In the latest issue of Zygon, Thomas Aechtner, Lecturer in History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland, decisively demonstrates the bankruptcy of postsecondary textbooks and reference materials in anthropology publications. He argues that these publications continue to “present the conflict model’s narrative as the historical account of religion and science interactions.” Thus, despite the banality of having to once again show how misguided the “conflict thesis” really is, it continues to thrive not “merely as a popular artifact, but also as a conspicuous historical narrative in modern university-level pedagogical and reference materials.”
Publishers such as AltMira, McGraw-Hill, Peason, Routledge, Sage, and Wadsworth (and surely others), persist in publishing textbooks and reference guides that use the “conflict thesis” as an organizing narrative. Aechtner lists several recent textbooks, including Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts (2000), Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2006, 2008), The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (2009), 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook (2010), Anthropology: A Global Perspective (2012), and others still, which all continue to reduce the complex interactions between science and religion into caricatures. Discussions of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, Heliocentrism, Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, Darwin and evolutionary theory, science and secularization, merely preserve the narratives of Draper and White without ever questioning their accuracy or legitimacy. As Aechtner writes, “the cumulative picture of historical science-religion interactions sketched by many introductory anthropology materials is unquestionably one of conflict.”
Aechtner wonders why, despite the abundance of revisionist historiography, do these textbooks continue to use the conflict model for history. Perhaps, he muses, it is “due to genre constraints and publication limitations associated with such works.” That may indeed be true. However, as he goes on to point out, there are cases where authors of these textbooks deliberately misrepresent science-religion relations. For example, both Anthropology: A Global Perspective and Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective cite John Henry’s excellent work, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002). But whereas Henry is careful to note that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, the authors of these textbooks completely ignore such measured and important qualifications. “This demonstrates,” writes Aechtner, that such textbooks “seem to disregard and even contradict a fundamental message about science and religion contained so forcefully within the very pages of their cited source.” In short, the conflict narrative “persists within university-level pedagogical and reference books used to teach the uninitiated on contemporary postsecondary campuses.”
Some interesting reading this morning. In a recent blogpost by Adam Richter, PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, he argues that popular, American attitudes toward science derive largely from Disney World attractions, particularly “Tomorrowland,” where “progress” is a major theme. Indeed, this theme of progress is pervasive in Disney productions. Connected with this theme of progress is corporate industry. Attractions such as the “Test Track,” “Spaceship Earth,” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure,” are sponsored by Chevrolet, Siemens, and ExxonMobil respectively, and hosted by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye. “For historians of science,” he writes,” I think it’s helpful to view Disney World’s attractions as artifacts that reflect particular American attitudes toward science since the mid-20th century.” Disney’s whiggish vision of the past and progressive vision of the future are, of course, deeply flawed—if not profoundly troubling. Richter, however, sees this as an opportunity. If historians of science could tap into that kind of imagination, creativity, and articulation, the public would greatly benefit.
But Walt Disney achieved his ends largely through anachronism. In the comment section of Richter’s post, Gabriel Finkelstein, historian and expert on Emil du Bois-Reymond at University of Colorado Denver, suggested a recent piece by Andre Wakefield in History and Technology, “Butterfield’s Nightmare: the history of science as Disney history” (2014). Wakefield argues that “narratives that link the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution together in an imagined causal series are prone to Disneyish anachronism.” This is the “American mid-twentieth-century form of Whiggishness.” An interesting and provocative example Wakefield discusses is Disney’s production Our Friend the Atom (1957), a scientific propaganda film. As Wakefield notes, Our Friend the Atom “represented a joint venture between General Dynamics, which manufactured nuclear reactors, and the US Navy.” It was also hosted by Nazi war criminal Dr. Heinz Haber. In telling viewers (children) the nature of the atom, Haber and Disney provide a “history of the atom,” complete with Democritus, Aristotle, the Dark Middle Ages, the “inventor-scientist-experts” of the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, before concluding with our current Atomic Age. As Wakefield concludes, “Disney’s fable…is also a fable about the history of science and technology. Disney history collapses time. Past, present and future become indistinguishable. 2000 [sic] years of history disappear in the blink of an eye, giving way to the very sudden arrival of the Scientific Revolution, which then almost immediately becomes the Industrial Revolution. All of it portends a clean and happy consumer future of unbounded freedom and possibility.”
Disney history may be imaginative, creative, and attractive, but it is a fabricated history.
In addition to reading Cunningham, I have spent the last several days reading works on the Cambridge Platonists and seventeenth-century latitudinarian theologians: Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Peter Sterry (1613-72), George Rust (d.1670), John Wilkins (1614-72), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), John Smith (1618-52), John Worthington (1618-71), Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-51), Simon Patrick (1626-1707), John Tilloston (1630-94), Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99), Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), John Norris (1657-1711), and Richard Cumberland (1631-1718). Peter Harrison has provided extensive comments on these figures in his Religion and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990), The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), and The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The Cambridge Platonists attempted to “establish some final court of appeal on matters of religious doctrine” against the rising religious pluralism in the aftermath of the English Reformation. They did this by grounding religious belief not in institutional authority but in the “certitude of the mind itself.” Their religion was a “rational religion.” Although each held a strong view of “reason,” the Cambridge Platonists continued to take the doctrine of the Fall quite seriously.
In addition to Harrison, I have found Jackson I. Cope’s Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist (1956), C.A. Patrides’ The Cambridge Platonists (1969), Richard S. Westfall’s Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1970), and Jon Parkin’s Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England (1999) helpful in contextualizing the lives and thought of these men.
Studying the Cambridge Plantonists has quite naturally led me to the so-called English deists: Charles Blount (1654-93), Matthew Tindal (1656-1733), Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1679-1729), Thomas Morgan (d.1743), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and Peter Annet (1693-1769). This is how I came across Wayne Hudson‘s insightful two volume work, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (2009) and Enlightenment and Modernity: The English Deists and Reform (2009).
Hudson points out that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians looked back on this group of thinkers as attempting to “undermine belief in revealed religion, while claiming to believe in natural religion.” We see this, for example, in John Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers (1754-6) and Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth century (1876). This pattern of interpretation, a paradigm of belief and unbelief, has now become common parlance. Hudson, however, seeks to challenge this interpretation.
According to Hudson, “the writers known as English deists were not atheists or deists in an exclusive or final sense, but controversialists working with various publics for a range of purposes in a period in which ‘the public’ was being constructed.” There were “multiple deisms” and multiple social roles in which each figure was active. Most of the so-called English deists in fact denied that sobriquet. As Hudson writes: “Blount used the term ‘deist,’ but not of himself. Toland denied all his life that he was a deist. Collins used it only once in print, and then of others. Tindal never claimed in print to be a deist, although he outlined the stance of a ‘Christian deist,’ a position also adopted by Morgan. Chubb admitted that he was trying to promote deism, but refused to call himself a deist in a sense exclusive of Christianity, while Woolston and Middleton claimed to be trying to defend Christianity against ‘the deists.'” This is consistent with the fact that most of the English deists were “constrained by livelihood or social role to be Christians, and some of them were obliged to maintain a level of involvement with the established Church.”
The claim that the English deists were religious rationalists is also challenged. Religious rationalism begins with Richard Hooker’s (1554-1600) Of Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593), in which he insisted that reason could know the law of God without revelation. The Cambridge Platonists supported another form of religious rationalism, one informed by patristic and scholastic sources, as well as Renaissance Platonism. But like Hooker, they were all supernaturalists who found salvation only in revelation. And finally the latitudinarians articulated a “reasonable version of Christianity in plain language,” yet continued to hold a high Christology.
Although these writers certainly impacted the English deists, and many of them quoted the Cambridge Platonists consistently in their own writings, it is “misleading,” writes Hudson, to suggest that the deists “simply took the latitudinarians’ principles one step further.” Indeed, the English deists “almost all rejected Athanasian Christianity, in so far as it treated God as a person to whom human beings had obligations.”
Although the English deists are often associated with the Enlightenment, Hudson claims this association also needs revision. There are three forms of Enlightenment that must be distinguished: the Protestant Enlightenment, Radical Enlightenment, and Early Enlightenment. As Hudson argues, “if these writers had really been the outright enemies of Christianity they were accused of being, they would have lost their jobs and ended in prison.” Moreover, “they were not free citizens of an international secular republic of letters, but writers dependent on Christian acceptance and toleration, without which it was difficult for them to pay their bills and buy books.”
In his first chapter, Hudson provides the “genealogies of deism,” concluding that “whereas in Catholic countries deism was more clandestine and sometimes aggressively anti-Christian, in Protestant countries thinkers might interest themselves in various deisms without abandoning Christianity or their social and political identities as Protestants.”
In the following chapter on Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), often referred to as the “father of English deism,” Hudson argues that Herbert was a “Renaissance eclectic influenced by Platonism, Stoicism and Hermeticism.” He was likely influenced by the theistic naturalism of Jean Bodin (c.1529-96), and many of his contemplates viewed his work on religion as ecumenical, particularly his De Veritate (1624), De Religione Gentilium (1663), and De Religione Laici (1645). Indeed, his work was sympathetically read by Rust, Whichcote, More, Culverwell, and Cudworth. But Herbert’s work was undoubtedly more radical than the Cambridge Platonists, for his “natural theology was more extensive and more certain than the modest conclusions of Christian natural theology.” And as Hudson explains, Herbert also “rejected any idea of original sin and believed in a compassionate God and in the goodness of human beings.”
Hebert was also apparently interested in magic, medicine, and occult philosophy. Hudson bases these claims on two untranslated Latin poems Herbert supposedly composed, A Philosophical Disquisition on Human Life and On the Heavenly Life. Hudson includes these poems in an Appendix.
The remaining chapters of The English Deists discuss the standard list of English deists, but with much qualification. Blount, for example, is said to have combined classicism, multiple deisms, and borrowed heavily from free-thought and Protestantism alike. Toland promoted enlightenment attitudes and practices but retained some version of classical theistic naturalism. Collins, who called for toleration of a great diversity of views, included rational Christianity in his new social epistemology. Tindal, a lawyer and civil philosopher, promoted the theology of Protestant liberal thought, and did not challenge orthodoxy directly until the end of his life. As Hudson remarks in his conclusion, “until at least the 1720s, the main task [of the deists] was to attack ‘priestcraft’ and the High Church party and to argue for the liberty of belief and opinion.” The English deists were constrained in thought and activity by the Early Enlightenment, and therefore must be read in the context of the Protestant Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.
Themes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title.
What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like many others in his day, Newton was a philosopher of nature rather than a scientist. According to Cunningham, Newton derived his natural philosophy from German physician and natural philosopher Johann Magirus (c.1560-96), particularly his Physiologia peripatetica of 1597. What was unique about Newton’s natural philosophy was his introduction of new mathematical principles. Other than that, he continued the traditional role of the natural philosopher. And this is what Cunningham wants to draw our attention to: “that over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy off from modern science…natural philosophy was about God and about God’s universe.”
Cunningham admits that he is doing nothing new by emphasizing Newton’s theology. By the early 1990s, many scholars had already pointed out Newton’s unique and voluminous theological musings. But many historians of science continue to characterize natural philosophers as religious men in a religious age doing “science.” But this is a mistake. The point Cunningham wants to make in this essay is that, by contrast, the projects of natural philosophers were always “about God and His creation, because that is what the point of natural philosophy as a discipline and subject was.” Indeed, “each and every variety of natural philosophy that was put forward was an argument for particular and specific views of God.” Reiterating his point from the previous essay, Cunningham claims that “modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as God’s creation.”
Newton, therefore, cannot be turned into a “scientist.” He was motivated, for example, to create a natural philosophy against the perceived atheism of Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) natural philosophy. Indeed, Newton had clearly informed Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in 1692 that “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work wth considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” And, in responding to to Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) condemnation that his own work was atheistical or materialist, Newton published his General Scholium in the second edition of the Principia, where he explicitly claimed that discourse about God “certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”
Thus, according to Cunningham, Newton’s wasn’t a religious thinker in a religious age doing “science”; rather, “religious attitudes went into constituting each and every variety of natural philosophy, because natural philosophy was itself about God and His universe.”
When natural philosophy and natural philosophers of the seventeenth centuries are taken seriously, certain important consequences follow. First, according to Cunningham, figures such as Newton distinguished between natural philosophy, which deals with God and His universe (the book of nature), and religion, which deals with revelation (the book of scripture). Secondly, natural theology cannot be the same as natural philosophy; rather, natural theology derived its arguments from the findings of natural philosophy. Thirdly, the question now arises: “when and why people stopped looking for God in nature”? Cunningham does not provide an answer. He simply poses the question for future studies. And finally, we need a better understanding of the meaning of scientia, or “science” in the seventeenth century. Since Cunningham’s essay, many scholars have done just this. Most recently, Peter Harrison has traced the history of the concepts of both “science” and “religion” in his The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).
Sixteenth and seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not merely concerned with God and His creation. “The ‘scientific’ work of particular natural philosophers,” Cunningham writes, was not merely “theologically or religious concerned or informed.” Rather, natural philosophy as such was “a discipline and subject-area whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.” Anyone who took up the practice of natural philosophy had “God in mind.”
Over the weekend I came across Andrew Cunningham’s collection of essays in The Identity of the History of Science and Medicine (2012). I had briefly mentioned Cunningham in an older post, but for heuristic purposes I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of his arguments here.
Beginning in 1988, Cunningham published an essay on “Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science.” In this essay he asks whether the historian of science is “studying the right subject?” That is, when the historian sets out to study the history of science, is she or he properly equipped to identify science in the past? The short answer Cunningham posits is no: historians of science have failed to properly identify the nature of science. As such, we also fail to properly understand its history. “It follows,” he writes, “that if we get it wrong—if we are identifying the wrong thing as science—we will be writing myths, hallucinations and romances which can only purport to be a history of science: we will be writing accounts of events which may not have happened, and of the adventures of a something which may well not have existed.” In other words, understanding the nature of this thing we call “science” is absolutely essential—otherwise we are just creating myths.
The source of this error, Cunningham claims, is “that we are actually taking to our investigation a ready-prepared set of finding guides to identify past science.” These guides or assumptions determines (i.e. dictates) what we consider “science” in the past—indeed, it determines all the history that we write. But this is clearly arbitrary, if not entirely mistaken. In short, our conception of “what science is” is absolutely critical.
When we take our modern criteria for “what counts as science” and apply it to the past, we ignore a host of historical complexities and contingencies. Cunningham and others have labeled this attitude as “present-centredness,” when we “look at the past with both eyes in the present.” This is a projection of present concepts back onto intellectuals of the past. Cunningham argues that historians of science need to “get out of the present.”
To overcome our “present-centredness,” historians of science need to remove certain obstacles hindering our view of the past. The first, Cunningham tells us, is our belief in the inherent “specialness of science.” This is difficult, no doubt, as “science, its claims and achievements, totally dominate our modern outlook. The world we live in, the physical, the technological, and the intellectual world, id deeply pervaded and affected by the presence of science and scientists.” Although I disagree with Cunningham’s claim here (it seems to me that our modern outlook is pervaded by the belief in science rather than science), for the sake of the argument we will assume he is correct. Now, because science has become so pervasive, we take for granted certain claims about the nature of science. The most obvious example, that it is “objective.” But according to Cunningham, this commitment to “objectivity” in science prevents us from raising a “single question about the nature of science, or about the appropriate shape of a valid history of science.” Thus our “present-centredness” has already settled its history, shaping “the past of science to our own preconceptions about the nature and importance of science—preconceptions which are derived from the present”!
This is quite the dilemma. What do we as historians of science do? First we need to realize that the very “specialness of science” needs to be investigated. That is, why do we put so much faith in science? Secondly, we need to put this “specialness” completely aside. If we do not do this, Cunningham says, “we will simply be writing self-serving and self-confirming history, from which all properly historical questions have been refused application.” Indeed, our commitment to the “specialness of science” has prevented us from “treating the history of science historically” (my emphasis).
Cunningham purposes some solutions. First, science must be viewed as a “human activity, a human practice.” Science, in other words, is an invented institution. “Everything about the doing of science, everything about its practice, is a human activity, wholly a human activity, and nothing but a human activity.” Secondly, we must resist the urge to make science a “non-human-activity,” to make it, in other words, about “ideas” or “knowledge.” By making it about “ideas” or “knowledge,” we reify “science,” or, even more radically, deify it. But this of course is entirely an abstraction. Instead, the history of science is “centrally about people, about people engaged (or not) in that activity, about how and why they started that activity for themselves to engage in, about how they pursued, changed or abandoned that activity over time, [and] about how their pursuit of that activity affected the way they pursued other activities.”
Cunningham then compares the human activity of science to a game. Like games, science is intentional, structured and disciplined; it has a point and has rules; you either participate in it or you do not; it is indiscriminate, no matter who plays it; the experts are the only skilled players; and it is invented. Comparing science to a game, Cunningham admits, sounds almost sacrilegious. And there is actually a good, historical reason for this.
If the practice of science is an intentional activity, then those who engage in science must have had a “concept of science as an activity they could engage in.” This seems obvious, but many miss what follows: “if a given person in the past did not have or could no have had the concept of science as something to engage in, then he could not possibly have been doing science.” In short, we must let past actors speak for themselves, we must “see things their way.” What was their description of their own activity? In short, we must reconstruct their activity “with the extension, boundaries, aims, typical products that that activity had for its practitioners.”
So, how did people of the past practice “science”? Well, they described this practice not as “science” but as “philosophy” or “natural philosophy.” Whether it was “anatomy” or “chemistry,” each “science” was a sub-discipline of Natural Philosophy. In fact, according to Cunningham, no one called such activities “science” until as late as the 1800s. By the late eighteenth century, however, the intentional human activity of natural philosophy was beginning to be displaced by another human activity, and this activity is “science” as we know it today. So at one point in history, we had two activities, with some overlap: natural philosophy and science. And as Cunningham perceptively points out, “in the games of Natural Philosophy and Science, although both deal with the natural world, and both produce a ‘product’ (i.e. findings or statements about Nature), yet what counts as an appropriate product in the one may well differ from what counts as an appropriate product in the other.”
But what, then, was natural philosophy? How did our historical figures describe and understood their own intentional activity? Whatever their answer, we must take seriously. This is what it means to “get out of the present.” When we do this, we discover that the “single greatest difference between Natural Philosophy and Science is that Natural Philosophy was an enterprise which was about God; Science by contrast is an enterprise which (virtually by definition) is not about God.” According to the natural philosophers, Cunningham argues, nature was the book of God’s works. Thus natural philosophy was the “exploration of God’s creation and an admiration of His wisdom and foresight”; it was the “attempt to discover God’s laws, or an attempt to penetrate the mind of God.” Natural philosophy, in short, was “about God’s achievements, God’s intentions, God’s purposes, [and] God’s messages to man.”
It is important to stress that Cunningham’s argument is about human practices and their intentionality. As we shall see later, many of Cunningham’s critics miss this very crucial point in his argument.
In the final section of his essay, Cunningham draws our attention to the period c.1780-c.1850, when our modern conception of “science” was first invented. By using the term “invented,” Cunningham simply means the fact that science is a practice and creation of men. The invention of “science,” Cunningham argues, was causally inter-related to the massive political, social, intellectual, and economic changes of the period. The discipline of the history of science was also invented during this same period, in the early nineteenth century. “The inventors of science and their immediate successors,” he claims, “unselfconsciously rewrote the past in a way which showed themselves to be the heirs to a grand tradition.” When historians of science began writing histories of the “inductive” sciences, or histories of “biology,” “geology,” “chemistry,” or “physics,” such historians “gave science itself a new identity.” They separated the human practice from the concept. That is, “they separated the thought—the ‘idea’—from the thinker.” Ideas, in others words, became autonomous concepts, detached from the lives and practices of their creators. This is of course is what has often been called “whiggish” history.
But there is more. According to Cunningham, science was “invented at the very same time and places in which the bourgeoisie triumphed politically and where industrial capitalism first became the dominant mode of economic production.” Just as capitalism separates the product of man’s labor from the human process, nineteenth-century histories of science separated ideas from their human producers. Cunningham claims this was no mere coincidence. The “scientist” became a “genius,” an “intellectual entrepreneur, engaged in a risky enterprise against great odds; we are in his debt, and hence his ‘originality’ deserves the proper credit.”
But “as long as we write the history of science as the history of discrete ‘ideas,'” Cunningham concludes, “we not only continue to misrepresent the identity of the subject whose history we claim to be studying, but we are also perpetuating the illusions and values that were built into the invention of science itself.”
James A. Secord closes his Visions of Science (2014) with an Epilogue, concluding that the early decades of the nineteenth century was a “period of projections, projects, and prophesies, of attempts to imagine the future.” This was the promise of the new science. The technological innovations in printing, publication, and distribution diffused the message of the new prophets widely. But this new knowledge had a life of its own, and both Tories and radicals feared it. The Tories feared its ramification on traditional values; the radicals feared it would ultimately distract the worker from his political plight.
In any event, according to Secord the “secular millennium of useful knowledge trumpeted by Brougham in 1825 never arrived.” While the utopia quickly faded, a new prophetic ethos emerged, which “fed into a deeper and more lasting current of belief in progress.” Every author Secord discusses assumed that science “revealed the laws instituted by divine providence that underpinned the material and spiritual advance of civilization.” This is worth reflection. To these men and women, God had bestowed upon Britain a divine commission to “spread enlightenment across the globe.” They had a powerful vision of progress, and they used the new science to support it. Indeed, the new science need not lead to atheism or materialism. The metascientific works of the nineteenth century engaged the reader to reflect on “scientific law, the uniformity of nature, and divine goodness” simultaneously.
However, this rhetorical strategy was remarkably altered a generation later. The scientific naturalists retained the metaphysical belief in progress, but left out the doctrine of divine providence of Christian tradition. Another generation later, men and women now pay obeisance to scientists themselves.
Secord’s Visions of Science is readable, engaging, and informative. It is written however for a popular audience, with large text, spacing, and margins, encouraging annotations. Even the physical appearance of the book is inviting, the grey jacket cover going well with a black case cloth and red endpaper. His footnotes cite well-known authors, which provides guidance for further investigation. Some specialists will undoubtedly find faults and something to criticize. But it should be obvious at the outset that Secord pursued an non-specialist audience. A helpful Chronology follows the Epilogue, marking important political events and works published from 1819 to 1837. A guide to Further Reading follows, with classic and more recent works on science in nineteenth-century Britain. The work is printed on cheap paper, though, which made annotating difficult even with a fine round stic pen. There are also some embarrassing typos, such as, for example, when Secord writes “Book of Revelations” and “though” when he obviously meant “Book of Revelation” and “through.” This is surprise coming from editors of Oxford University Press.
These criticisms notwithstanding, James Secord has produced an important book. Both specialist and non-specialist will benefit from its insight and analysis of influential, early nineteenth-century popularizers of science.
Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857), in his The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), proclaimed his era as “distinguished from every preceding age by an universal ardour of enterprise in arts and manufactures.” And of all the nations, “Great Britain may certainly continue to uphold her envied supremacy, sustained by her coal, iron, capital, and skill, if, acting on the Baconian axiom, ‘Knowledge is Power,’ she shall diligently promote moral and professional culture among all the ranks of her productive population.” He praised the “physico-mechanical” philosophy for all the blessings it has bestowed on society, “ameliorating the lot of mankind.” The manufacturer, through his factory of machines, and through the manipulation of nature, has produced “articles of necessity, convenience, or luxury, by the most economical and unerring means.” Ure compared the factory “to the muscular, the nervous, and the sanguiferous systems of an animal.” The machine has replaced the human. “Machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand,” he writes, “dispenses entirely with manual labour.”
Ure’s enthusiasm for the “Iron Man,” the great industrial and manufacturing revolution of the early decades of the nineteenth century, was shared by many. But there is another side to the story, of course. The factory was also the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s 1808 poem. Hell had risen, with fog, mud, nightmare, darkness, and squalor, and engulfed the earth. Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), British Tory MP and evangelical Anglican, decried the sorry lot of the factory worker, especially children. He put together a committee to investigate the poor conditions of the factories. He was awarded with much resistance from Whig politicians, who put together their own committee to investigate the findings of Sadler’s committee! The plight of the poor was no match for ideas of progress.
In his last chapter, James Secord explores the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who, in his well-known Sartor Resartus, serialized in Fraser’s Magazine from 1833-34, and published in a single volume in 1838, satirized men of science and their ideas and hopes of progress. Carlyle appears to be an odd selection in a book that discusses the work of science popularizers such as Davy, Babbage, Herschel, Somerville, Lyell, and Combe. But it is a fitting end, for Carlyle’s writings influenced—perhaps unexpectedly—the next generation of the men of science, the scientific naturalists.
Sartor begins by asking why, in a “our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about,” why has “little or nothing of the fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes” (my emphasis). This was, of course, ironical. The author digresses into the great advances of science, declaring that “to many Royal Society, the Creation of a World is little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling.” Indeed, he goes on, “Man’s whole life and environment have been laid open and elucidated; scarcely a fragment or fibre of his Soul, Body, and Possessions, but has been probed, dissected, distilled, dessicated, and scientifically decomposed: our spiritual Faculties, of which it appears there are not a few, have their Stewarts, Cousins, Royer Collards: every cellular, vascular, muscular Tissue glories in its Lawrences, Majendies, Bichats.” All this deep and glorious scientific work, and yet no science of clothes!
But there is hope, for “Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid.” While the Philosophy of Clothes languishes among the English, there is a man in Germany, a Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“god-born devil-dung”) of Weissnichtwo (“know-not-where”), who has published a treatise expressly on the subject, Die Kleider, ihr Werden un Wirken (“Clothes, their Origin and Influence). Kindly, Teufelsdröckh has sent a copy of this work to the present editor and narrator of Sartor. The rest of Sartor discusses the “difficulties,” “reminiscences,” and “characteristics” of Die Kleider.
According to Secord, Sartor is a parody, an ironic “inversion of the reflective scientific treatises that flourished around 1830,” an ad absurdam extension of mechanical philosophy as another author puts it. Many commentators have pointed out the similarities between Carlyle’s Sartor and Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Tale of a Tub (1704) or Gulliver’s Travels (1726). But as Secord notes, although Carlyle indeed drew from these genres, he only did so “to undermine them, to demonstrate the impossibility of drawing sharp lines between different literary forms.” But of all literary forms, Carlyle unremittingly mocks the literature of scientific reflection. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, in the American edition of Sartor (Boston, 1837): “the manifest design of the work…is, a Criticism upon the Spirit of the Age,—we had almost said, of the hour, in which we live; exhibiting, in the most just and novel light, the present aspects of Religion, Politics, Literature, Arts, and Social Life.” It is a work, he continues, which will find its “way to the heart of every lover of virtue.”
Most contemporary readers, however, were confused by the work. At times prolix, paradoxical, and personal, many readers were puzzled and even angered by Carlyle’s mockery of Whiggism, with its talk of “Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like.” Indeed, talk of the progress of science “finds small favour with Teufelsdröckh.”
In a chapter entitled “Natural Supernaturalism,” Carlyle calls for the “birth of a spiritually vital science that would release the human potential for action.” Here the “editor” discusses how Teufelsdröckh’s Philosophy of Clothes has attained “transcendentalism.” Teufelsdröckh asks whether a miracle is simply a violation of the Laws of Nature? But what, exactly, are the Laws of Nature? They are the fixed, unalterable rule of the Universe. But Sartor asks, “What those same unalterable rules, forming the complete Statute-Book of Nature, may be possibly be?
They stand written in our Works of Science, say you; in the accumulated records of Man’s Experience?—Was Man with his Experience present at the Creation, then, to see how it all went on? Have any deepest scientific individuals yet dived down to the foundations of the Universe, and gauged everything there? Did the Maker take them into His counsel; that they read His ground-plan of the incomprehensible All; and can say, This stands marked therein, and no more than this? Alas, not in anywise! These scientific individuals have been nowhere but where we also are; have seen some hand breadths deeper than we see into the Deep that is infinite, without bottom as without shore.
Laplace’s Book on the Stars, wherein he exhibits that certain Planets, with their Satellites, gyrate round our worthy Sun, at a rate and in a course, which, by greatest good fortune, he and the like of him have succeeded in detecting,—is to me as precious as to another. But is this what thou namest ‘Mechanism of the Heavens,’ and ‘System of the World'; this, wherein Sirius and the Pleiades, and all Herschel’s Fifteen thousand Suns per minute, being left out, some paltry handful of Moons, and inert Balls, had been—looked at, nick-named, and marked in the Zodiacal Way-bill; so that we can now prate of their Whereabout; their How, their Why, their What, being hid from us, as in the signless Inane?
System of Nature! To the wisest man, wide as is his vision, Nature remains of quite infinite depth, of quite infinite expansion; and all Experience thereof limits itself to some few computed centuries and measured square-miles. The course of Nature’s phases, on this our little fraction of a Planet, is partially known to us: but who knows what deeper courses these depend on; what infinitely larger Cycle (of causes) our little Epicycle revolves on? To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through AEons of AEons.
We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is,—whose Author and Writer is God. To read it! Dost thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? With its Words, Sentences, and grand descriptive Pages, poetical and philosophical, spread out through Solar Systems, and Thousands of Years, we shall not try thee. It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes, and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and, from amid the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out, by dexterous combination, some Letters in the vulgar Character, and therefrom put together this and the other economic Recipe, of high avail in Practice. That Nature is more than some boundless Volume of such Recipes, or huge, well-nigh inexhaustible Domestic-Cookery Book, of which the whole secret will in this manner one day evolve itself, the fewest dream.
There is an obvious and quite deliberate echo of God’s response to Job in the Hebrew Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38.4-7).
Lest we think Carlyle a Luddite or anti-scientific, we should recall, as Secord reminds us, that he excelled in mathematics while at the University of Edinburgh; indeed his first job was teaching mathematics at Annan Academy, a preparatory school for boys in Scotland. He was also a paid assistant of David Brewster (1781-1868), one of the founding members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Carlyle’s ability to mock the developing traditions of scientific writing,” Secord writes, “drew on long experience of teaching, translating, and reviewing.”
Carlyle had become disillusioned from with contemporary science at a young age. In an 1822 article he had written for Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia on the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Carlyle ridiculed Pascal’s famous calculator as “a wonderful but useless proof of its author’s ingenuity.” When he began pursuing studies in mineralogy, Carlyle was introduced to the work of Goethe, Schelling, and other writers of German Romanticism. Against the utilitarian philosophies of British thinkers, Carlyle was enraptured dynamic Naturphilosophie. He came to see mechanics as limited, “focused on applications, and based on experiment and observation; dynamics was primary, vital, and grounded in intuition.” Carlyle saw a need to reform natural philosophy once again, for contemporary philosophers and mathematicians were “turning so-called ‘useful knowledge’ into a Pascal-like engine for the mechanical transformation of every area of life.” This “mechanization” was the “Signs of the Times,” and it will drastically and poisonously alter every aspect of society.
Secord transitions from Sartor to the wider context to help us better grasp Carlyle’s denigration of the “Age of Machinery.” At the urging of Lord Brougham, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 with the concerted goal of communicating every piece of “useful” information available to the working classes. But according to Carlyle, the “world of bookselling and publishing was as completely corrupted by mechanism as the rest of British society.” He mocked the SDUK in an 1833 article in Fraser’s Magazine. Fraser’s was known its satirical bite, for railing “against the utopian impracticality of schemes for universal education.” According to Secord, every “issue had articles mocking radicals and the reforming Whigs, especially their support for utilitarian political economy.” The new learning would only distract the worker. Ultimately, these aspirations were impractical. Worse yet, the new learning would endanger traditional values, “the schoolmaster peddling reason could be succeeded by the demagogue preaching irreligion and democracy.” In short, a periodical like Fraser’s was an ideal place for Carlyle to publish his Sartor.
In his call to reform science, Carlyle’s Sartor “became a spiritual guide for thousands of readers in Europe and America, especially [Secord tells us] young men in search of a creed to replace traditional Christianity.” The high calling of the man of science appealed, for example, to readers like Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall. Both Huxley and Tyndall rejected materialism as a philosophy of life: “The evolution of matter and of life need not lead to a world devoid of spirit and governed solely by material processes.” As Sartor declares, the new men of science could “stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower,” a truly “spiritual observatory.”