Huxley’s agnosticism

In 1869, Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” to label a point of view concerning knowledge — although it has wider implications. There are ambiguities and insufficiencies in his description that continue to need refinement. The following passages written by Huxley are now pretty standard reading.

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion …

Huxley presents agnosticism as an alternative to extremes concerning knowledge, especially knowledge of God, though Huxley assumes this of the reader: he does not actually write the word. He presents a spectrum of beliefs but doesn’t try to tease apart the strengths or weaknesses of the points of view, saying that their adherents are all “good people,” or people of good will in their respective spheres. Huxley talks like a member of a men’s club not wanting to offend any member but nevertheless obliged to choose a point of view.

Thus, on Huxley’s list, atheist, theist, and Christian are religious terms referring narrowly to a position on Christianity, at least in his day. Pantheist seems an allusion to romanticism — presumably he was not broadening the historical sense of the word. Materialist, idealist, and freethinker refer to philosophy. What is missing is deism as an alternative to theism, or the various degrees of philosophical thinking like Stoicism or Epicureanism or Cynicism, not crude like the points of view on his list, but that need not be belabored.

The continuation of the passage reveals from where Huxley is coming:

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our [i.e. Metaphysical] Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

Ah, the men’s club of viewpoints, like booths at a fair, chapters in a philosophy text. Not having a favorite, do not judge even the merits or weaknesses of anyone, lest you offend.

The term “agnostic” is presented first as a bulwark against Christianity. However, Huxley’s use of the term “gnostic” is hardly an orthodox term in the “Church history” he refers to, nor can that which Christians “professed to know so much about” be said to equate with historical Gnosticism but rather Revelation or dogma. Huxley was, of course, not ignorant of what Christians said or believed but rather professed not to be convinced.

As “Darwin’s bulldog” — what some called Huxley in his day — it is not surprising that he would disbelieve the mechanics of information that could not be validated scientifically. This had been the case since Galileo. But Galileo had recanted to save himself from torture, and presumably could believe whatever else he wished in his society as long as it was not publicly controversial. Does agnosticism merely save its skin, like Galileo?

Huxley mentions Hume and Kant, and that is appropriately the source of the philosophical mechanisms for the breakdown of the certainty of knowledge. With Kant, however, this breakdown applies to reason as well. Huxley finds safety in agnosticism, which he begs off from a militancy like skepticism, being a gentleman who will need to protect his society’s ethics and politics. He chooses a diffuse “I don’t know.”

Huxley continues:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good;” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Hindsight may adopt the Reformation as agnostic, but that is far-fetched. The process of devolution in Christianity was tied to intellectual reflections but as much to social and economic conditions. Socrates’ “method” and Descartes’ methodical doubt are useful historical models for philosophy but accepted as outdated by the science of Huxley’s day in the realm of knowledge.

But as Wittgenstein — no stranger to rigorous science as well as philosophy –pointed out, reason cannot examine itself or ethics, art, or anything imagined or created. There is no method for methodical doubt, no method even for agnosticism, because it is still based on the paradigm of knowledge and reason, when their coveted throne has long since been unmasked.

Agnosticism is not a creed, as Huxley rightly notes. But neither is it a method, a parallel empiricism. In the 20th century, the progress of knowledge as a good has been revealed to be false, and creeds to be but social intuitions. Huxley’s method is a suspension of probability, a lack of trust in a teleology of meaning, a collapse of what science and technology once believed to be progress.

Agnosticism is a negative wonder, a fear of shadows, a groping for meaning instead of a plunging into experience. Experience of “gnosis” was the goal of the historical Gnostics, not an attempt to attach puny human reasons to the universe and call it or its components “knowledge.” With agnosticism Huxley thought to suspend the betting on whether science or religion would win out, confident that the latter would not. But Nietzsche rightly declared that they had plummeted one another to death.