W. K. Clifford

4 May 1845 3 March 1879

"William Kingdon Clifford was a noted mathematician, philosopher 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 clerics, scientists, 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." [Madigan]

In "W. K. Clifford and The Ethics of Belief", Timothy J. Madigan examines the continuing relevance of Clifford's work 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 'The Will to Believe' by William James. 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. [Amazon]

Lucy Lane Clifford (2 August 1846 - 21 April 1929) novelist and journalist. She married the mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford in 1875.

Sources and Links

Mac Tutor mathematical work
Wikipedia biography
Wikipedia [Lucy Clifford]
Infidels.Org Clifford's Ethics
Stanford [William James]
Amazon ["W. K. Clifford and The Ethics of Belief" by Timothy J. Madigan]
Peter Krey [Clifford and James]
3Quarks [Clifford and James]