John Tyndall, the Pantheist

John Tyndall’s Belfast Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 has been said to be the “chief pronouncement of materialism of the nineteenth century.”

But according to Ruth Barton’s “John Tyndall, Pantheist: A Rereading of the Belfast Address” (1987), Tyndall was an admirer of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, leading representatives of idealist philosophy. As Frank Turner has shown, in “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), Tyndall’s attraction to idealism, although something of a paradox, consisted more than just an appeal to its social theory; it also included an appeal to its metaphysics. “The Belfast Address,” Barton argues, “was a conscious and deliberate attempt by Tyndall to set scientific ‘materialism’ in the larger context of natural supernaturalism” of figures such as Carlyle, Emerson, and Fichte. Indeed, Tyndall often qualified his views on materialism, asserting that it cannot be “a complete philosophy of life,” and warning his listeners that “the ‘materialism’ here professed may be vastly different from what you suppose.”

In the first section of this paper Barton provides some insightful comments regarding the British Association and the context for its meeting in Belfast. A later post will specifically address this, along with Barton’s other essays, “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990), and “Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others”: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864″ (1998). Here the focus is on Barton’s comments on the Belfast Address and Tyndall’s idealist and pantheist beliefs.

At its core, “the Belfast Address was an argument for the adequacy of materialism as a philosophy of science.” But this materialism must be seen in the context of other recurring themes in the address, including “wonder,” “religious awe,” “artistic creativity,” “sexual passion”; in other words, human feelings. While the first part of the address introduces the atomic theories of the ancients, in the second part Tyndall argues that “the mind’s capacity to form clear, coherent pictures of physical conceptions is the basis of theory formation in science. Such a picture is called Vorstellung in German, and the act of picturing, vorstellen. The closet English translation is ‘imagination.'” Interestingly enough, Tyndall uses the example of Giordano Bruno rather than Copernicus as marking the end of the so-called “stationary period” in science. According to Tyndall, Bruno came close to “our present line of thought” in pondering the problem of life. Following the work of Friedrich A. Lange’s The History of Materialism and Criticism of Its Present Importance (first published in 1865), Tyndall writes

Nature, in her productions,  does not imitate the technic of man. Her process is one of  unravelling  and unfolding. The infinity  of forms under which matter appears was not imposed upon it by an external artificer;  by its own intrinsic  force and virtue it brings these forms forth. Matter is not the mere naked, empty capacity which philosophers have pictured her to be, but the universal mother, who brings forth all things as the fruit of her own womb.

Through such anthropomorphism of the “universal mother,” Tyndall presents matter as having the capacity for life.

The “analytic tendency” of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, says Tyndall, explained the motion of matter by “a detached Creator, working more or less after the manner of men.” By contrast, Goethe, Carlyle, and other “men of warm feelings” with “minds open to the elevating impressions produced by nature as a whole, whose satisfaction, therefore, is rather ethical than logical,” usually adopt “some form of pantheism.” In his concluding remarks, Tyndall asserts:

Believing, as I do, in the continuity  of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered  and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental  evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial.

Introducing epistemological arguments from John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Tyndall concludes that “we cannot know the real nature of the external world, although there is no doubt as to its existence: ‘Our states of consciousness are mere symbols of an outside entity which produces them and determines the order of their succession, but the real nature of which we can never know.’ All—the nature of matter, the evolution of life, of species, and of mind—is inscrutable mystery.”

According to Barton, Tyndall sought unity between objective knowledge and moral and emotional nature. Tyndall found this unity “not in materialism but in a cosmical life that is manifested in both matter and mind, thought and emotion.”

Yet in the polarized popular debate of the 1870s, Protestant and Catholic defenders of orthodox Christianity saw the Belfast Address as an attack. As Bernard Lightman as shown more recently in “Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address,” in Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds.) Science Serialized: Representation of Sciences in the Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (2004), “through the periodical press, a concerted effort was made to transform Tyndall’s image in the public eye from the respected popular lecturer well known to genteel audiences at the Royal Institution into the aggressive and radical materialist.”

But according to Barton, Tyndall’s “materialism was located within a broader idealist metaphysic.” In saying that his conclusions were the same as Bruno, adding a footnote in the printed version of the address  reminding the reader that “Bruno was a ‘Pantheist,’ not an ‘Atheist’ or a ‘Materialist,'” Tyndall was claiming for himself the title of “Pantheist.” But more than labels, Tyndall’s arguments and concepts show patterns belonging to “romantic idealism,” writes Barton. In romanticism a new conception of nature was central, where qualities traditionally attributed to God are now found in nature. “The divine is immanent in the world, and…the world is the garment of God.” The true religion is a “sense of dependence on, participation in, or union with the great universal life.”

“These aspects of idealism,” Barton claims, “are all found in Tyndall’s writings.” Besides the Belfast Address, Tyndall’s personal philosophy is also recorded in his journal and correspondence between is protégé, friend, and member of the “X-Club” Thomas Hirst. In a journal entry marked 1847, for example, Tyndall, on reading Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Presrnt and Chartism, commented, “His position is sometimes startling—to many he will appear impious…I however thank the gods for having flung him as a beacon to guide me amid life’s entanglements.” And after reading Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Tyndall recorded: “the writer must be a true hero. My feelings toward him are those of worship [or] transcendent wonder’ as he defines it.” But Carlyle’s ideas were one among many that Tyndall subscribed to. In 1848, after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tyndall subsequently bought his works. Later in the year he also bought Fichte’s Characteristics of the Age, and in October he began reading romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel. In a later speech to his pupils at Queenwood, Tyndall described his time studying these authors as a religious purpose: “It was not merely to understand physical laws, for ‘what are sun, stars, science, chemistry, geology, mathematics, but pages of a book whose author is God! I want to know the meaning of this book, to penetrate the spirit of this author and if I fail then are my scientific attainments apple rinds without a core.'” Reading Kant, Schlegel, Fichte, Emerson, and Carlyle, and many others was part of Tyndall’s continuing search for the meaning of the whole.

Following Schlegel, Tyndall claimed that “God does not allow his existence to be proved…[It] must be adopted with the vividness of feeling.” Writing to Hirst, Tyndall said he considered Emerson and Carlyle to be pantheists “in the highest sense”:

I dropped an hour ago upon a very significant  passage in the Sartor. ‘Is there no God then, but at best an absentee God sitting idle ever since the first Sabbath at the outside of his Universe and seeing it go?’ At the ‘outside‘ of his universe. I imagine Carlyle’s entire creed is folded in this sentence…With Carlyle the universe is the blood and bones of Jehovah—he climbs in the sap of trees and falls in cataract.

Tyndall declared William Paley’s God in Natural Theology no better than atheism. Indeed, as Barton puts it, Tyndall “preferred the organic analogy of the universe as a tree to the mechanical analogy of the universe as clock.”

During the twenty years before the Belfast Address, Tyndall was far from materialism. In a number of essays and speeches, however, he elaborated on materialism and its limits, for the materialist debates were raging in places such as Germany. Although he began formulating his own version of materialism and determinism during these years, Tyndall consistently “assured his hearers that the matter of which he spoke was not the matter described by theologians and philosophers; rather, matter is ‘essentially mystical and transcendental,'” and “science, by its limitations, maintained mystery.”

Barton concludes that “Tyndall, like Huxley, Hermann con Helmholtz, and [Friedrich A.] Lange, advocated materialism as a methodology, a program, or a maxim of scientific research, but not as a general philosophy” of life.


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