UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Thomas Henry Huxley's agnostic philosophy of science Byun, Jiwon


This dissertation examines Thomas Henry Huxley’s notion of agnosticism and its bearings on his conception of science. Although agnosticism is commonly regarded as a position that recognizes the limits of human knowledge, Huxley – who coined the term “agnostic” – characterized it as more than a theory of ignorance or limits. I argue that Huxley intended his agnosticism to be a guide to knowledge that can work regardless of our ignorance or limits. To this end, I draw attention to Huxley’s less famous philosophical works. I examine his discussions of Descartes to show that he had an epistemological project and to clarify the structure of agnosticism; I analyze his Hume to illuminate the reasoning behind his claim that verification is the only justificatory method and to highlight his reasons for situating agnosticism within what he called “modern critical philosophy”; I investigate his other essays to argue that his agnosticism concerns a claim to knowledge and should not be understood as ethics of belief. Based on his epistemological inquiry, Huxley offered a quick guide to knowledge, consisting of an account of legitimate evidence and an ethics of knowing: agnosticism. It can be summarized as follows. Propositions concerning anything beyond phenomena lack evidential value; verified propositions have evidential value; if one wishes to make a claim about the knowledge status of a proposition, one should evaluate the evidence and be honest about the result without further pretension. Huxley discussed the realm of ignorance to show its lack of justificatory value. The signature remark of Huxleyan agnostics is “Show me evidence,” rather than “I don’t know.” This interpretation undermines the widely accepted view that Huxley’s endorsement of agnosticism poses philosophical obstacles to his larger project of promoting science in Victorian society. His intention behind agnosticism was to establish and maintain epistemic merit of science without any unknowable, metaphysical or theological, apparatus. Science is the practice of agnosticism, and for this reason, our best way to knowledge. Our understandings of his life-long project and of the growth of science’s autonomy during the 19th century would remain incomplete without due appreciation of this notion of agnosticism.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International