Posts in 19thc
On the Origins and Character of “Social Justice”

One of the great ironies of Western political history involves the term “social justice.” Although a core idea within liberalism and socialism for at least 175 years, the background and origin of “social justice” was a cultural and political conservatism. The irony of the “cultural appropriation” of social justice by liberalism and socialism has recently redoubled. Suggestive of a seemingly undeniably intangible good—that is, of just, fair, well-ordered, and harmonious social relations—social justice is now implicated in fierce and sometimes violent antagonisms. Social justice crystallizes in two words some of the most contentious issues roiling North American politics today. Contemporary social justice bears little resemblance to the original social justice or even more recent movements that have gone by the same name.

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Mid-Nineteenth-Century Secularism as Modern Secularity

In the early 1850s, a new philosophical, social, and political movement evolved from the Freethought tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen, and the radical periodical press. The movement was called “Secularism. ”ts founder was George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906)….With his involvement in Freethought publishing, he became a moral convert to atheism. However, his experiences with virulent proponents of atheism or infidelity and the hostile reactions to them on the part of the state, church, and press induced him to develop in 1851-1852 the new creed and movement he called Secularism….In Ryan T. Cragun, Lori Fazzino, Christel Manning, eds. Organized Secularism in the United States. Boston and Berlin: De Gruyter (November 2017): 31-56.

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Secularizing Science: Secularism and the Emergence of Scientific Naturalism

As science advances, so this story goes, religion inevitably retreats….Rather than assessing the putative secularizing impact of science, in this chapter, I approach the secularity of science from the other side. I examine an avowedly secular cultural formation and its role in the secularization of science itself; in particular, I consider the creed and movement of George Holyoake’s mid-nineteenth-century Secularism for its contribution to the emergence of a nearly coterminous scientific naturalism. In Rectenwald, Michael. Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature. Palgrave-Macmillan. 2 January 2016.

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Mid-Nineteenth-Century British Secularism and its Contemporary Post-Secular Implications.

In the late 1840s, a new philosophical, social, and political movement evolved from the freethought tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen, and the radical periodical press. The movement was called “Secularism.” Its founder was George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906).2 Holyoake was a former apprentice whitesmith turned Owenite social missionary, “moral force” Chartist, and leading radical editor and publisher. Given his early exposure to Owenism and Chartism, Holyoake had become a freethinker. With his involvement in free-thought publishing, he became a moral convert to atheism. But his experiences with virulent proponents of atheism or infidelity and the hostile reactions to infidelity on the part of the state, church, and press induced him to develop in 1851–52 the new creed and movement he called Secularism.In Michael Rectenwald, Rochelle Almeida, and George Levine, eds. Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age. Boston: De Gruyter (2015): 43-64.

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Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism

This essay examines Secularism as developed by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851–1852. While historians have noted the importance of evolutionary thought for freethinking radicals from the 1840s, and others have traced the popularization of agnosticism and Darwinian evolution by later Victorian freethinkers, insufficient attention has been paid to mid-century Secularism as constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism. I argue that Secularism was a significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only did early Secularism help clear the way by fighting battles with the state and religious interlocutors, but it also served as a source for what Huxley, almost twenty years later, termed ‘agnosticism’. Holyoake modified freethought in the early 1850s, as he forged connections with middle-class literary radicals and budding scientific naturalists, some of whom met in a ‘Confidential Combination’ of freethinkers. Secularism became the new creed for this coterie. Later, Secularism promoted and received reciprocal support from the most prominent group of scientific naturalists, as Holyoake used Bradlaugh’s atheism and neo-Malthusianism as a foil, and maintained relations with Huxley, Spencer and Tyndall through the end of the century. In Holyoake’s Secularism we find the beginnings of the mutation of radical infidelity into the respectability necessary for the acceptance of scientific naturalism, and also the distancing of later forms of infidelity incompatible with it. Holyoake’s Secularism represents an important early stage of scientific naturalism. In The British Journal for the History of Science. 46.2 (2013): 231-254. Print. Copyright The British Society for the History of Science.

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Secularism (in George Eliot)

Secularism is an orientation to life that places paramount importance on the matters of ‘this world’, and considers observation and reason the best means by which the things of this world can be known and improved. It has its roots in a response to religious belief, but is not necessarily a form of religion in itself . In some forms, secularism has been preoccupied only with the elimination of religious belief; in others, it is concerned with substituting a secular creed in its place. This latter form of secularism was embraced by such ‘advanced’ middle-class writers of the Victorian period as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold and George Eliot. In Margaret Harris, ed. George Eliot in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 271-78.

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Darwin’s Ancestors: The Evolution of Evolution

Despite his unique contribution to evolutionary theory—the mechanism of natural selection—Charles Darwin can hardly be considered the first evolutionary theorist in history. It is generally acknowledged that organic evolution, or “transmutation” as it was called during his lifetime, was hardly a new idea when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. If ancient Indian and Greek thought is included, evolutionary ideas were thousands of years old by the time Darwin wrote. But even considering his own times, Darwin was not the evolutionary lone wolf that he is often made out to be. In fact, Darwin not only followed closely behind other transmutation theorists, but his own views met with a degree of skepticism not altogether unlike that which greeted his predecessors. In Victorian Web. 1 December 2008.

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The Trope of “the Poor Inventor” in the British Patent Debate (and Beyond)*

As recent scholarship on the history of invention has shown, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inventor was proposed as a plausible new hero of the industrial revolution. But the inventor has also been characterized as a creature of accident—of risk, poverty, madness, and premature death. By the 1820s, inventors were not only heroes of industry; they became its victims as well—“poor inventors” who suffered under poverty and oppression to bring forth the works of the mind. The case of the poor inventor was introduced and championed by advocates of inventive workers from the 1820s until the 1840s; the figure came to stand emblematically for working-class interests at large. By 1850, however, the ideological and rhetorical construct of the poor inventor was appropriated by a liberal, mostly middle-class lobby to affect the first reform of patent law in modern British history.

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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”

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.”  

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From Romantic Catastrophism to Victorian Gradualism: A Reading of Epistemes

Several nineteenth-century scholars have remarked upon the movement from “catastrophism to gradualism” in the transition from Romantic to Victorian culture. They see the shift to gradualism in literature (and society) as the result of the incursion of science and its ideas into cultural realms  (e.g., Cosslett, Culler). While recent writings in the discourse of science and literature studies have complicated this one-way traffic by acknowledging a dialectical flow between cultural realms, such readings are nevertheless situated with reference to C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” paradigm.1 In referring literature to scientific discourse and vice versa, science and literature studies may capture a mutual conditioning of respective cultural spheres, but nevertheless continues to discount a reading of the determinations of both spheres by other important social and political factors.

In order to account for a shift from catastrophism to gradualism, I argue that science and literature must be referred to underlying discursive pressures mediating between cultural spheres. Rather than considering literature as appropriating the idioms of science, and/or vice versa, the social and political significations of competing epistemologies and philosophical positions within and across cultural spheres should be traced to account for changes within cultural representation.



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Introducing Historical Inter-Field Studies: From “Material and Philosophick Necessity" to “Intellectual Physicks"

I wrote the following essay (“From ‘Material and Philosophick Necessity’ to ‘Intellectual Physicks’”) several years ago, as an inaugural entry into a new approach to outmode both “interdisciplinary” and “multi-disciplinary” studies. I called the approach Historical Inter-Field Studies….Historical Inter-Field Studies is needed, in particular to preclude a major pitfall of “interdisciplinarity”—namely, the anachronistic framing of the objects of study according to “disciplines,” when the domains of knowledge were not only divided differently but also in the periods that I study they did not conform to disciplines and were not referred to as disciplines. Disciplines did not exist as such.   

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