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Nature's Place in Victorian Culture
Robert M. Young
[ Introduction | Preface | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Notes | Bibliography | Index ]
NATURAL THEOLOGY, VICTORIAN PERIODICALS, AND THE FRAGMENTATION OF A COMMON CONTEXT
This chapter presents a hypothesis about the nature of a common intellectual context in the Victorian periodical literature, the role of natural theology in that milieu, and what happened when the relatively integrated common culture of issues and publications broke up. I want to ruminate some of the problems which arise when one tries to write convincingly about such large-scale relationships in history.
My general line of research is concerned with the problem of doing science about people. My first approach to the problem was to investigate theories of the relationship between mind and brain, centered on attempts to localize functions in the brain. As this work developed I became increasingly interested in the intellectual context within which various concepts of the functions of the brain were conceived. This led away from relatively internalist preoccupation with the histories of psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and neurophysiology to the development of evolutionary theory in Britain. This, in turn, led to a much wider inquiry into the nineteenth-century debate on man's place in nature. When I began to look for response to developments in psychology and the study of the nervous system in the debate, I found very little. Instead, the monographs, periodicals, and lives and letters were much more concerned with geology, natural theology, Malthusianism, that is, with the role of nonmaterial causes in nature and with the relationships among God, man, and nature. Thus, instead of detailed debates on psychology and brain physiology, there was a much more general debate on the uniformity of nature,
miracles, free will, and the status of man in nature. Psychology played a much deeper role, but the most accessible and explicit arenas for discussing man's place in nature were not, it turned out, the sciences which seemed to me to be the most relevant from my vantage point inside current disciplinary boundaries. Instead, geological and biological theory attracted the attention of the main participants in the debate.
However, two features of the debate soon became very clear. First, although the particular sciences of psychology and neurophysiology (as we now define them) were not explicitly at the center of controversy, it was almost impossible to make any demarcations between disciplines over a wide range of subjects as twentieth-century scholars would define them. Second, at least for the first five or six decades of the century, natural theology provided the general context for the debate. That is, new and controverted scientific findings and theories were taken up in the general culture as bearing on the demonstration of the existence and attributes of God as drawn from the book of nature (as distinct from revelation). In the course of the period, the structure of the debate changed progressively from a relatively undifferentiated one in which specialist studies were seen as parts of that very general theistic context in the early decades of the century, to one in which disciplines were increasingly demarcated, and the relationship between science and theology became - at least at one level - one of conflict. At another level that relationship became one of identifying the new claims for the laws of nature with God's governance of the universe at a level of abstraction that was virtually meaningless.
If I am right about these very general features of the debate, the problem becomes one of relating three issues: (1) the common intellectual context, (2) natural theology, and (3) the body of writings in which the debate occurred. In attempting to understand the development of the debate I have found myself employing a number of related hypotheses:
1. There was a common intellectual context (one could put that anachronistically as "a rich interdisciplinary culture") in the early decades of the nineteenth century in Britain, and this was reflected in the periodical literature, monographs, lives and letters, and in a wide range of other writings.
2. There was a relatively homogeneous and satisfactory natural
theology, best reflected in William Paley's classic Natural Theology (1802) and innumerable works reflecting the same point of view. These works were reviewed enthusiastically and at length in the periodical literature in the first four decades of the century. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-6) were an attempt to codify this tradition in the light of detailed findings in the several sciences, but they reflect the fact that an attempt to spell out the Paleyan point of view in detail led to difficulties which natural theology could not overcome without considerably modifying its view of the relationships among God, man, and nature.
3. The impact of scientific findings progressively altered this coherent natural theology until it was virtually devoid of content as a discipline in its own right.
4. The common intellectual context came to pieces in the 1870s and 1880s, and this fragmentation w was reflected in the development of specialist societies and periodicals, increasing professionalization, and the growth of general periodicals of a markedly lower intellectual standard.
It is at this point that my troubles begin. It would be folly to argue that the impact of science on natural theology provides an adequate cause for the alleged breakup of the (putative) common intellectual culture of the intelligentsia. Stated baldly, the hypothesis only replaces internalist history of science with internalist intellectual history and offers a monocausal explanation. Surely this is simplistic in the extreme. For example, if one uses circulation figures and the growth of new periodicals with lower intellectual standards as a partial index, what weight should one attach to such factors as the emergence of serialized novels, the growth of literacy, the appeal of middle-brow periodicals to former readers of the heavier Edinburgh Review and Quarterly Review? A more candid way of putting the problem is that I have come up against the limits of the legitimate explanatory power of the history of ideas, no matter how widely one casts the net into bodies of literature and their reception. The questions I have raised cry out for consideration from the point of view of social, political, and economic historical research. These are perspectives which historians of science have yet to adopt in a serious and sustained way on most topics and certainly with respect to Victorian science. In order to carry my own research further I now realize that I must embark
on a process of self-education for which there has been no preparation in eleven years as a student (and five as a teacher) of philosophy, science, medicine, and history and philosophy of science - all of which were taught without reference to the historical forces at work in the socioeconomic order.
There is, of course, a complementary omission. Social, political, and economic historians have been no less remiss, since they have failed to take seriously the structure and texture of the intellectual debates which fundamentally altered the perception of "man's place in nature" and the role of science and technology in the productive, social, and intellectual spheres. So I am not tempted to renounce intellectual history and plunge, amnesic, into other specialist studies in history. I hope that students of the period will eventually be able to bring these approaches together as aspects of a totality, perhaps to reintegrate the fragments whose origins I am considering here.
Short of that long-range ambition, I should like to gather together the work I have done so far and put forward some evidence in support of the working hypothesis that the impact of science on natural theology was a factor, one which I believe was significant. That is, I wish to draw attention to a concomitant variation for the present, without in any way wanting to beg the question of what factors would add up to a satisfying causal account.
The remainder of the chapter is in five parts: (1) historiographic issues in connection with my approach to the problems mentioned above, with some remarks on the discipline of "Victorian Studies"; (2 and 3) two case studies in the changing interpretation of natural theology; (4) a case study, which I find symptomatic, of the attempt to retain a common intellectual context; and (5) some manifestations of the fragmentation of that common context, resulting in disciplinary and topic boundaries recognizable to our own demarcations.
First, some methodological problems involved in the definition of my domain and the problem of relating its constituent parts. My research on the debate on man's place in nature is related to at least eight sources of evidence in historical scholarship (which can be indicated by books which I have found more or less useful):
1. The use of literature to illuminate the history of ideas and assumptions in the period;
2. The history of scientific ideas, particularly in geology and biology;
3. The history of religion and theology;
4. The history of philosophy;
5. The history of popular opinion and related issues;
6. Works attempting to build bridges between the history of scientific and philosophic ideas on the one hand and the history of political and social ideas on the other (these approaches are closest to my own current understanding);
7. General political and historical context;
8. The history of ideas in psychology, study of the nervous system, psychiatry and medicine, developments which were occurring in the period, no matter how small a place they found in the nonspecialist Victorian periodicals.
Of course, this list could be extended indefinitely to embrace specialist studies in the histories of behavioral and social sciences on the one hand and the history of the periodical press on the other, but the purpose of making a list will have been served if it is obvious that the problem is that these are relatively isolated bodies of research, with occasional borrowings of the loosest generalizations from related disciplines. These are usually added on as rather desperate gestures in the direction of fields whose literature one simply cannot master.
An obvious book to use for this purpose is Gillispie's seminal work, Genesis and Geology: The Impact of Scientific Discoveries upon Religious Beliefs in the Decades before Darwin. In doing so, a nonspecialist would be very likely to remain unaware that Gillispie has a very rudimentary grasp of the fine texture of the geological debate on which so much hung in the period 1820-50. This is not a trivial point, since it turns out that the detailed proceedings of the Geological Society appeared in the quarterlies throughout this period, and every important geological work was reviewed in the major intellectual periodicals throughout the century. Geology was central to the debate on the relationship between God and nature, the status of the Bible, and man's place in nature. Thus, although Gillispie may not have exposed himself to these documents, the Victorian intelligentsia did.
Is there any way out of this mess short of reading and sifting everything or collecting short essays from a wide variety of specialists, e.g., Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians? In my opinion, Houghton, in The Victorian Frame of Mind, has shown us that the attempt to do everything need not be disastrous, while his bibliographical work since completing that book makes it a great deal more orderly, if no less daunting, process.
The approach which I have in mind is to focus on a rather loosely defined issue and to rely heavily on the Victorian periodicals, especially the quarterlies. Of course, as Ellegard has shown (without intending to) in his ambitious study of the reception of Darwin's theory of evolution in the British periodical press, 1859-72, this approach brings its own risks. Foremost among these is the likelihood that one will have so many documents and such a vast network of related issues that the result is an impressively annotated bibliography, whereas one had set out to illuminate the ideas and assumptions of the period by a different method. Ellegard encountered these difficulties in dealing with two books - Origin of Species and Descent of Man - and Millhauser did an even less satisfactory job on the reception of Chambers' Vestiges of Creation. With these examples before us, it really does seem absurdly ambitious to attempt to provide an interpretation of the debate within which these works and the controversies surrounding them played a very significant but (if one is considering the bulk of the literature) still relatively small part.
The way I have attempted to get around this difficulty is to be at once more and less ambitious. That is, one resigns oneself to diminishing the number of essays and reviews which are to be considered with respect to a given work and at the same time to increasing the number of works considered. I would argue that this does not lead to an inevitable reduction of sense of nuance and depth. Rather, it points to the mindlessness of being excessively inclusive. Thus, this method requires a casualty at an early stage, i.e., the social history of ideas conceived as the study of low-brow popular opinion. There is some evidence that this sacrifice is not a crippling one; scholars who have studied certain aspects of the popular reactions are very reassuring. For example, Susan Budd read through the biographies of 150 members of the Secularist movement and found that ideas from geology, evolution, and scientific historiography were, on the available evidence, influential
in only three cases of loss of religious faith. Tom Paine and the comparison of the Bible with the institutions of church and society were much more important. Similarly, Jenifer Hart and Edward Norman, respectively, have looked at the sermons of country parsons and the debates among the ecclesiastical Lords and assure me that insofar as scientific ideas were mentioned, this occurred at a level of crude, clichéd unsophistication which would not repay detailed study. Finally, when Millhauser studied the writings of the Scriptural Geologists in the early decades of the century, he concluded that they did not illuminate the issues in the geological debate on miracles versus the uniformity of nature which were significant in the wider controversy on the impact of scientific ideas on the conception of nature and man's place in it.
I am not suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from the history of popular opinions. On the contrary, I would do much to encourage detailed studies of popular phrenology, the ideology of the Mechanics' Institutes, and the activities of provincial literary and philosophical societies. I only want to argue that it is legitimate to demarcate this sort of activity from the study of the views of the intelligentsia. Thus, I have chosen to confine my attention to certain major works and the debates surrounding them in the more sophisticated periodicals and intellectual circles. The hard core of works which I consider central to the issue of man's place in nature and which I have been investigating are the writings of Malthus, Paley, William Buckland, George Combe, Lyell, the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises (some more than others), Adam Sedgwick, William Whewell, Baden Powell, Robert Chambers, Darwin, Spencer, Wallace, Alexander Bain, Huxley, Tylor, Lubbock, and Tyndall.
Once one has made this decision and eliminated the certainty of being inundated by every conceivable opinion, it becomes impossible to retain certain other very convenient demarcations - those of subject and of specialized interests. The existence of a considerable number of scholars who call their discipline "Victorian Studies" implies all that I am about to say, but I feel that we are all very slow to appreciate the intellectual consequences of this: we are dealing with a common context of issues which diminishes the importance of divisions between science and arts, economic and political and biological theory, poetry and geology, psychology and theology, education and the novel - indeed, any combination of twentieth-century academic divisions which we care to name.
Of course, this situation drops us back into the morass which we attempted to avoid by setting out to study the views of the intelligentsia on scientific topics. However, certain aspects of Victorian Studies are relatively advanced; indeed, the field is dominated by students of literature, with social and political historians running second. This situation may make it possible to attempt to assess the role of scientific ideas in a body of literature which is already relatively well studied from other points of view.
It is acknowledged on all sides that scientific developments were at the center of Victorian intellectual life, but it remains the case that eminent scholars on the period, e.g., Knoepflmacher, Hillis-Miller, Ward, Haight, and Houghton give little evidence of having read, e.g., Lyell, Chambers, and Darwin, even though their works are utterly dependent on the reactions to these and related works which the Victorians about whom they write did read. To put this point even more contentiously, I doubt that Kitchel, Everett, or Haight have read the works of Gall, Spurzheim, Combe, Bray, and Spencer on phrenology and psychology, but the subjects of their students - George Eliot and George Lewes - took these works seriously enough to read them aloud to each other by the fire, and they included some of the authors among their most intimate friends. It is said that George Eliot even had her head shaved in order to obtain a more precise phrenological delineation. The activities of George Eliot and George Lewes perfectly exemplify the common context to which I refer. All of the following interests - and more - were intimately intermingled in their lives and works: drama, theater, literature, philosophy, Positivism, zoology, psychology, the novel, the study of the nervous system, poetry, political journalism, and biblical criticism. Similarly, the study of the impact of science requires a much fuller appreciation of the congeries of ideas which is evoked by the terms "empiricism, associationism," "Utilitarianism," "Philosophical Radicalism," and "Positivism." When one speaks of the impact of science on the intellectual culture of the period and sets out to examine the journals which provided a platform for scientific naturalism (e.g., the Westminster Review, the Leader, the Fortnightly Review, and the Nineteenth Century) it is important to look much further into the relevant scientific and philosophical works. These issues fail to figure prominently in the standard histories of the period. When they are discussed, they appear much more in the form of political programs than as manifestations of a philosophy of nature which
gave rise to the political, social, and aesthetic movements which form the subjects of so many works in "Victorian Studies." Instead of burrowing deeper into the minutiae of critical receptions of Victorian novels, it might be worthwhile to pay closer attention to the works and the movements which evoked so much Victorian writing.
In attempting to do this, it seems to me that we could do worse than to center our studies in the Victorian periodicals and the members of the intellectual milieux who edited and wrote for them. It turns out that this network of journals, authors, and friends includes everyone whose opinion seems relevant. Thanks to Professor Houghton's Wellesley Index we can now begin to identify the authors of the essays and reviews in the major periodicals. As a result of an immense labor, we have a simple catalogue of tables of contents and authors which allows us to illuminate the issues from a wide variety of perspectives. This activity was formerly almost impossible because of the practice of anonymous reviewing. The first volume of the Wellesley Index identifies the authors of 97 percent of the articles in eight of the major reviews, and the subsequent volumes attempt to do the same for a further thirty-two periodicals. The contents of the main reviews and the activities of their (now identified) contributors confirm one's belief in the existence of a common intellectual context which poured out controversy at an astonishing rate and a most surprising level of sophistication. Neither the periodicals nor their regular contributors made significant distinctions among science, literature, philosophy, theology, political economy, etc. Thus, I heartily agree with Brown, who argues that "the history of the English mind and English public opinion cannot be written without careful attention to the influence and history of periodical literature."
There was no dearth of organs for discussing these issues. Between 1800 and 1900 more than 1,000 new magazines of various kinds were started in London, and in the year in which On the Origin of Species appeared, 115 new periodicals were begun in Britain. What were they reviewing? In the period in which I believe that natural theology was playing an important integrative function in the intellectual culture, theological works were pouring out at a great rate. Of the roughly 45,000 books published in England between 1816 and 1851, well over 10,000 were religious, far out-
distancing the next largest category - history and geography -with 4,900, and fiction with 3,500. There was also an immense circulation of religious periodicals and tracts.
Turning now to the relationship between the periodicals, the common context, and natural theology, I can only indicate a conclusion from detailed reading of many of the periodicals and cite some examples which indicate the general development as I see it. In the period from about 1800 to about 1880, the role of theology seems to change from that of providing the context for the debate to that of acting as one point of view in a conflict. In the early debate the effort is to retain harmony between science and theology; after about 1850 increasing efforts are made to separate them or to make the claims of theology so abstract that they cannot come into conflict with the discoveries of science.
I would now like to move from these general hypotheses to a particular case. Much of the debate on man's place in nature can be interpreted in terms of the principle of the continuity or uniformity of nature. As this conception was applied to successively larger domains, the role of non-material causes was increasingly diminished - miracles, geological catastrophes, special creation of species, special vital laws in biology, as well as a separate realm of mind, were challenged by scientific developments in the middle two quarters of the century. Of course, there was vehement opposition to each of these moves, and they were hotly debated in the quarterlies, in monographs, in newspapers, in the pulpit, the universities, literary and philosophical societies, Mechanics' Institutes, letters, and drawing rooms. To concentrate on the views of the intelligentsia, the opponents of uniformitarian ideas in geology and biology who were most respected were (in increasing order of sophistication) William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, and William Whewell. Their opponents were (with variations on particular issues) Lyell, Chambers, Spencer, Huxley, and Darwin, among others, but the most sophisticated philosopher of the principle of uniformity was Baden Powell.
John Burrow has observed that "Much in nineteenth-century thought can be interpreted on the assumption that the Uniformity of Nature had acquired for many intellectuals a logical status and
a numinous aura which made it a substitute for the idea of God." In his recollections on the intellectual atmosphere at Oxford in the period 1856-9, John Morley wrote, "The forces of miracle and myth and intervening Will in the interpretation of the world began to give way before the reign of law." Morley was later the editor of the Fortnightly Review. Its first editor, G. H. Lewes, wrote in 1866 that science also offered "a cure for souls. . . . Formerly the best indication of a nation's progress was in its religious conceptions. Now the surest indication is in its scientific conceptions." In its first ten years the Fortnightly contained an article on the relations between science and theology in almost every issue. In the first number, George Eliot set the tone by pointing to "the gradual reduction of all phenomena within the sphere of established law, which carries as a consequence the rejection of the miraculous . . ." These views, along with those of Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall, represent the advance of the positivist, phenomenalist, nominalist group. That is, they represent the impact of science. My object here is to lend plausibility to the hypotheses (1) that as theology moved toward the identification of God with the uniformity of nature (under pressure from science), there came to be little to choose between the devout and the agnostic, and (2) that theology ceased to serve the unifying function which it had in the early decades of the century.
The case studies which I have chosen are not concerned with the views of those who come under the heading of "the impact of science." Rather, I should like to draw attention to the changing views of polymath theologians who were attempting to interpret the challenge from science. Since the writings of William Whewell extend over the crucial period 1830-60 and beyond, it will help to illustrate my view of the development of natural theology if we consider his writings in some detail and briefly contrast his views with those of Baden Powell, who argued for a very different view of the relations among God, man, and nature.
William Whewell was the most articulate and sophisticated interpreter of the providential view which was associated with the belief that God intervened in the course of nature with catastrophic alterations of its geology and its complement of species. He was also very influential in the community of scholars which embraced science, philosophy, and theology as an integrated discipline and which was beginning to show signs of strain. Indeed, his life and work provide an excellent, if extreme, example of the
common intellectual context which was characteristic of the period. He wrote sixty-four scientific papers, in addition to books .and shorter works which are listed in five columns in the Dictionary of National Biography. He wrote on mechanics, dynamics, electricity, theory of the tides (his most original scientific work), mathematics, geology, architecture, theology, education, poetry, logic, ind political economy. He also wrote poetry and translated classical and German poetry and Plato. When he wrote on the question of life on other worlds an unkind epigrammatist claimed that he wrote it to prove that "through all infinity there was nothing so great as the Master of Trinity." In his spare time from his writing, Whewell held posts as Tutor, then Master, of Trinity, was :twice Vice-Chancellor, and successively held chairs in Mineralogy and Moral Philosophy at Cambridge. He was also largely responsible for the introduction of both the Moral Science and the Natural Science Triposes in Cambridge (1848). He was a founder member of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Fellow and President (1837) of the Geological Society and successively Secretary (1833), Vice-President (1835), and President (1841) of the British Association. He twice essayed on the whole field of science - first in his Bridgewater Treatise (1833, the most popular of the series: it went through ten editions by 1864) and in his five-volume (continually revised) History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1837-40, etc.). Lyell once said that he regretted that Whewell had not concentrated his energies as a specialist in one science but later decided that he was most effective as an eminent "universalist." A less kind observer commented that "Science is his forte, omniscience his foible."
It is worth recalling that Whewell's position on the question of miracles in geology and biology was consistent with his general philosophical position, according to which the operations of nature required the constant sustenance and occasional direct intervention of the Deity: all force is will force and leads ultimately to God's efforts. This position on the philosophy of nature was intimately related to his views on the philosophy of scientific discovery, which led to a direct and protracted conflict between him and J. S. Mill, in which Mill argued that science investigated regularities in nature and could not provide ultimate explanations. Mill's empiricism is much closer to the positions of the Young Turks of scientific positivism - Huxley and Tyndall - than Whewell's views, which can be characterized as deeply antinaturalist and
even idealist. As a philosopher, Whewell set out to introduce an anti-Lockean philosophy to Cambridge. His views were influenced by Kant and can be described as transcendental and intuitionist.
Whewell played a prominent part in the debates on geology and evolution and their relationship with theology, and his writings in the periodicals, his own works, and his letters shed light on the reception of Lyell, Chambers, and Darwin. He reviewed the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology in the British Critic and the second volume in the Quarterly. In the former he pointed out that Lyell's principle of uniformity as applied to the history of the earth had implications for the question of the origin of species. If Lyell was going to "give even a theoretical consistency to his system, it will be requisite, that Mr. Lyell should supply us with some explanation by which we pass from a world filled with one group of species to one which contained different species." Since Lyell could not supply such an explanation, Whewell confidently concluded that it was "undeniable that we see in the transition from an earth peopled by one set of animals, to the same earth swarming with entirely new forms of organic life, a distinct manifestation of creative power, transcending the operation of known laws of nature: and, it appears to us, that geology has thus lighted a new lamp along the path to natural theology."
Later, in his History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Whewell set out to ajudicate the debate between uniformitarians and catastrophists in geology and the bearings of these positions on the origin of species. (Indeed, it was Whewell who dubbed the respective positions "uniformitarian" and "catastrophist," thereby polarizing the debate in a way which was not so neatly divided in the minds of most practicing geologists.) In what follows, it is noteworthy that Whewell is arguing his case in the light of the existing scientific evidence. This was already becoming a very risky strategy by the time that he wrote: the evidence could go either way. Thus, the roles of the advocates of the principle of the continuity of nature and naturalist explanation on the one hand and those who advocated divine intervention in the course of nature on the other were curiously reversed by Whewell when he argued that "Nothing has been pointed out in the existing order of things which has any analogy or resemblance, of any valid kind, to that creative energy which must be exerted in the production of a new species. And to assume the introduction of new species as a part
of the order of nature, without pointing out any natural fact with which such an event can be classed, would be to reject creation by an arbitrary act." There being no such natural means by which new species come to be, Whewell concludes that a creative power is exerted at the beginning of each cycle of new species. "Thus we are led by our reasonings to this view, that the present order of things was commenced by an act of creative power entirely different to any agency which has been exerted since. None of the influences which have modified the present races of animals and plants since they were placed in their habitations on the earth's surface can have had any efficacy in producing them at first. We are necessarily driven to assume, as the beginning of the present cycle of organic nature, an event not included in the course of nature." Material science cannot offer any explanation of the origin of species. An abyss interposes itself between us and any intelligible beginning of things.
Having convinced himself that science can say nothing of the origins of states of the earth or of the introduction of new species, Whewell turns to the topic of the relationship between the sciences of geology and biology on the one hand and the traditional biblical account on the other. Man keeps records, but the sacred narrative is inevitably difficult to interpret. Science constantly changes the language for describing facts, while the language of Scripture is always the same and was written for the common man. "Hence the phrases used by Scripture are precisely those which science soon teaches man to consider as inaccurate." In this, and the next four sections of his analysis, Whewell places the relations between the Book of God's Word and the Book of God's Works on a slippery slope which could only lead to science claiming more and more as its legitimate domain, while interpretation of Scripture became increasingly abstract.
He chooses as his example the conflict between Galileo and the Church (not, significantly, an issue in the contemporary debate). This episode taught that it was in the highest degree unjustifiable to extract astronomical or any other doctrines from the Scriptures and that any attempt to do so could lead "to no result but a weakening of the authority of Scripture in proportion as its credit was identified with that of these modes of applying it. And this judgment has since been generally assented to by those who most reverence and value the study of the designs of Providence as well as that of the works of nature." He then protects himself by flatly
asserting that science can teach us nothing about creation: "The thread of induction respecting the natural course of the world snaps in our fingers, when we try to ascertain where its beginning is. Since, then, science can teach us nothing positive respecting the beginning of things, she can neither contradict nor confirm what is taught by Scripture on that subject; and thus, as it is unworthy timidity to fear contradiction, so it is ungrounded presumption to look for confirmation in such cases. The providential history of the world has its own beginning, and its own evidence; and we can only render the system insecure, by making it lean on our material sciences."
This passage is a straightforward abandonment of one of the traditional aims of natural theology - to illuminate revelation by science. The trouble was, of course, that zealous scientist-theologians had claimed to find evidence which confirmed the biblical account. When this evidence was found to be erroneous, the consequences for the biblical story were alarming. Just this had happened in the case of William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford, whose dramatic evidence in support of the biblical Deluge had been proudly proclaimed in the 1820s, only to be quietly withdrawn in a footnote in his Bridgewater Treatise in 1836. Whewell saw that supporting Scripture by scientific evidence could not be separated from loss of support from new evidence.
From this position he might well have gone on to argue that science and theology should never be mingled, as Bacon had urged. Instead, he placed the Scriptures in danger of constant reinterpretation in the light of new scientific findings. He makes this point in a complacent, reassuring spirit, little suspecting that in his own lifetime this faith would let him down, and by ten years after his death this doctrine had been hardened into the aggressive thesis that as science advances, religion retreats.
8. Scientific views, when familiar, do not disturb the authority of Scripture. -There is another reflection which may serve to console and encourage us in the painful struggles which thus take place, between those who maintain interpretations of Scripture already prevalent and those who contend for such new ones as the new discoveries of science require. It is this; that though the new opinion is resisted by one party as something destructive of the credit of Scripture and the reverence which is due, yet, in fact, when the new interpretation has been gradually established and incorporated with men's current thoughts, it ceases to disturb their views of the authority of the Scripture or the truth of its teaching. When the
language of Scripture, invested with its new meaning, has become familiar to men, it is found that the ideas which it calls up are quite as reconcileable as the former ones were with the most entire acceptance of the providential dispensation. And when this has been found to be the case, all cultivated persons look back with surprise at the mistake of those who thought that the essence of the revelation was involved in their own arbitrary version of some collateral circumstance in the revealed narrative. At the present day, we can hardly conceive how reasonable men could ever have imagined that religious reflections on the stability of the earth, and the beauty and use of the luminaries which revolve around it, would be interfered with by an acknowledgement that this rest and motion are apparent only. And thus the authority of revelation is not shaken by any changes introduced by the progress of science in the mode of interpreting expressions which describe physical objects and occurrences; provided the new interpretation is admitted at a proper season, and in a proper spirit; so as to soften, as much as possible, both the public controversies and the private scruples which almost inevitably accompany such an alteration.
As he says in another place, "The results of true geology and astronomy cannot be irreconcileable with the statements of true theology." Whewell only warns that theology should not overhastily accept a new interpretation of Scripture, once again, lest it have to reverse its new interpretation when the scientific findings are shown to be unsound. Nevertheless, he goes on to say that ". . . when a scientific theory, irreconcileable with its ancient interpretation, is clearly proved, we must give up the interpretation, and seek some new mode of understanding the passage in question, by means of which it may be consistent with what we know; for if it be not, our conception of the things so described is no longer consistent with itself." "It is impossible," he concludes, "to over look the lesson which here offers itself, that it is in the highest degree unwise in the friends of religion, whether individuals or communities, unnecessarily to embark their credit in expositions of Scripture on matters which appertain to natural science. By delivering physical doctrines as the teaching of revelation, religion may lose much, but cannot gain anything."
The problem was to determine just what pertained to natural science. Whewell felt confident that certain major changes in the history of the earth, the origin of species, the appearance of man, and his moral nature were not within the domain of science. Within four years, Robert Chambers' anonymous work The Vestiges
of the Natural History of Creation appeared and argued that astronomy, geology, te origin of species, man's moral nature, and his social behavior were all subject to natural law - that there was no distinction between the physical and the moral. Chambers claimed that mind (and therefore morality) thereby passed into the category of natural law. Seven years later this interpretation was reinforced by Spencer's advocacy of evolution, massively backed up three years after that by a work interpreting psychology in evolutionary terms. There rapidly followed a rash of books interpreting the Scriptures themselves in scientific terms, followed by the works of Darwin and Wallace on evolution and those of others on the applications of evolutionary ideas to history, sociology, anthropology, and, finally, all mundane things.
Whewell was invited to review the Vestiges of Creation in the Edinburgh Review. He declined (the review was written by Adam Sedgwick, whose career and views might have served as a case study to complement Whewell's). Instead, Whewell published a reply to Vestiges which took a curious form (no less curious, however, than Sedgwick's writings on the subject): he simply republished extracts from the History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in a slim volume with a preface which alludes to the doctrine of Vestiges without mentioning the book! In a letter he acknowledges that the selections, under the title Indications of the Creator, "was published with some reference to the Vestiges,..... and as an answer to it so far as truth must in some measure be an answer to falsehood on the same subject. . . . I have attempted to show that, dim as the light is which science throws upon creation, it gives us reason to believe that the placing of man upon the earth (including his creation) was a supernatural event, an exception to the laws of nature. The Vestiges has, for one of its main doctrines, that this event was a natural event, the result of a law by which man grew out of monkey." The appeal of the book, he felt, lay in its "bold, unscrupulous, and false scientific generalisations" which are attractive to the ignorant, while they enrage scientists.
In the preface to the second edition, Whewell does refer to a defense of Vestiges, Explanations, and to the offending book itself. Once again, his position depends on the state of contemporary science: " . . . according to the best scientific views hitherto obtained, the Origin of Man, and the Origin of Life upon the earth, were events of a different order from the common course of nature. The Origin of Man is the Origin of Language, of Law, of
Social Relations, of Intellectual and Social and Moral Progress; and though in all these characteristics of humanity we can trace a constant series of changes and movements, we can discern in them no evidence of a beginning homogeneous with the present order of changes. If Science does not positively teach that man was placed upon the earth by a special act of his Creator, she at least shews no difficulty in the way of such a belief? She leaves us free to hold that the placing of man upon the earth was not an ordinary step in the natural course of the world; but an extraordinary step, the beginning of a providential and moral course of the world. She negatives the doctrine that men grew out of apes, that language is the necessary development of the jabbering of such creatures, and reason the product of their conflicting appetites." Where Lyell and the author of Vestiges, respectively, had referred the history of the earth and of life to the uniform action of the same natural causes which were then operating, Whewell says that this is a gratuitous assumption, while his views are the "result of scientific investigations." If we try to account for these changes by causes now in action, we fail.
Whewell notices Chambers' claim that his system denies human agency and human virtue but need not shake one's faith in God, but argues that this is simply inconsistent with the doctrine of Vestiges. Fortunately, these doctrines are fantastical, have been repudiated by all those competent to judge them, and can appeal only to the most credulous. If the doctrine of Vestiges be false, what then is true? Whewell replies, "To this question, men of real science do not venture to return an answer." "Since, as I have endeavoured to show in the following pages, the chain of existing causes does not, in any case, conduct us back to its origin; - not in the history of the mass of the earth, nor of its strata, nor of animal life, nor of man; - I must necessarily confess that we can not obtain from science a complete view of the history of the universe. That human reason should thus be unable to fathom and comprehend the acts of the Creator and Governor of the world, is no surprise nor humiliation to me; and I think that those do well who learn, from the study of the sciences, this lesson of humility."
Looking back from the vantage point of the addresses by Huxley and Tyndall at the Belfast meeting of the British Association in 1874, these passages read like a dare. Find the mechanism of evolution, and you can be as arrogant as you please. And they were: Tyndall claimed that science had unrestricted right of search
in all of nature, and Huxley argued that both men and animals are conscious automata. A year later, William Draper's provocative book The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science appeared in the popular International Scientific Series. This book accurately represents the state of the debate as it appeared by 1875. Whatever else one might wish to say about the results of Whewell's interpretation of the relationship between religion and science, it cannot be said that following it had the effect of making theology secure and scientists humble. Even earlier - in 1872 - statistical inquiries were being undertaken on the efficacy of prayer.
Whewell's response to Darwin's theory has an unvigorous air about it, in marked contrast to his spirited treatments of Lyell and Chambers. He wrote a polite note to Darwin, saying, ". . . I cannot, yet at least, become a convert. But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent." Darwin was so pleased that he sent the letter to Lyell, noting that Whewell "is not horrified with us." In the next four years many wrote on the question of the origin of species, the antiquity of man, and man's place in nature. Whewell fell back on the claim that the arguments in his Indications of the Creator still held. "It still appears to me that in tracing the history of the world backwards, so far as the palaetiological sciences enable us to do so, all the lines of connection stop short of a beginning explicable by natural causes; and the absence of any conceivable natural beginning leaves room for, and requires, a supernatural origin. Nor do Mr. Darwin's speculations alter this result. For when he has accumulated a vast array of hypotheses, still there is an inexplicable gap at the beginning of his series." Darwin, of course, never denied this. His doctrine, like those of Hutton and Lyell before him, was not concerned with the origin of the earth or of life. Whewell had been making much stronger claims in the 1830s and 1840s for repeated miraculous, wholesale creations of species. Now he is reduced to arguing for a miraculous beginning to the series, a point which Darwin concedes in the last paragraph of the Origin of Species. Whewell continues rather feebly: "To which is to be added, that most of his hypotheses are quite unproved by fact. We can no more adduce an example of a new species, generated in the way which his hypotheses suppose, than Cuvier could." (Again, a point conceded by Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall.) Finally, Whewell, now badly out of touch, claims that his earlier
conception of a uniformitarian-catastrophist debate still reflects the state of geological controversy: "And though the advocates of uniformitarian doctrines in geology go on repeating their assertions, and trying to explain all difficulties by the assumption of additional myriads of ages, I find that the best and most temperate geologists still hold the belief that great catastrophes must have taken place; and I do not think that the state of the controversy on that subject is really affected permanently. I still think that what I have written is a just representation of the question between the two doctrines." He went on to say that he did not believe that any cause would be served by his writing further on the subject; what he had written over twenty years earlier still seemed to him to apply to most of the questions under consideration in 1863. Finally, he says, he simply does not have the detailed knowledge to ajudicate the contemporary controversy.
Three months later Whewell turned his attention to the question of the antiquity of man, which was then at the center of the debate as a result of the appearance of Lyell's work on that subject and Huxley's collection of essays entitled Man's Place in Nature. There are signs in Whewell's remarks of a man who is simply out of touch and feeling nostalgic for a time when science and theology were more simply and reassuringly related.
I have myself taken no share in the discussions on the antiquity of man; but I will not conceal from you that the course of speculation on this point has somewhat troubled me. I cannot see without some regrets the clear definite line, which used to mark the commencement of the human period of the earth's history, made obscure and doubtful. There was something in the aspect of the subject, as Cuvier left it [Cuvier died in 1832], which was very satisfactory to those who wished to reconcile the providential with the scientific history of the world, and this aspect is now no longer so universally acknowledged. It is true that a reconciliation of the scientific with the religious view is still possible, but it is not so clear and striking as it was. But it is weakness to regret this; and no doubt another generation will find some way of looking at the matter which will satisfy religious men.
He adds that he should be glad to see his way to such a view and is hoping to do so soon. He lived for two more years, and it is a rather pathetic footnote to his career that his last gesture in thegreat debate on the relations among God, man, and nature was to
refuse to allow a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species to be placed in the Library of Trinity College.
I should now like to contrast the views of Whewell with those of Baden Powell. Where Whewell was involved in a rather tired and increasingly disorderly retreat, Powell was running headlong into the arms of the enemy. He was a sort of diminutive Whewell. He held only one Chair, that of Geometry at Oxford. As a scientist he wrote on light and radiant heat and elementary books on curves and on differential calculus. He wrote chiefly on optical questions and managed only one slim volume on the entire history of science. He was active in doctrinal questions from a latitudinarian point of view and took part in university reform. (He also sired thirteen children, one of whom founded the Boy Scouts.) In spite of his obscurity in recent secondary literature, Powell was the most clear-sighted of the interpreters of the uniformitarian point of view and wrote a series of monographs, essays, and reviews which nicely parallel Whewell's works from the interventionist or catastrophist point of view. Lest it be thought that I am rescuing an obscure figure for my own polemical purposes, I should add that his essays were commonly reviewed with Darwin's Origin of Species, and he was one of the contributors to Essays and Reviews -a work in the naturalist tradition which was causing more controversy in 1860 than Darwin's. (Essays and Reviews went through six editions by 1865.) Darwin also acknowledges Powell's work in the preface to later editions of the Origin. Powell suits us, because he interpreted Lyell in the 1830s in a monograph entitled On the Connection of Natural and Divine Truth, defended Vestiges in "The Philosophy of Creation," and was an early advocate of Darwin in his "Study of the Evidences of Christianity," his contribution to Essays and Reviews (which evoked a flood of replies). Powell promptly died, thereby missing out on the prosecution of some of his fellow contributors and giving rise to snide remarks about his punishment for blasphemy from one quarter and about his being blissfully free from a lot of Bibliolaters from the other.
Powell's position throughout his writings was consistent: the only rational and safe solution to the problem of reconciling science and theology is to keep them completely separate and to give up
entirely the concept of miracle as having anything to do with science. This was a radical, uncompromising solution to the problems posed for natural theology by science: the physical and moral departments of nature should be divorced once and for all. The Bible was an inspirational document, having nothing to do with science. Any attempt to stretch Scripture to accommodate science would harm both faith and reason. In 1855 he wrote that any solution short of this had always resulted "either in a lamentable antagonism and hostility, or in futile attempts to combine them in incongruous union, upon fallacious principles." The foundations of scientific and religious truth are, he insisted, entirely separate.
One might feel that the complete separation of moral and physical phenomena hardly solves one of the problems of natural theology: it either abrogates the discipline or merely restates its main problem. However, this was the solution which he, along with Combe and Chambers, proposed, and this view provoked Adam Sedgwick's fulminations against phrenology and the doctrine of Vestiges. Powell's essay made him much angrier than Darwin's hypothesis, since it explicitly advocated the very separation of moral and physical phenomena which Sedgwick said was implied by Darwin's book. It could be argued that Sedgwick and Wilberforce had clearer heads - that the only consistent theological position which did not entail slow, deliberate theological suicide was to stand and fight. However, the constraints which operate on a given thinker in a given historical context do not always - or even usually - lead to his holding an internally consistent position. Thus, Combe argued that the brain is the organ of the mind but that this did not imply materialism and fatalism. Chambers claimed that phrenology and social statistics did imply fatalism and annulled the distinction between the physical and the moral and then blithely argued that physical and moral laws are independent. Powell supported uniform natural laws in all of geology and biology but considered man's mental and spiritual nature independent. Surely this was what was at issue in the evolutionary debate! In any case, Powell claimed that there can be no real hiatus in the physical operations of nature and that all of science depends on this assumption.
The complete separation of science and theology was cold comfort, and it avoided the crucial claims of science to account for mental and moral phenomena and for the status of the Bible as a
historical document. Nevertheless, this was the line that was taken as an alternative to Whewell's idea of an orderly withdrawal. It is in this context that one can make sense of Huxley's claim that the theory of evolution "is neither Antitheistic nor Theistic. It simply has no more to do with Theism than the first book of Euclid has." "The doctrine of Evolution, therefore, does not even come into contact with Theism, considered as a philosophical doctrine. That with which it does collide, and with which it is absolutely inconsistent, is the conception of creation, which theological speculators have based upon the history narrated in the opening of the book of Genesis." If evolution has nothing to do with theism but merely contradicts the creation of the world by God, Huxley's laissez-faire view does not seem to have carried him as far as the end of the next sentence. Huxley, of course, goes on to claim the domain which Powell had reserved from the principle of uniformity. He did not deny that men and (pace Descartes) animals are conscious: they are conscious automata. Similarly, the term "creation" came increasingly to be used in an utterly emasculated sense to imply ignorance of the natural mode of production of a phenomenon. It is not surprising, on this account, that Lyell, Chambers, and Darwin could argue that their theories implied a grander view of the Creator - One who operated by general laws. Granting this cost them nothing as scientists. We know that Darwin had imperceptibly lost his religious faith somewhere along the way, but he could still be quite conventionally pious in On the Origin of Species. For all practical purposes this view was indistinguishable from positivism and agnosticism. It had been anticipated in Charles Babbage's uninvited Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, in which the inventor of the calculating engine (the lineal ancestor to the modern computer) argued that a miracle was equivalent to a sequence of numbers which the Programmer had instructed the calculating engine to produce and which only appeared to be an exception to the orderly sequence. This well-meaning offer of help to those troubled by the relationship between natural laws and miracles had the effect of making the claims of theism vacuous by making them so abstract that they had no empirical reference. By the time, fifty years later, that Frederick Temple argued in his Bampton Lectures that theology had nothing to fear from the evolutionary theory, the author was somewhere between being the writer of one of the theologically shocking Essays and Reviews and
being Archbishop of Canterbury. (This change in Temple's status is, I repeat, as remarkable a fact as Darwin's burial in Westminster Abbey.) Perhaps theologians had become convinced that they had nothing to fear at the expense of making no claims for theism.
This situation is reminiscent of seventeenth-century developments in which the exponents of a mechanical view of nature claimed that this involved no threat to theism. Commenting on these "Mechanick Theists," John Ray wrote in The Wisdom of God (1690), "Wherefore these Atomick Theists utterly evacuate that grand argument for a God, taken from the phenomena of the artificial frame of things, which hath been so much insisted upon in all ages, and which commonly makes the strongest impression of any other upon the minds of men &c. the atheists in the mean time laughing in their sleeves, and not a little triumphing to see the cause of Theism thus betray'd by its profess'd friends and assertors, and the grand argument for the same totally slurred by them, and so their work done, as it were, to their hands."
Now, to review. The tension between theodicy and the requirements of the scientific method had been harmonized in Paley by means of simple examples and the device of begging all questions having to do with origins. As detailed findings of science in areas which bore directly on the history of the earth, of life, and of man were brought into contact with natural theology, the theologians and theologian-scientists made three sorts of moves:
1. Separate the moral from the physical (Combe, some passages in Chambers, and Powell);
2 Reinterpret Scripture in the light of new scientific findings (Buckland, Sedgwick, Whewell - even some of the most ardent literalists, e.g., William Kirby and Thomas Chalmers, did this to some degree);
3. Make the concept of God more abstract until He is identified with the Uniformity of Nature.
Whatever move was made (and there are innumerable intermediate positions), one result was common: these adaptations involved the abandonment of the traditional claims of natural theology by emasculating its theodicy. It was no longer a strong enough doctrine to serve a unifying function in the intellectual culture of the period. If the justification of the ways of God to man is that God works by general laws and/or that His intention
was that moral and physical laws should be separate, then this would seem to guarantee God's indifference to a careless man of piety who, while praying fervently, stepped over a cliff and perished while obeying the laws of gravity. (Combe actually used this example.) Of course, this view of God's relationship to nature does not preclude a very personal God serving essentially psychological functions of inspiration and consolation, but it was necessary to confine claims for His efficacy to the afterlife, since science, scientific historiography, and statistics eliminated the claims of divine creation and the efficacy of prayer.
At the outset I was very tentative about the relationship between three issues: (1) the common context of ideas, the periodicals in which they were discussed, and the individuals who wrote about them; (2) the impact of science on natural theology; (3) the breakdown of the common context in the 1870s and later. One way of providing evidence for a causal relationship between these would be to show that the principal figures who wrote on various aspects of the debate were so concerned that they banded together to discuss the influence of science on the philosophy of nature and the implications for theology, literature, ethics, legislation, etc. If these developments are related, these men should find increasing difficulty in communicating with one another and should eventually lose interest and go their separate ways. Of course, it would help if this fantasy discussion group included the editors of, and the most distinguished contributors to, the major periodicals. They should be very interested in the aims of the group but should draw the lesson that they could no longer meet on common ground and go away to found new, specialized (or less sophisticated) societies and periodicals. We could then argue with some confidence that natural theology had become too abstract and/or too separated from scientific and moral issues to act as a cohesive force in the intellectual life of the period.
It would be very obliging of, say, Huxley, Cardinal Manning, Gladstone, William Carpenter, Walter Bagehot, Tyndall, Froude, Frederic Harrison, R. H. Hutton, A. R Stanley, Leslie Stephen, J. S. Mill, Darwin, Wallace, and Spencer to find time to conduct this experimentum crucis for us, but unfortunately my list is a tiny bit overambitious. That is, Mill and Spencer declined to join the
Metaphysical Society, and Darwin and Wallace were not members, but perhaps we can be reconciled to their absence by the presence of Tennyson, Ruskin, James Martineau, F. D. Maurice, James Knowles, James Fitzjames Stephen, the Duke of Argyll, Sir John Lubbock, A. J. Balfour, W K. Clifford, Mark Pattison, J. R. Seeley, Henry Sidgwick, George Croom Robertson, James Sully, and St. George Mivart, among others, making up sixty-two of the most eminent thinkers, churchmen, editors, men of affairs, writers, and scientists of the period.
Just about everything concerning this society realizes a historian's daydreams, including the fact that someone has done a very informative but not very incisive study of it. There are some minutes, almost all their papers were printed and are preserved in some form (many in Victorian periodicals), and the activities of the society can be illuminated by various lives and letters. It is true that one cannot attend the meetings, but members thoughtfully recorded their views in the Nineteenth Century in a series entitled "A Modern Symposium." Finally, several of the papers are reflections on the society itself, and R. H. Hutton has written a very evocative reminiscence on the origins of the society, including a typical meeting. The Metaphysical Society was founded in 1869, a year after one of the great holdouts on evolutionism had reluctantly accepted Darwin's view. In reviewing Lyell's final acceptance of evolution, A. R. Wallace, as I have pointed out, told the readers of the Quarterly Review that he was excepting some aspects of man from the process of evolution by natural selection. Things were getting very messy indeed, and the enunciation of the doctrine of papal infallibility a year later did little to improve the atmosphere.
Ninety meetings were held, and the Metaphysical Society voluntarily disbanded - for lack of interest - in 1880. It was first conceived as a Theological Society, but A. P. Stanley argued for rapprochement with the scientists, and the conception was broadened and the name was changed to "Metaphysical and Psychological Society" (the "Psychological" was soon dropped). The form was adopted from an amalgam of practices drawn from scientific societies and the Cambridge Apostles. The initiative came from the theological side, but there was a successful campaign to recruit scientists. The terms of reference of the society are just what one would hope. They set out to investigate "mental and moral phenomena, the faculties of lower animals, the grounds of belief, the
logic of the physical and social sciences, the immortality and identity of the soul, the existence and personality of God, conscience, and materialism." I wish that there was space to go through the papers read before the society in detail, but I can really only mention one or two and refer you to A. W. Brown's account, to which I am heavily in debt for this portion of my essay. At the first meeting, Tennyson's poem "The Higher Pantheism" was read by Knowles. It is characteristic in that many of the lines referring to the Deity end in queries, and it concludes,
God is law, say the wise; Oh Soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice.
Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,
For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;
And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision - were it not He?
This uncertainty about the faith which can be based on such a pale God nicely reflects my general point. Sixteen years later, in a passage I have already quoted, R. H. Hutton makes the same point, with the same ambiguity: "The uniformity of nature is the veil behind which, in these latter days, God is hidden from us." Indeed, he chose as the paper read at his imaginary meeting of the society, "Can Experience Prove the Uniformity of Nature?" Between these two quotations lie ninety papers, beginning with Hutton's "On Mr. Spencer's Theory of the Gradual Transformation of Utilitarian into Intuitive Morality by Hereditary Descent." I am tempted simply to reproduce the titles, since they convey the troubled and irreconcilable views of the members. They might have clashed and hammered out something. Indeed, Ward expressed Christian horror at Huxley's views in an early meeting, and in reply Huxley mentioned the intellectual degradation which would result from general acceptance of Ward's views, but from that time on, no words of that kind were heard.
Brown diagnoses the disintegration in a number of ways, but they add up to a surfeit of tolerance coupled with such irreconcilable views that the various persuasions slipped past one another and never grappled. Huxley claimed that the society died of too much love, while Tennyson thought that it perished because, after years of strenuous effort, no one had succeeded even in defining the term "metaphysics." The only common ground available to
them, as I have tried to show, was too abstract to be of any use. Where they used the same terms, they lacked common meanings. Let me cut the analysis short and say that they simply lacked a common context of ideas, and they were the last generation to attempt to maintain one. In a way it is remarkable that they spent eleven years arriving at the conclusion.
I should like to draw attention once again to the periodicals and other manifestations of the intellectual and cultural consequences of the Metaphysical Society. First, let us note the ages of the members at the time of its dissolution. Of the total membership since 1869, eight were dead, six were over seventy, eighteen were over sixty, fourteen were over fifty, ten were over forty, and six were over thirty (five of these elected in the last year), i.e., a waning generation.
It seems to me that the Metaphysical Society was something of a turning point. It attracted some of the most influential members of the cultural and political elite, men who were attempting to embrace all of the aspects of culture and society. At the same time it was the cradle of a number of specialized societies and periodicals which, on my reading of the evidence, were symptoms of the fragmentation of the common intellectual context of the early decades of the century. Its most active members included an astonishing group of editors and contributors: Hutton, Spectator; Alford, Contemporary; Knowles, Contemporary and Nineteenth Century; Ward, Dublin; Bagehot, National and Economist; Froude, Fraser's; Leslie Stephen, Cornhill and Dictionary of National Biography; and Robertson, Mind. A. C. Fraser had edited the North British (1850-7), and two relatively inactive members edited other major periodicals: Grove (Macmillan's) and Morley (Fortnightly 1867-82 - and later, for brief periods, Pall Mall Gazette and Macmillan's). Among the prominent and prolific contributors were Stanley, Huxley, Mivart, Argyll, Harrison, Tyndall, Carpenter, Pattison, Gladstone, J. Martineau, Tennyson, and Ruskin.
Before turning to some symptoms of the breakdown of the common context, I should like to cite some statistics which strike me as interesting and significant. Between 1860 and 1870, 170 new periodicals were launched in London (an average of one about every three weeks; most were short-lived); 140 between 1870 and 1880; 1880-90, 70; 1890-1900, 30 (less than in 1791-1800). There was also a great increase in the availability of cheap books in
the last decades of the century. Meanwhile, the great quarterlies were in decline. The circulation of the Edinburgh Review was 13,500 in 1818 and about 7,000 between 1860 and 1870; the analogous figures for the Quarterly were 14,000 and 8,000. The Westminster Review (the third of the great quarterlies) was founded in 1824, never had a large circulation, and averaged 4,000 in the period 1860-70. Scientific and religious monthlies and quarterlies sold 1,000 to 2,000 copies, while the general monthlies sold 3,000 to 20,000, although the Cornhill sold 80,000 in 1860 (2,500 in 1871 and later 12,000) and Cassell's Magazine sold 200,000 in 1870. Macmillan's and the Cornhill sold 100,000 in their best years. The weeklies had circulations of up to 300,000, but 40,000 to 60,000 was more usual. The Fortnightly (the main platform for radical opinion) sold 2,500 in 1873. Radical periodicals never had large circulations.
In order to make sense of these figures beyond saying that a lot of periodicals were being sold (and presumably read), one would have to make detailed studies of which popular novelist wrote for which periodical in which year. One would also need to take account of a number of other forces at work, whose combined effects would be difficult to analyse. Here are some which were mentioned in a contemporary series of articles. Stamp duty on paper was reduced in 1836 and abolished in 1855. Cheaper paper was therefore available. It was available to a rising population whose literacy was increasing. Periodicals could be printed on new steam presses; they were marketed with greater commercial sophistication. Authors were paid higher fees and wrote for a more differentiated audience. A larger audience allowed publishers to cater to more diversified interests. However, one can draw the unsurprising conclusion that the lower the intellectual standard, the higher the circulation. At the same time, growing literacy did not swell the circulation figures of the Edinburgh and Quarterly. The new formula for success lay with the Nineteenth Century, and this does seem significant, since its editor, James Knowles, persuaded very eminent contributors to write in a more popular style, with great success. It would be interesting to examine the circulation figures of the Contemporary Review, since it was founded as an organ making the same kind of appeal to liberal opinion in the church that the Fortnightly made to a more secular audience and then underwent a transformation in Knowles' hands before he
founded the Nineteenth Century. However, I have been unable to find any figures.
In this concluding section I should like to indicate briefly a number of things which seem to me to be symptoms of the fragmentation of the common intellectual context which was thriving in the early decades of the century and which the Metaphysical Society was attempting to maintain. The examples which I have chosen are the decline of the British Association, a confused book which was much praised by Darwin, the founding of Nature as a general scientific periodical outside of the context of the quarterlies, and the founding of a number of specialist journals and societies which emerged from the matrix of the Metaphysical Society.
The British Association was founded partly as a protest against corruptions in the Royal Society and partly as an attempt to give science the sort of status in Britain which it had on the Continent, but its main function was to interpret science to the intelligent layman. The level of exposition of its general and specialist papers, and the interest which its meetings generated on the part of the public (as shown by their attending meetings and by the detailed reports of meetings in the newspapers and periodicals), shows that the association was playing an important part in the common intellectual culture. In the same period that the "heavy" quarterlies ceased to reflect a common culture, the British Association was ceasing to serve the function of the expositor of the best science to a glittering audience. After an uncertain start the first fifty years (since 1831) had been the best. A jubilee meeting was held at York in 1881; three years later the first overseas meeting was held in Montreal, and somehow by this time the association had become the "Ass". Thus a verse from "Red Lions"' songs entitled "The Travelled Ass":
At York they thought she was sure to die
For she didn't seem to enjoy age;
But at last the doctors bade her try
The effects of an ocean voyage.
In the same year that the Metaphysical Society was founded, and at the time when the British Association was ceasing to serve
as the main vehicle for communication between specialists in the various sciences and for the dissemination of their findings to the general public, a periodical was founded, the existence of which, it seems to me, was very significant. Nature, a general scientific weekly, began publication soon after the Metaphysical Society began meeting. The appearance of Nature diluted the role of science in the general periodical literature and diverted the attention of scientists from the general periodical culture. Coupled with the decline of the British Association and the development of much more popular expositions of science in the Nineteenth Century a few years later, the existence and popularity of Nature among increasingly professional scientists represent a withdrawal from the common matrix in which important scientific findings found their main reviews and discussions in the quarterlies.
In the 1870s and 1880s there were still long essays in the quarterlies on scientific monographs, but the range of monographs which were being reviewed was narrower, and the authors of the reviews were no longer the most eminent scientists. Similarly, if one looks at the lives and letters of the leading scientists, they were no longer tremulously awaiting the reviews in the quarterlies and discussing them in detail. Perhaps it is not too great an exaggeration to say that "Nature" had withdrawn from the common intellectual culture and had joined medicine as a domain for specialists.
Who was left to interpret science to the layman and to discuss the large issues raised by science? There were, as I have said here, still reviews in the quarterlies, but their authors were less competent than, e.g., Lyell, Whewell, Sedgwick, and Herschel had been in the earlier decades. Those who still wrote for a nonspecialist audience, e.g., Huxley, Wallace, and Tyndall, were self-consciously involved in popularization. The field was left to pretentious hacks and to more or less competent amateurs. A detailed study of this new sort of interpreter needs to be made, but it will be apparent that in the period after 1875 it is impossible to follow the methodology outlined in the first sections of this essay. That is, in this period one is perforce involved in the study of popularizations. Confining one's attention to the haute intelligentsia no longer works, and this discovery has played a significant part in developing the line of argument used in this essay. What is required is a study analogous to Millhauser's essay on popular geology in the earlier decades, but the difference is that these writings
are not complemented by extended essays for the intelligentsia written by the relevant specialists. Thus, one should begin looking at the writers who played the role, in the period 1870-1900, which Wells and Eddington played in the early decades of the twentieth century. (A study of the International Scientific Series would seem a promising place to begin, and Becker's Scientific London  can serve as a guide to the scientific scene.)
One example of the sort of book which I have in mind is The Creed of Science, Religious, Moral and Social, by William Graham. The author was Professor of Jurisprudence at Belfast and set out to review the implications of physical, evolutionary, and psychological science and to consider "the old eternal, questions in their present aspect." The book was aimed especially at the general reader who was troubled by the threat of "intellectual and moral nihilism." The point about the book is that it was muddled but reassuring. As one reviewer put it, "...his efforts to save the remnants of older speculations seem almost willful perversity. . . . [He] seems to have a fondness for raising spectres in order apparently to have the satisfaction of laying them. . . . His Transcendentalism and his Experimentalism are not harmonised; they are simply juxtaposed, and he slips from the critical to the dogmatic vein almost without knowing it." These remarks, by W. C. Coupland, appeared in the new professional philosophical journal, Mind (of which more later) and represent the way in which the book strikes the modern reader. However, the popular audience of the period welcomed the book (a second edition soon appeared), and the author wrote popular books on the philosophical, social, and political aspects of the new wave of science, including a volume for the exceedingly popular International Scientific Series. My point is that the public craved such works and that the sort of overview which Graham attempted was achieved by means of casuistry. Yet Darwin took comfort from the book.
Another aspect of the apparent fragmentation of the common context is the change of status of various specialist societies. It is very difficult to be sure about such things, but one has the impression that a number of societies which had been in existence for many decades began to become more self-consciously professional. This had the effect of making amateurs less at home and led the professionals to devote more of their energies to a narrower conception of their interests. Once again, detailed study of
indivdual societies is required, and a number of other variables are surely involved. I will cite one example which will help me to say something which I want to say at the end. In 1869 various disparate societies and publications in anthropology came together as a self-conscious discipline merging the Journal of the Ethnological Society, the Memoirs Read before the Anthropological Society, and the Anthropological Review. More recently, the Journal of the Anthropological Institute has been renamed Man.
When the Metaphysical Society disbanded, it left its residual funds to a new journal, Mind, whose foundation in 1876 seems to me to reflect the fact that psychology and philosophy of mind had never really found a home in the common context. I've said that works on psychology had been reviewed - beginning with a fulminating attack on phrenology by Thomas Brown in the second volume of the Edinburgh Review (1803) which was followed by others in 1815 and 1826 by John Gordon and Francis Jeffrey. The first fair hearing for the phrenologists came in 1828 in the Foreign Quarterly Review. For the most part, however, there was no debate on psychology in the quarterlies. I believe that this was so because the allowance of such a debate would involve conceding the point at issue - that there could be a science of psychology. Instead one finds characteristic fulminating paragraphs in reviews of the major evolutionary works. This belief is linked with another hypothesis - that concentrating on geological and biological issues constituted a holding action against the real issue: Is mind a part of the natural world, subject to scientific laws? In any case, Mind was conceived in the year of Tyndall and Huxley's Belfast Addresses and first appeared in the year (1876) in which David Ferrier summarized the experimental findings on the physiological basis of mind, a study which had been developing dramatically since 1870. The founder of Mind was Alexander Bain, who had done more than any other scholar to establish the identity of psychology as an academic discipline, relatively free from the epistemological, logical, educational, and social issues which had preoccupied earlier writers, e.g., Locke, Hartley, Brown, J. Mill, J. S. Mill.
Mind was the first professional journal in the field in any country, and the prefatory words in the first number included these remarks (which should be familiar from Chapter 3):
Even now the notion of a journal being founded to be taken up wholly with metaphysical subjects, as they are called, will little commend itself to those who are in the habit of declaring with great confidence that there
can be no science in such matters, or to those who would only play with them now and again [a reference to the Metaphysical Society?] ... MIND intends to procure a decision on this question as to the scientific standing of psychology.
These declarations represent the growing specialization of a putative science of psychology, a discipline related to philosophy and physiology but not dependent on either. More important, it reflects an attitude which was antithetical to that of Chalmers' Bridgewater Treatise of 1833, in which the moral and intellectual constitution of man was wholly absorbed by natural theology. Mind went on to become - and remains - the most distinguished philosophical periodical. Its first editor was George C. Robertson, a pupil of Bain and an active member of the Metaphysical Society.
It is worth noting in passing that Brain, a separate journal for the study of neurology and neurophysiology, was founded in 1878, reflecting the relative independence of these studies from general medicine on the one hand and from psychology on the other. Two years earlier, a separate Physiological Society was founded, with T. H. Huxley, David Ferrier, and G. H. Lewes on its council.
In 1879, the Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy was founded. Shadworth Hodgson was the prime mover, with generous advice from the Positivist Frederic Harrison. Hodgson had also been one of Croom Robertson's most active supporters in the establishment of Mind, and the two ventures remained closely connected. (Since 1918 they have met jointly once a year.) The members of the Aristotelian Society included Baln, Romanes (the heir to Darwin in the study of comparative psychology), William James (the prime mover in American psychology), J. M. Cattell, L. T. Hobhouse - and later, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehezd, and G. E. Moore - bringing us to recent work. In the first twelve years (i.e., until 1890-1, when its proceedings were first published), psychological and methodological problems dominated the fortnightly meetings of the society, and philosophy proper occupied a comparatively small place, even though its study was the main purpose of the society. The executive committee complained in this vein in 1891-1.
The decline of the "heavy" general quarterlies and the growth of specialized journals and societies were complemented by the success of a self-consciously "middle-brow" periodical; the Nineteenth Century was founded in 1877 and catered to a more popular
audience. Its editor, James Knowles, was able to persuade a number of eminent men to change their loyalties and write for it. Indeed, the members of the Metaphysical Society contributed a quarter of the articles in the first four volumes and a fifth of the next four: in the first eight volumes there were twenty-three articles by Gladstone, thirteen by Huxley, nine by Froude, and eight poems by Tennyson. Huxley also devoted a good deal of energy to the popularization of science in its pages. The Nineteenth Century was the most widely respected of the monthly reviews and remained so until the end of the century. Its success lay in its presenting a different level of analysis and exposition, not unlike that exhibited in our own time in Encounter, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, with perhaps an element of something between New Scientist and Scientific American.
After the disbanding of the Metaphysical Society, the only soclety which was very like it was the Synthetic Society, founded in 1896. However, its aims were really those of the initial conception of the Metaphysical Society before the scientists were invited to join; it was specialized in its own way and was frankly theological. So little did its members disagree that they came to be known as the "Sympathetic Society." The attempt to maintain a common context of ideas had failed, and the theologically minded had joined their other specialized colleagues in recognizing a separation. Theology was no longer the context; it was but one element in a fragmented culture.
Thus, by the 1880s Mind, Brain, Nature, Man (anthropology), and philosophy had separated themselves off. These are examples pointing to the breakup of a common intellectual context and its associated literature, leading to the development of specialists' careers, societies, and periodicals.
Secularization and specialization are, of course, but a small part of the wider process of enclosures which together led to the modern, professional intellectual and the academic organization of knowledge within disciplinary boundaries. In our own time the division of labor leads an intellectual to respond to the wide and deep questions which natural theology and Victorian periodicals asked with, "That's not my field."
Gladstone epitomized the completion of preparing the ground for these arrangements in a conversation with Tennyson, Froude, and Tyndall in 1881: "Let the scientific men stick to their science,
and leave philosophy and religion to poets, philosophers, and theologians."
What remained common was popularization, uncertain generalization, and the narrowed vision of the modern expert, who would blush to say or even think, "How manifold are thy works O Lord; in wisdom hast thou made them all." In any case, what would be the point? No reputable journal could be found to publish such ideas.
The growing indifference (coupled with arrogance) of scientists to theology is nicely reflected in the spread of the designation "agnotic". Huxley's account of its origina conveys the change of atmophere very well:.
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. . . . This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable con fraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious mernory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag or a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title 'agnostic.' It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too had a tail, like other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the Spectator had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people, that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened was, of course, completely lulled.
Since the argument of this chapter was first developed and explored in lectures (1965-71) and since it was circulated and widely
cited in mimeograph form (1969), it has had a curious and gratifying underground life - sometimes cited, often tacitly addressed. I fancy that at least one thesis, more than one substantial paper, and perhaps a book got written along lines that might have been different if it had not been for the argument of this essay. Some subsequent studies have comforted me by deepening our grasp of "socially diplomatic purposes," the "mediating functions," and "prominent unifying role" of natural theology and referring to its "fragmentation" and vulnerability to changing scientific connections. Similarly, I, of course, welcome subsidiary theses which played no part in my original formulation but which are in line with my own historiography. John Brooke argues that "the fate of natural theology itself would be bound up with all the pressures to which such traditions were subjected during the course of the 19th century. It is impossible to understand the fortunes of particular concepts of natural theology if they are detached from their ecclesiastical context." Moving further, I take it that my argument is complemented by the claim that
in the case of Powell, for example, it has been recently and successfully shown that his critique of the apologetic value of miracles and his desire to unseat "the prejudice, that design can only be inferred when we cease to trace laws" was as much a reaction against the excesses of the Oxford Movement as it was a response to the expansion of scientific naturalism.
Other findings begin to qualify my claims for the role of natural theology: "A recent study reminds us that the implications of geology for natural theology were a relatively minor concern for the religious periodical press." This does not, of course, touch the role of natural theology in the scientific and high-brow periodicals which were the ones to which I was drawing attention. I would say the same of what John Brooke identifies as the strategy of David Yule's dissertation:
By driving a wedge between the clerical scientists and the intellectual leaders of the Christian churches Yule minimizes the role of natural theology within Christianity. His argument does, however, lead to the refreshing conclusion that, for the discerning a work such as Vestiges merely confirmed the wisdom of the complete detachment from the internecine squabbles of the scientific apologists.
I am delighted that these two assiduous students in my earliest lecture courses found so much to ruminate. I would say the same
about writings about these and other Darwinian topics by my students and junior colleagues, including Roger Smith, Peter Bowler, John Durant, Roger Cooter, Edward Yoxen, and Maureen McNeil. As time goes on, other students would, I think, at best express ambivalence about the relationship between the period during which we worked together and our subsequent trajectories, e.g., W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter. On the other hand, some whom I did not officially supervise - Margot Waddell - or even meet - James R. Moore, Eveleen Richards, and David Kohn - have made very pleasing acknowledgments, just as a few others have persisted with the uncollegial relations that characterized our period of working together. Finally, there is the odd exact contemporary of whom I can only wonder what's eating them.
I should close this bit of gossip by saying that my own mentor in the Darwinian literature was Sidney Smith, who turned out to live across the street from me in my first year at Cambridge. He called on me and was both kind enough to introduce me to Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being and provocative enough to suggest that it would be a dead end to look into the Malthus-PaleyDarwin interrelations. I had become curious about them by reading Charles Gillispie's masterful bibliographic essay at the end of Genesis and Geology.
The person who taught me how to think about Darwin was Walter - later Faye - Cannon, whom I did not meet until some years later, while the people who had most to do with my learning to think at all were teachers at Yale - Richard Rorty and Irwin Lieb - and Gerd Buchdahl at Cambridge. A. O. Lovejoy, A. N. Whitehead, E. A. Burtt, Georg Lukács, and Herbert Marcuse were the most challenging people whom I read, while my then friend John Dunn taught me a great deal about the scale and depth of the interrelations among intellectual and political matters. I have always regretted that we parted over Marxism. Here, as elsewhere, there are many layers to the histories of relationships. Even when they cease to be fruitful at one level, they can continue to be at others. Lest this postscript be thought to be merely gossip, it is worth recalling that intellectual networks and influences are just as important to history now as they were in the nineteenth century as the foregoing essays - and especially the one to follow - attempt to show.
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM