The Metaphysical Society was a famous British debating society, founded in 1869 by James Knowles, who acted as Secretary. Membership was by invitation only, and was exclusively male. Many of its members were prominent clergymen, philosophers, and politicians.[1]



The society met monthly, from November to July (to mirror the sitting of Parliament). Its members were never all present at once, and most meetings never exceeded twenty attendees.[2] Papers were read and discussed at meetings on such subjects as the ultimate grounds of belief in the objective and moral sciences, the immortality of the soul, etc. A description of one of the meetings was given by William Connor Magee (then Bishop of Peterborough) in a letter on 13 February 1873:[3]

Archbishop Manning in the chair was flanked by two Protestant bishops right and left; on my right was Hutton, editor of the Spectator, an Arian; then came Father Dalgairns, a very able Roman Catholic priest; opposite him Lord A. Russell, a Deist; then two Scotch metaphysical writers, Freethinkers; then Knowles, the very broad editor of the Contemporary; then, dressed as a layman and looking like a country squire, was Ward, formerly Rev. Ward, and earliest of the perverts to Rome; then Greg, author of The Creed of Christendom, a Deist; then Froude, the historian, once a deacon in our Church, now a Deist; then Roden Noël, an actual Atheist and red republican, and looking very like one! Lastly Ruskin, who read a paper on miracles, which we discussed for an hour and a half! Nothing could be calmer, fairer, or even, on the whole, more reverent than the discussion. In my opinion, we, the Christians, had much the best of it. Dalgairns, the priest, was very masterly; Manning, clever and precise and weighty; Froude, very acute, and so was Greg. We only wanted a Jew and a Muslim to make our Religious Museum complete (Life, i. 284).

The last meeting of the society was held on 16 May 1880 and it was dissolved later in November of that year.[4] Huxley said that it died "of too much love"; Tennyson, "because after ten years of strenuous effort no one had succeeded in even defining metaphysics." According to Dean Stanley, "We all meant the same thing if we only knew it."[3]

In 1877 Knowles founded The Nineteenth Century, a literary journal whose editorial style was partly inspired by the debates he had managed at the Metaphysical Society.[5] Many of the society's members became supporters and contributors to the magazine.



The members from first to last were as follows:[6]




  1. ^ Metcalf, Priscilla (1980). James Knowles: Victorian Editor and Architect. Oxford University Press. pp. 215–217.
  2. ^ Metcalf, Knowles, pp. 216-217
  3. ^ a b   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Knowles, Sir James". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 15 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 876–877.
  4. ^ Christopher A. Kent, "Metaphysical Society (act. 1869–1880)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, (, 2004. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  5. ^ Metcalf, Knowles, p. 225
  6. ^ "The Metaphysical Society. A Reminiscence" by R. H. Hutton, published in 1885 in The Nineteenth Century magazine.


  • Brown, Alan Willard The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869–1880. New York: Columbia U.P., 1947.
  • The papers of the Metaphysical Society, 1869–1880 : a critical edition, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2015, 3 volumes.
  • Catherine Marshall; Bernard V Lightman; Richard England, The Metaphysical Society (1869–1880) : intellectual life in mid-Victorian England, Oxford ; New York, NY : Oxford University Press, 2019.

Further reading