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Spotlight: Renwick on Geddes (also Ideas vs Practice) August 12, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Since we’re in the middle of a fairly polemical series of methodological posts, and since a general critique of the professional function of journals fits in with this, I thought it would be a good idea to shine a quick spotlight on a recent exception to the rule: Chris Renwick’s “The Practice of Spencerian Science: Patrick Geddes’s Biosocial Program, 1876-1889” Isis 100 (2009): 36-57.

Renwick’s piece, like Schmitt’s recent piece on Vicq d’Azyr, places itself quite nicely within a literature, as well as its subject matter within history.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the subject matter is Patrick Geddes’ relationship with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, whose work falls within the ambit of the Darwin Industry.  As I have previously noted, localized historiographies—the “industries” in particular—seem to acquire a critical scholarly mass that propels them into a more rigorous problematic.

In this case, Renwick uses his piece as part of an effort to reclaim the influence of Spencer’s ideas.  Traditionally understood as not having made positive contributions to biology, and as a proponent of social Darwinism, Renwick notes that recent literature has begun to chart a more general debt to the ideas present in Spencer’s thinking, many of which had little to do with severe competition in nature or society, and, in fact, stressed cooperation as a higher form of evolutionary development.  Renwick observes Geddes’ debt to Spencer’s thought in arguing for symbiotic evolution, as well as in initiating urban reforms, as well as in his work with former student J. Arthur Thomson, The Evolution of Sex.  Spencerian thought provided Geddes with a unifying thematic understanding, which had its own influence on Geddes’ “disciple” Lewis Mumford’s own ecological ideas of sociology.

The piece moves quickly through its subject matter, and Spencer’s influence seems to be more thematic and inspirational than deep.  While the piece is useful in terms of adding to the historiography on evolutionary ideas, population genetics, and sociology (I imagine, I’m not an expert on the historiography), it makes itself valuable to a wider audience through its presentation of what is happening in the literature of which it is a part.

Interestingly, Renwick takes note of the peculiarity of the historiographical program in which he works:

….a shift toward a conception of science as practice has been one of  the defining features of history of science in the past two decades.  However, one consequence of this reorientation has been an overall privileging of the material culture of science, at the expense of what have come to be derided as ‘elite’ ideas.  This trend is borne out by the ever-growing body of constructivist studies of science that focus on instruments, laboratory skills, and the communication of evidence to audiences—a collection of interests that are often grouped under the heading ‘making knowledge.’  Yet, as Jan Golinski and Jonathan Topham have argued, we should not underestimate the extent to which thinking is a part of scientific practice.  An analytically rich understanding of practice depends, therefore, on embracing, not eschewing, discussion of the philosophical and theoretical ideas that inspired our subjects of study—a point that has been highlighted clearly by this reconnection of Geddes with Spencer.

First off, we’ve been meaning to discuss Jan Golinski here in further detail, so this prompts us to move more closely to actually doing this.  Second, the inclusion of “thinking” in the category of “practice” indicates a (not unwarranted) feeling that rather than read the ideas behind choices of practice, the historiography has indeed simply rested on a portrayal of various practices without any concern for the ideas behind them.  I think it can be demonstrated that the trend toward the “eschewing” of “philosophical and theoretical ideas” is connected with the decades-old Great Escape from philosophical accounts of the history of science.

In my mind, practice without ideas can also be fit within a chronological problematic and historiographical literature, but it is probably no coincidence that historians most interested in scientific ideas have shown the most interest in doing so.

Addendum: props to Clement Levallois for reading and commenting on this before me!

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