My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Most people believe history is made up of people and their ideas. Maybe also the things they do. But I tend to think of history as being made up much more of books. The majority of people live and die and leave no record, no imprint, on history. You’ll never know what they thought; you’ll never have any contact with them. Great historians can get around this to some extend; I know social historians who can tease a wealth of information about the past from statistics, censuses, documents, and other clues. If you’re lucky you might find a trove of letters or journals related to particular individuals as well. But these are the fringes and margins of intellectual history, and such evidences only go back a couple hundred years at the most.
Books are a different story. Books are like the shelled organisms in the fossil record. By their very nature they leave a mark on intellectual history. They’re ideas given form, preserved, read, and interpreted. And yet they’re not static. A person’s ideas are in some way solidified in a text, but that person’s thoughts change over time, and there’s always also the question of how good a reflection of a person’s true views or ideas a book truly is. But books like the Origin of Species, for instance, or the works of Newton, leave an impact: they’re read, and their ideas spread. They’re the bones we build our intellectual histories upon.
But this isn’t enough. If we simply try to read the classical texts of the past without regard for the context in which they were written or without understanding the ways contemporary readers would have interpreted them then we’re only getting a portion of the picture. It’s this context that the historian of science James Secord brings to a cluster of pivotal texts in his new work, Visions of Science.
The subtitle of the work is “Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.” The first half of the 1800s happens to be a period in which I’m quite comfortable, having written my dissertation on one of the authors whose work Secord examines. But it’s not an arbitrary choice of period, as Secord makes clear. The dawn of the Victorian Age was in many ways the dawn of modern science as we know it. Society was changing, particularly in Great Britain, where there was a growing middle class population, technological innovations were making texts more cheap and accessible, and scientific progress was seen as the panacea for solving social ills. The early 1800s saw the beginning of the devotion to science as a means of progress that we continue (though a bit more jaded, disillusioned, and hopefully wiser) to live within today. This is the world on the cusp of Darwin and the professionalization of science, steeped in the early enthusiasm of the industrial revolution.
Secord examines seven texts from this period: Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel, published near the end of the chemist’s life as a retrospective on the progress of humanity to date; Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, his tract against the perceived stagnation of science in England compared to the Continent, which Secord uses as a segue into the politics and personalities of practicing science during this period; John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, often seen as the first modern text on the philosophy of science; Mary Somerville’s popularization of science, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences; the geologists Charles Lyell’s Principle of Geology, which set the groundwork for thinking of deep time and Darwin’s revolution; George Combe’s immensely popular work on phrenology, Constitution of Man; and finally Thomas Carlyle’s weird and wonderful critique of the science of his day, Sartor Resartus.
Secord has previously published a book-length treatment of another important book during this period that should be included in this list, the anonymously-written Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which created a “Victorian sensation.” In that earlier work Secord does in greater depth for the Vestiges, a text that brought ideas of naturalistic evolution to a widespread audience decades before Darwin, what he does for each of the texts listed above. His treatments in Visions of Science are brief synopses, almost vignettes, about each book, and it would have been nice to have an abbreviated version of his examination of the Vestiges among them as well for completeness; I don’t think any readers would have minded repetition with his previous study.
For each of these works, Secord is interested in showing how these primary sources– many of which students of the history of science in modern Britain would know well– was initially perceived. More than that, he dives into the structure of the physical books themselves: who published them, how they were printed, and what this meant about potential audience and cost. Secord also provides biographical sketches of the authors, but these are complete only in as far as needed to show how the writing of the particular book fit in the context of their lives. Who were these authors, what was their role in the nascent community of modern science, and why did they write? Secord’s exploration gives a clearer picture of the transitional world of early Victorian science and its rise to cultural prominence.
Visions of Science would be ideal for a course focusing on the history of science and culture in this period. Such a course would likely involve the assignment of large portions of the primary texts for reading, with the chapters of Secord’s work as supplementary material so today’s readers could do more than simply filter these works through their own interpretive frameworks. The studies in Secord’s work are a primer for a much more difficult task: seeing the works as they appeared in their own time. In this Visions of Science succeeds in making these foundational texts more three-dimensional, helping them come alive as we approach them as a Victorian reader would and seeing in a new way how foundational they were in shaping society and thought into molds we largely take for granted today.