Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hinton, James

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HINTON, JAMES (1822–1875), surgeon and philosophical writer, second son of John Howard Hinton [q. v.], baptist minister, was born in 1822 at Reading, where his father had a church, and was educated at a school kept by his grandfather, the Rev. James Hinton, in the neighbourhood of Oxford, and afterwards at the school for nonconformists at Harpenden. At school he gave promise rather of general capacity than special brilliance, but his powers of memory were in his youth exceptional. He was a strictly religious and a somewhat meditative boy. In 1838–9 he acted as cashier in a wholesale woollendrapery shop in Whitechapel. The degradation of Whitechapel life, especially in regard to the relations of the sexes, made an indelible impression on his mind. Afterwards he obtained a clerkship in an insurance office. He devoted his nights to hard study, teaching himself in some sort German, Italian, and Russian, and dabbling in metaphysics, mathematics, and history. At nineteen he fell in love with Miss Margaret Haddon, proposed, and was rejected. After an illness caused by work and anxiety, he became a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and made a voyage to China as the surgeon of a passenger ship. On his return he took medals, his diploma (1847), and an assistant-surgeoncy at Newport, Essex. Meanwhile, at the cost of prolonged mental suffering, he had lost his belief in Christianity; Miss Haddon rejected a second proposal from him on this account, and he became medical officer on board a ship chartered by government to carry free negroes from Sierra Leone to Jamaica.

He reached Sierra Leone on 15 Oct. 1847, and on 5 Nov. set sail for Jamaica. There he remained about two years, busily occupied in finding places for the negroes on the plantations, and studying the social life of the island. After paying a visit to some relations in New Orleans, he returned home in the spring of 1850. On the homeward voyage he was oppressed by a sense of sin, read the Bible, Nelson on ‘The Cause and Cure of Infidelity,’ and some other apologetic books, and was almost persuaded to be a Christian. Miss Haddon now consented to an engagement, and Hinton began practice in London at Bartholomew Close, in partnership with his friend Mr. Fisher, devoting special attention to aural surgery. Through homœopathy he was led to the serious study of physiology, and of the delicate problems which concern the relations of mind and body, and in particular of volition and cerebral action. He was now much influenced by Coleridge, whose ‘Aids to Reflection’ was one of his favourite books. He thus recovered, and for a time retained a certain belief in Christianity.

In 1852 he married. In 1853 he dissolved partnership, but continued for the next few years to practise as a surgeon in London, and to study aural surgery. His investigations led him to devote some attention to the theory of sound, on which he gave a course of lectures in 1854–5. About this time he made the acquaintance of Dr. (afterwards Sir William) Gull [q. v.], who continued his close friend throughout life. Still busy with philosophy, he thought he had discovered a new method of transcending phenomena, which determined all his subsequent speculation, viz. the use of the moral reason to interpret the results reached by science. A complete theory of the universe must (he argued) satisfy the emotions, and particularly the religious emotions, no less than the understanding.

Hinton began his literary career in 1856 with the publication, in the ‘Christian Spectator,’ of some papers on physiology and ethics. In October 1858 he contributed to the ‘Medico-Chirurgical Review’ an article on ‘Physical Morphology, or the Law of Organic Forms,’ in which he maintained that organic form is the result of motion in the direction of least resistance, a conclusion accepted provisionally by Mr. Herbert Spencer (First Principles, 3rd ed. § 78) ‘as a large instalment of the truth.’ In 1859 he published a little book on the relations of religion and science, entitled ‘Man and his Dwelling-place,’ which was favourably received. A series of papers on various topics in biology and physiology followed in the ‘Cornhill Magazine.’ They were afterwards reprinted as ‘Life in Nature’ (1862) and ‘Thoughts on Health’ (1871). He wrote the treatise on diseases of the ear for Holmes's ‘System of Surgery’ (1862), and was one of the editors of the ‘Year-Book of Medicine’ (New Sydenham Soc.) in 1863. In 1866 he published a little essay entitled ‘The Mystery of Pain,’ which is probably the best known of his writings. He then joined the newly established Metaphysical Society. In the autumn of 1870 he visited the island of São Miguel in the Azores, where he had bought a small estate. On his way thither his mind was much occupied with the consideration of asceticism. This led in the course of a few months to a change in his ethical views so thorough that he was accustomed to describe it as a ‘moral revolution.’ The change consisted in the substitution of ‘altruism’ for individualism as the basis of morals. To work out this idea he determined to retire from practice, and, to be the better able to do so, he threw himself on his return to England with redoubled energy into his professional duties. At the same time he prepared for the press several scientific works. In 1874, besides editing a manual of physiology entitled ‘Physiology for Practical Use, by Various Writers,’ he published ‘The Place of the Physician, being the Introductory Lecture at Guy's Hospital, October 1873,’ with ‘Essays on the Law of Human Life and on the Relations between the Organic and Inorganic Worlds;’ also an ‘Atlas of the Membrana Tympani, with Descriptive Text, being Illustrations of the Diseases of the Ear;’ ‘The Questions of Aural Surgery;’ translations of Von Tröltsch on ‘The Surgical Diseases of the Ear,’ and Helmholtz on ‘The Mechanism of the Ossicles and the Membrana Tympani’ (New Sydenham Soc.). In 1875 he began to suffer from a cerebral disorder produced by overwork, and in the autumn sailed for the Azores. He had hardly landed, however, when he died on 16 Dec. of acute inflammation of the brain. He was buried in the English church at Ponta Delgada in the island of São Miguel. His fugitive essays were edited by his son, Mr. C. H. Hinton, with an introduction by Mr. Shadworth Hodgson, under the title ‘Chapters on the Art of Thinking, and other Essays,’ in 1879. Two volumes of selections from his commonplace book (printed for his own convenience in 1874, and now in the British Museum, 4 vols. 8vo) were published; one entitled ‘Philosophy and Religion,’ edited by Caroline Haddon in 1881, and another entitled ‘The Law Breaker and the Coming of the Law,’ edited by his widow, in 1884.

As a thinker Hinton, whatever his faults, lacked neither originality nor comprehensiveness. Accepting from idealism the doctrine that existence is limited by consciousness, he sought in the activity exhibited in volition, which he identified with spirit, the key to the interpretation of the noumenal, or, as he preferred to say, the ‘actual’ world, and the reconciliation of religion and science. The popular realism, which regards objects as material ‘things in themselves,’ together with the popular idea of God as the creator of the world from nothing by successive acts, and its governor through secondary causes and miraculous interpositions, he treats as due to a certain ‘spiritual deadness,’ the intellectual analogue of sin, to which man is prone, and as exploded by scientific materialism, which, however, in its turn is proved by philosophy to have but a relative validity. Hence the ideas of matter and force, and also the ordinary theological idea of God, must give place to that of universal spirit as the ‘actuality’ of things. Accordingly he names his system ‘actualism’ as opposed to idealism and materialism. He hoped for a time to save the essence of Christianity, though his rationalisation of its tenets led him nearer to pantheism. To the last, however, he made free and uncritical use of biblical phraseology.

Hinton was also much occupied with the problem of the unification of knowledge, the solution of which he sought in the category of ‘equilibration.’ The inorganic world exhibits motion and resistance in unstable equilibrium, the organic world ‘vital force’ and chemical affinity in unstable equilibrium. Function is the effect of the temporary preponderance of the latter over the former force. Structure results from function modified by resistance. Thus chemical affinity being a mode of molecular motion, biology is affiliated to physics through the conceptions of motion, resistance, tension, and unstable equilibrium. The weakest point in this theory is the obscurity in which it leaves the ‘vital force;’ nor can Hinton be said to have made out his revolutionary theory of function, which makes it not the cause but the effect of waste. Hinton finds the analogue of his biological theory in the mental and moral evolution of the race. Scientific procedure implies an unstable equilibrium between fact and theory. In other words, the first step consists in placing upon the facts to be explained a provisional construction, called by Hinton a theory, but more usually termed an hypothesis. Both the survey of the facts and the theory are necessarily inadequate, and as further facts are accumulated the theory is modified to suit them. As the result of this gradual articulation of the theory, it becomes at last so complicated that it sinks, as it were, by its own weight, and is replaced by some simpler theory. In this curious analogy ‘theory’ corresponds to ‘vital force,’ facts to ‘chemical affinity,’ their accumulation to the process of nutrition, and the final discrediting of the theory to ‘function.’ Hinton's analysis of scientific method coincides in a remarkable way with the Hegelian idea of a ‘dialectic movement’ inherent in thought itself, a coincidence the more striking as he was unacquainted with the Hegelian philosophy.

In the moral sphere Hinton traces the same process. As an individual self, man is a negation, a limitation of the divine Spirit, and can thus only attain his true life through unselfishness, whereby he transcends himself and becomes one with God. In fact, however, he has done just the opposite, making himself the centre of the universe, his own supposed interest, mundane or spiritual, his principal concern. The moral centre of gravity must, therefore, be shifted from self-regard to regard for others, from egoism to altruism or mutual service. Hinton's premature death prevented him from giving orderly expression to his ethical system. The volume entitled ‘The Law-breaker and the Coming of the Law’ presents it in so ill-digested a shape as to be hardly intelligible. The work is also marred by hints as to the need of a reform of the institution of marriage, which seem to point in the direction of free love.

[Life and Letters, edited by Ellice Hopkins, with introduction by Sir W. W. Gull, 1878; Chapters on the Art of Thinking, with Mr. Shadworth Hodgson's introduction; Caroline Haddon's Larger Life—Studies in Hinton's Ethics, 1886, and her Law of Development, 1883.]

J. M. R.