Visions of Science: John Herschel

In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage ushered in the authority of astronomer John F.W. Herschel (1792-1871) as testimony that science in England was in decline. In a footnote to his article on “Sound” in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817-45), Herschel lamented about the “crude and undigested scientific matter” found in English scientific journals. He complained that there were “whole branches of continental discovery” that remained “unstudied, and indeed almost unknown, even by name” among English scientists. Babbage had sent a draft manuscript to Herschel of his Decline of Science in 1830. And although he agreed with Babbage’s reforming goals, he nevertheless recommended that he “burn it, or rewrite it.” According to Secord, Babbage had “blazoned” Herschel’s footnote, “as testimony that science was in a bad way.” But Herschel so deeply regretted this association to the declinist position that, after reading the draft, he told Babbage that “if I were near you and could do it without hurting your and thought you would not return it with interest I would give you a good slap in the face.”

John Herschel
A wild-eyed John Herschel late in life

John Herschel is the next key figure in Secord’s Visions of Science (2014). Herschel wanted to see science reformed just as much as Babbage did, “but feared the execution in Decline a disaster from which it would be difficult for science to recover any shred of reputation.” This was not simply because he hated public controversy; rather, he saw science as a “conduct to everyday life.” In this sense, Babbage’s polemical writing lacked the qualities and character of the true man of science.

Secord begins by pointing out that Herschel’s most well-known work, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) was unlike any other philosophical treatise published at the time. “Given its low price and large sales,” he says, “readers of the Preliminary Discourse were far more likely to have used it as a conduct manual” (my emphasis). According to Secord, “conduct manuals gave instructions, not only about table etiquette and topics for conservation, but also about good character and appropriate mode of thinking.” As Herschel and many others saw it, “science was pervasively bound up with defining and maintaining canons of behaviour, from cultivating appropriate modes for discussion to encouraging the avoidance of outright fraud.” Indeed, science could “now provide a foundation for good character across the social spectrum.”

The book’s “material form,” as Secord puts it, supports his claim. The Preliminary Discourse was published by Longman for Dionysius Lardner’s “Cabinet Cyclopaedia,” and modeled from other encyclopedic “preliminary discourses,” such as Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s (1717-83) Encyclopédie of the eighteenth century, the Britannica (1771), Ree’s Cyclopaedia (1802), the Edinburg Encyclopaedia (1808), and the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817). Further, it was a small book: machine printed, on lower quality paper, with stereotyping, bounded with glazed pink calico cloth over boards made of card, and sold for six shillings. Further still, Herschel modestly presented himself on the title pages as simply “John Frederick William Herschel, Esp., A.M., Late Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, &c. &C &c,” without, as Secord aptly puts it, “an ‘ostentatious parade’ of honours and societies trailing in its wake.” The Preliminary Discourse sold well and was translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Russian.

Secord argues that the Preliminary Discourse emerged from the debates surrounding the decline of science, particularly in regards to the Royal Society. For Herschel conduct was central. “If Decline, with its polemical tone and political edge, was an example of how not to behave, the Preliminary Discourse could offer a model for the actions of the ideal seeker of after truth.” Indeed, as Secord perceptively points out, Herschel had accepted Lardner’s commission in February 1830; Babbage sent his daft manuscript in March 1830; and Herschel wrote most of the book in the summer of 1830, “immediately after the clashes over Babbage’s book.” In short, the Preliminary Discourse was a “quietly utopian vision of science and its public uses.”

The Preliminary Discourse wasn’t simply a philosophical treatise on observation, experiment, and induction. Because of its unimposing style, ordered structure, and humble tone, readers found it inclusive. It gave readers the impression, writes Secord, “that in understanding the Preliminary Discourse, they are engaged in the first steps of scientific study.” The text is grounded in the belief that “reading has the power to transform the human condition.” In reading, one can “vicariously” live through the scientist in “the act of discovery and an appreciation of natural truth.” As a result, humanity is “brought to the frontiers of human knowledge and ‘nearer to their Creator.'”

Indeed, this was Herschel’s chief aim in the Preliminary Discourse: to develop these “habits of the mind.” He wanted to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths. In mathematics we have what is necessary. The properties of a circle or square remain the same whether we are in broad daylight or the darkness of a cell. But the senses can be “tricksters or magicians.” Because we are often misled by our senses, “nature and its laws” are always contingent. Science, in short, must be modest.

This modesty in science has great moral and practical benefits. What Herschel offered was “a wider rational foundation for how to behave in everyday life.” As Secord notes, Herschel drew on a “tradition of the scientific pastoral, in which the contemplation of nature leads to an inner repose and the erasure of selfish, individual feelings.” Science would not only revitalize political life, it would ultimately lead us to “appreciate the need for a higher power, and avoid the brazen certainty of unbelief.”

Herschel’s book became so popular that newspapers, magazines, journals, and pamphlets mined it for quotations, “becoming set-pieces to be learned by heart.” And this “serial anthologizing,” particularly in cheap weeklies, afforded readers who could not afford to read Preliminary Discourse, whether for economic reasons or time constraints, to learn from its sagacious author. Scientific thinking was presented as a higher calling that almost anyone could now pursue.


2 thoughts on “Visions of Science: John Herschel

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

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