Science in the Popularis Aura: Opening Statement delivered in defense of the dissertation: “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860”

Opening Statement delivered in defense of the dissertation: “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860,” by Michael Rectenwald 

Presented October 4, 2004, Literary and Cultural Studies Program, Carnegie Mellon University. 
Jon Klancher, director; Kristina Straub and Michael Witmore, readers

 Please do not cite or paraphrase without permission.

Science in the Popularis Aura
By Michael Rectenwald

As Thomas Carlyle quipped in 1829 in “Signs of the Times,” in the nineteenth century, “every little sect among us, Unitarians, Utilitarians, Anabaptists, Phrenologists, must have its Periodical, its monthly or quarterly Magazine;-- hanging out, like its windmill, into the popularis aura, to grind meal for the society.” In my dissertation, “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860,” I have endeavored to study the “machinery” for the production and dissemination of science in culture—to examine how various sects or publics provided scientific “meal for the society.” Examining several periodicals from early to mid-nineteenth-century Britain, my dissertation is an account of emerging sites for the production, dissemination, negotiation, and appropriation of knowledge amongst various participants—authors, publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, readers and others—as they vied for (and against) cultural authority on the basis of beliefs claimed as “scientific.”  

To approach such a wide spectrum of enterprises and their cultures, I realized that a suitable framework would be essential. A possible model was the thesis of a “common intellectual context” of Victorian science and culture introduced by Robert M. Young over thirty years ago. Young’s research began as he sought to understand the place of psychology, in particular, the “theories about the relationship between mind and brain,” in discourse on physical and mental science in the nineteenth century. Instead of such specialized discourses, he discovered an “intellectual context” in which he located the “nineteenth-century debate on man's place in nature.” Young’s common intellectual context was, as “one could put [it] anachronistically… ‘a rich interdisciplinary culture’ [located] in the early decades of the nineteenth century in Britain,” in which numerous interlocutors discussed in “monographs, periodicals, and lives and letters,” matters ranging from “geology, natural theology, Malthusianism,” to theology, politics, and literature. It was a general culture concerned with, among other things, “the role of nonmaterial causes in nature and with the relationships among God, man, and nature.” This common intellectual context was held together, Young argued, by a tacit agreement over natural theology. The “breakup” of this context came as the specialist sciences rose, and the theological was challenged by a secular worldview. 

Young provided a starting point because it accounted for the polymathic nature of the discourse community he observed. But his was only a starting point, because he had limited his consideration to “the views of the intelligentsia,” and excluded “popular phrenology, the ideology of the Mechanics’ Institutes, and the activities of provincial literary and philosophical societies,” claiming merely that it was “legitimate to demarcate this sort of activity from the study of the views of the intelligentsia.” As these groups were actually found in mutual formation, a revision of Young’s paradigm was in order. A promising approach to the revision of the common intellectual context was to be found in the recent studies critiquing and altering a strikingly similar formulation: Jurgen Habermas’s thesis on “the public sphere.” From here, it was only a step to figure nineteenth-century science culture as consisting of various publics in interaction, each with its own “common culture,” and the evidence was of just such publics and interactions.

My dissertation thus intervenes in the cultural history of science by introducing the kind of revisionism that has been directed at the Habermasian “public sphere” in social history and critical theory. I argue that during the period I consider—roughly 1820 to 1860—the landscape of science in culture should be revised to account for multiple, distinct, yet overlapping publics of science. Within identifiable publics, scientific ideas, ideologies, and values became a matter of ‘common’ interest and pursuit. Participants and their publics competed and negotiated to attain a newly available cultural authority based on beliefs claimed as ‘scientific.’ Further, while historians have generally traced the emergence of modern science from late eighteenth-century natural philosophy and natural history, the science of the late nineteenth century was not the immediate descendent of the gentlemanly naturalists. I argue that other social and epistemological threads—woven through various “publics of science” in an agonistic network of relations—are also essential for tracing the fabric to emerge as modern science by the last decades of the century. This dissertation provides detailed accounts of important science publics and their activities, while pointing to the contributions that these publics made—collectively and somewhat unwittingly—to the invention of the late nineteenth-century hegemonic constellation known as “science.”

For an understanding of knowledge and belief in social context, I adopt the tenets of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK). That is, I consider the social factors and interests involved in the production, exchange and use of knowledge. I map theories and perceptions of the natural and social worlds onto the social interests of individuals and groups. I follow David Bloor, in a seminal work that defined SSK, and take “knowledge” to be “belief” that people (more or less) consider to be true. My epistemology may be called, following David Hess, a “moderate constructivism.” Hess advanced the term in his An Advanced Introduction to Science Studies to refer to a position that regards science as representing its natural object(s), and the social and political orders, rather than either one exclusively. Martin J.S. Rudwick developed a similar standpoint based on his detailed and remarkable study of the Devonian controversy in geology, by suggesting that “a consensual product of scientific debate can be regarded as both artifactual and natural, as a thoroughly social construction that may nonetheless be a reliable representation of the natural world.”

The publics I look at are gentlemanly natural philosophy, the radical science public surrounding and growing out of the writing of radical plebian publisher Richard Carlile, gentlemanly reformism, useful knowledge periodicals and the Mechanic’s institutes, gentlemanly geology, and Secularism. My study admittedly focuses primarily on the cultural producers within and around such publics, but, the publics are seen as competing, coalescing and ultimately collaborating in a network of social actors contributing to an overall effect. In the process that I have described throughout this study, I examine several key moments and events, which I will now briefly draw out and highlight. I conclude this statement by discussing the overall effect of the network that I describe, while considering the reasons for the disappearance of subaltern science publics and the implications for contemporary interventions.

I have attended to the rise of science as a process of attaining relative cultural, institutional and methodological autonomy, at least insofar as science’s self-image and operational integrity are concerned. Science’s relative cultural autonomy—by which I mean its move to insulate itself from the interference of cultural, religious and other forces, and its development of a peculiar learning style—came by way of the promotion of scientific education in culture. Throughout this study, I have insisted on the importance of education to the hegemony that science achieved by the third quarter of the century. Thus, I have studied closely what Alan Rauch has termed the new “knowledge industry” that arose from the early 1820s and continued well into the century. A new knowledge industry began as the acquisition of knowledge—particularly “useful knowledge”—gained a new ascendancy in nineteenth-century Britain. With the emergence of the useful knowledge movement, a “useful education” was contrasted with classicist education—or the study of ‘dead’ languages and their literatures. A Broughmite periodical like the Westminster Review justified its emphasis on a useful education on the basis of its importance to industrial processes, the necessity of scientific knowledge for the improved production of goods, and the importance of such knowledge for British imperial competition with other nations.  Educational reformers, lecturers, politicians, publishers, periodical editors, gentlemen of science, and social reformers promoted (or were detractors of) versions of knowledge that included science, mathematics, technology, and political economy. As part of the devotion to knowledge and its diffusion, new knowledge texts burgeoned, including encyclopedias, children’s books, instruction manuals, books, pamphlets, and periodicals—in increasingly cheap formats, at increasing rates of production, and aimed at increasingly specific segments of the population. I study three useful knowledge periodicals in chapter 2: The Mechanic’s Magazine, the London Mechanic’s Register, and the Penny Magazine for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.The new premium on natural knowledge acquisition was also reflected in the exponential increase of knowledge institutions. The list is extensive and I will name only a few: the Royal Institution (f. 1799), the Royal College of Surgeons (f. 1800), the Horticultural Society (f. 1804), the London Institution for the Advancement of Literature and the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (f. 1805), the Geographical Society (f. 1807), the Institute of Civil Engineers (f. 1818), the Astronomical Society (f. 1821). Science’s rise and demarcation from humanities, theology and art only came as a scientific spirit reached into culture, finally establishing a scientific cultural hegemony. To account for such a profoundly altered landscape of knowledges, such as Mathew Arnold described in his Rede Lecture of 1882—from classicism’s dominance at century’s beginning to its relative decline at century’s end—these subaltern and alternative cultures and their publics must be taken into account. Proceeding as it had been conducted from the 17th and 18th centuries, gentlemanly science, by itself, might never have led to the rise of science to dominance by the end of the 19th century. Nested within this larger argument is another argument about the use of knowledge as power, and whose power such knowledge dissemination represented—whether that of middle- and upper-class promoters or that of plebian recipients and participants. I have argued that the knowledge industry is too complex to reduce to a model of social management or control.

By institutional autonomy, I mean the relative autonomy of science’s institutions from, and their relative rise with reference to, other cultural institutions. In the period I discuss, science became more clearly demarcated from other cultural institutions. In chapter 3, my first chapter on Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, I frame Lyell’s geology within a broader project for knowledge—as Lyell labored to separate the objects and study of sciences from those of the humanities and arts. He called for their separation in libraries, museums and the new provincial and metropolitan literary and scientific institutions—and in education, calling for a greater emphasis and examinations on the sciences at Cambridge and Oxford.  Pivotal to understanding this shift in elite science is that it came in response to the popular tradition that emerged so strenuously in other publics. Responding to pressures from below, Lyell called for specialization, professionalism and the demarcation of science from other cultural enterprises. These changes would contribute to science’s relative autonomy by the end of the century.

By methodological autonomy, I refer to the process by which science began to differentiate itself from the methods of study undertaken in or connected to other domains, particularly as science was demarcated from natural and revealed theology. As has been observed by several scholars, in the early 19th century, natural theology—or the use of natural knowledge to affirm divinity—enjoyed an Indian summer between the publication of William Paley’s Natural Theology in 1802 and the publication of the Bridgewater Treatises beginning 1836. Science subsequently shed this captivation to or reliance on natural theology. The process of science’s secularization involved a turn to what I have called a methodological materialism. As distinct from both natural theology, as well as the philosophical or ontological materialism of Enlightenment and early 19th-century atheism, methodological materialism bracketed ontological questions regarding the extra-material, simply deeming them irrelevant for the purposes of scientific inquiry. As science developed a methodological materialism, it was finally able to divorce itself from natural and revealed theology. As I argue, this process would not have been possible without the interventions of participants from radical science, the mechanics’ periodical and institute movement, Charles Lyell’s uniformity principle, and the movement of Secularism founded by the radical artisan George Holyoake at mid-century. 

Furthermore, methodological materialism resolved an ambiguity that had haunted the empirical methodology of science. Both materialists and natural theologians relied on empirical methods, but their observations of nature served different ends. For materialists the purpose was to affirm the independence and self-sufficiency of matter. For the natural theologians, observations were adduced to affirm, celebrate, or contemplate the reality and goodness of God. Methodological materialism removed these ultimate (or ulterior) motives from science, allowing it to simply study the matter at hand without reference to or denial of anything else. Lyell’s uniformity principle certainly contributed to this demarcation, as did Secularism.

This point about method brings me to two questions about my own methodology and the results of that method, with which I will end my opening statement. First, although I made explicit use of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory only in chapter four to discuss the periodical network involved in the reviewing of the Principles of Geology, one might argue that this model is implicit in my study of the articulation between the publics that I have discussed. We might envision, for example, the publics of radical science, gentlemanly reform, useful knowledge, Catastrophism, uniformitarianism, Secularism and others as operating along a continuous network of interests. Such publics may have contributed actors and “actants” to the network in larger scale negotiations. In other words, the circulation of knowledge claims and aims within and between existing and emerging publics may be understood as a process of enrollment serving a larger end. That end might very well be the black-boxing of science itself as a strong cultural, institutional and methodological formation—a Latourian black-box that became resistant to re-opening. Such a picture would not amount to the denial of the agency, motives, or efficacy of contributing publics. Rather, their collectivities can be figured as productive of the power that the discourse science produced and inherited. Thus, Latour’s actor-network theory can also be brought into service to understand cultural hegemony in a manner described by Raymond Williams in his famous essay on emergent, residual and dominant cultural formations. With the specificity of Latour’s method, the process of emergence can be traced to an agonistic field of local and specific encounters between identifiable actors and actants in history. Latour also serves a Foucauldian analysis wherein discourse is generative of power. In this case, a new and heightened discourse about science within and between subaltern and other publics is seen producing the power of science in much the same way that Victorian discourse on sexuality produced sexuality.

Second, the gradualism in the story I have told raises questions about a kind of gradualism implicit in my own methodology. In considering the disappearance of various science publics from history and historiography, I was led to the notion of scientific revolution as a possible factor. A rhetoric of “scientific revolution,” I found, may be seen as contributing to the disappearance of science publics, not only those marginalized in their times, but others, such as the Catastrophist camp in geology, which included prominent William Conybeare and Adam Sedgwick—gentlemen of science who contributed to their fields and were immersed in contemporary scientific controversies. The notion of revolution or sudden epistemic breaks, I suggest, is only possible given the erasure of numerous participants, their publics and activities. When we look at the on-the-ground negotiations, struggles, appropriations and shifts, change is not so dramatic. Perhaps scientific revolutions are actually projected backward onto the past, as interstitial characters and actions are forgotten or suppressed. I ask whether the rhetoric of “scientific revolutions,” by no means new with Thomas Kuhn, bypasses the contemporary discourse and activities of many publics and persons, whether revolution depends on the neglect of many historical actors who work long and hard to bring such revolutions about.  

Such an historiographical shift—from Kuhnian ‘catastrophism’ to a kind of historiographical and rhetorical ‘gradualism’—would seem to accord well with accounts of public discourse and debate that I have followed. Certainly, it fits with the network of interested negotiations, exchanges, and accommodations that we find in the reviewing of Lyell’s Principles. The success of uniformity was less a revolution than a back-formation imposed by later geologists, historians, and philosophers. Looking at the moment of formation, we see no obvious revolution. The same was true for the rise of the new naturalism; it involved a “long revolution” that required the cultural work of artisan and other radicals, from Richard Carlile to George Jacob Holyoake, not a sudden overthrow of religious foes by such supernatural heroes of scientific naturalism as Thomas Henry Huxley. Historiographical gradualism may recuperate important publics and participants who impacted science culture and ideas. Finally, I have attempted to foreground some of the publics and characters generally relegated to the background of both scientific and cultural history. My motives for this foregrounding have not been completely ‘innocent.’ For alternative publics—in science, culture, or politics—seem to me to be more urgently necessary now than ever, when they are most endangered. While the possibilities for alternative science publics may seem to be precluded by the continuing developments of Big Science and its apparent accession by Big Business and Big Military Government, this study should be suggestive of the continuing possibilities for public participation in the discourses and policies of science and technology. After all, the story I have told is not one of linear ‘progress’—from participation to exclusion—but of shifting social relations and possibilities. Likewise, while many spaces for intervention in the sciences have been foreclosed, others are only now beginning to open.