What is Natural Philosophy?

Andrew CunninghamOver the weekend I came across Andrew Cunningham’s collection of essays in The Identity of the History of Science and Medicine (2012). I had briefly mentioned Cunningham in an older post, but for heuristic purposes I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of his arguments here.

Beginning in 1988, Cunningham published an essay on “Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science.” In this essay he asks whether the historian of science is “studying the right subject?” That is, when the historian sets out to study the history of science, is she or he properly equipped to identify science in the past? The short answer Cunningham posits is no: historians of science have failed to properly identify the nature of science. As such, we also fail to properly understand its history. “It follows,” he writes, “that if we get it wrong—if we are identifying the wrong thing as science—we will be writing myths, hallucinations and romances which can only purport to be a history of science: we will be writing accounts of events which may not have happened, and of the adventures of a something which may well not have existed.” In other words, understanding the nature of this thing we call “science” is absolutely essential—otherwise we are just creating myths.

The source of this error, Cunningham claims, is “that we are actually taking to our investigation a ready-prepared set of finding guides to identify past science.” These guides or assumptions determines (i.e. dictates) what we consider “science” in the past—indeed, it determines all the history that we write. But this is clearly arbitrary, if not entirely mistaken. In short, our conception of “what science is” is absolutely critical.

When we take our modern criteria for “what counts as science” and apply it to the past, we ignore a host of historical complexities and contingencies. Cunningham and others have labeled this attitude as “present-centredness,” when we “look at the past with both eyes in the present.” This is a projection of present concepts back onto intellectuals of the past. Cunningham argues that historians of science need to “get out of the present.”

To overcome our “present-centredness,” historians of science need to remove certain obstacles hindering our view of the past. The first, Cunningham tells us, is our belief in the inherent “specialness of science.” This is difficult, no doubt,  as “science, its claims and achievements, totally dominate our modern outlook. The world we live in, the physical, the technological, and the intellectual world, id deeply pervaded and affected by the presence of science and scientists.” Although I disagree with Cunningham’s claim here (it seems to me that our modern outlook is pervaded by the belief in science rather than science), for the sake of the argument we will assume he is correct. Now, because science has become so pervasive, we take for granted certain claims about the nature of science. The most obvious example, that it is “objective.” But according to Cunningham, this commitment to “objectivity” in science prevents us from raising a “single question about the nature of science, or about the appropriate shape of a valid history of science.” Thus our “present-centredness” has already settled its history, shaping “the past of science to our own preconceptions about the nature and importance of science—preconceptions which are derived from the present”!

This is quite the dilemma. What do we as historians of science do? First we need to realize that the very “specialness of science” needs to be investigated. That is, why do we put so much faith in science? Secondly, we need to put this “specialness” completely aside. If we do not do this, Cunningham says, “we will simply be writing self-serving and self-confirming history, from which all properly historical questions have been refused application.” Indeed, our commitment to the “specialness of science” has prevented us from “treating the history of science historically” (my emphasis).

Cunningham purposes some solutions. First, science must be viewed as a “human activity, a human practice.” Science, in other words, is an invented institution. “Everything about the doing of science, everything about its practice, is a human activity, wholly a human activity, and nothing but a human activity.” Secondly, we must resist the urge to make science a “non-human-activity,” to make it, in other words, about “ideas” or “knowledge.” By making it about “ideas” or “knowledge,” we reify “science,” or, even more radically, deify it. But this of course is entirely an abstraction. Instead, the history of science is “centrally about people, about people engaged (or not) in that activity, about how and why they started that activity for themselves to engage in, about how they pursued, changed or abandoned that activity over time, [and] about how their pursuit of that activity affected the way they pursued other activities.”

Cunningham then compares the human activity of science to a game. Like games, science is intentional, structured and disciplined; it has a point and has rules; you either participate in it or you do not; it is indiscriminate, no matter who plays it; the experts are the only skilled players; and it is invented. Comparing science to a game, Cunningham admits, sounds almost sacrilegious. And there is actually a good, historical reason for this.

If the practice of science is an intentional activity, then those who engage in science must have had a “concept of science as an activity they could engage in.” This seems obvious, but many miss what follows: “if a given person in the past did not have or could no have had the concept of science as something to engage in, then he could not possibly have been doing science.” In short, we must let past actors speak for themselves, we must “see things their way.” What was their description of their own activity? In short, we must reconstruct their activity “with the extension, boundaries, aims, typical products that that activity had for its practitioners.”

So, how did people of the past practice “science”? Well, they described this practice not as “science” but as “philosophy” or “natural philosophy.” Whether it was “anatomy” or “chemistry,” each “science” was a sub-discipline of Natural Philosophy. In fact, according to Cunningham, no one called such activities “science” until as late as the 1800s. By the late eighteenth century, however, the intentional human activity of natural philosophy was beginning to be displaced by another human activity, and this activity is “science” as we know it today. So at one point in history, we had two activities, with some overlap: natural philosophy and science. And as Cunningham perceptively points out, “in the games of Natural Philosophy and Science, although both deal with the natural world, and both produce a ‘product’ (i.e. findings or statements about Nature), yet what counts as an appropriate product in the one may well differ from what counts as an appropriate product in the other.”

But what, then, was natural philosophy? How did our historical figures describe and understood their own intentional activity? Whatever their answer, we must take seriously. This is what it means to “get out of the present.” When we do this, we discover that the “single greatest difference between Natural Philosophy and Science is that Natural Philosophy was an enterprise which was about God; Science by contrast is an enterprise which (virtually by definition) is not about God.” According to the natural philosophers, Cunningham argues, nature was the book of God’s works. Thus natural philosophy was the “exploration of God’s creation and an admiration of His wisdom and foresight”; it was the “attempt to discover God’s laws, or an attempt to penetrate the mind of God.” Natural philosophy, in short, was “about God’s achievements, God’s intentions, God’s purposes, [and] God’s messages to man.”

It is important to stress that Cunningham’s argument is about human practices and their intentionality. As we shall see later, many of Cunningham’s critics miss this very crucial point in his argument.

In the final section of his essay, Cunningham draws our attention to the period c.1780-c.1850, when our modern conception of “science” was first invented. By using the term “invented,” Cunningham simply means the fact that science is a practice and creation of men. The invention of “science,” Cunningham argues, was causally inter-related to the massive political, social, intellectual, and economic changes of the period. The discipline of the history of science was also invented during this same period, in the early nineteenth century. “The inventors of science and their immediate successors,” he claims, “unselfconsciously rewrote the past in a way which showed themselves to be the heirs to a grand tradition.” When historians of science began writing histories of the “inductive” sciences, or histories of “biology,” “geology,” “chemistry,” or “physics,”  such historians “gave science itself a new identity.” They separated the human practice from the concept. That is, “they separated the thought—the ‘idea’—from the thinker.” Ideas, in others words, became autonomous concepts, detached from the lives and practices of their creators. This is of course is what has often been called “whiggish” history.

But there is more. According to Cunningham, science was “invented at the very same time and places in which the bourgeoisie triumphed politically and where industrial capitalism first became the dominant mode of economic production.” Just as capitalism separates the product of man’s labor from the human process, nineteenth-century histories of science separated ideas from their human producers. Cunningham claims this was no mere coincidence. The “scientist” became a “genius,” an “intellectual entrepreneur, engaged in a risky enterprise against great odds; we are in his debt, and hence his ‘originality’ deserves the proper credit.”

But “as long as we write the history of science as the history of discrete ‘ideas,'” Cunningham concludes, “we not only continue to misrepresent the identity of the subject whose history we claim to be studying, but we are also perpetuating the illusions and values that were built into the invention of science itself.”

Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

Secord - Visions of ScienceMy Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to Secord’s next big book. And Visions is a big book, not so much in page number (a mere 306, including endnotes, whereas Victorian Sensation was a massive 624) as in topic. Secord focuses on a series of remarkable books published in the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. He discusses seven in total: Humphry Davy’s (1778-1829) Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s (1792-1871) Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s (1780-1872) On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s (1788-1858) Constitution of Man (1828), and Thomas Carlye’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus (1836). I have read all but Somerville’s On the Connexion this past year in my research, so Secord’s insights on these works is a much welcomed aid.

Initially, the selection may appear odd. But Secord is interested in the great transformation of the sciences during this period. “Science,” he says, “was changing from a relatively esoteric pursuit into one known to have profound consequences for the everyday life of all men and women.” Each of the above authors, in this respect, had something profound to say about the future of science. Each author, in his and her own way, had stressed the need of science “as a remedy for the country’s social, political, and religious malaise.” More importantly, each author “projected a vision of the future.”

Secord sets up his project with a short introduction. Modern science emerged in Britain within a Christian atmosphere of apocalyptic and millennial ideas and hopes. But at the same time, Secord writes, “there was a sense of limitless possibility through projections of the future economy based on machines.” These utopian hopes were of course embodied within the new science. There was a danger in the new science, however. As Secord notes, “Paris was the scientific capital of the world in the 1820s.” But in the British mind, French science was associated with the naturalism or materialism of the philosophes. More importantly, concerns over the new science was directly associated with the shock of the French Revolution. Science had to be domesticated and disassociated from anything that smacked of the French, both from its “godless libertarianism” and its guillotines.

This was achieved by some of the authors that Secord discusses. They constructed an image of science as offering a way forward, as mending the current political tensions between the Tories, Ultras, and Whigs. This was a push toward reform, but not simply a reform in politics. It was an attempt to reform all aspects of society, knowledge, science, and religion. And this could only be achieved with what Secord calls “the mechanisms of intellect”; that is, the transformation of the production and availability of knowledge. The steam-powered printing press played a central role in the diffusion of the new knowledge. But so did the creation of new institutions, clubs, and societies, such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. According to Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (1778-1867), one of the founding members of the SDUK, the new science could be used as a route to political reform. In his short 1825 tract, Practical Observations upon the Education of the People trumpeted the new science as “nothing less than the complete reformation of society through knowledge.” Obstacles to self-improvement, says Brougham, are chiefly “want of money, and want of time.” He therefore promoted “cheap publications.” But more than that, he called for the publication of “our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in Numbers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty.” To this end, new ambitious publishers emerged with the goal of diffusing the new knowledge to all classes of society, such as Archibald Constable, John Murry, the well-known Longman company, and most recently the enterprising brothers William and Robert Chambers. In short, these new books popularized science by using philosophy, religion, and history, thus rousing “metascientific” discourse. For “happily the time is past and gone,” writes Brougham in his Practical Observations, “when bigots could persuade mankind that the lights of philosophy were to be extinguished as dangerous to religion; when tyrants could proscribe the instructors of the people as enemies to their power.” Indeed, “it is preposterous to imagine that the enlargement of our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the universe, can dispose to unbelief.”

Humphry Davy
A young Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Secord’s first chapter deals with Davy’s interesting Consolations in Travel. Davy was a well-known and well-regarded Cornish chemist, inventor, and president of the Royal Society. Davy’s book is constructed as a dialogue between Onuphrio (a liberal aristocrat), Ambrosio (a liberal Roman Catholic), Eubathes (a physiologist and naturalist), Philaethes (the narrator), and a “Unknown” stranger. The dialogue partners discuss the laws of history, divine progression, happiness, and the enlightenment of society.

According to Secord, Davy’s Consolations in Travel was modeled off of Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (a close friend of Davy) Consolations and Comforts from the Exercise of and Right Application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, and, perhaps more covertly, French philosopher Comte de Volney’s The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. Boethius and Coleridge were safe, but Volney was dangerous grounds. Davy thus takes Volney’s narrative and transforms it for English conservatism. Whereas Volney sees “kingcraft and priestcraft” as passing away, “to be replaced by a faith unified around a God known not through Scripture or dogma, but the laws of nature,” Davy has each character in his dialogue acknowledge the value in religion, including Christianity. The skeptical aristocrat Onuphrio, for example, declares: “I consider religion as essential to man, and belonging to the human mind in the same manner as instincts belong to the brute creation, a light, if you please, of revelation to guide him through the darkness of this life, and to keep alive his undying hope of immortality.” But this is a new kind of Christianity. Onuphrio, for example, does not see Christianity as occupying a more privileged place than other religious traditions. Even Ambrosio, the Catholic in the dialogue, envisions a “creed fitted for the most enlightened state of the human mind and equally adapted to every climate and every people.”

After the men retire, Philaethes, the narrator, experiences a vision. In the vision Philaethes is guided by “Genius” through a journey on the history of humanity. Genius explains to him how civilization has progressed from the barbarous to higher states of being. This has been achieved in two ways. First, and most recently, by the invention of the printing press. “I looked, and saw,” says Philaethes, “that in the place of the rolls of papyrus libraries were no filled with books. ‘Behold,’ the Genius said, ‘the printing press; by the invention of Faust the productions of genius are, as it were, made imperishable, capable of indefinite multiplication, and rendered an inalienable heritage of the human mind. By this art, apparently so humble, the progress of society is secured.” Second, the progress of civilization has been accomplished by great men. “It sometimes happens,” Genius discloses to Philaethes, “that a gigantic mind possess supreme power and rises superior to the age in which he is born…but such instances are very rare; and, in general, it is neither amongst sovereigns nor the higher classes of society, that the great improvers or benefactors of mankind are to be found.” Davy than adumbrates a list of such men: “Anaxagoras, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Galileo Gallilei, in their deaths or their imprisonments, offer instances of this kind, and nothing can be more striking than what appears to have been the ingratitude of men towards their greatest benefactors.” Genius goes on to reveal the laws of history, society, and spiritual natures to Philaethes.

In another dialogue, while the characters are exploring the ruins of the temples of Paestum, they encounter an “Unknown” stranger who introduces the topic of geology to their discussions, a touchy subject for both British scientists and religious believers at the time. Ambrosio believes in a single creation, but is not a scriptural literalist. Onuphrio promotes the cyclical geological theory of James Hutton. What all speakers agree on, however, is that there is no evidence for the transmutation of species, a position advocated by more radical thinkers Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Philalethes argues that “all philosophy must begin from a foundation of faith, and that this can be validated not only by studying God’s works, but also by drawing parallels between the infinite mind of the divine and the mind of man.” It is interesting how the revelation of Scripture is replaced by a revelation of nature, or natural theology, in Davy’s dialogue.

Secord notes how some early reviews of Davy’s Consolations in Travel were highly critical. In general, however, Davy’s short book was well received. And what these more charitable reviewers focused on, from the Literary Gazette to La Belle Assemblée, was Davy’s spirit of progress. What is interesting about Davy, however, is that he was not at all enthusiastic about the spread or diffusion of scientific knowledge. In a letter to his wife, for example, he wrote:

I become, however, every day more sceptical as to the use of making or endeavoring to make the people philosophers. Happiness is the great object of existence, and knowledge is a good only so far as it promotes happiness; few persons ever attain the Socratic degree of knowledge to know their entire ignorance, and scepticism and discontent are the usual unripe fruits of this tree—the only fruits which the people can gather; but I will say no more, knowing how unpopular my arguments will be; yet I could say much.

According to Secord, Davy’s vision of universal history and the progress of European civilization “become a commonplace, moving from speculation to assumption as the century progressed.” The scientific sage of the philosophes had become a “scientific, Christian philosopher” in Davy. But this philosopher was not a philosophy of the people. Rather, he was the provincial, aristocratic gentlemen of science. According to Davy, with the help of “great men in history and in science” civilization will be reborn, “rising towards infinite wisdom.”

Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)
Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.


Narrative and History: Hayden White’s Philosophy of History

Hayden WhiteHistorians of the late nineteenth century were quick to disassociate their discipline from literature, arguing that historical writing was like scientific analysis. History does not have “aesthetic forms”—it was not a “narrative.” History was a science.

But by late twentieth century, theorists and historians were beginning to emphasize—or perhaps re-emphasize—the links between history, narrative, and rhetoric. This was the “revival of narrative.” These theorists claimed that narrative served to “impose coherence, continuity, and closure on the messiness of life and of the historian’s sources,” as Elizabeth Clark put it in her History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (2004). Most prominent of these revivalists were Arthur Danto, Louis O. Mink, Paul Ricoeur, Paul Veyne, Lawrence Stone, Carlo Ginzburg, Roland Barthes, and Hayden White. Danto, for example, in his Analytical Philosophy of History (1965) argued that “history tells stories.” The historian may not reproduce the past, but they clearly “organize it through stories that provide historical significance for events; the scattered bits of ‘history-as-record’ become evidence when they are supplied with a narrative.” Likewise Ricoeur argued that history has a narrative character, and that it would be meaningless “if there were no connection to the basic human ability to follow a story.” Stone’s essay, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History” (1979), was even more explicit. The growing interest in narrative, according to Stone, “signaled the rejection of the attempt to find scientific explanations for historical change, and of deterministic models of explanation that failed to ask the larger ‘why’ questions.” And Barthes “challenged historians to admit that narrative history did not substantially differ from the ‘imaginary narration’ of the novel or drama.” Historical discourse, moreover, is a “form of ideological elaboration insofar as it is the historian who organizes language to fill out an otherwise absent meaning.”

Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) continued to challenge the “view that history operates in a manifestly different mode from literature.” Focusing on the historical work of Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt, and in relation to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce, White “posited that their work culminated in an “Ironic’ historiography, characterized by ‘skepticism in thought and relativism in ethics.'” The histories of these men, says White, are characterized by four modes of linguistic prefiguration (Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony), four theories of truth (Formism, Mechanism, Organicism, Contextualism), four archetypal plot structures (Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, Satire), and finally four ideologies (Anarchism, Radicalism, Conservatism, and Liberalism).

The most important point here is that White claimed that “the differences in historians’ conclusions when working with the same data…can be attributed to the different ways in which they prefigure the historical field; these differing prefigurations entail metahistorical presuppositions and varying ‘strategies of explanation, emplotment, and ideological implication.'” These “tropes distinguished whole modes of historical thought.”

The theory of tropes [writes White] provides a way of characterizing the dominant modes of historical thinking which took shape in Europe in the nineteenth century…For each of the modes can be regarded as a phase, or moment, within a tradition of discourse which evolves from Metaphorical, through Metonymical and Synecdochic comprehension of the historical world, into an Ironic apprehension of the irreducible relativism of all knowledge.

Or as Clark summarizes, “every work of history has embedded within itself a metahistory insofar as the author has already chosen, well before the so-called writing stage, the tropological mode in which the book is to be composed.” Later, in a interview with Ewa Domanska in 1993, published in his book, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism (1998), when asked if Metahistory was a kind of rebellion against positivism, White replied:

Yes, that is right, exactly, it is against positivism, against a positivistic notion of history. The discipline of history is systematically antitheoretical. Historians think of themselves as being empirical, and they are, but they are not philosophically empirical. They are empirical in a commonsense way—in an ordinary, everyday why.

In other words, its central aim was “to deconstruct a mythology, the so-called science of history.” After Metahistory, White would continue to explore the rhetoric of historical writing. In later writings White would insist that narrative is not neutral. Rather, it “entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications.” Narrative is thus “inextricably bound to issues of authority.” It is no wonder, as Clark puts it, “that dominant social groups have always wished to control their culture’s authoritative myths and have championed the notion that social reality can be both lived and understood as a story.”

The Cambridge Companion to the Victorians

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne Shattock, and The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O’Gorman is yet another useful collection of smart, lucid, and engaging essays by British Victorianists.

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon MeeKeymer and Mee’s volume covers, in two parts, the context and modes, the writers and their circles of correspondence, and other traditions of English literature from 1740-1830. In part one we are introduced to readers, writers, reviewers and the professionalization of literature (Barbara M. Benedict); to criticism, taste, and aesthetics (Simon Jarvis); to literature and politics (Michael Scrivener); to national identities and empire (Saree Makdisi); to sensibility (Susan Manning); to English theatrical culture (Gillian Russell); and to the Gothic (James Watt). Part two focuses on different writers and their works, such as Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Sarah Fielding (Pater Sabor); Johnson, Boswell, and their circle (Murray Pittcock); Sterne and Romantic autobiography (Thomas Keymer); Blake and the poetics of enthusiasm (Jon Mee); Barbauld, Robinson, and Smith (Judith Pascoe); Wordsworth and Coleridge (Paul Magnuson); the invention of the modern novel (Kathryn Sutherland); Keats, Shelley, Byron, and the Hunt circle (Greg Kucich) and John Clare and the traditions of labouring-class verse (John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan).

Shattock’s volume offers “fresh perspectives on a literary period bounded at one end by the Romantic movement and by Modernism at the other.” The volume begins with a consideration of the status of authorship and the gradual professionalization of writing from the 1830s (Josephine Guy), then turns to the reader and the consumption of literature (Mary Hammond). The following essay emphasizes the variety of “life writing” in the period 1830-1914 (Alison Booth). As Shattocks notes in her introduction, “biography as we know it was largely the creation of Victorian biographers.” The growth of nineteenth-century periodicals are linked with the “increased opportunities offered to women writers” (Susan Hamilton). Another essay reminds us that “‘the past as we know it was largely created by the Victorians,’ that historical terms and concepts and the idea of periodicity were invented in the nineteenth century” (Hilary Fraser). There follows an essay on “radical writing,” covering the literature against the Poor Laws of the 1830s, the impact of Chartism, and the emergence of the Socialist movement in the 1880s (Sally Ledger). An essay on “popular culture” looks at the ways artists, critics, and audiences responded to a “fractured and contentious” Victorian national culture (Katherine Newey).

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne ShattockIn another section, one author writes about the “new cultural and political importance which science acquired during the nineteenth century” (Gowan Dawon). Another focuses on the ways in which medical discourse “influenced the work of novelists and also poets, in their attempts to render legible the inner, emotional life” (Jenny Bourne Taylor). The growing acceptance of gradual evolutionary processes, moreover, led to an increasing fascination with the “other,” particularly in terms of religion, and is widely displayed in the religious diversity of nineteenth-century novels (Andrew Sanders). A final essay in this section focuses on Victorian “visual culture,” the “creative cross-over” between literature and painting, and the “desire to be able to picture, and consequently observe, every detail of the physical environment” (John Plunkett).

The remaining essays in Shattock’s volume traces the concepts of empire and nation in Romantic and Victorian writing (Patrick Brantlinger), the interchange of literary texts and cultural models on both sides of the Atlantic (Bridget Bennett), and the ‘European exchanges,” particularly France and Italy, that challenged the “Anglocentric disciplinary formations” of Victorian literature (Alison Chapman). “Readers of the Companion,” Shattock concludes in her introduction, “will find fresh interpretations and perspectives on well-known authors and texts, together with an introduction to less familiar authors and writing in a range of genres, reflecting the constant revision and reconfiguration of the canon which has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process in nineteenth-century literary studies, and one which signals its intellectual health and vigour.”

As another reviewer has noted, many of the essays in Shattock’s volume complement the collection of essays in Gorman’s. In his introduction, Gorman considers various arguments in favor of and against the label “Victorian,” as well as the limits of “culture.” “The facts of the past,” he says, “have a habit of confounding intellectual speculation.” “It is as well to test the grandest theory against the humblest of facts,” he goes on, “to make some space for the sudden and strange and unpredicted; to remember that grave argument and deep thought are hardly the only motivations of human behavior; and that intellectually coherent analyses of the past are not guaranteed merely because they are intellectually coherent.” Gorman offers good advice for any historian:

We must not claim to know too much; we must retain some scepticism and readiness to change; be doubtful of what look like accepted terms that have not been thought about for a long time; in particular be doubtful about metonymy, about making single events or instances stand without qualification for larger wholes; be doubtful of coherence that persuades only because it is coherent; be wary of plausibility that resides only in rhetoric and not in the concepts and the rhetoric is struggling to describe.

The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O'GormanTo this end, Gorman argues that his collection of essays assume that “‘Victorian’ is defined as a post hoc category, an idea that exists in the critical analysis of critics subsequent to its end.” It is a continually redefined label, by “critics examining different aspects of an exceptionally diverse set of possible knowledges.” The first essay aptly begins with the “age of scientific naturalists; the shift of authority in University education form the Anglican establishment to the men of science; the assertion of the experimental method; [and] the professionalization of science and its division into the disciplines and sub-disciplines that are still familiar today” (Bernard Lightman). There follows appropriately an essay technological innovations, particularly in the realm of communications technology (Nicholas Daly). Another essay discusses Victorian business and economics (Timothy Alborn). It is also worth remembering that “warfare…was an almost constant feature of Victorian life” (Edward S. Spiers). Just as prevalent was music, both public and private (Ruth A. Solie), and the theater (Katherine Newey). A related essay discusses how the notion of “popular culture” arose as a “realm of strategic contest through which the masses themselves were shaped in accord with middle-class interests and values.” But by the end of the century, “Victorians saw this edifying conception eroded not only by the acknowledged influences of the lower classes on English culture but also by the boom of consumerism” (Denis Denisoff).

Two essays on print culture focus on satire (John Strachan) and journalism (Mathew Rubery). Another considers the nature of Victorian painting (Elizabeth Prettejohn), and a subsequent essay examines the development of domestic crafts and arts, or, the “art of living” (Nicola Humble). An essay on “Victorian Literary Theory” concentrates on reviews and reviewers, and here we find such familiar names as Francis Jeffrey, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater appear in both, but also the less familiar John Woolford, John Morley, Walter Bagehot, and Anthony Trollope. Gorman’s own essay “considers the retreating authority of Christian ideas of eternal life and resurrection, and examines how they were re-imagined and re-created in literary and visual texts and in ideas about how literary texts were, literally, readable” (Francis O’Gorman). A final chapter describes “our multiple appropriations of Victorian themes, images, texts, characters and material remains” (Samantha Matthews). “In the Victorians we find what we seek, and fabricate or ‘discover’ what we need.”

All three Companion volumes further illuminates the “varieties of the Victorian.” How one understands the Victorian derives from sustained research, and, as Gorman points out, research means “not only the tracking down of facts or sources in archives or online: it means reading and thinking.” “It may be that the best thing for a reader to do,” he concludes, “is to set this volume [and others] aside at once and turn to a novel, a poem, a play, a diary, a volume of correspondence, a biography from the nineteenth century.”

The Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers

Charles Albert WattsBernard Lightman’s “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers” in Moore’s  History, Humanity and Evolution (1989) deserves special mention. He argues that agnosticism was presented as a religious creed that had evolved out of Christianity by agnostic propagandists such as Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), William Stewart Ross (1844-1906), Richard Bithell (1821-1902), Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), Samuel Laing (1811-97), and others.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Victorian agnostics were facing mounting tensions. On the one hand, some agnostics wanted to appeal to the masses, and therefore had to attune their message to Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, other agnostics were committed to the full force of their message, and therefore would not “debase” it, contenting themselves to the few who could grasp their complex scientific and philosophic concepts.

Yet during this time a new form of agnosticism emerged that would appeal to a wider English audience. It chief popularizer was Charles Albert Watts, son of English secularist Charles Watts (1836-1906). Both father and son were “immersed in the world of radical publishing,” particularly the writings militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91). The elder Watts however had dissociated himself from Bradlaugh over the publication of atheist Charles Knowlton’s (1800-1850) pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy (1832). Watts was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act when his printing company, Watts & Co., published the pamphlet. In court Watts claimed he had never read the document. After breaking ties with Bradlaugh over his increasing militancy, Watts later he joined George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) in forming the British Secular Union (BSU) in 1877, a dissident group from Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society (NSS).

The son Watts respected his father’s non-militant approach. He also had a high regard for T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1820-1893), and other scientific naturalists, who were “at the peak of their power during the 1880s.” According to Lightman, “Watts thought he could use elements of the successful strategy adopted by the scientific naturalists in combination with non-militant methods previously adopted by his father” in order to appeal to a wider audience, and to subvert the growing influence of the NSS. Unlike the “atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” Watts saw agnosticism as representing the “most up-to-date phase of scientific unbelief.” Watts thought that the best way to increase the influence of the BSU and other dissident secular groups was through the press, by “inundating the reading public with material on agnosticism and [particularly] evolution.” Watts thus focused “on reaching likely converts through the publication of quality pamphlets, books and periodicals.”

Watts took over his father’s publishing business in 1884. That same year he began publishing The Agnostic Journal, its aim was to establish “a monthly periodical of cultured liberal thought, which, by its moderation and ability shall commend itself to the attention and support of advanced thinkers of every grade.” The following year Watts published Albert Simmon’s Agnostic First Principles (1885), a summary of Spencer’s First Principles (1862). Also in the same year Watts published Watt’s Literary Guide, a publisher’s circular, “advertising publications of Watts & Co., reviewed current books, and, beginning in 1893, added a monthly supplement condensing important works on progressive thought and science.” Right before the turn of the century, Watts, in his continued collaboration with Holyoake, founded the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), an organization that acted as a “propaganda machine for freethought and agnosticism that would outdo any of Bradlaugh’s publication efforts and would rival the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Religious Tract Society.” Its central aim, as Lightman puts it, was the transform “dissident Secularism into a respectable, middle-class organization.”

Watts also had other collaborators. William Stewart Ross, who “belonged to the Holyoake tradition of non-militant dissident Secularism,” joined Watts in transforming The Secular Review of the 1880s, which he assumed full editorship in 1877 from Holyoake. Ross agreed with Watts that an “advanced thinker” is “like a scholar and a gentlemen, [and] that the best arguments for Secularism were drawn from philosophy and modern science, and that the less said about party politics the better.” Another collaborator was Richard Bithell, who through Watts & Co. published a number of agnostic tracts, including The Creed of Agnosticism (1883), Agnostic Problems (1887), The Worship of the Unknowable (c. 1889) and A Handbook of Scientific Agnosticism (1892). Another important collaborator and popularizer of dissident secularism was Frederick James Gould, who, along with Bithell, helped Watts found the Propaganda Press Committee, which later came to be known as the RPA. Samuel Laing was yet another collaborator and popular author, his repertoire included Modern Science and Modern Thought (1885), A Modern Zoroastraian (1887), Problems of the Future (1889), and Human Origins (1892), and was also a consistent contributor to Watts’ The Agnostic Review.

This “stable of agnostic propagandists” aimed their writings to younger readers and the working classes. They had a “missionary zeal” and “desired to demonstrate that modern science could present an integrated and rational world view, encompassing every realm of thought.” This world view was governed by the belief in “fixed and uniform laws” of nature. Evolution was “applied to the development of both the organic and the inorganic worlds; it applied to man as a physical being and to the products of man’s so-called spiritual being, including religion and ethics.” Indeed, as Lightman aptly observes, “the new agnostics were…primarily attracted to the cosmic evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, and they often ranked him as Darwin’s superior.” Evolution manifested the “power of the Unknowable.” Engaging the emotions and religious sensibilities of the Victorian reader, the new agnostics often exaggerated theistic themes found in Spencer, Huxley and other elite scientific naturalists. They even “tried to establish,” Lightman tells us,  “an Agnostic Temple in southwest London.”

They were also rather politically conservative. With their increasing popularity, the new agnostics “entered the bourgeoisie.” They wanted to eliminate both radicalism and socialism from the social order. Most interestingly, they “used evolutionary theory to legitimate a conservative vision of social order.” Socialism, as they saw it, was maladaptive, contrary to nature and science. The political creed of Darwinism could only be Individualism. They developed an evolutionary theodicy to answer the problem of evil, seeing its existence as “part and parcel of the evolution process, an inevitably by-product of the laws of nature.” But evil would ultimately disappear, they maintained, with the progressive course of evolution. This theodicy appealed to those with either religious or from religious backgrounds, as it created a sense of “contentment in the current stage of a dynamic, self-adjusting, divinely sanctioned process.” It was indeed a “theodicy designed to engage the religious sensibilities of a lower middle-class audience.”

This undoubtedly religious agnosticism was often referred by Laing as a “reverent and devout agnosticism.” According to Lightman, this new agnosticism was thus not a “negation of Christianity, but as the next step in its orderly progressive development.” Interestingly, there was also a penchant for “Eastern thought, mysticism, spiritualism and theosophy” among these agnostic propagandists. Ross described evolution as “the upward passing through Karma to Nirvana.” Laing attempted to “rehabilitate the old Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.” But elite agnostics, such as Huxley, could not stomach the increasingly religious and liberal element in the new agnosticism. Huxley saw Laing’s agnostic creed as unscientific. In turn, the new agnostics saw Huxley as insensitive to the “religious and mystical dimension of the doctrine of evolution.” This eventually lead to the acute controversy between Laing and Huxley in 1890 over the politics of democracy and aristocracy. Laing read Huxley’s “On the Natural Inequality of Men” (1890) as an example of an elite naturalist using “scientific arguments against democracy.” Laing went so far as to accuse Huxley of propounding Tory principles. “The Laing/Huxley controversy,” Lightman concludes, “shows graphically how readily evolution could be adapted to suite the new agnostics’ social aspirations.” In the end, “the flexibility of evolutionary theory as a social dynamic made it a potent weapon for attacking elite scientific naturalists who temporized about democratic reforms, as well as for criticizing unscientific socialists and radical Secularists who were too impatient to wait for the inevitable.”

Reading the Magazine of Nature

Cantor and Dawson - Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical“For the Victorian reading public, periodicals played a far greater role than books in shaping their understanding of new discoveries and theories in science, technology, and medicine.” Indeed, not only were many notable nineteenth-century scientific texts first published in magazines and journals, the periodical press also provided an important source of income for many of its seminal practitioners. In a book edited by a host of scholars, Geoffrey Cantor, Gowan Dawson, Graeme Gooday, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jonathan R. Topham, Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (2004) seeks the “common intellectual context” of nineteenth-century science in popular, religious, political, comic, juvenile, and monthly periodicals. As the editors write, “historians of science still often use periodicals as relatively transparent records of the opinions either of authors of individual articles or of particular publics, rather than considering periodicals as objects in themselves.” The editors thus refuse to consider the periodical as mere background. Their aim is to “reinterpret the place of science in nineteenth-century British culture by combining insights from the history of popular science, cultural and literary studies and periodical studies.” By locating science in more unlikely textual spaces, the editors map a much more complex and diffused science than would otherwise be encountered in highbrow quarterlies, such as Edinburgh Review, Quarterly, Blackwood’s, and Westminster Review.

Cantor and Dawson - Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century MediaThis title, in addition to two others, entitled Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (2004) and Science Serialized: Representation of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (2004) were written by the SciPer team, directed by Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth, a project that ran from 1999 to 2007 and was jointly organized by the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies in the Department of English Literature at the University of Sheffield and the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds.

Cantor and Dawson - Science Serialized Representation of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century PeriodicalsAll three volumes substantially add to our knowledge about the role of science in a wide variety of magazines, journals, monthlies, and quarterlies.

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