The Secularization of the European Mind

A popular mind, even when that mind is middle class…has a need to inflate if it is to understand. It seizes upon a salient point; the point which is easy to identify; the point which is graphic, can be pictured; the point which a newspaper can make readable. In seizing upon the salient point it distorts, casts the environment into shadow, forgets nuances and qualification, and inflates…we must label and isolate, because only so do we understand; and we overlook that what are really being opposed are knowledge in the seventeenth century versus knowledge in the nineteenth century.

This quote is taken from Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1993, 1995, 2000). He argues that when Victorian scientists opposed religion it was out of a variety of motives that were seldom directly related to the content of their science. Chadwick also focuses on the way in which historical knowledge challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible in the nineteenth century. But, argues Chadwick, the public, sensitized by positivist views, failed to male such distinctions and was inclined to see every challenge to religious orthodoxy as scientific.

I read Chadwick’s work years ago, long before I decided to become a historian of science. I was reminded by his work while reading Richard Olson’s Science and Scientisim in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), which I will review in a future post. I will be reading both in conjunction and when finished I will post another double review.

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