Frederic Harrison Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: In his varied career as a professor of law, literary critic, and lecturer, Harrison was one of the staunchest advocates of the philosophy of positivism in mid-Victorian England.

Early Life

Frederic Harrison, born in London on October 18, 1831, was the son of Frederick Harrison, an architect turned stockbroker, and Jane (Brice) Harrison. The couple’s firstborn had died in infancy; Frederic would become the eldest of the five sons who survived. The family, of some means, would often spend time in the English countryside. Frederic’s mother taught him to appreciate history and French and Latin, while his father imparted a passion for the fine arts. Frederic’s family life was characterized by stability and the loving concern of his parents and bordered on the aristocratic.

Before he was six, in 1837, Frederic witnessed the coronation of Queen Victoria. The family moved to Oxford Square, Hyde Park, in 1840, where Frederic attended the day school of Joseph King for two years, followed by enrollment in the sixth form (or grade) at King’s College School, where he would remain until 1849. Because of the success of his earlier schooling, Frederic found himself in classes with boys several years older; though he played most sports and excelled as a student, for a time the others treated him condescendingly and nicknamed him “Fan.”

The nickname vanished when Harrison was befriended by one of the older students, Charles Cookson, a passionate devotee of literature and the High Church movement. Associated with Edward Pusey, advocates sought to move the Anglican church closer to the Roman Catholic tradition. Harrison had been reared in the Anglican tradition of William Paley, with its emphasis on moral utilitarianism, but he would come to reject all forms of Christianity in favor of a new “Religion of Humanity.” Harrison would teach that one’s duty to mankind was paramount, not obeisance to a metaphysical deity. As part of his future positivist belief, Harrison’s faith would rest in the essential goodness and progress of humanity. Yet what of individuals themselves, Harrison would wonder: Where should one’s sympathies lie?

Revolutionary fervor was abroad on the Continent. With the publication of Karl Marx’s Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850), there were uprisings in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Rome; in England, bad harvests that same year brought a renewal of the working-class Chartist movement which sought parliamentary and electoral reforms. Harrison found himself sympathizing with the fall of the old regimes and with the demands of the working class; yet throughout his life he would struggle with the question of whether specific political action would ever usher in the universal positivist utopia.

Harrison was eighteen when he entered Wadham College in Oxford in 1849. He had come to detest the intense competition inherent in formal schooling in England, as well as professors who only “taught for the test.” An exception was Richard Congreve, his history professor and the founder of the British positivist movement. Though, in later years, Harrison would lament Congreve’s turn toward his own fanatical brand of positivism, Harrison applauded Congreve’s presentation of history as the surging progress of humanity and not a list of names and dates and innumerable “periods.”

Harrison was graduated from Wadham in 1853 but remained two more years as Librarian of the Union and as a tutor. Though still considering himself a Christian, Harrison was brought under the sway of the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, by a group of Oxford friends who called themselves “Mumbo-Jumbo” and who had already renounced the creeds of the Church. Harrison himself declined to take orders for a career in the Church and in 1855 began a study of law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. In that same year, he met in Paris with Comte.

Harrison was the portrait of the active Victorian. An ardent mountaineer most of his life, he was physically rugged, with a large head, black hair, and fierce whiskers. Incurably optimistic (at least after his student days), he was at times pompous, quick-tempered, and irascible. He dressed to befit his class; punctuality was his hallmark. As one of his sons later observed, Harrison “liked time-tables, inventories, and everything that contributed towards the regular life, and he probably was the most consistently normal man who ever wrote books.” He was a skilled debater and a personal friend of many of England’s nineteenth century luminaries, including William E. Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill.

Life’s Work

Harrison counted his meeting with Comte as the most significant of his life; his growing adherence to Comtian philosophy provided unity to a life full of many undertakings. Comte had rejected absolutist metaphysics as unproductive: Men had argued for thousands of years about God’s existence and had come no closer to agreement. Instead, Comte proposed a philosophic system that was scientific, relative, and man-centered. As Harrison explained in two lectures given in 1920, three years before his death, the new system was scientific because it saw physical and social activity ordered by laws, but relative and man-centered because formulation of those laws depended on fallible human observation. Yet there was progress in man’s understanding of the world. In ancient times, the world was explained in terms of myth; that gave way to the absolute generalizations of metaphysics, which led, in turn, to the scientific and relative positive philosophy of the nineteenth century. It was “positive” in the sense that it depended on substantive observations of the world (relative to man) and not on the manipulation of contentless abstractions. The sciences could be ordered by their complexity relative to man (with sociology, a term coined by Comte in 1837, the most...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)