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.