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John Venn

A Life in Logic

The first comprehensive history of John Venn’s life and work.

John Venn (1834–1923) is remembered today as the inventor of the famous Venn diagram. The postmortem fame of the diagram has until now eclipsed Venn’s own status as one of the most accomplished logicians of his day. Praised by John Stuart Mill as a “highly successful thinker” with much “power of original thought,” Venn had a profound influence on nineteenth-century scientists and philosophers, ranging from Mill and Francis Galton to Lewis Carroll and Charles Sanders Peirce. Venn was heir to a clerical Evangelical dynasty, but religious doubts led him to resign Holy Orders and instead focus on an academic career. He wrote influential textbooks on probability theory and logic, became a fellow of the Royal Society, and advocated alongside Henry Sidgwick for educational reform, including that of women’s higher education. Moreover, through his students, a direct line can be traced from Venn to the early analytic philosophy of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, and family ties connect him to the famous Bloomsbury group. 

This essential book takes readers on Venn’s journey from Evangelical son to Cambridge don to explore his life and work in context. Drawing on Venn’s key writings and correspondence, published and unpublished, Lukas M. Verburgt unearths the legacy of the logician’s wide-ranging thinking while offering perspective on broader themes in religion, science, and the university in Victorian Britain. The rich picture that emerges of Venn, the person, is of a man with many sympathies—sometimes mutually reinforcing and at other times outwardly and inwardly contradictory.

448 pages | 26 halftones, 1 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Biography and Letters

History: British and Irish History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Mathematics and Statistics


“Ask someone about John Venn and the chances are they’ll mention the diagrams. But, as this biography by Verburgt shows, there is much more to Venn than those intersecting circles.” 

Times Literary Supplement

“Verburgt’s book is well worth reading. It sheds new light on one side of intellectual life in Victorian England.”


“By interweaving the life and work of John Venn—today remembered mainly as the inventor of the eponymous diagram—Verburgt animates an important and often overlooked figure in the history of probability theory and logic, revealing Venn to be a crucial ‘missing link’ in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. He shows that Venn’s religious transformation provides insight into how a cleric of the time could reconcile religion with a post-Darwinian view of the natural world. Indeed, had he been born forty years earlier, he could have been a worthy member of the Philosophical Breakfast Club. An essential read for anyone interested in Venn, probability theory, logic, and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectual history.

Laura J. Snyder, author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World

"You’ll never see a Venn diagram in the same way. This fine biography brings a complex and sometimes intellectually tortured polymath vividly to life for the first time, shedding new light on religion, science, and philosophy in the Victorian era."

James A. Secord, author of Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age

"John Venn died in 1923, and for the next century his academic work, and indeed his life, has had little critical attention. When fifty years ago my elder daughter was taught about Venn's diagram in her Cambridge school, I asked her if they told her who Venn was. 'Oh, was he a person?' she replied. So I took her to the local churchyard (for I knew Venn lived in our parish) and we soon found his grave, overgrown and neglected. Now at last, in this wonderful scholarly book, Verburgt ends this neglect with a dozen chronological chapters divided into the main themes of logic, probability, moral science, religious thought, and biography. Venn was one of the stalwart reformers of Victorian Cambridge as it arose from its slumbers, helping to start a Moral Sciences Tripos. For the whole of his academic life he was employed by his individual Cambridge college, Gonville and Caius, where he had read mathematics as a student and to which he was devoted. His memorial can be found there, in the dining hall: a stained-glass window depicting the diagram for three sets. This is an inspirational book for students and scholars of the history of philosophy and science."

A. W. F. Edwards, author of Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Family Tree
1          Family, Childhood, and Youth (1834–53)
2          Student (1853–57)
3          Curate (1857–62)
4          Intellectual Breakthrough (1862)
5          Moral Scientist (1862–69)
6          Probability (1866)
7          Religious Thinker (1867–73)
8          Logic Papers (1874–80)
9          Algebraic Logic (1881)
10        Dereverend Believer and Amateur Scientist (1883–90)
11        Scientific Logic (1889)
12        Biographer (1891–1923)
Epilogue: A Worldless Victorian

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