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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Introduction: Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age

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. [n Michael Rectenwald, Rochelle Almeida and George Levine, eds. Global Secularisms in a Post- Secular Age. Boston: De Gruyter (2015): 1-24.

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Naturally Scientific

Review of The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and His Contemporaries. Bernard Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, eds. Pickering & Chatto, 2014. Endeavour. Vol. 38.3–4 (September-December 2014): 151-52.

Review of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman, eds., University of Chicago, 2014. Endeavor 39.1 (March 2015): 3.

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What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)? A Response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (And Its Critics)

The problem with identity politics, then, is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (o members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself Identity politics fails not because it begins with various subaltern groups and aims at their liberation, but because it ends with them and thus cannot deliver their liberation. It makes identities and their equality with other “privileged” groups the basis of political activity, rather than making the overcoming of the alienate identity, for themselves and all identity groups, the goal. The abolition of the one-sidedness of identity – as worker, woman, man, or what have you – represents real human emancipation. Always failing this, identity politics settles for mere linguistic emancipation, which is offered (and policed so assiduously, as Fisher notes) by the defenders of the sanctuary of identity.

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Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism

In the mid-1840s, a philosophical, social and political movement named Secularism evolved from the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and the radical periodical press. 1 46.2 (2013): 231-254. Print. Copyright The British Society for the History of Science. 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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Craig on God and Morality

THERE IS AN HISTORICAL DEBATE in philosophy that begins with Plato’s Euthyphro on the relation between the omniscient authority of God and morality. We do not intend to rehash the vast literature on this topic.1 Instead we will concentrate on the arguments given by William Lane Craig, a well-known philosopher of religion whose influence on Christians is considerable. Craig has given a moral argument for the existence of God.2 If he is correct, then non- believers and non-theistic moral theories are inadequate. We regard Craig’s view as invalid and in need of correction. We contend that the argument Craig gives is unsound.

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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 Construction and Deconstruction of Science in Middlemarch

The fictionalizing of science happens to be a meta-theme in Middlemarch, and one which, I will argue, Eliot sets out consciously and masterfully to interrogate. In the process, I hope to show that Eliot's use of science is far from naive or merely syncretic. To the contrary, I will venture to argue that in Middlemarch Eliot actually anticipates a greater discursive shift in scientific theory of which Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (l962) is the watermark in the philosophy of science, and which Michel Foucault marks and notes in his various archaeologies of knowledge. 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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Historicism and Science Studies

One way to understand the diverse discourse known as science studies is to consider the ways in which different camps and theorists think (or do not think) the question of history, and to consider how historical theories and methods connect with epistemologies and the possibilities for critical discourse regarding science. Can the question of historical method or theory serve as a useful guide to the discourse, perhaps even a better index for considering the issue of critical engagement, than epistemological conviction (or lack thereof)?  I will explore the issue by considering the historical methods and theories of history of several interlocutors located within the discourse of science studies, in order to illustrate the possibilities for this approach. As the discussion should make clear, the historical approach is productive of comparative reading of interlocutors in terms of the possibilities for a critical discursive relationship to their objects of knowledge, as well as for demonstrating the relationship between historical method and theory, and epistemology.

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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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