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International Society for Intellectual History Paper: The Odd Career of Adolphe Quetelet in Early American Social Theory May 2, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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I will have a response to all of my Zilsel friends shortly.  It will be titled “Hunting for the Unicorn: Further Thoughts on Science and the Dissenting Sciences”

*Digression Begins Here*

One of my consistent complaints about our understanding of nineteenth century social theory in the United States is that there is little sustained efforts on these topics due to the problem of relevance.  My contention was (now some years ago in “The Nineteenth Century Problem“) that our understanding of nineteenth century American intellectual history (as very narrowly defined by the history of ideas,  so as to not include the history of social movements or ideologies) was hampered by the issue of relevance. We have a basic problem of knowing so little about nineteenth century social theory that we must resort to boot-strapping mechanisms.    

Thus, historians of ideas and historians of science would like to think that they can study anything they’d like.  But this is simply not true.  I am discussing this since many issues were addressed with my Zilsel friends last week.  One was the issue of justification of case studies and of topics for analysis.  My respondent (the extremely smart and gracious Volny Fages , who throughout put up with my bad manners) questioned why I justified my attention to the pseudosciences and even my choice of case studies.


Henry Buckle and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations May 30, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry Buckle (24 November 1821 – 29 May 1862), much like the semi-acknowledged French sociologist Alfred Espinas, was among the ‘universal citations’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The economist Alfred Marshall makes great use of him.  Much like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle had the unfortunate fate of being labeled a “geographical determinist” by historians of geography, sociology, and anthropology.

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

Ted Porter and Ian Hacking have accused him of “historical determinism.”  He was neither. He also tragically died far too early for his ideas to be sufficiently clarified.  While Buckle in his History of Civilization in England ascribed great power to climate or “physical causes,” he nonetheless did so only with respect to “savage” or “rude” nations.

While leaving a role for climate in civilized nations, Buckle nonetheless argued that progress was indeed possible in Europe as well as in England due largely to the advancement of scepticism.  By ‘scepticism,’ Buckle meant the, “spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject; has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation….”  What Buckle says here is actually quite significant when placed in the context of the history of ideas.  Buckle was both last in a long line of those who conjoined civilizational progress with the spread of rationalism and the decline of superstition and barbarism in England, beginning with the philosophy of David Hume and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and also within the rising tide of authorial monuments to the progress of philosophy and manners, as exhibited in the early works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl and W.E.H. Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. (more…)

Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).


Sketch: UK Agricultural Research and Education January 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901)

It is difficult to trace the lineage of agricultural research in Britain without the bottom falling out from underneath your feet, putting you in freefall until you land with a thud in the eighteenth century.  Since this is well outside the scope of my project, I will just note a few reference points before scrambling back toward the twentieth century: the growth of experimental farming by “improvement”-minded landowners (good ol’ Turnip Townshend and co.), the 1791 foundation of the Veterinary College of London (later the Royal Veterinary College), and the 1796 foundation of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy at Oxford through the benefaction of John Sibthorp (1758-1796), who was Sherrardian Professor of Botany there from 1784 until his death (having replaced his father, Humphrey, who held the post from 1747 to 1783).

A Board of Agriculture existed in England from 1793 until it was wound up in 1820.  The Royal Agricultural Society of England was founded in 1838, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was founded in 1844.  For reference, the Board of Longitude was wound up in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, the British Medical Association was founded in 1832, and the Chemical Society of London was founded in 1841.


Preliminary Survey: Literature on Agricultural Research to 1945 November 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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The importance of agricultural research in the intellectual history of science should be self-evident.  Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a key figure in both the development of laboratory methodology and agricultural science.  Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) famous experiments were in plant breeding.  Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) most celebrated work was on the cattle disease, anthrax.  William Bateson (1861-1926), who coined the term genetics, was the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, 1910-1926.  Statistician, geneticist, and eugenics proponent R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was employed by the Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919 to 1933 (and temporarily relocated there from 1939 to 1943).  Interwar and postwar virologists and molecular biologists did a great deal of work on the economically destructive tobacco mosaic virus.

In these examples, problems of agriculture form a motivating context for contributions to biology, statistics, and other fields.  The history of agricultural research itself remains somewhat difficult to discern, even though it apparently constitutes a long, sizable tradition.  We do have some enumeration of accomplishments in research and technique, written in retrospect by practitioners.  For the case of the UK, the following resources are available:

Primer: Imperial College July 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

While much of the history of science necessarily focuses on centers of elite learning, a thorough understanding necessitates examination of the broader foundations of scientific culture.  In the 18th century, the French state established a new emphasis in technical education and augmented it following the Revolution, most notably with the École Polytechnique.  In the 19th century, various German-speaking states emulated the model by establishing the Technische Hochschule, soon followed by the Americans with the foundation of institutions such as the Case School of Applied Sciences, the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Technical Schools, as well as technically-oriented universities such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago.

The British also followed this trend, although perhaps not with the zeal of other nations.  The Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was established in London in 1845 out of the same national anxiety that had already produced the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as out of admiration for the German laboratory chemistry of Justus Liebig (1803-1873) of the University of Giessen—the College’s first hire was Liebig student August Wilhelm Hofmann.  The Royal School of Mines (RSM) opened in 1851, following urging for such an institution by, among others, noted geologist Henry De la Beche, the director of the new Geological Survey of Great Britain.  The two institutions were officially amalgamated in 1853, while retaining distinct identities.

In the latter half of the century, the development of the London technical schools became an important topic for those concerned with the development of science in Britain as a resource for the state and nation.  From 1881 until his death in 1895, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), best known now as an ardent proponent of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and for science in general, became dean of the RSM and the RCC.  In 1881, he tellingly renamed the latter the (more…)