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Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: The Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy

Bernard Lightman
The British Journal for the History of Science
Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep., 2002), pp. 271-289
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4028124
Page Count: 19
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Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: The Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy
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Abstract

Huxley's invention of the term 'agnostic' in 1869 is often seen as a brilliant rhetorical strategy. Portrayed as an effective weapon in Huxley's public debates with defenders of the Anglican establishment, the creation of scientific agnosticism has been interpreted as a turning point in the relationship between science and religion. In this paper I will challenge this interpretation of the rise of scientific agnosticism. Huxley was reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883 and his restricted use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics. As a result, he was not always associated with agnosticism in the public mind and his original conception of it was modified by others to the point where he felt compelled to intervene in 1889 to set the record straight. But Huxley could not control the public meaning of 'agnosticism' and its value to him as a rhetorical strategy was severely limited.

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