with prizes, Sidgwick was immediately elected Fellow of Trinity. He was to remain a teacher at Trinity College until his death. (although he temporarily lost his fellowship in 1869 over his refusal to make a religious oath; he was re-elected in 1885).

Throughout the 1860s, he would undertake the study of philosophy, religious history and ethics. The outcome of his efforts was his famous Methods of Ethics (1874). Sidgwick was particularly influenced by the thought of John Stuart Mill. In this famous book, he attempted to reconcile Mill's utilitarian philosophy with the "intuitional" (i.e. "duty") theory of ethics. However, he recognized that one could not, a priori, reconcile either of these with the principle of self-interest. Sidgwick also proposed that the appropriate measure of social welfare was average utility multiplied by the size of the population. This solution was much applauded by Edgeworth (1877).

Sidgwick then turned to economics. Here, Sidgwick was also a follower of John Stuart Mill and thus a proponent of the Classical School of political economy. However, he was quite aware of the failures of the Wages Fund theorem, the critique of the English Historicists, and, of course, the Marginalist Revolution of 1871. In his Principles (1883), Sidgwick was particularly keen on defending Mill from Jevons's assault (but not Ricardo, whom Sidgwick painstakingly distinguished from Mill). Interestingly, Sidgwick was one of the first economists to recognize externalities as a source of market failure.

Sidgwick was very much a convivial Cambridge scholar. He joined the "Apostles", the exclusive Cambridge discussion group and the Grote Club. He also had struck long and deep friendships with Alfred Marshall, Francis Edgeworth and Stanley Jevons. In 1883, Sidgwick was appointed to the Knightsbridge Chair in Philosophy.

Like his hero Mill, Sidgwick was a promoter of women's education (if not quite outright equality). In 1871, he established a residence for women students at Cambridge, which, in 1879, finally became Newnham College in 1880. In 1876, Sidgwick married, Eleanor Mildred Balfour, the sister of Arthur J. Balfour, the future British Prime Minister (and ex-Sidgwick student). Eleanor herself became the second principal of Newnham. Interestingly, Mary Paley, Marshall's future wife, was one of the college's first students. Sidgwick's own sister was married to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sidgwick was certainly a well-connected man!

A final quirk: always a bit mystically-inclined, Sidgwick was one of the founders and first president (1882-85, 1888-93) of the Society for Psychical Research and a member of Metaphysical Society.

Major Works of Henry Sidgwick

Resources on Henry Sidgwick


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