In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Their WayJosé Harris

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain 
by Thomas Dixon.
British Academy, 420 pp., £60, May 2008, 978 0 19 726426 3
Show More
Show More

Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages uncut more than a hundred and fifty years after his death. Yet the residues of Comtean visions and conceptions still permeate many aspects of European thought and institutions. They may be discerned in the emphasis on social science as the supreme guide to public policy, on the ‘priestly’ role of technical, medical and managerial ‘experts’, on human welfare as the sole touchstone of ethical life, on ‘law’ as a set of disembodied norms rather than the edicts of rulers or case law, and on the future destiny of Europe as a unified ‘Great Western Republic’ in place of an inchoate cluster of historic nations. All these perspectives are clearly recognisable in the public culture of Europe in the early 21st century. Yet the name of Auguste Comte is unknown to countless people whose daily lives and mental outlook are widely shaped or impinged on by his principles.

It was not always thus. Much recent research on the history of social reform and ‘planning’ movements in Britain and Europe before, during and after the Second World War has suggested that those movements drew their direct inspiration at least as much from the ‘positivist’ legacy of Comte (and his mentor Saint-Simon) as from the more obvious influences of either democratic socialism or Soviet-style Marxism. Some of the most prominent social planners of those years, such as William Beveridge and Barbara Wootton in Britain, Pierre Laroque and Francis Netter in France, together with many campaigners for a united or federal postwar Europe, were heirs and exemplars of the positivist tradition of social, political and legal thought. Two generations earlier, in the mid-to-late-Victorian era, many British citizens of widely differing backgrounds, temperaments, belief systems and levels of education had likewise been fired with enthusiasm for Comte’s ideas, and the same was true in much of late 19th-century Europe and North America. That enthusiasm often waned as Comte’s doctrines were more fully understood (most famously in the case of John Stuart Mill, whose early admiration for Comte’s phenomenalism and rationality gradually gave way to revulsion at his dogmatism, religiosity, ‘moralism’ and hostility to personal liberty). Nevertheless, prominent 19th-century figures who acknowledged a close intellectual debt and allegiance to Comte included some of the most powerful and seminal intellects of the Victorian age – among them George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, the historian J.R. Seeley, the natural scientist John Tyndall, and many social scientists and social reformers such as Charles Booth and Beatrice Potter (later Webb).

Moreover, many who could not accept the whole package of Comtean positivism still tacitly or explicitly acknowledged its intellectual inspiration. Both Darwin and Herbert Spencer, for example, appear to have worked out their own models of biological and social evolution at least in part as a response to Comte’s insistence on the universality of ‘altruism’, co-operation and group solidarity in both the natural and human spheres. Positivist influences were also widely diffused among trade unionists, suffragists, temperance campaigners, Nonconformists and working-class autodidacts, all of whom played an important role in the provincial and cultural life of mid-Victorian England. Many Victorian theologians vehemently condemned Comte’s dismissal of the possibility of transcendental knowledge; yet his influence could clearly be discerned in the increasingly humanistic and ‘immanentist’ strands in both Catholic and Protestant religious thought (most explicitly in the controversial ‘modernist’ volume of Essays and Reviews of 1860 and the incarnationalist and Christian-socialist teachings of Lamennais and Frederick Maurice). Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1857) dismissed Comte’s doctrines as intrinsically ‘absurd’; yet the poem centred on the heroic tragedy of a man who practised the supreme positivist virtue of ‘altruism’ or ‘sacrifice for others’, at the expense of the more prosaic Christian qualities of common sense, kindness and love. The very term ‘social science’, popularised from the 1860s onwards, bore witness to a widespread endorsement of Comte’s claim that social institutions and relations should be studied by using exactly the same kinds of assumptions and techniques as those employed by investigators of the ‘natural’ world (a claim that remains salient in many of today’s methodological controversies).

The Invention of Altruism takes as its starting point the Comtean origins of the term, which was unknown in the English language before Comte’s ideas were introduced to a wider English audience by G.H. Lewes in the Westminster Review in 1852. In tracing the subsequent development and uses of the term, the book adopts the position recommended by Quentin Skinner, that words may be ‘engines’ as well as mere ‘reflections’ of social change. Indeed, it aims to go further than Skinner, by arguing that words in themselves may actively remould the concepts to which they refer. Thus, Dixon suggests that ‘altruism’ did more than merely replicate older terms such as ‘charity’ or ‘beneficence’, with which it seemed to be synonymous; it added new dimensions of substantive meaning and application that subtly altered the ways in which Victorians and post-Victorians thought about moral duties and social life. He also suggests that words may be reactionary as well as progressive forces. Thus, ‘the reasons why some people objected to . . . the new language of altruism’ may be seen as evidence of how resistance to linguistic innovation in general may provide a clue to opposition, not merely to neologism for its own sake, but to wider ‘intellectual and social change’.

Dixon explores such themes with reference to the deployment of the language and sentiments of ‘altruism’ in a wide range of late Victorian and early 20th-century settings. These include the development of semantics and etymology as formal disciplines; changes in the structure of moral theology and religious belief; methodological debates in the natural and social sciences; approaches to poverty, social welfare and motherhood; and finally, the intellectual revolt against ‘altruism’ that characterised parts of the European and British avant-garde in aesthetics, literature, and social and moral philosophy during the early years of the 20th century – a revolt that ‘looked for ways to escape from the dull and cloying cult of sentimental selflessness that characterised high Victorian moralism’. Throughout the book, and particularly in its introduction and conclusion, there are recurrent hints of the direct relevance of these Victorian debates to many present-day controversies, for example scientific-cum-philosophical debates about the ethical and practical implications of the ‘selfish gene’. Victorian themes are also seen as anticipating recurrent tensions within contemporary Christianity as to whether religion should be seen as a medium of spiritual devotion and salvation, or as a strategy for ‘altruism’, social justice and doing practical good. Above all, Dixon suggests that throughout its history the meaning and provenance of ‘altruism’ have been widely misinterpreted, and that what is often nowadays portrayed (either approvingly or disapprovingly) as a Christian virtue, was initially conceived as a critique and rejection of Christian morality. It was designed to lead to a society in which (so positivists claimed) self-development, personal inspiration and deluded notions of a bogus spiritual ‘transcendence’ would all give way to the more pressing, tangible and ‘selfless’ claims of wider humanity.

The Invention of Altruism is ambitious in scope, and full of suggestive discussion of important themes. Nevertheless, different parts of the argument are executed with differing degrees of success. The analysis of the linguistic evolution of ‘altruism’, based not just on authors’ uses of the term in publications, but on examples of its use submitted by members of the public to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, is of considerable historical interest, particularly in its suggestion that the compilers of the dictionary had their own views about the significance of moral terms, which went well beyond the boundaries of professional lexicography. (This is an approach that might usefully be applied to many other neologisms or new usages of the Victorian epoch, which historians often tend to treat as static or self-explanatory: ‘society’, ‘police’ and ‘virtue’, for example.) The discussion of ‘altruism’ and allied concepts in the context of Darwinism is revealing, not least because it emphasises the very substantial presence in Darwin’s own thought of lines of inquiry – such as adjustment to environmental pressures, and evidence of ‘co-operation’ among insect species – that are now often considered to be inherently non-Darwinian. Indeed, the insects studied by Darwin himself seem to have been peculiarly willing to immolate themselves for the collective good of their species, in a way quite alien to much current neo-Darwinist thought.

However, some aspects of the cases discussed in the book do not seem consistent with its wider claims. The account of the style of ‘altruism’ advocated by Spencer (limited, common-sense-based co-operation among freely choosing rational individuals) is certainly an accurate account of Spencer’s views, but it scarcely corresponds to the model of extreme self-sacrifice on the altar of wider humanity that is portrayed throughout the book as having distinguished late Victorian ‘altruism’ from more muted and old-fashioned models of generosity and mutual aid. Similarly, a chapter on the eugenics movement and the Edwardian ‘cult of motherhood’ reveals the wide and often unpredictable cleavages of opinion that existed, both between and within different strands of progressive evolutionary thought. These ranged (at two polar extremes) from proposals for the breeding-out of ‘bad’ motherhood by sterilisation of the unfit, through to the apotheosis of ‘virtuous’ motherhood, along the lines of Comte’s secular beatification of his muse and helpmate, Clotilde de Vaux. These were debates in which women themselves, with a few marginal exceptions, played a surprisingly silent part; and, despite their undoubted interest as historical episodes, it is not entirely clear how these motherhood debates should be seen as slotting into the wider national pattern of the rise and fall of ‘altruism’.

The discussion of ‘altruism’ in relation to late Victorian and early 20th-century movements for the study and relief of poverty rightly stresses the part played by Charles Booth, Beatrice Webb and other self-confessed admirers of Comte in terms both of research and of advocacy. But Dixon downplays the numerous non-positivist contributions to the Edwardian debate; in particular, he overlooks the fact that welfare reforms were also supported by figures like Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes and other disciples of G.E. Moore, all of whom he identifies as the advance guard of the Edwardian reaction against ‘altruism’. (In fact, most of the Bloomsbury set saw no incompatibility at all between redistributive social policies, and psychological ‘self-realisation’ in art, morals and personal conduct.) Oscar Wilde’s ‘Soul of Man under Socialism’ is likewise identified as a classic text of the egotistical ‘aesthetic reaction’, but no mention is made of Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’, which could well be interpreted in exactly the opposite light, as a moral paean to unselfishness.

Similarly, in the sphere of religion, Dixon’s account of the wholesale invasion of later Victorian Christianity by the ethic and language of ‘altruism’ is not wholly convincing. Undoubtedly it was the case that over the course of the later 19th century many strands of Victorian religious belief shifted away from a purely atonement-based understanding of Christian theology towards a more ‘incarnationalist’ one, and that this entailed a much more ‘social’ and ‘fraternal’ emphasis. But as Mill pointed out in 1865 in Auguste Comte and Positivism, the long history of Christianity contained no lack of figures, from the time of the New Testament onwards, who had put self-sacrifice and service to others before personal salvation and spiritual self-realisation (or vice versa), and there was no reason to suppose that Comtean thought was at all original in this respect (Mill himself compared Comte’s ideas on altruism to the ecstatic, self-sacrificing fervour of Thomas à Kempis). And, although by the turn of the century ‘altruism’ had been absorbed into sermons by Anglican bishops like Boyd Carpenter and Winnington-Ingram, and by the Congregationalist preacher Hugh Pryce Hughes, the precise cultural and imaginative resonance of the term by this date seems open to some doubt. Major British theological innovators (including Bishop Gore, Hastings Rashdall, Evelyn Underhill, Stewart Headlam, J.N. Figgis and the arch-modernist R.J. Campbell, to name but a few), all wrote at length about the interaction of moral and spiritual matters with the ‘social question’, and all were to a greater or lesser degree imbued with ‘incarnationalist’, ‘modernist’ and even quasi-positivist ideas. But in the writings of such authors, even casual references to ‘altruism’ – let alone any sustained discussion of the term – were conspicuous by their absence. This suggests that by the start of the 20th century ‘altruism’ was being domesticated into Christianity – and into the English language generally – as a popular cliché, rather than as a major new theological paradigm. It seems to me that ‘altruism’ as the crucial measure of seismic intellectual and cultural change is here being asked to carry more weight of evidence than it is able to bear.

In the end The Invention of Altruism doesn’t quite live up to its promise of helping us to ‘experience and make sense of ourselves and our society, in part, through the categories we inherited from . . . our Victorian predecessors’. It tries to do too much in relation to some aspects of the subject, and not enough in others. A rather different approach (though one in keeping with Dixon’s sensitivity to current ethico-scientific debates) might have been to follow through more intensively the linguistic history of ‘altruism’ and its synonyms over a much longer period, by comparing its Victorian affiliations not just with the much older language of ‘benevolence’, but with that used in the positivist revival of the 1940s and 1950s, and again with the language of Euro-positivism (prominent in the edicts of New Labour) that has re-emerged in recent decades. Such a time-scale would far more aptly fit the claim that ‘altruism’ has annexed contemporary Christianity. Another approach might have been to select fewer but deeper Victorian case-studies, thus consolidating the admirable aim of ‘using their words’ to ‘see things their way’ (instead of the wider range of sometimes rather impressionistic studies offered here).

Strangely, despite an extensive bibliography, Dixon makes no reference to the classic interpretations of 19th-century positivism and its impact on 20th-century thought published half a century ago by Talcott Parsons, Noel Annan and H. Stuart Hughes. Although overtaken in detailed respects by more recent research, those three studies raised a number of questions – relating to the intellectual lineages of positivist thought, to its peculiar relationship to ‘Englishness’, and to the very nature of positivism, both as a belief system and as a methodology – that remain no less difficult to answer than when they were first published. The Invention of Altruism goes some way towards clearing away the undergrowth, but the basic historical problems identified by Parsons, Annan and Hughes still remain largely unsolved.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.