Venn, John

(1834-1923), philosopher and antiquary

by John R. Gibbins

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Venn, John (1834-1923), philosopher and antiquary, was born on 4 August 1834 at Drypool, Hull, the first of the two children of Henry Venn (1796-1873), fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge, evangelical divine, and secretary of the Church Missionary Society, and his wife, Martha Sykes (d. 1840), daughter of Nicholas Sykes, of Swanland, near Hull. The family on the father's side originated from Devon and was of considerable evangelical and intellectual eminence. His great-grandfather Henry Venn (1725-1797) was vicar of Huddersfield, author of The Complete Duty of Man (1763), and prominent with George Whitefield in the evangelical revival in Britain. His grandfather John Venn (1759-1813) [see under Venn, Henry (1725-1797)] was the vicar of Clapham and a founder of the Church Missionary Society, a leading member of the influential evangelical reformers known as the 'Clapham Sect', with the Stephen, the Macaulay, and the Dicey families, and, with his friend William Wilberforce, an opponent of the slave trade.

After being educated initially by private tutors Venn attended Sir Roger Cholmeley's School, Highgate, and then Islington proprietary school. In October 1853 he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, representing the eighth generation of his family to be admitted to and to graduate from Cambridge or Oxford. Elected mathematical scholar in 1854, he was sixth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1857 and was elected fellow of his college a few months later. He was ordained deacon at Ely in 1858, and priest in 1859, and held curacies successively at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and at Mortlake, Surrey.

After taking his degree Venn's attention was drawn to such writers as Augustus De Morgan, George Boole, John Austin, and, particularly, John Stuart Mill, whose Logic profoundly affected his critical outlook. Other influences included the companionship of his cousins E. J. S. Dicey, A. V. Dicey, James Stephen, and Leslie Stephen. Unhappy with parochial work he returned to Cambridge in 1862 and applied the dry, organized, accurate, tight, and methodical habits of the 'Claphamites' to philosophy and scholarship, a process that led him through his Hulsean lectures upon Some Characteristics of Belief, Scientific and Religious (1869), and to his eventual resignation from the clergy in 1883. He remained, however, according to his son J. A. Venn, a man of religious conviction, and in later life often remarked that changes in accepted opinion concerning the Thirty-Nine Articles meant that he could consistently have retained his orders. Shortly after his return to Cambridge he was appointed as Caius's first 'catechist', a new series of college posts with a university-wide role. For a few months he acted simultaneously as curate of St Edward's Church. On 21 June 1867 he married Susanna Carnegie Edmonstone, daughter of the Revd Charles Welland Edmonstone. They had one child, John Archibald Venn. Venn's academic appointment brought him into the philosophical circle around John Grote, Knightbridge professor of moral philosophy, which provided the impetus and direction for his philosophical career. The Grote Club met as a philosophical discussion group from 1862 until Grote's death in 1866 at Trumpington vicarage, and afterwards as the Grote Society at Trinity College, under Grote's successor, Frederick Denison Maurice. Venn discussed each chapter of The Logic of Chance (1866) with fellow conversationalists who included John Grote, Henry Sidgwick, Joseph Mayor, John Rickards Mozley, W. Aldis Wright, John Batteridge Pearson, and, after 1866, Alfred Marshall. This network provided the milieu and origins of the modern style of Cambridge philosophy with its conversational, common-sense, and analytic approach. As the first lecturers in moral sciences, Venn, Sidgwick, Mayor, and Marshall were the missionaries of the new style of professional philosopher in Britain whose influences outlasted the century and whose philosophy was characterized by a persistent and confident pursuit of intelligence and truth.

In The Logic of Chance Venn pioneered the frequency theory of probability, in which assertions of probability are understood as purely empirically based judgements of the recurrence of types of events over time, independent of an observer's feelings. As with much of his work, Venn is here exploring the logic and limits of belief. As with his Hulsean lectures, his advice is to err in favour of scepticism. His originality does not lie in the theory of probability which he developed, nor in his rejection of alternative theories, especially the idea that probability deals with graduations of beliefs. It is displayed in his patient analysis of the wide variety of different and yet legitimate uses of the term probability, which makes theorizing so complex and difficult, his recognition that probability theory had application to a limited proportion of human conduct, and his application of this to the moral sciences. For the former he rejected a mathematical in favour of an empirical approach, and aligned himself with the work of John Stuart Mill, who remained an influence and friend. In the social sciences he recognized that the science of human actions and that of natural events differed profoundly, as the objects of the former were liable to change under the impact of motive, and that the observer is liable to 'intrude' himself upon the objects and the statistics. Venn's international reputation depends upon his 1880 contribution to the use of diagrams as methods for testing propositions and syllogisms, and representing sets, their union and intersections, On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings (1880). Venn diagrams provide a simple, but highly versatile and functional, visual representation of logical relations using circles in various overlapping and intersecting positions. They are still used to test the validity of a syllogism.

In Symbolic Logic (1881) Venn adjudicated the debate between the leading logicians of the day, including W. S. Jevons and C. S. Pierce, on the application of George Boole's algebraic techniques. While claiming no originality, his achievements in reworking algebra and geometry for logic were pathfinding and profound. While recognizing that symbols have various meanings, he considered that there was a more common currency and language of symbols than in everyday forms of speech, which allowed symbolic logic greater purchase on problem-solving. His classificatory systems for propositions and types of symbols remain useful. His tendency to argue for a connection between everyday and formal logic, known as 'conventionalism', allies him closely to the modern Cambridge tradition. The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic (1889), based upon Cambridge lectures, was Venn's final major work on logic. Although he was originally sympathetic to Mill's inductive method, under Venn's dry, methodical, and 'Humean' inspection, the project is found wanting in terms of language, analysis, and above all, application, which Venn argued had led to fruitless controversy. Venn challenges the foundationalist claim that logic has a definite starting point, and the frequently used metaphors of chains and buildings with foundations. 'All these metaphors are misleading, unless it is expressly explained that any such starting point is a merely conventional one, assumed for convenience' (The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic, 116-17).

As with Grote and Sidgwick, Venn's contribution chiefly lies not in his writings but in the impetus he gave to the intellectual life of Cambridge, for he donated a library of logic books, lectured weekly, tutored, and examined generations of Cambridge philosophers into the next century. He set a style, standards, and methods that were replicated, and he impressed logicians in Cambridge, especially J. N. Keynes, J. M. Keynes, W. E. Johnson, C. D. Broad, A. J. Balfour, and his friends J. R. Seeley and Leslie Stephen, as well as, outside Cambridge, C. L. Dodgson, W. S. Jevons, K. Pearson, and A. V. Dicey. He was elected ScD and FRS in 1883, FSA in 1892, and president of his college in 1903.

Precisely the same skills that made Venn a profound philosopher were applied to his antiquarian and genealogical work on university history, which became his dominant interest from the mid-1880s. Generations of researchers have benefited from the detail and accuracy of a myriad of biographical reference books, most famously, Annals of a Clerical Family (1904), Early Collegiate Life (1923), A Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College (1897), and the Alumni Cantabrigienses, from Earliest Times to 1900 (1922), latterly compiled with the help of his son.

Throughout his life Venn, a man of lean build, was a keen botanist, walker, and mountain climber. He died on 4 April 1923 at his home, Vicarsbrook, Chaucer Road, Cambridge, and was buried three days later near colleagues at Trumpington churchyard. His wife survived him.


H. T. Francis, 'In memoriam: John Venn', The Caian, 31 (1922-3), 100-24
PRS, 110A (1926), x-xi
M. M. Hennell, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (1958)
W. Stockton, introduction, 1972, Gon. & Caius Cam., John Venn MSS catalogue
J. A. Venn, Autobiography of John Venn, Queen's College Library, Cambridge
B. Hilton, The age of atonement: the influence of evangelicalism on social and economic thought, 1795-1865 (1988)
J. Passmore, A hundred years of philosophy, 2nd edn (1966); repr. (1968)
J. M. Keynes, A treatise on probability (1921)
I. Copi and C. Cohen, Introduction to logic (1994)
W. C. Salmon, 'John Venn's logic of chance', Proceedings of the 1978 Pisa Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science, 2 (1981), 125-38
M. E. Baron, 'A note on the historical development of logic diagrams: Leibniz, Euler, and Venn', Mathematical Gazette, 53 (1969), 113-25
J. R. Gibbins, 'John Grote, Cambridge University and the development of Victorian ideas', PhD diss., U. Newcastle, 1988
R. Froman, A young math book: Venn diagram (1972)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1923)

Gon. & Caius Cam., corresp. and papers
MHS Oxf., notes relating to studies of anthropometry
Society of Genealogists, London, genealogical research notes
U. Birm. L., special collections department, corresp. and papers |  Trinity Cam., Mayor MSS
U. Glas. L., special collections department, letters to A. V. Dicey
UCL, letters to Sir Francis Galton
Wellcome L., letters to Sir Francis Galton

E. Clifford, crayon drawing, 1889, Queens' College, Cambridge
C. E. Brock, oils, 1899, Gon. & Caius Cam.
J. Palmer Clarke, photograph, repro. in Francis, 'In memoriam: John Venn', 100

Wealth at death  
£17,807 11s.: probate, 9 June 1923, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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