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The Origin of the Word Agnostic

Bill Young

There is little doubt that Thomas Henry Huxley invented the word agnostic in the Spring of 1869. However, there is conflicting evidence about when this was and what it originally meant.

According to R. H. Hutton, as published in the New English Dictionary, Huxley first used the word agnostic at a party at James Knowles's house on Clapham Common prior to the formation of the Metaphysical Society. Hutton also said, "He [Huxley] took it from St. Paul's mention of the altar to 'the Unknown God.'" (New English Dictionary edited by James A. H. Murray. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1888, p. 86.)

Huxley, on the other hand, wrote in "Agnosticism" published in The Nineteenth Century in February 1889 that he invented it as a label for himself at the Metaphysical Society, although he didn't say when. He also said, "It [agnostic] 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...." (Huxley, Thomas Henry. "Agnosticism" The Nineteenth Century. February, 1889, p. 183.)

Apparently the word Agnostics was first used in print in an article: "The Theological Statute at Oxford" in The Spectator, May 29, 1869 (p. 642). This article, probably written by R. H. Hutton, who was editor of The Spectator at the time, did not mention Huxley or say anything about who the "Agnostics" were. However, this date is of interest because the first formal meeting of the Metaphysical Society was not until June 2, 1869.

There had been an organizational meeting of the Metaphysical Society at Willis' Rooms on Wednesday, April 21, 1869 that both Huxley and Hutton attended according to Alan Willard Brown's The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (p. 25). Brown, in his report of the meeting, did not mention the word agnostic being introduced. Nevertheless, it may have been that meeting that Huxley was recalling in his 1889 article. In any event, Huxley did not use agnostic or agnosticism in any of the three lectures that he presented at the Metaphysical Society, so, although these words may have been used in discussion, they were not used in writing by Huxley as far as has been able to be determined.

The first time that Agnostic and Agnosticism appeared in print with any meaning given to it was apparently in the January 29, 1870 issue of The Spectator (p. 135f). It had an article, entitled "Pope Huxley," that said: "In theory he [Huxley] is a great and even severe Agnostic-who goes about exhorting all men to know how little they know, on pain of loss of intellectual sincerity if they once consciously confound a conjecture with a certainty." The article spoke of Huxley's "Agnosticism," and said that he "is labouring to preach to us all the gospel of suspense of judgment on all questions, intellectual and moral, on which we have not adequate data for a positive opinion." This article was probably also written by R. H. Hutton. His role in popularizing and changing the meanings of agnostic and agnosticism is a story unto itself. However, it should be noted in passing that in "Pope Huxley" Hutton seemed to understand these words to mean just about what Huxley was to mean by them when he wrote about them later on in 1889.

Huxley apparently had the opportunity to contribute his understanding of agnostic and agnosticism to the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles in 1880, but he did not do so. (C. T. Onions "Agnostic" The Times Literary Supplement. 6 Sept. 1947. p. 451.) In fact, Huxley seems to have used the word agnostic in print only one time prior to 1883. That was in 1879 in his book Hume with Helps to the Study of Berkeley. where he identified Socrates as "the first agnostic" (p. viii in the Preface). Also, in the same book, Huxley spoke of Hume in connection with Locke and Kant, "as the protagonist of that more modern way of thinking, which has been called 'agnosticism,' from its profession of an incapacity to discover the indispensable conditions of either positive or negative knowledge, in many propositions, respecting which, not only the vulgar, but philosophers of the more sanguine sort, revel in the luxury of unqualified assurance" (p.70-71).

In 1883, when writing to Charles A. Watts, publisher of the Agnostic Annual , Huxley said, "Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word 'Agnostic' to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with utmost confidence...." (p. 9). Huxley alluded to the role of the Spectator in popularising both "Agnostic" and "Agnosticism" and he said of the word "Agnostic," "it is my trademark." However, he had not written to nor responded to any of the articles about agnosticism in the Spectator and he did not use either agnostic or agnosticism in any of his other published writings until 1889, as far as I have been able to find, so he must have been using his "trademark" informally.

Finally, in 1889 Huxley had three articles published in The Nineteenth Century that included "Agnosticism" in their titles. These articles were "Agnosticism" in February, "Agnosticism: A Rejoinder" in April, and "Agnosticism and Christianity" in June. In these articles he described rather completely what he had in mind by the use of agnostic and agnosticism as a method and not a creed.

The ways that he used the terms himself were quite different from most of the ways that these terms have come to be used. However, a discussion of the content of these three articles and the meanings that Huxley gave to Agnosticism is beyond the scope of this paper, except as indicated above, having to do with the origin of the word agnostic itself.