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Thomas Huxley And The Coining Of Agnostic

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) rose to prominence in Victorian Britain as a man of science and a brilliant and combative essayist. His polemical defenses of the theory of evolution against its theological detractors, especially in a legendary debate with Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873), the bishop of Oxford, in 1860, earned him the nickname "Darwin's Bulldog." His writings covered topics in philosophy and politics as well as natural science—he was a passionate advocate of better and more widely accessible state education, especially in the sciences. His writings, which included a book on the philosophy of Hume, also reveal the depth and breadth of his learning in the areas of philosophy, religion, and theology. The following excerpt from his 1889 essay "Agnosticism" is Huxley's own account of how and why he had come to coin the term agnostic some twenty years earlier.

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; 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 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. Like Dante,

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, but, unlike Dante, I cannot add, Che la diritta via era smarrita.

On the contrary, I had, and have, the firmest conviction that I never left the "verace via"—the straight road; and that this road led nowhere else but into the dark depths of a wild and tangled forest. And though I have found leopards and lions in the path; though I have made abundant acquaintance with the hungry wolf, that "with privy paw devours apace and nothing said," as another great poet says of the ravening beast; and though no friendly spectre has even yet offered his guidance, I was, and am, minded to go straight on, until I either come out on the other side of the wood, or find there is no other side to it, at least, none attainable by me.

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. 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 Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the Spectator had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people, that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened was, of course, completely lulled.

SOURCE: Thomas Huxley, "Agnosticism," in his Collected Essays, 9 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1893–1894), pp. 237–239.

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