Of an age intent on controlling nature

The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain
August 4, 2006

This collection arose from a meeting in South Kensington in 2001 marking the sesquicentenary of the Great Exhibition held there but also commemorating the centenary of the end of the Victorian era. The book then went through various iterations and became linked to the celebrations to mark the centenary of the founding of the British Academy in 2002.

As the academy provided funding for the 2001 meeting and is the publisher of the book, it is appropriate that the final chapter, by the imperial historian Richard Drayton, is devoted to the "Strange late birth of the British Academy". In it, he points out that the establishment of an academy for the humanities was very late compared with other European countries and he examines the reasons why such a body was not founded during the Victorian period, suggesting that we should learn from the experience of our Victorian (or indeed earlier) forebears to address what he regards as the poor status the humanities currently endure. He thus concludes with a pretty savage attack on the state of the academy by asking: "Perhaps it is time for the British Academy to be less of a club for Immortals, an intellectual appendix to the Athenaeum and the Reform, and more of a campaigning body which takes up the challenge of persuading the nation of the value of our work and expertise?"

While it is to the credit of the academy to publish this, it would perhaps have been better had Drayton raised this issue in the broader context of what is the modern function of the self-elected and perpetuating elite generalist academies and societies, who by their small size cannot possibly represent adequately or democratically, or sometimes at all, the wide variety of disciplinary specialities that now exist.

In the 19th century, the lack of clear institutional structures for historical, literary, philological and philosophical studies, though not for science and engineering, means that the term organisation is used in a wide variety of ways throughout this book, ranging from scientific institutions such as the British Association and the new civic universities of Victorian England (an excellent piece by Samuel Alberti), to the roles of libraries and publishers. If the types of organisations involved were diverse, then so was the knowledge that was organised. Topics covered are science, social science, economics, mathematics, classics, history, English, geography and philosophy. There are obvious gaps in this list that are not picked up elsewhere in any detail. Among the most serious omissions are engineering and theology, both highly organised disciplines. So far as the latter is concerned there is no discussion of the introduction of the Higher Criticism into universities, nor of the heresy trials of the 1860s, or of the general decline in religious belief to be found in all classes during the century.

However, from the point of view of the overall theme of the book, it is the absence of engineering that I find most worrying, especially as the title in some sense reflects that of Donald Cardwell's classic but now dated The Organisation of Science in England (1957). Furthermore, the dust jacket shows a rather splendid 1862 decorative image by Christopher Dresser emblazoned with the Baconian slogan "Knowledge is power". From the time of Francis Bacon in the 16th century, the justification for studying the natural world in Britain was the hope of being able to control it. By the 19th century, it was widely believed that through iconic examples, such as the miners' safety lamp of Humphry Davy, had been achieved. The engineering achievements of Britain, ranging from the railways to the electric telegraph and to huge iron-hulled steamships, were on a scale sufficient to demonstrate to everyone that control over nature had finally been realised - that was why disasters such as the Tay Bridge collapse, showing that the control was illusory, made such an impact. Yet the organisation of engineering, the establishment of the institutions of civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, receives no discussion.

In part, this gap might be due to vestigial traces of the "big picture" of Victorian knowledge that was prevalent in the immediate post-1945 years, exemplified by Cardwell, when it was widely assumed that technology was applied science and that by discussing science at length in this volume it is also dealing with engineering. Furthermore, it was widely believed that scientific knowledge was value-free. However, since 1945, and especially in the past 20 years, historians have shown that such images of science are wildly at variance with the practices of Victorian science that have been uncovered. A very good example here is Max Jones's essay on the Royal Geographical Society, in which he emphasises the role of geography in helping to sustain and expand the Empire - hardly value-free or unapplied.

The idea of "pure" disinterested science leading to applications (made by others) was to a considerable extent a creation of late 19th-century scientists seeking professional independence for science free of theological and other fetters, including its utilitarian function. Although British science was frequently viewed from the Continent by savants such as Justus Liebig or Pierre Duhem as utilitarian in nature, British scientists were able to convince their compatriots from the late 19th century onwards that science should also be pursued for its own sake. Partially achieved by writing out of the history of science anything that did not fit with their view of the role of science in Britain, it is only recently that detailed investigations into the changing image of science, and especially the changing reputations of such iconic figures as Newton, Watt, Faraday and Darwin, has shown how significant this rewriting was. Such work has reinforced the inadequacy of the big picture bequeathed to us by earlier writers.

For some years past, the demise of the "big picture" has left some historians, such as John Pickstone in this volume, seeking to find a new big picture to put in its place. This has seemed to me to be a rather optimistic endeavour. It assumes, in the first place, that it is theoretically possible to construct such a picture, which at the very least needs to be justified. Second, with so much detailed historical work still being undertaken on the 19th century, constructing such a picture would, unless it was entirely anodyne, provide numerous hostages to fortune. For instance, recent research showing the lack of science in Davy's invention of the safety lamp and on Faraday's work on lighthouses illustrates that the relationship between scientific knowledge, scientific practice and engineering is complex and is not the same in different cases, and comes before other factors such as the role of personalities, politics, the media and business are taken into account.

A collection of essays should be more than the sum of its parts. In so far as this collection of mostly excellent essays draws attention to a theme that crosses many historical sub-specialties, that goal has been achieved.

But, as I have indicated, despite the length of the book there is still a lot more that could be usefully written on the subject.

Frank A. J. L. James is professor of the history of science, the Royal Institution.

The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain

Editor - Martin Daunton
Publisher - Oxford University Press/British Academy
Pages - 424
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 726326 7

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