Science, Ideology, and World View

Greene - Science, Ideology, and World ViewI made brief mention of John C. Greene’s Science, Ideology, and World View (1981) in an earlier post. Greene’s volume is composed of six essays with an introduction. He argues that the essays collectively “constitute a fairly unified interpretation of the interaction of science, ideology, and world view in the development of evolutionary biology in the last two centuries.”

Greene maintains that science—as well as philosophy and theology—cannot pretend to be “insulated from the social, economic, psychological, and cultural contexts in which intellectual endeavor takes place.” In an oft-cited passage, Greene claims that “the lines between science, ideology, and world view are seldom tightly drawn.” Indeed, that modern science has a powerful ideological component is now clear to most historians today. But when it comes to evolutionary theory, admirers of Darwin find “it difficult to believe that he could have given credence to a social philosophy so repugnant to the mid-twentieth-century mind.” Greene hopes to “lay to rest the naive idea that Darwin was a ‘pure scientist’ uncontaminated y the preconceptions of his age and culture.” In the course of the six essays, he convincingly shows that Spencer, Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley all shared a particular “worldview,” one that he terms as “Spencerian-Darwinism.” Despite different intellectual temperaments, intellectual histories, and general opinions, these men, according to Greene, all shared a common outlook in the early 1860s. These essays in the history of evolutionary ideas “dispel, or at least should dispel, the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

In “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” Greene argues that “the primary function of intellectual historiography is to delineate the presuppositions of thought in given historical epochs and to explain the changes that those presuppositions undergo from epoch to epoch.” Here he admits his intellectual debt to a previous generation of historians of ideas, including Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Max Weber (1864-1920), Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962), and Perry Miller (1905-1963). Greene is careful to note, however, that presuppositions are never fixed, that there are often “several, some dominant, others subdominant, incipient, or vestigial” is readily recognized. As a case example, Greene examines the views of nature in the eighteenth century. The historian of ideas must first concern herself with texts, for example, from Galileo, Descartes, Huyghens, Newton, Laplace and others. From these works we may draw the conclusion, says Greene, that nature was conceived as a “law-bound system of matter in motion.”

Once we have “marked out the movement of thought,” one must seek to “explain how and why it took place,” and here the “problem becomes infinitely more complicated.” For the “men of genius are only single strands in the complicated web of causes that produces a movement of thought.” The thought movement from, for example, John Ray’s The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Worlds of the Creation (1691) to Spencer’s First Principles (1862) is a case in point. According to Greene, the “drawing out of the implications of the seventeenth-century cosmology undermined many traditional conceptions…but it could not in itself suggest the idea of evolution, or progressive improvement, in nature.” While the growth of empirical knowledge certainly played its role, “an earlier and more pervasive influence on biological thought was the general sense of progressive improvement in society; and this in turn had economic and technological, as well as intellectual roots.” There was a growing sense of social and historical optimism, and this itself developed into a historical narrative of progressive growth.

The following essay, “The Kuhnian Paradigm and the Darwinian Revolution in Natural History,” is a critique of Thomas Kuhn’s model for understanding changes in scientific thought. Greene argues that

scientists share the general preconceptions of their time; that these preconceptions change not simply because of new scientific discoveries…but more through the influence of alternative views of nature coexisting with the dominant view; that crises generated by the discovery of anomalous facts are not prerequisite to the elaboration of counterparadigms; that anomalous facts challenge world views as well as specific scientific theories and encounter opposition, even among scientists, for that reason; that the typical response to the challenge to anomalous facts is a compromise theory that minimizes the damage to traditional assumptions; that a challenge to a reigning paradigm may develop largely outside the relevant scientific community; that  national intellectual and cultural conditions may predispose the scientists of a given nation to push their speculations in one direction rather than another; and, more particularly, that British political economy played a significant role in the emergence of theories of natural selection in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The following two chapters trace some interactions between biology and social theory, revealing a continual interplay of science, ideology, and worldview.

In “Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century,” Greene observes that evolutionary theories in biology and sociology emerged simultaneously in the nineteenth century. Why? What was the particularly relationship between biological and social theory? Here Greene focuses on the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

“[E]volutionary speculations in modern social theory appeared at approximately the same time as the first transformist ideas in biology,” says Greene. This is evident in mid-eighteenth-century writers such as Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In these works we find the idea that “the development of society, language, and the arts and sciences followed necessarily…that both nature and history were inherently progressive.” According to Greene, “nineteenth-century social science took its general character from these events and aspirations.” Indeed, nineteenth-century writers often took progress as a given, setting out to “discover the laws of historical development.” But to assume progress one had to not only assume what was modern (i.e. “science”) but had to assume what was primitive (i.e. “religion”), “whether of man or of the earth,” and thus one had to establish (i.e. construct) principles of development.

The construction of such principles of development are found in the writings of Comte.

In “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist,” Greene focuses on Darwin’s role in the development of a particularly British ideology of progress through relentless competition of individuals, tribes, nations, and races.

*  *  *

In a book review for The British Journal for the History of Science (1983), Mark Ridley, provides a helpful summary:

In the eighteenth century natural history was a science of static, ordered classifications. Towards the end of the century a competing, more dynamic, causal paradigm of ‘matter in motion’ was applied to natural history, particularly by Lamarck, to produce theories of evolution. In the next century the ‘matter in motion’ paradigm triumphed with Charles Darwin at the wheel. The ‘matter in motion paradigm was also applied to human society, producing Spencerism or social Darwinism (or Darwinism, for short). It became a world view. In the twentieth century, evolutionary biologists continued to try to apply their theories to humans, and begot much nonsense in the attempt.

By using the tools of intellectual history, one can see in the writings of great scientists the interplay of science, ideology, and worldview. And by applying those tools specifically to the works of Darwin and his contemporaries, it dispels, or at least should dispel, “the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence

Buckley - The Triumph of TimeJerome Hamilton Buckley’s The Triumph of Time (1966) is a “little book” with an enormous and exceedingly complex subject. It pretends to be no less than a survey of Victorians’ attitudes towards time. Buckley proposes to “test the truth” of John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, articulated in his The Spirit of the Ages (1831), that his own generation “had a quite unprecedented awareness of time,” and to view the Victorians’ “multiple concern with time.” Buckley defines at the outset two kinds of time—public and private. The former “involves the attitudes of the society as a living changing whole,” the idea of a Zeitgeist, of progress or decadence; the other relates to “the subjective experience of the individual,” through memories of a personal past, confrontations of public notions of time, and the effort to conquer time, to “escape from the tyranny of the temporal.” Time was either an objective entity or a subjective one. Private time is arbitrary, relative, continuous, variable; public time is the working out of patterns of history. “In tracing the characteristic Victorian attitudes toward both public and private time,” writes Buckley, “I have drawn largely upon the most eloquent of spokesmen—above all, the poets, and then the novelists and essayists—especially those who did most to determine the temper of their own culture or have had the strongest impact upon ours.”

To this end, Buckley’s The Triumph of Time is replete with felicitous references and quotations from Mill, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Ruskin, Carlyle, Hardy, Whewell, Thackeray, Macauley, Browning, Seeley, Newman, Eliot, Huxley, Clifford, Babbage, Spencer, and many, many others. The Victorian interest in time was unusually extensive and persistent. The age was an elaborate milieu, copious, overpowering in quantity and in quality. The Victorian age is indeed a vast and crowded landscape, and Buckley’s The Triumph of Time attempts to show that the Victorians were preoccupied with time in their novels and poems, in their scientific speculations and philosophy, and in their social thought.

In the first chapter, Buckley outlines the “four faces of Victorian time,” past, present, future, eternity. During the nineteenth century, “a new generation of historians, both literate and laborious, enlarged the limits of the human past and speculated on the possibility of finding patterns of recurrence or meaningful analogies with their own time.” Buckley cites approvingly from Han Meyerhoff’s Time and Literature (1955), where he observed that during the nineteenth century “all the sciences of man—biology, anthropology, psychology, even economics and politics—became ‘historical’ sciences in the sense that they recognized and employed a historical, genetic, or evolutionary method.” Uniformitarian geology; nebular astronomy; evolutionary biology; the new social studies—all were “governed by temporal methodologies.”

This trend was part of what Buckley labels an objective, “public time.” But there were others who perceived time as subjective and thus as “private.” “As seen by poet and novelist,” Buckley writes, “human time…defies scientific analysis and measurement; contracting and expanding at will, mingling before and after without ordered sequence, it pays little heed to ordinary logical relations.” But even those with a private sense of time could not ignore that the Victorian age was an “age in perpetual motion.” “So widespread and so rapid were the changes wrought by the nineteenth century in the material conditions of living that no one, however much he might wish to dwell in the spirit, could altogether escape a sense of almost physical exhilaration or bewilderment rushing in upon him.” Change came at an alarming rate, and some Victorians responded quite positively to it, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Hopkins. The latter, for example, saw change as the “daily renewed freshness of nature a testimony that the Holy Ghost still broods over the whole bent world.”

But as Buckley correctly observes, “other poets were less sanguine in their view of change, especially insofar as new modes and attitudes seemed to threaten the great traditions of art and society.” Here we find Tennyson and Arnold.  Arnold especially was “troubled by the vision of universal change governing all human affairs of the past, present, and foreseeable future.” Change undoubtedly was “central to the intellectual life of the nineteenth century.” Some interpreted it as progress; others saw it as decline. Thus “the great polar ideas of the Victorian period were accordingly the idea of progress and the idea of decadence, the twin aspects of an all-encompassing history.”

Before discussing ideas of progress and decadence, Buckley, in chapter two, briefly considers “the uses of history.” Many Victorians expressed an retrospective nostalgia for the values of a lost culture. There was an immense fascination with the Greeks, as Frank M. Turner shows in his The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981). But there were also revivals of Gothic, Renaissance, and Georgian ideals as well.

This fascination with past societies and cultures inevitably encouraged a relativism in values, and that troubled some Victorians. As Buckley puts it, “since to understand is usually in some degree to condone, the deepening knowledge of other times and places engendered an increased relativity of judgment.” This historical relativism is nowhere more conspicuous than in its “assault on the absolutes of religious fundamentalism.” Higher criticism “raised problems of provenance, dating, authorship, stylistic consistency, and analogues in non-Hebraic literature—in short, questioned the reliability of the scriptural canon and the extent to which it might be regarded as inspired revelation.” The appeal to time by Strauss, Eliot, and Seeley, for example, “denied the sanction of eternity.” Even Newman, in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) “accounted for the presence of later Roman dogmas…by a theory of evolutionary growth: ideas at first merely implicit and undetected had been articulated and clarified over the ages, and new interpretations had been adopted to meet the needs not of a static institution but of an organic body growing steadily in time.”

Increasingly, Victorian historiography came to resemble a scientism. History took on the inductive approach of science, and thus became an “instructive laboratory.” According to Huxley, “Baconian induction was the only way to learn the causes of things.” In geology,  catastrophism was usurped by Lyell’s uniformitarianism, revealing “the terrible vastness of a geological time.” Archaeologists also demonstrated the greater antiquity of mankind, ushering the “concept of prehistory.” Biology would also take into account the “deep time” of the earth. As Buckley puts it, “in the nineteenth century the natural scientist moved closer than ever before to the approach and concern of the historian.” Moreover, the mechanistic image of history came to be replaced by an organic one: “the world was no longer a machine operating on a set cycle, but a living body fulfilling itself in constant adaptation to new conditions.”

At the same, historians learned to “emulate the scientists.” Ranke, Bury, and Lord Acton promoted history as an inductive discipline. Buckle believed human affairs were “reducible to laws, and could be made intelligible as the growth of the chalk cliffs or the coal measures.” This transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the study of the natural world to the study of human history and social institutions receives extended analysis in Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008). Periodization in history led to periodization in the life sciences, as when Lubbock introduced the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” to designate successive ages. The new philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Macaulay, and others, presupposed a history moving in a “progressive direction.” As Buckley posits, the nineteenth century was the “golden age of the ideologists, intent on discovering or inventing patterns of growth and decay.” Buckley finds support in R.G. Collingwood, who, in his The Idea of History (1956), writes: “This distinction between periods of primitiveness, periods of greatness, and periods of decadence, is not and never can be historically true. It tells us much about historians who study the facts, but nothing about the facts they study.”

The “idea of progress,” which is the subject of chapter three, is found among many optimistic Victorians, and most eloquently expressed by Macaulay, who saw in history numerous signs of the natural progress of society. The new Baconian thought delivered “great and constant progress”:

it has lengthened life; it is the mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases;… it has extended the range of the human vision; has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to the descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, and the ocean and ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first fruits. For it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress.

Unprecedented mechanical progress throughout the Victorian era was only the proscenium. According to Buckley, the “Victorians succeeded remarkably both in meeting the social challenge of industrialism and in widening the base of democracy. Despite the new horrors of the factor system, which were gradually mitigated or removed by legislation, most workers were better fed, clothed, and housed than their ancestors had been, and the improvement whetted their desire for further reform.” These ideas of reform hark back to the eighteenth century. Indeed, the emphatic avowals of Arnold, Mill, Morley, Kingsley, and Huxley, explicitly “reaffirmed the eighteenth-century idea of progress as a primary dogma of the Victorian period.” In many ways, the idea of progress became a “substitute religion” and thus became an “object of worship.” And as the “true religion,” it rejected all others as false.

Yet this kind of progress did not change “the quality of human life.” Men and women of literature “seldom received the idea of progress with the unqualified optimism of the rationalists and men of science.” Buckley gives evidence for this “recession of progress” in chapter four. In verse Tennyson mocked  “the old dreams of a perfected world, without war or disease, a world cultivated like a paradisal garden…by the nightmare vision of vastly multiplied populations struggling hungrily for survival.” Morley “came to feel that material prosperity could impair ‘the moral and intellectual nerve’ and later to wonder whether it were more than an ‘optimistic superstition’ to believe ‘that civilized communities are universally bound somehow or another to be progressive,'” and thus questioning Spencer’s earlier claim that “progress is not an accident, but a necessity.”

For every thesis, Buckely provides an antithesis. The “idea of decadence” in the nineteenth century is as strong as that of progress. In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote to his friend Cunninghame Graham: “The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.” The new physics, with its theory of entropy, pointed to decay in the universe, rather than the progress inferred from biological evolution. “In other words, according to assured scientific theory, human time eventually must have a stop.” Ruskin, after reading Lyell, viewed the earth as now in “decrepitude.” But as Buckley correctly observes, the idea of decadence “was far older than any of the new scientific sanctions it could find in the late Victorian period.”  The Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, all lamented in their own way the degeneration of their own times. Yet the “idea of decadence grew steadily more urgent and immediate throughout the Victorian age.” The image of a future wasteland and an encroaching barbarism appeared in the writings of Balfour, Froude, Hopkins, Morris, Jefferies, Tennyson, Arnold, Wells, and others.

This Victorian rendition of the Fall of mankind led many to a “passion of the past,” which is the theme of chapter six. Indeed, many shared “a habit of reminiscence,” explaining why the nineteenth century was the “great age of English autobiography.” And although the prime objective in much of the autobiographical writings was “detachment,” Victorian autobiographers selected at will from their pasts, leaving out “unpleasant or unduly intimate detail.” Others chose to remember the past for “remorse or self-recrimination or simply bitterness.” The most important point however is that “in an age of great changes and large uncertainties many clung to the memory of ‘lost days’ that they could admire or idealize or often quite unabashedly sentimentalize.”

The last two chapters of Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a dramatic turn from the past to the “living present”; indeed to the “eternal now.” The past decreased as the pace of change and innovation increased, for the present was a constant “peremptory demand.” Carlyle provides an answer to this new challenge to mankind’s present state, first in his “Signs of the Times,” which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in June of 1829, and again in his more developed Sartor Resartus (1836): “Love no Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him…Be no longer Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!…Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.” This was ultimately a secular gospel preached also by Emerson and Longfellow. Work endlessly to avoid modern skepticism and despair! Work will distract us from the more probing questions of life.

An awareness of the temporal relations and responsibilities of their time, however, did not deter Victorians from the “dream of eternity” and the “desire for transcendence.” But unlike previous generations, the Victorians searched for “tokens of permanence or stasis in or behind their passing impressions, and most came to regard their own deepest emotions and intuitions as partaking somehow of the timeless.” In other words, Victorians felled the “eternal”—or what they perceived as eternal—from heaven to earth. Some saw the eternal in human passion; others in art; still others saw it in nature itself.

Victorian literature exhibits an almost obsessive concern with the problems of time, history, progress, and decadence. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a broad description of this phenomenon. It is a work as well written as it is succinct, lucid, and refined. Its value rests in its mass of allusions, generalizations, and quotes, showing the Victorians, in their poetry, fiction, criticism, science, and philosophy, steeped, intellectually and emotionally, in ideas of time and of history.

In the end, however, Buckley, in his organization and categorization, presents a “card file”: Victorians on history; Victorians on progress; Victorians on decadence; Victorians on eternity; and so on. The material is just too vast and varied and complex to reduce to a system. Buckley admits at the outset that his intention was merely to “describe,” and that the book “undertakes no detailed analysis of the literary techniques of registering time’s passage or quality.” But the reader may desire some sort of order out of the cacophony of  materials.

Without sufficient analysis, the wealth of examples can be unsatisfying and even—as this reader experienced—somewhat confusing.  But perhaps this is the point. Victorians were hypocritical, contradictory, optimistic, pessimistic, sensual, ascetic, and ultimately conflicted about their age. The Victorian period was an elaborate milieu, and Buckley has gone a long way toward laying out the problem of time. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time therefore serves rather well as a stimulus, a handbook. Assembled economically, his handbook increases one’s appreciation for the complexity of Victorian culture.

Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009)

Laura Otis - Literature and Science in the Nineteenth CenturyIt is perhaps fitting that my 100th post on this blog should be Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009). My research began in September with historiographies of the Scientific Revolution, only to converge in recent months on nineteenth-century narratologies of “conflict” between religion and science, which, I believe, depended crucially on literature and the stories nineteenth-century figures told about what counted as “religion” or what counted as “science.” To this end, Otis’ collection of excerpts from novels, plays, poetry, essays, scientific articles, lectures, treatises, and textbooks written throughout the course of the nineteenth century offers a solid starting place.

At the 1833 meeting of the BAAS, William Whewell proposed the neologism “scientist” for investigators who until then had been known as natural philosophers. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to signify the study of the natural physical world. According to Otis, “the notion of a split between literature and science, of a gap to be bridged between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon.” Indeed, “the two commingled and were assessable to all readers.” Like Sleigh, Otis notes that “scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers…explored the implications of scientific theories.” “As a growing system of knowledge expressed in familiar words, science was in effect a variety of literature.” In nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, “articles on scientific issues were set side-by-side with fiction, poetry and literary criticism.”

At the same time, however, “as Western economies became more industrial and agricultural, educational reformers protested that the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin literature…failed to prepare the new professional classes for modern life.” T.H. Huxley, for example, “claimed provocatively that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.” This insistence on the cultural centrality of science disturbed English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who protested that Huxley was defining literature much too narrowly. According to Arnold, “all knowledge that reaches us through books is literature.”

Otis intends this anthology “to illustrate both common and divergent patterns in the techniques of nineteenth-century authors.” Even a cursory reading of successful scientists in the nineteenth century shows that “most good scientists were also imaginative writers. The ability to express oneself articulately was essential for the communication and progress of science.”

Because scientific knowledge was spread most effectively through the printed word, “to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.” And by doing so, they declared an affinity with respected authors and, implicitly, with their readers. According to James Secord, for example, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) “won a wide readership not just because he provided convincing evidence for gradual geological change but because he used literary references to Milton, Scott, and Wordsworth to present geology as a respectable, gentlemanly pursuit.”

At its most fundamental level, Otis argues, “scientific explanation of the world is akin to processes of reading and writing.” Whether studying skull structures, geological layers, or bird populations, scientists were deciphering sign systems and interpreting texts.

Images render vague ideas more clearly. Indeed, to complement his factual evidence for evolution in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered readers a series of “imaginary illustrations,” scenes which encourage them to picture natural selection at work. “When Darwin presented his theory of natural selection, he knew that readers were used to such voyages [imaginary voyages and imaginary travelers were very popular in nineteenth-century periodicals], and he drew on their capabilities to re-create the evolutionary process. Like novelists who took readers into imaginary worlds, Darwin appealed to his readers to imagine the development of life as he described it.”

But “it would be inaccurate,” Otis warns us, “to depict nineteenth-century literature as a realm in which the imagination had comparatively free reign. As we have seen with Sleigh, novelists of the period greatly concerned themselves with the latest scientific “facts.”

Similarly, “nineteenth-century scientists found they could be more persuasive by using the storytelling techniques of fiction writers.” Darwin, who took a volume of Milton’s poems with him on his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, described the struggle for life through references to Milton’s poetic images. “Milton’s poems allowed Darwin to imagine the creation as a long, continuous process, nurturing his developing concept of evolution.”

For most of the nineteenth century, scientists and literary writers shared a common vocabulary and common literary techniques. But as Otis argues, “it is also crucial to recognize that the same subjects occupied both scientific and literary writers.” The quest for origins developed simultaneously in studies of language, geology, zoology, and numerous other fields. Questions of individuality also preoccupied both scientist and writer. And more narrowly questions about what it meant to be human disturbed both nineteenth-century writers and scientists. “The rapid development of industrialization, physiology, evolutionary theory, and the mental and social sciences challenge the traditional view of people as uniquely privileged beings created in the divine image.”

Otis’ anthology ultimately “invites readers to explore the fertile exchange of images, metaphors, and narrative techniques among writers who today—though not in their own day—are regarded as members of very different disciplines.” It aims to “reveal dialogues and confluences.”

The selected bibliography following the introduction is indispensable, including sources on mathematics, physical science, and technology; sciences of the body; evolution; sciences of the mind; and the social sciences, which are all presented as major themes in the text. Also follows is a helpful chronology of events and publications from 1800 to 1900.

Literature and Science

The anthology begins with a prologue on Literature and Science, with excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe’s Sonnet—To Science (1829), who lamented over the dangers of science posed on poetry and creativity: “why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” There follows John Tyndall’s Belfast Address (1874), commanding scientists to “wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory,” yet maintaining that “some of the greatest [scientific] discoveries have been made under the stimulus of a non-scientific ideal.” Indeed, Tyndall called imagination “the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer.” Thus “science desires not isolation, but freely combines with every effort towards the bettering of man’s estate.” Also included in this prologue are excerpts of the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley, from Science and Culture (1880), and Matthew Arnold, from Literature and Science (1882) mentioned earlier in introduction.

Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology

Each collection of essays is guided by a particular theme, and here Otis offers helpful introductory comments. The guiding theme for the first set of writings, for example, is Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology. In Mathematics, Otis argues that both mathematicians and literary writers used analogies, metaphors, and the malleability of language to convey meaning to new scientific discoveries. Here she includes excerpts from Ada Lovelace’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine (1843); Augustus de Morgan’s Formal Logic (1847); George Boole’s An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854); John Venn’s The Logic of Chance (1866); Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and The Game of Logic (1886); George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876); and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895).

In the Physical Science, Otis claims that “both physicists and literary writers challenged the notion that humankind could anticipate a more civilized, prosperous future.” In introducing theories of gradual energy loss, some asked readers to “conceive of a being” who selectively opens portals between two compartments. Vision also became “a key metaphorical vehicle in nineteenth-century writing.” Imaginative journeys among the stars and within electrical and magnetic forces, invisible phenomena such as X-rays and literary allusions were all used to explain advances in the physical sciences. Otis includes excerpts from Sir William Herschel’s One the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes (1800); Thomas Carlye’s Past and Present (1843); Sir John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy (1849); Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839-55) (1852); William Thomson, Lord Kelvin’s On the Age of the Sun’s Heat (1862) and The Sorting Demon of Maxwell (1879); John Tyndall’s On Chemical Rays, and the Light of the Sky (1869) and On the Scientific Use of the Imagination (1870); James Clerk Maxwell’s Theory of Heat (1871), To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode (1874), Professor Tait, Loquitur and Answer to Tait (1877), and To Hermann Stoffkraft (1878); Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882); Richard A. Proctor’s The Photographic Eyes of Science (1883); and Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s On a New Kind of Rays (1895).

In Technology (or Telecommunications?), Otis relates how Samuel F.B. Morse’s Letter to Hon. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the US Treasury, 27 September 1837 presented his electromagnetic telegraph as “a national nervous system.” An anonymous reviewer from Westminster Review (1878) on The Telephone also utilized analogies of the human body. According to Otis, “for nineteenth-century inventors the resemblance between sensory organs and technical devices was more than an informative metaphor; it inspired the design of communications devices.” Also included in this section is Mark Twain’s satire, Mental Telegraphy (1891), “in which a narrator argues that thoughts can be transmitted from mind to mind.” Otis also includes excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s The Deep-Sea Cables (1896) and Henry James’ In the Cage (1898), the latter arguing with prescience that “the telegraph fails to deliver the knowledge or relationships it promises, and the feeling of connectedness offered by technological communications proves illusory.”

In the final section, Bodies and Machines, Otis observes that “as mechanized industry developed, writers from all fields compared bodies to machines.” This, of course, is not unique to nineteenth-century thinkers. But unlike previous analogies, nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the rapid development of a great variety of technologies, encouraging “all those who used it to rethink their notions of mind, body, and identity.” Excerpts are drawn from Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832); Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1847-8); Hermann von Helmholtz’ On the Conservation of Force (1847); Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); and Walt Whitman’s To a Locomotive in Winter (1876).

Sciences of the Body

The second theme of writings concerns the Sciences of the Body. “Both the scientific and literary writers represented here,” Otis tells us, “do their utmost to take readers into a scene so that the readers can experience it for themselves.” On Animal Electricity, Luigi Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis (1791) “offers vivid pictures of fluids circulating through tubes” in order to explain the nervous system, identifying “the principle of life” with electricity. Sir Humphry Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802) also uses metaphors to describe the usefulness of chemistry. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) uses the writings of Xavier Bichat and Galvani in her account of the irresponsible scientist Victor Frankenstein. Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric (1855) uses similar language of electromagnetism.

In Cells and Tissues and Their Relation to the Body, Otis brings together writings from Xavier Bichat’s General Anatomy (1801), who, in studying living tissues, ironically proposed “one must investigate death.” Rudolf Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (1858), using a microcosm-macrocosm analogy, compared the relationship between the cell and the body to that of the individual and society. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) likewise viewed “bodies and societies has highly interconnected webs in which one could explain events only by comprehending the relations among individuals.” George Henry Lewes’ The Physical Basis of Mind (1877), although critical of “imaginary anatomy” used by some scientists, nevertheless argues, like Tyndall and Eliot before him, “that imagination played a central role in scientific thinking.”

On Hygiene, Germ Theory, and Infectious Diseases, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), using the metaphor of fire, “presents disease as something that both can and cannot be contained.” Sir Edwin Chadwick’s An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) “demands that readers confront not just the sights but the nauseating smells of the slums…organizing his narrative so that the reader follows eye-witnesses into industrial cities’ forbidding alleys.” But having said this, Chadwick also rejects Shelley’s representation of diseases as an uncontrollable force in nature.  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death (1842) also conveys a growing understanding of individual identity and responsibility in mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), Louis Pasteur’s On the Organized Bodies Which Exist in the Atmosphere (1861) and Sir Joseph Lister’s Illustrations of the Antiseptic System (1867) argue that bacterial infections can be greatly reduced, simply by “covering wounds, sterilizing instruments, and washing one’s hands.” The anonymous author of Dr Koch on the Cholera (1884) in The Lancet, likewise, argued that people are “responsible for their diseases not because they have incurred divine wrath but because they have failed to follow hygienic laws.” And H.G. Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus (1895) invites readers “to look through a microscope with his character so that they can see the cholera bacillus as a bacteriologist sees it.”

The last section in this collection of writings concentrates on Experimental Medicine and Vivisection, calling for greater responsibility and accountability on the part of scientists themselves. Excerpts from Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) and Sir James Paget’s Vivisection: Its Pains and Its Uses (1881) argue that “experiments must be responsibly designed.” Frances Power Cobbe’s Vivisection and Its Two-Faced Advocates (1882) quotes physiologists’ own metaphorical descriptions of a damaged brain “as a ‘lately-hoed potato field’…to alert readers to the ‘real’ nature of their experiments.” More polemically, Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) depict arrogant, sadistic scientists, “those who fail to think ahead and consider the value and consequences of their experiments.”


The third theme of Otis’ anthology focuses on Evolution. “Forced to describe an inaccessible past, scientists and literary writers recreating natural history appealed to their readers’ imagination.” The challenge, of course, was to make “readers picture a thousand, ten thousand, or a million years of gradual change, periods that for most people were almost unimaginable.”

Under the section of The Present and the Past, selections from Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy (1809) describes how “valuable new traits and habits could be directly transmitted to the next generation,” thus appealing to “people’s sense of self-worth.” Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) “compared himself to a historian, criticizing his opponents’ theories in terms that echo reviews of bad fiction.” Lyell was also anxious to appeal to conservative readers, and thus wrote his “story in the language of educated gentlemen, illustrating his ideas with quotations from Virgil, Horace, Shakespeare, and Milton.” William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) relates the limitations of the English language when accounting for both space and time. According to Whewell, “the rhythm and metre of language suggested time’s passage far better than the spatial metaphors that language offered.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) challenges the notion that a fragmented past constitutes a coherent history: “Like the portraits of ancestors, fossils alone can tell no story. It takes imagination, not just memories, to create a meaningful narrative.” Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) reminded readers of how breeders produced new animals, “summoning images from their memories.” What is more, despite numerous observations to support his theory, Darwin knew—ironically—he needed to tell readers a story for them to accept it as real. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) suggests, like geologists and naturalists, “novelists are retelling lost tales, recovering lives and events whose traces have been obliterated…[presenting] the relations between present and past in a manner quite similar to Lyell’s.” Thomas Henry Huxley’s On the Physical Basis of Life (1869) cites French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), known for his interests in the relationship between animals (especially human beings) to their environment. According to Otis, “cultural debates about evolution encouraged observations of people’s similarity to animals.” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), for example, “presents a scenario in which noble labour ends ‘in nothing’ because of an urge people and animals share.” Similarly, George John Romanes’ Mental Evolution of Man (1888) argues that “people and animals differ only in degree,” thus challenging the “uniqueness of the human soul.”

On Individual and Species, “in the intense debates that evolutionary theory provoked, the consequences for individual identity become immediately apparent.” August Weismann’s Essays on Heredity (1881-5), for example, argued against Lamarck, “individual organisms lived and died without influencing their ‘immortal’ germ plasm. Here we also have excerpts from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), who used language to immortalize life that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” constantly threatens to obliterate. Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology (1864-7) argued that “selfhood made no sense on an evolutionary scale…the idea of a unique, representative individual loses its meaning” under evolutionary theory. Or as Otis puts it, “the human concept of individuality had no basis in nature. It was rooted in culture and was being imposed on nature by writers who failed to see humanity from a broader, evolutionary perspective.” Thomas Hardy’s Hap (1866) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) “subversively suggests that it is more comforting to think of a world directed by a vengeful god than a world without direction or purpose.” Ernst Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man (1874) sees organisms as “texts in which one could read the past.” Samuel Butler’s Unconscious Memory (1880) “described the individual as a ‘link in a chain,’ a body that contained and often re-enacted the past.” Emily Pfeiffer’s Evolution (1880) and To Nature pictures nature as “dread Force,” churning the universe with mindless motion. May Kendall’s amusing, yet moving, Lay of the Trilobite (1885) “invites the reader to imagine life from the perspective of an extinct animal.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Nature is a Heraclitean Fire (1888), like Tennyson’s In Memoriam, “resists science’s claim to replace religion as a provider of inspiration and enlightenment.”

In the final section on Sexual Selection, we see how both scientists and literary writers continued to reinforce cultural renderings of sex. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) “suggested how much was at stake—socially and economically—in the search for a wealthy husband.” Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) provided “anthropomorphic descriptions in which females choose their mates,” but when describing human beings, “Darwin’s account reinforced cultural readings of female desire as a dangerous force that threated the social order.” This is how Otis puts it: “When women did take the active role and select their mates, they were acting in a primitive fashion, revealing people’s animal origins.” Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Constance Naden’s Natural Selection (1887), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) only further confirms these convictions, using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection to “formulate a problem they had long been describing.”

Sciences of the Mind

The forth theme within this magnificent anthology is Sciences of the Mind. According to Otis, the mental sciences emerged slowly, and amid much controversy. One reason for this is because studies of the mind retained much of their philosophical roots. “The main tenet of the nineteenth-century mental physiology, the conviction that the mind and body were interdependent so that any understanding of the mind must be based on neuroanatomical and neurophysiological knowledge, owes a great deal to John Locke’s belief that true knowledge must be gained through experience, and David Hume’s insistence that philosophy be inductive.” During the nineteenth century, the emergence of mental science came at the heels of several combined factors: “an increasing respect for knowledge gained through experimentation; a conviction that the methods of the physical sciences could be applied to other fields; and an idea that minds, like bodies, had evolved and could be scanned for traces of ancestral forms.”

There was, of course, resistance. But resistance came from those who thought the subject matter—namely, human perceptions, thoughts, and behavior—was “inherently subjective.” Mental scientists in turn sought efforts to persuade readers of the validity of their studies. “In their effort to create an authoritative voice,” Otis writes, “they quoted poets whose insights into the mind were culturally respected.”

In The Relationship between Mind and Body, for example, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) describes his sensations after ingesting opium, thus using his “own personal testimony as ‘evidence’…of how changes to the body could alter one’s perceptions.” Marshall Hall’s On Reflex Function (1833) “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone.” James Cowles Prichard’s A Treatise on Insanity (1835) offers portraits of morally insane individuals through “histories, personal idiosyncrasies, and detailed narratives similar to those associated with fictional characters.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark (1846) argues that “mind could affect the body,” and that “the body” was a mental construct, “subject to the projections…of the mind.” Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1856) “suggested the ways to describe the effects of food and alcohol on behavior, illustrating the complex interplay of constitution and environment.” Thomas Laycock’s Mind and Brain (1860) argues that both hemispheres of the brain are now seen as the seat of “teleorganic processes” and “noetic ideas” of the mind. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) “depicts a woman tainted by hereditary madness and is at time so suspenseful that it nearly maddens the reader.” S. Weir Mitchell “explored the mental and physical roots of personal identity by studying his patient’s phantom limb experiences,” illustrating such experiences in his fictional patient of The Case of George Dedlow (1866). Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870) observed how women’s reproductive system “powerfully influenced their mental state.” William B. Carpenter’s Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) contended that the interplay between mind and body was extremely complex, “so that no one could define no clear boundary between voluntary and involuntary phenomena.” And William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), ever the moderate, attempts to steer a middle-way between the “associationists” and “spiritualists” account of our mental life, for both positions, in his estimation, are found wanting. James says, “The spiritualist and the associationist must both be ‘cerebralists,’ [his emphasis] to the extent at least of admitting that certain peculiarities in the way of working their own favorite principles are explicable only by the fact that the brain laws are a codeterminant of the result.”

“If the human mind was housed in a bodily organ, the brain, then, structural studies of that organ might yield valuable information about its function.” In this sense both Physiognomy and Phrenology became a “science of reading.” As skilled interpreters of bodily texts, George Combe’s Elements of Phrenology (1824) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim’s Phrenology in Connection with the Study of Physiognomy (1826) argue that the relative size of the brain’s component parts act as indicators of potential character and behavior. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) “integrated the language of phrenology into physical descriptions of their characters so as to play on readers’ assumptions.”

According to Otis, Mesmerism and Magnetism “gave the subject’s own testimony much greater importance.” Chauncey Hare Townsend’s Facts in Mesmerism (1840), besides quoting both “Coleridge and Newton side by side” to support his claims, sees mesmerism as another technique for exploring the mind. John Elliotson’s Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State (1843) viewed his patients as both object and subject. “When literary writers used the same kind of detail, they sometimes convinced readers their imaginary patients were real,” such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s Mesmeric Revelation (1844). Turning to mesmerism to relieve her chronic pain, Harriet Martineau’s Letters on Mesmerism (1845) used “precise visual descriptions and innovative metaphors her readers would have encountered in good realist fiction.” James Esdaile’s Mesmerism in India (1847) reinforced fears of mind control in his reports of mesmerism in India. Robert Browning’s Mesmerism (1855) suggested that “both imagination and mesmerism offered opportunities for controlling the world around one.” And Wilkie Collins’ popular mystery novel The Moonstone (1868) transposed Esdaile’s findings into the British context.

In Dreams and the Unconscious, when Hall “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone,” scientific studies of the “unconscious mind” quickly emerged. These studies provoked wide interest in literary writers as well, such as Charlotte Brontë’s When Thou Sleepest (1837). Frances Power Cobbe’s Unconscious Cerebration: A Psychological Study (1871) also “combines scientific and literary accounts of dreams and sleep.” More importantly, Cobbe proposed that people commit immoral actions all the time in their dreams “without apparent attacks of conscience because consciousness is not needed for thought, and mental activity continues when the will is suspended.” “The existence of an unconscious mind that spoke when the will was relaxed suggested the potential for struggle between different parts of human consciousness,” as memorably played in the fictional case study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Finally, August Kekulé’s Address to the German Chemical Society (1890) advised his listeners to “‘learn to dream,’ suggesting that rather than forging scientific ideas, reason might destroy them in the process of emergence.”

And in Nervous Exhaustion, Otis observes how nineteenth-century scientists contended that in an exhausted mind, “the will could no longer control emotional impulses, so that one might fall victim to hysteria.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner (1861) shows how “overwhelming environmental pressures can wear out a mind.” S. Weir Mitchell’s Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked (1872) “maintained that women were especially vulnerable to nervous exhaustion.” Interestingly enough, both Holmes and Mitchell “wrote fictional as well as actual case studies to illustrate” their views. But Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892) uses personal experience to challenge such scientific theories, often espoused from male physicians of “high standing.”

Social Sciences

The final theme is Social Sciences. During the nineteenth century, “new discoveries and theories increasingly indicated that human beings were subject to natural laws, so that the societies and legal systems they created might be seen to have a foundation in nature.” Like the mental sciences, “social phenomena had been a subject for philosophers.” And like those before them “while struggling to legitimize their field, early sociologists relied heavily on literary techniques.”

Under Creating the Social Sciences, Otis explains that the social sciences “originated not in the field’s scientific and literary allegiances, whose interplay stimulated its growth, but in the issue of government interference.” As such, “the social sciences attempted to build knowledge in order to control and improve societies.” Interestingly enough, while Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791) proposed an architectural panopticon, intended for prisons, workhouses, hospitals, and schools, “which allowed government supervisors to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives,” his Manual of Political Economy (1793) “advised governments not to interfere in economic matters.” This contradictory desire for both freedom and control makes sense when one considers whose freedom is being advocated and who needs to be controlled. According to Otis, “every social scientist sought to legitimize a system in which wealthy subjected managed their lives as they chose, but troublesome paupers were managed for their own good.” “If social laws were an extension of natural ones, then poverty was a natural phenomenon and could be viewed as inevitable,” and perhaps even necessary. Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) “argued along these lines, proposing that charity, however well-intended, only added to human suffering.” J.R. M‘Culloch’s A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1832), inspired by Bentham, “offered readers volumes of facts, inscribing knowledge in terms of practical uses rather than intellectual value.” Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853) “proposed that human thought had developed in distinct stages, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.” Charles Dickens hoped his novels, such as Bleak House (1852-3) and Hard Times (1854), would “stimulate social reform.” John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), like Bentham, advocated a “society that would please as many members [i.e. the wealthy elite] as possible.” And Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) depict “overpopulation in a tragic, despairing light, as a biological fact that no social initiative can overcome.”

Under Race Science, Otis observes that imperial expansion “stimulated naturalists’ efforts to classify unknown plants and animals,” ultimately “encourage[ing] anthropologists to categorize human beings” as well. Both Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) set out a “racial science” of eugenics, which presented the “supplanting of one people by another as a natural, even compassionate process.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Yellow Face (1894), however, questions the validity of racial science, suggesting that racial characteristics are often “projected onto subjects by observers.”

In Urban Poverty, an excerpt from Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) argues that “the rich have consciously constructed their city so that its leading citizens never see the slums in which their employees live.” Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Walter Besant’s East London (1899) “described urban problems by creating semi-fictional protagonists, inviting readers to hear the poor ‘speak with their own voices.’” Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) suggests that “impoverished workers frightened members of the middle classes.” Matthew Arnold’s East London and West London (1867) expressed the desire to “make middle-class readers see and hear the poor.” Thus J.W. Horsley’s Autobiography of a Thief in Thieves’ Language (1879) “envisioned himself a translator, converting the argot of the very poor into a language his readers would understand.” And George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898) reinforces Engel’s claim that poverty sustains the wealth of the elite by focusing on an “unbreakable bond between the rich and the poor, implying that even the highest intellectual work is sustained by the sale of the human flesh.”

And the final section to this anthology ends, fittingly, with Degeneration. “When social scientists appropriated Darwin’s natural selection hypothesis…many began to attribute vice to hereditary factors.” Excerpts from Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Mind (1876) argues “that a third of all criminals were physical and moral degenerates who had reverted to earlier stages in human development.” Such studies “encouraged scientists all over the world to look for signs of inborn criminality.” George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) relies heavily on French psychologist Benedict Morel’s argument that mental illness is the accumulation of successive generations of poor urban dwellings, malnutrition, bad air, alcohol, tobacco, ultimately leading to degeneration. Degeneracy was not restricted to the poor, as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) paints a picture of degeneracy among society’s most privileged members. Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) argues that “modern stresses like railway travel and urban crowding were overtaxing people’s nervous systems, leaving them unfit for the demands of everyday life.” Sarah Grand’s controversial novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), depicts degeneration as an avoidable process, proposing that unfit Europeans should be forbidden from breeding, in the interest of maintaining an intelligent, physically healthy population. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) likewise sees a “dreaded emasculation as a literal draining.”

A cross-pollination of novels, scientific essays, poems, and textbooks, Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century clearly demonstrates the “feedback loop” of influence between literary and scientific writers.

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 7Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Cambridge History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences (2003) is the last of the current seven volume series. There is, however, a forthcoming eight volume, entitled The Cambridge History of Science Volume VIII: Modern Science in National and International Contexts, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and David Livingstone.

The volume under consideration examines “the history of the social sciences over some three centuries and many countries, attending to their knowledge and methods, the contexts of their origin and development, and the practices through which they have acted on the world.” Part 1 discusses the origins of the social sciences; Part 2 on modern disciplines in “western Europe and North America since about 1880”; Part 3 on the “internationalization of the social sciences”; and Part 4 consists of “a collection of case studies illustrating the larger importance of social science” in public and private life. My interests chiefly concern the contents of Part 1, and thus the following will concentrate there alone.

In his chapter on “Genres and Objects of Social Inquiry: From Enlightenment to 1890,” Theodore Porter offers a “loose periodization of the early history of social science.” He begins during the “period of the Enlightenment, when discourses of nature and reason began to be applied more systematically to ‘man’ and society.” Before the nineteenth century, there were recognizable “European traditions of thought and practice concerned with politics, wealth, the senses, distant peoples, and so on.” There were treatises on human epistemology; travel narratives; medical works; and important discourses on populations, economies, states, bodies, minds, and customs that resemble what we call today “anthropology.” Porter argues that the “birth of social science has much to do with the liberalizing political moves and the growth of a public sphere.” And here the Enlightenment played an important role in its advance, for “as an intellectual and social movement, [it] depended on increasingly free public discussion, on the mechanisms for the circulation of ideas.” Indeed, philosophes like Condorcet (1743-1794) saw the printing press “as a signal event in the history of progress, since it allowed knowledge to advance without ever being lost.” The growth of newspapers, coffeehouses, salons, and lodges in the eighteenth century “provided opportunities for relatively free discussion of issues and events.”

Eighteenth-century thinkers were concerned with the subject of “human nature,” or what we now call “psychology.” And this subject, Porter writes, “was closely linked to natural philosophy, especially because one of its central ambitions was to understand the human ability to acquire and use empirical knowledge.” The philosophes were so impressed with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which sought a naturalistic account of human nature, that they used it as a weapon in “struggles against the moral and institutional power of the Church, as well as a rationale for systematic schooling.”

The French Revolution of 1789, Porter asserts, “marked an important shift, in which social progress came to seem both more powerful and more threatening.” Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac, Turgot, d’Alembert, and Diderot all died between 1778 and 1784. “In the politically polarized climate after 1789, a career like that of Voltaire or Diderot, based on appeals to universal reason, was scarcely possible.” “Unruly passions,” Porter notes, “inspired a pervasive sense of danger,” which in turn gave way to a more urgent social science, “often more ideological, looking to the past, or to science, in order to comprehend what seemed the precarious circumstances of modernity.” In this sense, the social sciences moved beyond understanding to administration, particularly under the monarch. “The state, henceforth acting on the basis of full information and rational methods, would naturally advance the public good.” This was a social science in utopian form.

But this view was quickly rebuked by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that the Revolution was the “consequence of irresponsible men, shallow ideologues, provoking abrupt changes in a social organism—the state—whose natural development is slow and gradual.” Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “attributed the excess of the Revolution to the influence of detached intellectuals, men without actual experience in government.”

Utopianism, nevertheless, continued unabated. Condorcet’s Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794) shifted utopian ideals “from somewhere in space (far away) into time, the near or distant future.” Condercet’s mentor, Turgot, had also written on the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750), a “systematic, secular, and naturalistic statement of the ‘modern’ idea of progress,” a genre that flourished in the nineteenth century. Key figures here, according to Porter, are Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his “most famous and rebellious disciple,” Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In their introduction, Porter and Ross summarize:

Comte initiated a massive effort to define the methods and historical progression of the sciences. His main purpose was to announce the discovery, and define the standing, of sociology. He rejected decisively the idea that social science should adopt the same methods as astronomy, physics, or physiology. Yet at the same time he defined a hierarchy of knowledge, with social science dependent for its formulation on all the sciences that had gone before. And despite his claims for the inclusion of social knowledge, he made of “science” something special and exclusive. There had been, he argued, no science of physics before the seventeenth century, no true chemistry before Lavoisier. The origins of physiology were still more recent, and the founder of scientific sociology was, to cast aside false modesty, himself. Theology and  metaphysics were not part of positive science, but its predecessors and its antithesis. Law, literature, and rhetoric could never occupy this hallowed ground. Thus, while Comte formulated his philosophy in order to vindicate sociology and to define its place within science, he insisted also on a highly restrictive sense of “science,” a standard the social sciences could not easily meet.

Another transition occurred “roughly during the decade of the 1830s, as the economic and social changes of industralization became visible to everyone.” This pushed social science to becoming a “tool for managing as well as for understanding the problems” of the era. “Economic change brought economic dislocation,” Porter tells us. The “massive flow of people from farms to cities” altered family arrangements, increased epidemics of diseases, urban squalor, crime and thus threatened the “good order of society.” “Social science, then, developed during the middle third of the nineteenth century above all as a liberal, reformist answer to the upheavals of the era.”

Statistics became the characteristic social science of the mid nineteenth century, and was carried out largely by officials of the state. “During the 1830s, many of the leading nations of Europe…created permanent census offices.” According to Porter, this effort by the states were “very much a part of the history of social science, not only because they provided indispensable sources of data, but also because their leaders often took an active role in interpreting the figures—which often mean propagandizing for public education, for example, or for improved sanitation.” This movement was not without its critics, particularly when statistical data become closely associated with laissez-faire political economy.

In conclusion, Porter makes the interesting observation that “biology, not physics, was the crucial point of reference for the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.” “Throughout the nineteenth century, from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Ernst Haeckel and beyond, theories of biological evolution were less mechanical than purposeful, involving a teleological progression of species toward greater perfection.” Herbert Spencer, for example, “regarded biological and social progress as parallel instances of a more general law, a tendency for homogeneous matter to become increasingly complex and differentiated.” Indeed, biological evolution provided the “framework that many found satisfying for interpreting the diversity of human peoples.” It also manifested itself, Porter notes in conclusion, in “hybrids of biological and social theories and practices, such as Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary sociology, Francis Galton’s eugenic campaign to improve mankind by selective breeding, the racialism against which Franz Boas fought for anthropology, and the Lamarckian elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.”

Johan Heilbron’s “Social Thought and Natural Science” continues the discussion by focusing on how the “natural sciences have provided an enduring set of models for modern social science, models that go well beyond suggestive analogies and illustrative metaphors.” Heilbron claims that “natural philosophy” searched for “natural principles and laws, in place of supernatural agencies.” When natural philosophy was applied to the domains of moral philosophy and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “it allowed for a shift away from Christian doctrines toward secular models.”

The “naturalistic quest for knowledge of human nature and human society,” Heilbron tells us, was initiated by natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), who “developed elaborate systems of moral duty and political obligation based upon what they took to be permanent features of human nature, such as the concern for self-preservation.” Invoking natural science involved use of mechanical metaphors, the primacy of observation and experience, measurement and quantification, and rational deduction. But such a process was neither uniform nor uncontested.

During the Enlightenment period, the “secular intelligentsia,” Heilbron writes, “explicitly claimed, and effectively exercised, the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independent of established authorities and official doctrines.” Discourses on political, moral, and economic issues relied on “factual evidence and detail” provided by the natural sciences. This is the first of three distinct trends that Heilbron wants to point out.

The second trend was the differentiation of natural science, the demise of a unitary conception of natural philosophy, and a fundamental split between “animate and inanimate bodies.” Comte, for example, distinguished social science from biology, biology from chemistry, chemistry from physics. “Social science, for Comte, was a relatively autonomous endeavor, with a subject matter of its own and a specific method of study.”

The third trend was the opposition of prevailing forms of naturalism in the human sciences. Heilbron claims that the elaboration of “humanistic or cultural alternative made natural science, with its insistence on mechanical laws and causal models, an object of criticism.” Heilbron never expands on this third trend, so what he means here is not entirely clear.

The scientific conception of moral philosophy was strongest in England, Scotland, and France, reaching it apogee in the latter from about 1770 to 1830. In France, for example, we find the “most scientistic designation for the social sciences…’social mathematics,’ ‘social mechanics,’ ‘social physics,’ and ‘social physiology.'” Those espousing a scientific model of moral and political philosophy include Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and John Millar (1735-1801). Montesquieu was particularly admired by the latter four for having demonstrated that “laws have, or ought to have, a constant references to the constitution of governments, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society.”

Salient in France were thinkers conceptualizing the social world in language derived from the physical and life sciences, such as Turgot (1727-1781), Condorcert  (1743-1794), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all to some extant stressing “the urgency of adapting scientific method to the analysis of state matters.”

Utilitarian philosophers would also reason “in a style that was equally modeled on the physical sciences.” From Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), proponents of the utilitarian view promoted a “calculus of pleasures and pains,” deductive reasoning, and physical analogies for understanding human nature. Drawing from the life sciences, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) argued that “human consciousness and conduct had to be explained by bodily arrangements and physical needs, and no longer in terms of immaterial substances.” Others, such as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806) rejected mechanical conceptions and advocated a type of vitalism as the basis of the science of man. This position was taken up systematically by Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabnis (1757-1808) in his psychophysiological research programs, which also became the basis of the work of the idéologues, “a group of moderate revolutionary intellectuals.” Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), for example, wanted “the old metaphysics…to be replaced by a rigorously scientific program for which Cabanis’s biomedical theories provided the basis.” This was all appropriated by Saint-Simon within a physiological framework, “who proclaimed that human societies were also organized bodies.”

Heilbron next turns to evolutionary thought. He argues that “evolutionary thinking in the life sciences owed as much to the human sciences as it did to biology.” Notions of progressive change over extended periods of time first emerged, according to Heilbron, in “the late-seventeenth-century battle between what were called the Ancients and the Moderns.” In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his anti-utopian Essay on the Principle of Population. There is attacked Condorcet’s optimistic vision of indefinite perfectibility, arguing that “the operation of natural laws could well produce misery and starvation, not progress.” Malthus’ argument, as many have pointed out, “provided Darwin with the clue for his theory of natural selection.” In general, natural history reinforced the historicization of the social sciences. “Developmental or evolutionary theories in the broad sense became the prevailing form of the science of society in the nineteenth century.” But the best-known representative of evolutionism, of course, was Herbert Spencer, “an evolutionist before Darwin’s Origin.” Spencer would popularize the idea that “from the maturation of an embryo to the development of human society and the evolution of the solar system, all things evolve from the simple to the complex through successive differentiation.” Much broader than Comte’s sociology or Darwin’s biological theory, Spencer’s view of evolution “had the status of a cosmic law and formed the core of his all-embracing system of synthetic philosophy.”

But the “promise and prestige of the natural sciences,” Heilbron tells us, “did not remain uncontested. Countermovements to the naturalistic understanding of human society became an intellectual force in the course of the nineteenth century,” particularly in and through the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder argued that “each society, each people, is marked by a peculiar cultural spirit, a Volksgesit, expressed in its customs, myths, and folktales [and] the task of the human sciences is to uncover the peculiarities of this spirit.” According to Heilbron, Herder’s work “contributed to an emerging culturalist understanding of human socieites,” reinforced by the Romantic reactions of Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Bonald, among others.

The following essays examine the same movements and figures, only in more concentrated areas. Stephen Turner, for example, focuses on the “ideas of cause and teleology before and during the period of Mill and Comte, and its aftermath up to the early twentieth century.” Although Enlightenment thinkers agreed that arguments of teleology were problematic, “they were impressed with the idea that organisms are understandable only teleologically, only in terms of some internal principle or nature that cannot be reduced by mechanism; and they relied freely on the idea of human nature, characterized by inherent purposes, in their political reasoning.” Turgot, Comte, and Mill all wanted to eliminate final causes in their social sciences. But teleology survived the onslaught by these writers, in the form of purposive language, organic analogy, and historical directionality. As Turner concludes, “the project of stripping science of its teleological elements was difficult, perhaps impossible to carry through consistently.” Indeed, teleology persists today in many forms, particularly in rational choice theory in the social sciences.

Antoine Picon examines “Utopian Socialism and Social Science” during the nineteenth century. Under the direction of the “founding figures of utopian socialism” Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and their disciples, a scientific understanding of society was a “prerequisite for its reconstruction.” The notion of progress was a key piece of utopian arguments. Whereas Thomas More’s (1478-1535) vision of utopia was the negation of place—literally to be found “nowhere”—eighteenth-century utopias shifted from “singularity to universality, from nowhere to everywhere…[and] relocated into the future, as the final stage of human progress.” The utopian socialists’ vision of history, Picon tells us, “was based on the identification of a series of organic stages…separated by periods of cultural and social uncertainty and unrest.” Ironically, while eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopians rejected Christianity, they had no intention of rejecting religion tout court. In fact, they wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion, a “religion of humanity.” Although the attempt to found new religions was eventually abandoned in the social sciences, late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century “sociological literature was permeated by a dull nostalgia for what had been lost,” as seen in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The cult of progress; the belief in absolutely positive social facts and permanent historical laws that could reveal the future of mankind, were a crucial part of the emerging social sciences.

Starting in the seventeenth century, Eileen Janes Yeo argues in her “Social Surveys in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” “voluntary enthusiasts as well as state bureaucrats were becoming concerned with statistics, in the sense not only of facts useful to the state but also of a tabulated facts that would depict ‘the present state of a country,’ often ‘with a view to its future improvement.'” Population surveys were thus a source of power for the state. Unsurprisingly, many of the surveys were contested. But by the mid-nineteenth century, “the state monopolized large-scale social inquiry.” The nineteenth century “was characterized by the involvement of a wider range of social groups and institutional settings, which made social surveys a more visible part of a contested politics of knowledge.”

Likewise, “Scientific ethnography and travel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Harry Liebersohn tells us, not only “facilitated accurate navigation over the thousands of miles of a world sea voyage”; it also opened a “new round of competition between the two great powers [i.e. British and French], who now played out their rivalry in the vast, hitherto imperfectly charted expanse of the Pacific.” Ethnographers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not simply transcribe their impressions of the things they have witnessed—rather, “they capture a many-sided drama involving actors across the world, all of them contending to dominate the ‘truth’ about encounters among strange people.” These were indeed “narratives of knowledge,” accounts of “independent-minded intellectuals who formed their own views of the things that they saw and…sometimes developed a belief that they were bearing witness to world-historical events for a European public.” The philosophes, for example, “drew on travel writing to validate their criticisms of politics at home and of colonial administration overseas.” The institution of slavery, equality, and liberty were a common topics encouraged by ethnographic works. Darwin, for example, in his 1839 account of the Beagle voyage, “attributed the wildness and poverty of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to their insistence on an equal sharing of property and power, which checked, he though, any formation of a higher culture.” These works also encouraged comparative methods of inquiry, “evaluating the fantastic clutter of skulls, costumes, vocabularies, adventure stories, economic reports, and other souvenirs” of knowledge. This would led, as many other scholars have pointed out, to the development of comparative linguistics, but also the comparative study of religion.

Johnson Kent Wright argues in “History and Historicism” that historicism was not a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, but one with an extensive genealogy connected to the Enlightenment. Moreover, he stresses “the close relations between historicism and conceptions of social science throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The “modernization” of historicism came from its chief architect, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who rendered it “irreducible to any other discipline.” Ranke’s vision of “historical development, concentrated resolutely on the political histories of the great nation-states of western Europe, from their first appearances in the Dark Ages down to the present,” became the model of “scientific” historiography in the second half of the nineteenth century. François Guizot’s (1787-1874) History of Civilization in Europe (1828) is a prime example. But it also influenced, as is well-known, the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose historical materialism was the conceptual centerpiece  of “a historicist device par excellence.” And as Terrell Carver concurs in his “Marx and Marxism,” Marx “absorbed and modified, but never rejected, a German intellectual tradition concerning knowledge and science.”


The Cambridge History of Science series is a massive and comprehensive undertaking. Beginning with Medieval Science and concluding with the Modern Social Sciences, the books serve as invaluable and indispensable references to the historian of science. I have found them valuable for orientating my thoughts and its judicious survey of movements, figures, and ideas. One must however carefully and selectively sift through their contents. Most of the essays are excellent; but many are also meandering, unfocused, and varying in quality. The cost of each book may also deter those looking to add them to their private library. Despite this, the series provides an incontrovertible resource for those interested in the history of science.