W. K. Clifford and 'The Ethics of Belief'
Author: Timothy J. Madigan
Date Of Publication: Jan 2010
W. K. Clifford (1845-1879) was a noted mathematician and popularizer of science in the Victorian era. Although he made major contributions in the field of geometry, he is perhaps best known for a short essay he wrote in 1876, entitled "The Ethics of Belief", in which he argued that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Delivered initially as an address to the august Metaphysical Society (whose members included such luminaries as Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Gladstone, T. H. Huxley, and assorted scientists, clerics and philosophers of differing metaphysical views, "The Ethics of Belief" became a rallying cry for freethinkers and a bone of contention for religious apologists. It continues to be discussed today as an exemplar of what is called 'evidentialism', a key point in current philosophy of religion debates over justification of knowledge claims.
In this book, Timothy J. Madigan examines the continuing relevance of "The Ethics of Belief" to epistemological and ethical concerns. He places the essay within the historical context, especially the so-called 'Victorian Crisis of Faith' of which Clifford was a key player. Clifford's own life and interests are dealt with as well, along with the responses to his essay by his contemporaries, the most famous of which was William James's "The Will to Believe." Madigan provides an overview of modern-day critics of Cliffordian evidentialism, as well as examining thinkers who were positively influenced by him, including Bertrand Russell, who was perhaps Clifford's most influential successor as an advocate of intellectual honesty.
The book ends with a defense of "The Ethics of Belief" from a virtue-theory approach, and argues that Clifford utilizes an "as-if" methodology to encourage intellectual inquiry and communal truth-seeking.' The Ethics of Belief' continues to provoke and stimulate controversy, which was perhaps Clifford's own fondest hope, although he had no right to believe it would do so.
Timothy J. Madigan teaches Philosophy at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. The former editor of Free Inquiry magazine, he is on the editorial board of the London-based Philosophy Now magazine and is a frequent lecturer on topics related to applied ethics, philosophy and popular culture, and the relationship between ethics and epistemology.
“This work is extremely well-written, lucid and well-organized. Madigan gets the reader into the subject with an account of Clifford’s life and, equally important, a vivid description of the intellectual climate of the time. Through this, and other means, he conveys the importance of the subject and of Clifford’s contribution. The last two chapters illustrate, convincingly, that the subject is still important and not just of historical interest. The views of contemporary philosophers are discussed and perceptively dealt with.”
—Richard Taylor, former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester and author of Good and Evil; Restoring Pride: The Lost Virtue of our Age; and Metaphysics, among many other works.
“Madigan’s study of Clifford’s best-known work is unusually well-written, is cogently argued, and raises important issues in a thought-provoking way. He shows a discerning appreciation of scholars who do not agree with him. In short, this is a treat to read and ponder.”
—Rollo Handy, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, State University of New York at Buffalo
"[Madigan's] writing is historically and philosophically scrupulous yet rewardingly accessible to any educated reader. W. K. Clifford and 'The Ethics of Belief' is that ultimate rarity: an uncompromising philosophical history that nonspecialists can read not just with pleasure but with gusto."
—Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief
"...in this excellent study Dr Tim Madigan shows why we should take notice of this remarkable man and his 'secular sermon, delivered to exhort individuals to live up to their highest epistemic abilities"
Jon Wainwright, Open University in Philosophy Now, Feb 2010.
"The much-anthologized essay of W. K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief" is often read in ignorance of its background, and this study of Madigan is useful for correcting this. It is a useful study...giving a first summary of the issues and the debates associated with it."
Patrick Giddy, University of Kwazulu-Natal in Metapsychology Online Reviews, March 2011 Volume 15
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