Philosophical Myths of the Fall

Mulhal - Philosophical Myths of the FallI came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall  (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”

A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.

The New Theodicy of the Scientific Naturalists

I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).

In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.

In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”

But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:

British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.

To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”

To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.

Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”

But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:

Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.

The Warfare’s Toll on Historical Interpretation

Putnam - 400 YearsI was reminded today of a remarkable chapter in James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controveries (1979). Moore argues that the “military metaphor perverts historical understanding with violence and inhumanity, by teaching one to think of polarity where there was confusing plurality, to see monolithic solidarity where there was division and uncertainty, to expect hostility where there was conciliation and concord.”

I was searching “freethought” on the Internet Archive when the first hit that came up was Samuel P. Putnam’s 400 Years of Freethought, published by the “The Truth Seeker Company” in 1894. The book begins with a proem on “Freethought—Past, Present, and Future.” For the “past,” the proem begins with Bruno, “looking forth with eyes of fire,” who was “martyred” for revealing “Science’ fearless path.” The proem transitions to the “present” with Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), the “great agnostic” of the United States, before finally concluding with the “child” of the “future,” the “tiny prophet of untraveled years.”

The first chapter remarks that “through darkness and struggle; through bloody war; through torture and terror, through superstition, ignorance, and tyranny, Freethought has steadily pushed onward, with true Promethean fire, with the torch of reason, with undaunted face, with unreceding step, until now it leads the world with victorious colors.” Riveting stuff.

After delineating what, exactly, Freethought is, Putnam in the following chapter highlights the “three voyages” of Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan. It is not long before Putnam claims that Columbus “gave almost undeniable proof that the earth was not flat, as it was declared to be by the standard theology of the church.” Although himself not a freethinker, Columbus, according to Putnam, “was certainly a heretic in action.”

All this is familiar territory. Indeed, Putnam references John William Draper several times, and likely borrowed themes and ideas from some of Andrew Dickson White’s periodical publications. What is interesting about Putnam is that he was a seminary student in Chicago in the 1860s, preached as a Congregational minister, converted to Unitarianism 1870s, and then renounced Christianity shortly thereafter. In 1887 he established the Journal of Freethought and became the author of numerous books attacking Christianity and religion in general. He was not simply anti-Catholic. In chapter five of 400 Years of Freethought he proclaimed that the Reformation marked “an epoch in human progress.” But quickly qualifies: “it soon reached its culmination and ceased to be of any benefit.”

What happened to Samuel Putnam? I do not know enough about him to make any definitive claims, but surely he was part of the “warfare’s toll on historical interpretation.”

Progress as a Secularized Eschatology

Nineteenth-century Victorian scientific naturalists had a particular conception of scientific and social progress. In his “The Progress of Science 1837-1887″ (1887), Thomas Henry Huxley argued that a “revolution” had taken place, both politically and socially, in the modern world. In brief, scientific progress came with the adoption of a naturalistic approach to studying nature. Any other approach would count as an obstacle both to scientific and social progress. Similar sentiments were shared by John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and other scientific naturalists.

Of course the idea of progress was held by other Victorians as well. “We are on the side of progress,” wrote British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. “From the great advances which European society has made, during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.” “History,” he continued, “is full of the signs of this natural progress of society.” From Macaulay, Arnold, Mill, Morley, and Kingsley, to Huxley and Co., the idea of progress became dogma for Victorian intellectuals.

But where did this idea of progress come from, and why was it so pervasive?  From the 1920s onward, several historians have offered strikingly different (and sometimes opposing) answers. J.B. Bury, for example, explained in his The Idea of Progress (1920) that progress was the “animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” But in saying this, Bury also disputed, and dismissed, the connection between the idea of progress and the Christian doctrine of providence. Indeed, the idea of progress presupposed its rejection: “it was not till men felt independence of Providence,” he writes, “that they could organize a theory of Progress…So long as the doctrine of Progress was…in the ascendent, a doctrine of Progress could not arise.” According to Bury, the origin of the idea of progress is found among eighteenth-century philosophes. To make his point, Bury also portrayed the philosophes as characteristically anti-Christian or anti-religious.

Lowith - Meaning in HistoryHowever, other historians saw the idea of progress in terms of the secularization of biblical eschatology. Ernest Lee Tuveson, for instance, argued in his Millennium and Utopia (1949) that “gradually the role of Providence was transferred to ‘natural laws’…Providence was disguised rather than eliminated.” A new kind of Providence emerged, one based on the confidence of the historical process: “This confidence…resulted in part from the transformation of a religious idea—the great millennial expectation…The New Jerusalem in a utopia of mechanistic philosophers; the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers and of the nineteenth-century optimists retained many features of the New Jerusalem.” Others would follow and expand Tuveson’s analysis, including Carl L. Becker, Nicolas Berdyaev, Carl Schmitt, Jacob Taubes, Karl Löwith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Voegelin, among others. It was becoming increasingly clear that the modern idea of progress rested on biblical presuppositions, particularly a secularized eschatological myth of salvation.

A great debate followed after the publication of Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1976). Blumenberg’s book was essentially a reply to Löwith’s Meaning in History (1949). Löwith had argued that modern categories of reason and progress, and modern philosophies of history are secularized vestiges of Judeo-Christian eschatology. In other words, the modern idea of progress only appears to be rational or scientific. Under the surface, it is supported by an eschatological hope and expectation. Löwith traces these religious elements backward, from Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet and Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine and Orosius, all the way to the “biblical” view of history. According to Löwith, “philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and…ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.” Whether religious or irreligious, all narratives of progress are overtly or covertly “eschatological from Isaiah to Marx, form Augustine to Hegel, from Joachim to Schelling.”

Blumenberg - The Legitmacy of the Modern AgeOpposition to Löwith’s thesis came most forcefully from Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg, the idea of progress was no vestige of biblical eschatology. Rather, it was a radical break from it, a Neuzeit. Christian eschatology and modern progressivism, says Blumenberg, do not share any identifiable ideas, nor does the modern idea of progress contain any authentic, original content found in Christianity. In brief, they are diametrically different: “it is…a manifest difference,” he writes, “that an eschatology speaks of an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it, while the idea of progress extrapolates from a structure present in every moment to a future that is immanent in history.” More explicitly, Blumenberg contends that the idea of progress “hopes for the greater security of man in the world,” the here and now, while “eschatology” is “more nearly an aggregate of terror and dread.” Blumenberg concludes that “the dependence of the idea of progress on Christian eschatology” is nil, and therefore “block any transposition of the one into the other.”

So, where does the modern idea of progress come from? Blumenberg offers an alternative genealogy, found in late-medieval theological nominalism, human self-assertion, and astronomy. The nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) pushed knowledge of God beyond the boundaries of human intelligibility or comprehension. Once God essentially “disappeared,” humanity had to assert itself:

deprived by God’s hiddenness of metaphysical guarantees for the world, man constructs for himself a counterworld of elementary rationality and manipulability…Because theology meant to defend God’s absolute interest, it allowed and caused man’s interest in himself and his concern for himself to become absolute.

Representative of this new position, says Blumenberg, is the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From Blumenberg’s view, Bacon turned away from understanding God to understanding man and nature. With Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, we reach man’s full self-assertion. And herein lies Blumenberg’s central argument: this modern self-assertion of reason provided the means for “possible progress” rather than the “necessary progress” of the eschatological view.

But according to a host of scholars, Blumenberg’s critique of Löwith ultimately fails. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, found it unconvincing, if not perplexing. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that “the modern age came into being out of a world in which Christianity was dominant, and therefore its relationship, and particularly that of its early stages, to Christianity is not merely a matter of historical interest.” Pannenberg goes on to observe that key to Blumenberg’s argument depended on the theme of theodicy. Christianity attempted to answer the question of the problem of evil. But according to Blumenberg, Christian theologians failed to provide a satisfactory answer. This, in Pannenberg’s assessment, is where Blumenberg derives his “conception that the modern age originated in opposition to theological absolutism.” In short, the idea of progress takes on “the vanished role of theodicy.”

But according to Pannenberg, Christian theodicy is not that simple. “Christianity came to terms in a decisive way with the evil and wickedness in the world,” Pannenberg argues, “not by removing responsibility for the world from the creator, but by belief in the reconciliation of the world by the God who took upon himself the burden of its guilt and misery and so set men free from it.” In this sense, Pannenberg finds it strange that Blumenberg neglects to mention this central Christian theme. What is more, the “rise of the modern age cannot be understood in the abstract terms of the history of ideas.” Pannenberg points to the Protestant Reformation and the “historical catastrophes which came about in its train,” that it was essential to the emancipation of the modern age. Here, too, Pannenberg is astonished that Blumenberg has ignored the role of the “Reformation in the rise and the self-understanding of the modern age.”

In his own response to Blumenberg, Löwith argued that the modern idea of progress and Christian eschatology are essentially common in “that both live by hope insofar as they conceive of history as proceeding toward final fulfillment which lies in the future.” In short, Blumenberg’s “possible progress” ultimately collapses back into “necessary progress.”

Many historians of science in recent years have argued that early modern science was a religious activity. With some minor modification, Blumenberg’s thesis of modern man’s self-assertion of reason was not a revolutionary turn away from God, but rather the attempt to find better proofs of God’s existence, in the natural world. Self-assertion, in other words, was a religious conception as well. It was a dialogue with God within a new medium, that of science.

The Study of Nature as Devotional Practice

In the Winter issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Peter Harrison considers the “Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England” (2014). In particular, he focuses on the sentiments of chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In his Disquisition concerning the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), Boyle argued that studying nature will excite “true Sentiments both of Devotion and of particular Vertues.” That is, the study of nature is a religious activity. As Harrison puts it, natural philosophy not only provides arguments for the existence of the Deity, it also induces “moral and religious sentiments in the investigator.”

Recent trends in history of philosophy demonstrate that “philosophy” was always more than mere theoretical argumentation and logical abstractions; it was, according to the late French philosopher Pierra Hadot, “a way of life.” In short, philosophy was a spiritual exercise. This “spiritual” element was present in early studies on nature. We see this not only in Plato, Claudius Ptolemy, and Simplicius, but also in the works of early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even medieval authors.

Harrison quickly moves on to the early modern period, particularly in the work of Francis Bacon. In a number of his treatises, Harrison observes, “Bacon framed his justification for the pursuit of natural philosophy in terms of the biblical narrative of the Creation and Fall.” The aim of natural philosophy was to regain control over nature, which was lost after Adam’s fall. Natural philosophy, in other words, was a restoration project. Experimentation was the labor required after the Adamic Fall. According to Harrison, the Protestant idea of a “universal priesthood” and personal piety were essential components to Bacon’s program.

Harrison then turns to Bacon’s successors, the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. Harrison focuses on Thomas Sprat’s work on the History of the Royal Society (1667). According to Sprat, experimental philosophy undoubtedly reveals useful knowledge, but it also has moral ends. Natural philosophy, in short, purges moral deficiencies from the experimenter. But it also does more than this. Its also “promotes a properly informed worship of God.” Clergyman Joseph Glanvill and others would follow this Baconian program. In his “The Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion,” Glanvill affirms that “the Free, experimental Philosophy will do to purpose, by giving the mind another tincture, and introducing a sounder habit, which by degrees will last absolutely repel all the little malignancies, and setle in it a strong and manly temperment, that will master, and cast out idle dotages, and effeminate Fears.”

Returning to Boyle, Harrison observes that he “was also concerned to make an explicit case for the personal piety of the experimentalist.” For Boyle, natural philosophy not only revealed the power and wisdom of God, it also “promoted piety and particular virtues.”

Experimental activity, in other words, was a decidedly religious activity.


Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers'] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)

Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.


The Age of Scientific Naturalism

John Tyndall died of poisoning. From 1890-93, this enthusiastic mountaineer found himself bedridden, struggling with illness. He was in the habit of taking doses of chloral hydrate at night to help him with his insomnia, and every other day some sulphate of magnesia for his constipation. Near the end, his wife, Louisa, 25 years his junior, administered the dosages to him.

In 1893, on a Monday morning, Tyndall asked Lousia for a spoonful of magnesium. It was dark, and his beside table was littered with bottles. Lousia took a bottle a poured a spoonful, serving it to his lips. He took a big gulp and, tasting it, said, “there is a curious sweet taste.” Immediately Lousia realized she had accidentally given him a spoonful of chloral. She turned to him and said, “John, I have given you chloral.” He replied, “yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John” (see account in “Mrs. Tyndall’s Fatal Error,” New York Times, 1893).

The great physicist John Tyndall died that same evening. Stricken with guilt, Lousia spent the rest of her life attempting to resurrect him. She collected his journals, correspondence, and all unfinished writings for the purpose of publishing a massive Life and Letters. No Life and Letter ever came to fruition. She died in 1940 at the age of 95.

Lightman and Reidy - The Age of Scientific NaturalismThe current volume under review is a renewed attempt to resurrect the life and work of John Tyndall. Edited by Bernie Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and his Contemporaries (2014), the essays in this collection originate from two conferences specifically organized around the work of Tyndall, including the “Evolutionary Naturalism Conference” held at York University in 2011 and “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science Workshop and Conference” held at Montana State University in 2012. Publisher Pickering & Château (publishers of the current volume) will also begin publishing Tyndall’s correspondence in 16 volumes, beginning in 2015.

The Age of Scientific Naturalism is divided into three parts. Part I, “John Tyndall,” highlights Tyndall’s “unflinching defence of a naturalistic world view” and the role he played “within the contested nature of science in the Victorian era.” Tyndall was known for his “flamboyant lectures, which mixed practised showmanship with extravagant experiments,” presenting “science as an exhilarating spectacle.” The essays in this first part stress Tyndall’s research and the construction of his public persona. Elizabeth Neswald’s opening essay, “Saving the World in the Age of Entropy,” connects Tyndall with philosophical threads and ideological biases of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly German naturaphilosophie. In his work, for example, Tyndall marginalized the law of entropy in “favour of a balanced world of cycles,” in much the same way that German materialists did, proposing a “living nature in an eternal process of becoming.” Tyndall emphasized “the role of the sun in supporting life,” and drew “a picture of a nature embodying organic unity.” This verges on “nature worship,” and Neswald emphasizes that Victorian religious agnosticism “differed little from Christian theology.” According to Neswald, “for Tyndall…god was nature.” Following the work of Ruth Barton, Stephen S. Kim, and Tess Cosslett, Neswald notes that “the use of religious language in works of popular science was widespread in this period,” and that Tyndall’s language was particularly indebted to the “natural supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle. “Tyndall’s private writings, his journals and letters, reveal a view of nature and the universe that sees a creative power that could not be fully comprehended through science alone.” In a letter to his close friend Thomas Archer Hirst, for instance, Tyndall writes that “the universe is a body with life within it, and among it, and through it, permeating its every fiber…Everything in nature is in the act of becoming another thing.” These sentiments were due to Tyndall’s reading of “German philosophers,” which he “imbibed them through the interpretations and writings of Thomas Carlyle, who himself was deeply indebted to German idealist and romantic philosophies.” Indeed, Tyndall was very much encrusted within this tradition, so much so that modern interpretations, such as viewing him as a progenitor of global warming, become problematic, as Joshua Howe shows in the following essay, “Getting Past the Greenhouse.” Howe criticizes the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for co-opting Tyndall as a forefather of modern climate science. Also criticizing recent “histories” of global warming, Howe writes that the “biography of global warming is ahistorical.” Such “presentist biography,” he argues, “has consequences for the way we understand the role of science in the twenty-first-century politics of climate change.” These stories “feed myths and misunderstandings about contemporary and historical issues, both academic and otherwise.” Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, in the next essay, “Tyndall, Lewes and Popular Representations of Scientific Authority in Victorian Britain,” compare the popular science writings of Tyndall and those of literary critic George Henry Lewes, showing how porous the boundaries between public and private science, the laboratory and the field, and the popularizer and practitioner, were during the mid-Victorian period. Both Tyndall and Lewes, they argue, “pursued scientific research, wrote for the periodical press, addressed topics beyond their specialist expertise, and devoted considerable effort to popularizing a naturalistic version of science.” Indeed, both men used many of the “same tropes in their self-representation as reliable and authoritative expositors of science.”

Part II, “Scientific Naturalism,” examines scientific naturalism itself, demonstrating that science was still in a state of flux in the late-nineteenth century. But this set of essays attempt to move beyond Frank Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Who were the “scientific naturalists” turns out to be an increasingly complex question. Looking at some of the “less obvious scientific naturalists,” these essays go beyond the myopic focus on Huxley and Tyndall, and examine the complex personalities of Herbert Spencer, William Kingdon Clifford, William Huggins, and Alfred Newton. Spencer, for example, planted his philosophical roots in the soil of naturaphilosophie and evolutionary deism. According to Michael Taylor, in his “Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Spencer underscored the “popular and fluid definitions of scientific naturalism.” Rather than an empiricist and materialist, Taylor argues, Spencer’s philosophical system reveals “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Spencer undoubtedly had metaphysical sources, such as Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers’ “evolutionary deism,” which “articulated a vision of cosmic evolution that presented a story of progress from the nebulae to human society.” Another metaphysical source was German transcendental biology or naturaphilosophie. Despite his neglect in contemporary works, Spencer’s impact on Victorian intellectual life was immense. Taylor persuasively argues that “Spencer’s evolutionary naturalism had its roots deep in metaphysical theories that were far removed from empiricism and materialism.” Josipa Petrunic follows with an essay on the “Evolutionary Mathematics” of Clifford and his beliefs in the Spencerian process of evolution, which included the search for a foundation for a new morality within scientific naturalism. In the end, according to Petrunic, Clifford became a “more thoroughgoing evolutionary naturalist than either Huxley or Tyndall, as well as many others amongst the older generation who founded the X-Club.” Robert W. Smith’s essay, “The ‘Great Plan of the Visible Universe,'” looks at astronomer Huggins who, although rejecting traditional natural theology, sought a conception of the unity of nature founded upon divine design. A leading pioneer in the development of astrophysics, Huggins’ work, according to Smith, was shaped by deep “religious sensibilities.” However, this was only the Huggins of the mid-1860s. This early Huggins “saw very powerful evidence of design when he viewed the heavens.” Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, Huggins’ opinions had decidedly shifted to something more resembling Turner’s “Scientific Naturalist.” Unfortunately, why this shift occurred, says Smith, is rather obscure. Jonathan Smith, in the final essay in this section, “Alfred Newton: The Scientific Naturalist Who Wasn’t,” shows how Newton applied Darwinism to his own work in ornithology, but was “restrained and cautious in his public endorsement of Darwinism.” Indeed, he did not “share the broader agenda of scientific naturalism.” Newton was a clear example that “one could be a Darwinian without being a scientific naturalist.”

Part III, “Communicating Science,” looks at the disparate “modes of communication, including public lectures, scientific meetings, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and even town-hall meetings and church gatherings” that supported science during the Victorian period. Janet Brown, in the opening essay, “Corresponding Naturalists,”offers an engaging “correspondence-history” of the scientific naturalists, and “how epistolary exchange helped shape the very foundation of modern science, with its emphasis on evaluation, adjudication, authentication, prioritization and distribution of the latest scientific research” (my emphasis). In the same vein, Melinda Baldwin’s essay, “Tyndall and Stokes,” offers a more detailed examination of the epistolary exchange between Tyndall and mathematician and theologian George Gabriel Stokes. Although Tyndall and Strokes “differed radically in upbringing, temperament and religious orientation,” these ideological differences did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship, thus problematizing the notion of an antagonism between science and religion at the time. Baldwin demonstrates the central role their correspondence played in shaping the physical sciences in the Victorian period. The Tyndall Correspondence Project has found some two hundreds letters between Tyndall and Stokes, and it seems that Stokes, Baldwin suggests, “shaped both Tyndall’s papers and Tyndall’s idea about scientific theories.” In other words, Tyndall respected Stokes’ scientific expertise, consulted him on scientific theories, and even called on him to review some of his essays. Stokes was a member of the North British physicists, which have been portrayed as the great antagonists of the scientific naturalists. But the Tyndall-Stokes correspondence suggests a more complex picture. Bernie Lightman concludes with an essay on the “Science at the Metaphysical Society.” Much of what he has to say here depends on the research of Alan Willard Brown’s masterful The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (1947), but Lightman distinguishes himself from Brown’s politically idealistic philosophy. Most importantly, Lightman shows that religious members of the Society were not anti-science; rather, “they simply had their own definition of what it was, the role it should play in society, and the broader ramifications of its findings.”

This set of essays, along with those in Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2014) complicates our conventional understanding of Victorian naturalists. “The contest for cultural authority,” Lightman concludes in The Age of Scientific Naturalism, “was not only between the Anglican clergy and scientific naturalists. Feminists, socialists and others were claiming that they were qualified to provide leadership, and that contemporary science supported their claims.” Furthermore, the scientific naturalists were not mere “agnostics,” in the contemporary sense of the term, as “rationalists.” Their ideas, and ideals, were infused with metaphysics, a romantic sense of nature, and, indeed, a deep reforming spirit, of knowledge, society, and religion.


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