Edmund Gurney
(1847 - 88)

picture of Edmund Gurney

The Dictionary of National Biography described Edmund Gurney in 1890 as a "philosophical writer". From a cynical point of view, he could be seen as a high-Victorian dilettante who hadn't the sense to know when he was well off; this would be unfair, though it holds a grain of truth. A friend of William James, Samuel Butler, George Eliot and many other intellectuals of his time, he had considerable talent and a subtle, sceptical intelligence, though he perhaps lacked the sheer guts of the reformer and the genius of the great artist or thinker.

Background and personality

Gurney was born into a comfortably-off family of the professional class, the son of a London clergyman. He read Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1871, his studies taking longer than usual because of periods of depression. Although physically strong and athletic, he was manic-depressive, alternating attacks of gloom and lassitude with periods of intense activity. Nevertheless, many friends, including George Eliot, testify to his great personal charm, kindness and humour.

He was one of those for whom the existence of suffering is the most significant feature of life, invalidating everything else. Despite his privileged background, he knew pain in his own life: both his parents died while he was a child, and three of his sisters were drowned in a boating accident. He also suffered from chronic neuralgia of the face, which may have indirectly caused his death.


Gurney loved music above all else and had ambitions to become a professional musician, but recognised his own insufficient talent, though he published a study of the aesthetics and psychology of music. He switched to medicine, and studied for four years before the suffering he witnessed in the teaching hospital became too much for him to bear. So he switched again, this time to law, and managed two years before giving up on this as well, apparently from terminal boredom.

From 1883 until his death he devoted his energies to psychical research. Like many at that time and since, he hoped it would provide evidence for the existence of a spiritual order transcending the physical, the authority of Christian doctrine having been undermined by Darwinism. In particular, evidence of telepathy - a word coined by his colleague Frederic Myers (1843-1901) - would at least make it possible to hope that some such transcendental reality might exist.

Gurney put tremendous effort into hypnotic and telepathic research. Unfortunately his best subjects were a pair of stage hypnotists with a mind-reading act, who found it easy to con well-meaning toffs, a valuable source of income for the ingenious poor at that time. Then as now, psychic frauds preyed on the human need for reassurance. He also did most of the hard work on (and took the flak for) a huge collection of anecdotal evidence, which was not well received in scientific circles then or later.


I try to summarise here the main points of some relevant chapters from his published essay collection, Tertium Quid.

The folly of humanism

The late Victorian period was a time of great optimism about human progress. Twenty-seven years before the First World War destroyed that optimism, Gurney was sceptical. The optimistic view of human progress towards a perfect future, he believed, is invalidated by the sufferings of individuals throughout history. Only the hope of some supernatural underpinning can make life worthwhile:

"However far social improvement may advance, exceptional circumstances of physical and mental suffering must inevitably occur, entailing on individuals who feel their opportunities and affections bounded by this life a hopeless existence permanently below zero."
(Must they inevitably occur? Gurney couldn't have foreseen the genetic and pharmacological possibilities. But he would probably have felt that no future earthly happiness could outweigh the unimaginable sum total of past suffering.)

The unholiness of Nature

Gurney reviews a book on Natural Religion, whose author says that the "lower life" is petty and vulgar, and dogmatic religion inadequate to satisfy the demands of the "higher life"; so far, Gurney agrees wholeheartedly. The higher life, says the author, is fed by science, morality and art, embodying the classic triad of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, and the practice of these three leads us to the vision of nature as a divinity. It's remarkable how similar this is to a powerful current of thought in our own day, which flows through scientific pantheism, Gaia-worship, deep ecology, paganism and much New Age woolliness.

Gurney will have none of it! He doesn't believe in the vision of nature as a divinity. Life has no value in itself. Some supernatural hope is required, or life is a curse; he follows this to its logical end, and thinks the unthinkable:

"The keynote of life without Supernaturalism is resignation; the keynote of life with Supernaturalism is hope".
"(There is) an ineradicable flaw in the testimony to the value of life. That is, taking the facts as they are, if for the worst and most permanent suffering there were no possible assuagement of hope, if I found in myself and all around me an absolute conviction that the individual existence ceased with the death of the body, and that the present iniquitous distribution of good and evil was therefore final, I should in consistency desire the immediate extinction of the (human) race."

Religious belief

Gurney rejects the idea of a personal god. If he's omnipotent, we are left with the problem of universal suffering: why does he deliberately torment his creation? If not, he's logically superfluous, adding nothing to the concept of an evolving universe.

We are told, says Gurney, that only two parties are contending: belief in a personal god, and absolute atheism. "But a tertium quid, a definite position distinct from all other positions, has been overlooked . . . If we are content not to try to transcend the conceptions of evolution, and, without explaining, merely assert the gradual development of higher forms of physical and spiritual life, then imperfection and crass hule (matter) find a natural place in the scheme, and we are not in any way bound to account for them."

Gurney hopes, like the Hegelians, Bergson later, and proponents of the strong anthropic principle in our own day, that evolution may be the manifestation of some transcendent unity beyond our understanding. Only this hope makes life worth living, rather than something to be endured.

The mind-body problem

Gurney believes that the brain - which he calls "organic matter", matter that is capable of consciousness - is in some way separated from other types of matter. He rejects both materialism and idealism in favour of a cautious dualism, or possibly some "at present unguessed Tertium Quid", some third thing, a world-stuff underlying both physical and mental phenomena.

The ethics of pain

Pain and suffering is for Gurney the most immediate and important fact of existence, as it surely must be for anyone who looks at the universe - or our planet at least - without rose-tinted spectacles. Just because you're a depressive, doesn't mean the world's really a nice place!

"Enough suffering will always remain to make the question of the desirability . . . of their sojourn on earth a question which numbers will answer . . . in the negative. . . . When we forget pain, or underestimate it, or talk about people 'getting used to it', we are really so far losing sight of what the universe, which we wish to conceive adequately, really is."

The reduction of suffering, therefore, is the main ethical imperative, which Gurney addresses in the context of animal experiments. The basic guideline is to reduce the future amount of pain in the world. The practical problems are how to estimate this amount, how to judge the degree of pain, and how it is to be distributed among individuals. He makes the point that no amount of moderate suffering in many "frames" (i.e. individual organisms) can equal intolerable pain in one.

Using his basic guideline, he doesn't condemn all animal experimentation out of hand. He thinks it can be justified where a slight, brief distress is expected to produce great benefits both to humans and animals. It isn't justified if it causes severe pain, or is undertaken out of mere curiosity or ambition. (He's too much of a gentleman - who would be so tactless? - to suggest that it might ever be undertaken out of sheer sadism.)

All this obviously has a bearing on the issues raised by negative utilitarianism, and echoes the criticisms that have been made of (positive) utilitarianism; for example, that it would be immoral to guarantee the happiness of every other living creature by making one creature suffer continuous agony.


In June 1888 Gurney apparently received a letter asking him to go to Brighton, which he did, without telling his wife or anyone else the reason. He stayed overnight (and alone) at the Royal Albion Hotel and was found dead in bed the next morning with a chloroform pad over his face.

Was it suicide? He used chloroform to relieve his neuralgia, so the coroner's verdict was accidental death, but Trevor Hall and others have suggested that he killed himself. Possible motives include blackmail, though there's no evidence for this, or the discovery of fraud on the part of his telepathic subjects. But considering that his depression was growing worse, he had failed in three careers, his high hopes for psychical research were probably foundering, and he had reached the age when mid-life crises tend to loom, I don't think we would have to look that far.

A strong argument against suicide is Gurney's concern for his wife and daughter, whom he would not want to hurt; in Tertium Quid he writes about the bitterness of bereavement. However, both Hall and Gordon Epperson suggest that Kate Gurney was a more practical character than her husband, and had little sympathy with his psychic activities and friends. In his fits of depression, did he perhaps reflect that his death would clear the way for her to find a more congenial partner? In the event, she married again a few months after he died.

And here's fuel for even wilder speculation (Victorian London encourages this sort of thing, as it recedes from us into a foggy, smoky, impressionist twilight). Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience was first produced in 1881, when the Gurneys were members of Sullivan's social circle in London. In the opera, a high-minded aesthetic poet is engaged to a down-to-earth milkmaid, who eventually rejects him for a more earthy poet named Archibald Grosvenor. Kate Gurney's second husband was a journalist named Archibald Grove. Intriguing, but almost certainly just one of those weird coincidences!

At least Gurney died just two months too soon to be a possible Jack the Ripper; or, given his medical training and gloomy temperament, some Ripperologist would have accused him by now.

Epilogue: hope deferred

In later life, Gurney's friend Frederic Myers did indeed almost convince himself that telepathy was a "mutual gravitation or kinship of spirits . . . Observation, experiment, inference, have led many inquirers, of whom I am one, to a belief in direct or telepathic intercommunication, not only between the minds of men still on earth, but between minds or spirits still on earth and spirits departed."

Axel Munthe tells the story of Myers's death in Rome in 1901. Myers and William James had a pact that whoever died first would try to send the other a spirit message as he passed over into the unknown. James, too upset to stay in the sick-room, sat outside the door with a notebook and pen, waiting for a message from Myers.

Myers died peacefully, and Munthe left the room. "When I went away", he writes, "William James was still sitting leaning back in his chair, his hands over his face, his open note-book still on his knees. The page was blank."


Epperson, Gordon (1997) The Mind of Edmund Gurney. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP

Gurney, Edmund (1887) Tertium Quid: Chapters on Various Disputed Questions. London: Kegan Paul, Trench

Hall, Trevor H. (1964) The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney. London: Duckworth

Munthe, Axel (1979) The Story of San Michele. London: Granada

Myers, Frederic W. H. (1992) Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (Abridged Edition). Norwich: Pilgrim Books

Derek Greatrex

J.S. Mill
Peter Singer
Henry Sidgwick
Jeremy Bentham
Arthur Schopenhauer
The Abolitionist Project
The Pinprick Argument
'Better Never To Have Been'
R.N. Smart's reply to Popper


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