Mind and British idealism – a distant reading perspective

by Nicolò Cambiaso and Stefano Romeo


When did British idealism end? When did it reach its peak and face its demise? It is rather difficult to answer such questions. Several dates might be put forth as representative of the end of British idealism, from 1903 to the 1940s.

In 1903 two important works by G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell were published, “The Refutation of Idealism” and The Principles of Mathematics respectively. They partly set the stage for the birth of analytic philosophy, in direct opposition to British idealism. Analytic philosophy would eventually replace idealism in the British philosophical culture, hence it might seem reasonable to set the end of British idealism in the years of the rise of analytic philosophy in Britain. However, idealists remained active long after 1903, with some of the leading figures, such as Bernard Bosanquet and F.H. Bradley, being active until the early 1920s. So, why wouldn’t it be also admissible to set the downfall of British idealism in the 20s? And why not in the 40s? Indeed, one of the last spokesmen of the movement, even if not the most original one, A.E. Taylor, still published during those years. Each proposal follows from a perfectly admissible criterion.

In order to answer – at least partially – such questions, it is worth considering a quantitative approach. A quantitative analysis can provide a general overview of the growth and demise of such a movement. This overall picture will provide tools to evaluate different solutions, without any pretence to give straight and univocal answers – as one could be tempted to do in the context of a merely qualitative historiographical analysis. In the current research we decided to focus on one of the most influential philosophical journals of the time in Britain, Mind. We considered the issues of Mind published between 1876, when the journal was founded, and 1945, the year of the death of A.E. Taylor. Our purpose was to identify a group of idealists and see how their production varies through the years. We decided therefore to look at British idealism in terms of the people who worked within this philosophical tradition.

But, how to identify such a group? In accordance with which criteria do we decide whether an author is an idealist or not? As for many other philosophical movements, there is no clear theoretical definition of British idealism. Although there were common themes and beliefs shared by many, it is still difficult to identify a clear set of theses outlining a common theoretical core. However, British idealists were self-aware of their affiliation to a movement, they used to regard themselves as “British idealists” and were recognized as such. Thus, while it is true that idealists did not share a clear set of theses, there remain their self-identification within an intellectual movement (with its influential characters, its methods, and themes) and the mutual recognition between idealists. We assumed both these features – the shared themes and the sociological factor[1] – as our criteria for the identification of British idealists. During our search, we identified a list (in progress) of 36 idealists who wrote on Mind. The following table summarizes their impact on the journal:

N Idealists Contributions on Mind
1 Taylor Alfred Edward 80
2 Bosanquet Bernard 50
3 Mackenzie John Stuart 45
4 Bradley Francis Herbert 41
5 Adamson Robert 27
6 Hoernlé Reinhold Friedrich Alfred 27
7 Sorley William Ritchie 23
8 McTaggart John McTaggart Ellis 22
9 Muirhead John Henry 22
10 Rashdall Hastings 20
11 Seth Pringle-Pattison Andrew 19
12 Ritchie David George 17
13 Turner John Evans 10
14 Gibson William Ralph Boyce 10
15 Wallace William 8
16 Baillie James Black 7
17 Joachim Harold Henry 7
18 Caird Edward 6
19 Davidson Thomas 6
20 Stirling James Hutchison 5
21 Boodin John Elof 4
22 Calkins Mary Whiton 4
23 Green Thomas Hill 4
24 Haldane Richard Burdon 4
25 Jones Henry 4
26 Royce Josiah 4
27 Watson John 3
28 Campbell Charles Arthur 2
29 Collingwood Robin George 2
30 Hocking William Ernest 2
31 Bax Ernest Belfort 1
32 Howison George Holmes 1
33 Laurie Simon Sommerville 1
34 Mure Geoffrey Reginald Gilchrist 1
35 Nettleship Richard Lewis 1
36 Webb Clement Charles Julian 1


To collect information about the evolution of British idealism through the years, we have created an Access database. The database includes basic pieces of information on each article published in Mind between 1876 and 1945, so that the selected data would univocally identify each article. To properly query the database, we also ensured that there was only one version of each author’s name. Furthermore, the database initially included all the contributions published in Mind, including those contained in the “New Books” section. “New Books” contains short presentations of recently published books. For the sake of our current inquiry, we chose not to include non-substantial contributions. Thus, we opted to rule out all “New Books” contributions. We ruled out other articles for the same reason, such as, for instance, those concerning impending philosophical congresses. Nonetheless, “New Books” will hopefully be included in a future development of our inquiry, in which we would like to analyze the reviews of new idealist books as well.


  1. Some Data on British Idealism in Mind (1876-1945)

2.1 Authors and Prolificity

We divided Mind’s authors in the following arbitrary prolificity groups (in descending order):

  • Group A: authors that wrote more than 50 articles.
  • Group B: authors that wrote between 20 and 49 articles.
  • Group C: authors that wrote between 10 and 19 articles.
  • Group D: authors that wrote between 5 and 9 articles.
  • Group E: authors that wrote between 2-4 articles.
  • Group F: authors that wrote only one article.

We begin by considering two figures:


 Figure 1:

Figure 1 shows the percentage of authors per group of prolificity over the totality of Mind’s authors. Group A represents 1% of all Mind’s authors, Group B represents 4%, Group C represents 6%, Group D represents 12%, Group E represents 31%, Group F represents 46%.

Figure 2:

Figure 2 shows the percentage of articles per group of prolificity, that is the number of articles produced by the authors belonging to such groups over the totality of Mind’s articles. Group A here wrote 12% of all Mind’s articles, Group B wrote 24%, Group C wrote 20%, Group D wrote 16%, Group E wrote 18%, Group F wrote 10%.

In Mind’s issues between 1876 and 1945 we counted 709 authors and 3180 articles, with an average of 4.5 articles per author. By comparing figures 1 and 2 we can see that most of Mind’s publications were written by a relatively small number of authors. 23% of authors (groups A-D) wrote 72% of all the articles, while the 77% of authors belonging to Group E and Group F wrote 28% of all the articles. Thus, despite the high overall number of authors, a relatively small group of authors played a crucial role in Mind between 1876 and 1945.


2.2 The Same, but Idealist

Even though in the case of all Mind’s authors there is an inversely proportional relation between the number of contributions and the number of authors, in the case of idealists this does not appear to be the case.


Figure 3:

Figure 3 shows the number of authors per prolificity group. On the X-axis there are the prolificity groups from the most prolific group (50+ articles per author) to the least prolific (only 1 article per author), while on the Y-axis there is the number of authors per given prolificity group.


Figure 4:

Figure 4 shows the number of idealist authors per prolificity group. On the X-axis there are the prolificity groups from the most prolific group (50+ articles per author) to the least prolific (only 1 article per author), while on the Y-axis there is the number of authors per given prolificity group.


Figure 5:

Figure 5 shows the percentage of idealist authors per prolificity group over the totality of Mind’s authors. On the X-axis there are the prolificity groups from the most prolific group to the least prolific, while on the Y-axis there is the percentage of idealist authors over the totality of authors of the given prolificity group.


One would expect the distribution of idealists among prolificity groups to resemble the overall distribution shown in figure 3. Figure 4 shows, unlike figure 3, that the number of idealist authors is not inversely proportional to the number of published articles.  There are fewer idealists in the lower prolificity groups compared to what one would expect. There can be two explanations of such a discrepancy. One reason (i) could simply be that we did not actually find all the idealists that wrote on Mind (which, to some extent, is likely on independent grounds). If so, the provided list of idealists is incomplete, and if we found all idealists, the figures would not show such a discrepancy. The whole issue would thus revolve around the rather obvious difficulty of identifying all the minor figures of a philosophical movement with a sufficient degree of confidence. A different explanation (ii) could be related to the possible sociological peculiarity of British idealism at that time: idealists could have been an influential group throughout the considered years, which was able to occupy the higher prolificity groups, as we see in figure 5, where the percentage of idealist authors per prolificity group is shown. The peculiarity addressed here only concerns – at least prima facie – the dimension of prolificity: other peculiar sociological features of British idealism could hold even if explanation (ii) turned out to be false.

To assess the cause of the discrepancy we could first look for other idealists among Mind’s authors. If we found enough people, we could eliminate the discrepancy. However, even if we were able to do so (thus confirming explanation (i)), this – as has just been said – would not lead to exclude that British idealism is a peculiar movement from a sociological point of view. The sociological peculiarity of British idealism per se is not here in question. The percentage of idealists in the first two prolificity groups exceeds 30% of the authors of Mind; 15% of all the articles in Mind in the period 1876-1945 were written by idealists; the British idealists were aware of their belonging in a social group of researchers sharing common features. These and other evidences suggest in any case a certain sociological peculiarity of the British idealist group.

Anyway, if the discrepancy remained even after adequate research, we could map all the schools and movements whose members wrote on Mind between 1876 and 1945 and compare their number of publications throughout the years to what the idealists did. We can then see whether the number of idealists’ publications significantly differs from those of the other schools. Obviously, it can be exceedingly difficult to completely map the other schools. In the case in which this turned out to be so, that would incidentally be a further evidence of the sociological peculiarity of British idealism! It is not mandatory, however, to completely map all the schools and movements present on Mind in those years. Carrying the search a little further would probably be enough. If there were a clear difference concerning the number of publications between British idealism and other schools, then (ii) would be automatically confirmed. If this were not the case and (ii) turned out to be false, then perhaps the discrepancy would become small or null, and the right explanation would be (i), or there could be a third explanation not yet considered: (iii) Mind’s editors may have played a decisive role in choosing which articles to publish. At this stage of the inquiry, it would be relevant to study the impact of the editors on the editorial policies of Mind.


  1. Idealist Publications per Year and Editor

Let us now see some figures and tables concerning the idealist publications in Mind over the considered years.

Table 1:

Years Number of idealists’ contributions Total number of contributions on Mind %
1876-1885 71 562 13%
1886-1895 78 493 16%
1896-1905 93 414 22%
1906-1915 104 524 20%
1916-1925 77 408 19%
1926-1935 44 452 10%
1936-1945 24 387 6%

Table 1 shows the publications authored by idealists per decade, the total number of Mind’s publications per decade and the percentage of idealist publications per decade.

Figure 6:

Figure 6 shows the percentage of idealist publications per decade. On the X-axis there are the decades from 1876-1885 to 1936-1945. On the Y-axis there is the percentage of idealists’ publications per given decade.

Table 1 and figure 6 show that idealists’ articles were quite highly present since the establishment of the journal. They also show that the peak of the idealists’ production occurred in the 1896-1905 decade, and that they are still largely present until 1925, the early 20s being the years in which many idealists died. After that, the number of idealists’ publications starts decreasing.


Figure 7:

Figure 7 shows the percentage of idealists’ publications under each editor of Mind who supervised the journal in the considered period. On the X-axis there are the three editors, Robertson, Stout, and Moore, while on the Y-axis there is the percentage of idealists’ publications over the totality of Mind’s publications.


  1. Some final thoughts

The data clearly show that – as it is widely agreed – British idealism did not in fact face its demise in the years around 1905, when Moore and Russell moved their attack on it. Instead, during those very years the idealist production on Mind peaked, and still stayed high during the following decades. In the years between 1896 and 1925 idealists wrote 20% of all the articles published in Mind.

Second, the data also show that British idealism was no doubt among the most influential schools to write on Mind between the establishment of the journal and 1945. We considered 36 idealists. They represent 5% of Mind’s authors, but still they wrote a considerable 15% of all Mind’s articles, with a peak of 22% in the 1896-1905 decade.

Clearly, the data recollected so far are only a modest contribution to the more ambitious project of mapping the general magnitude of British idealism through the history of philosophy. We think that some natural extensions of the present research could be those of extending it to other journals (such as Philosophy and The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society), of considering the references occurring in the articles, and of finding an explanation of the discrepancy brought to the fore by figures 3 and 4.


[1] The issue of the unity and self-awareness of British idealism is addressed by W.J. Mander, British Idealism. A History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 3-8.

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