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Sherrington, Charles Scott

The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy

John M. Lynch

Sherrington, Charles Scott (1857–1952) 

Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington on 27 November 1857 and died in Eastbourne on 4 March 1952. He was educated at St Thomas's Hospital, London and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge – from the latter he obtained his MB (1885), MD (1892) and ScD (1904). In 1895 he became Holt Professor of Physiology at Liverpool, and subsequently Waynflete Chair of Physiology at Oxford (1913–35). He received many honours from the Royal Society (FRS, 1893; Croonian Lecture, 1897; Royal Medal, 1905; President, 1920–25; and Copley Medal, 1927) as well as a number of civilian honours (GBE, 1922; OM, 1924). In 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology.

Soon after he retired from Oxford, Sherrington gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, a series which were subsequently published as Man on his Nature. It is in this work that the reader experiences Sherrington's philosophy of nature and mind (although he had expressed much of this in earlier works, for example in his 1934 Introduction to The Grand Design). For Sherrington, nature itself was amoral, such that it was only after the emergence of mind in higher organisms that morality came into being, and indeed until the arrival of humans, mind had done little but add to the competitive evolutionary process. As he stated, ‘Man is Nature's beginning to be self-conscious’ (Man on his Nature, p. 387), and as such we can judge nature and alter its impact on us. Sherrington advocated looking to (and praising) nature for its beauty but not for any moral message. Any moral progress for humanity would come from within, not from any outside source (be it divine or natural).

Sherrington's philosophy of mind and body was a strict form of Cartesian dualism – there existed a body which was constructed of matter, which functioned like a machine and which could be studied using observation, and a mind which modified and directed the behaviour of the body. To understand the relationship between these two entities would, in his view, require philosophical analysis. As Cohen points out, for Sherrington

the mind however is immaterial, incorporeal, and not energy; it is not in space and not subject to mechanical laws, its career is private; it can only be known introspectively by the organism itself but its workings in others can be inferred from behavior. It is responsible for consciousness, for thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, for remembering and imagining, for willing and for directing purposive and intelligent actions. (Cohen of Birkenhead, p. 58)


Introduction, in F. Mason (ed.), The Grand Design: Order and Progress in Nature (1934), pp.xi–xiii.Find this resource:

Man on his Nature (1940; 1951).Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bowler, P. J., Reconciling Science and Religion (2001).Find this resource:

Cohen of Birkenhead, Lord, Sherrington: Physiologist, Philosopher and Poet (1958).Find this resource:

Granit, R., Charles Scott Sherrington: An Appraisal (1967).Find this resource:

Liddell, E. G. T., ‘Charles Scott Sherrington (1857–1952)’, Obituaries of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, vol.8 (1952), pp.241–70.Find this resource:

Sherrington, C. E. R., ‘Charles Scott Sherrington (1857–1952)’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol.30 (1975), pp.45–63.Find this resource:

John M. Lynch

See also Mind, Philosophy of