Walking in high places

Michael Neve

  • The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of 18th-Century Science edited by G.S. Rousseau and R.S. Porter
    Cambridge, 500 pp, £25.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 521 22599 X
  • Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin by Thomas McFarland
    Princeton, 432 pp, £24.60, February 1981, ISBN 0 691 06437 7
  • Poetry realised in Nature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Early 19th-Century Science by Trevor Levere
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £22.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 23920 6
  • Coleridge by Richard Holmes
    Oxford, 102 pp, £1.25, March 1982, ISBN 0 19 287591 4
  • Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802 by Winifred Courtney
    Macmillan, 411 pp, £25.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 333 31534 0

It is time for a change, even in the small world of historical epithets. For ages, philosophers and historians have been haunted by intellectual tags, such as Was ist Aufklärung? There have been a number of distinguished replies to this question of what the Enlightenment consisted in, but its resilience has appeared to be connected to its unanswerability. Indeed, it seemed better practice not to answer it at all, but to leave it hanging, like some family motto for generations of baffled European intellectuals, an MCC tie for the wandering intelligentsia. Similar problems hold for Romanticism. It appears to be something to do with opposition to the Enlightenment, and to do with new emphases placed on individual experience and ‘the Self’. To do with walking in high places, with sudden, untranslatable visions, with the Infinite. The problems of the Enlightenment may be unanswerable, beyond certain remarks about secularism and the march of Reason, but the siting of Romanticism is no less difficult. It may be said that it’s to do with German idealist philosophy, with political art, with opposition to science: but the travelling, conference-attending party is suddenly lost in mist; the sun vanishes, the path is unclear. Perhaps Romanticism is to do with being lost?

Commitment to science was always assumed to be an Enlightenment hallmark, but the question was never extensively examined. And for a curious reason: the sciences, in the 18th century, were always said to be in a parlous state. Newton had laid down the laws: the Enlightenment was about playing his tunes. Apart from this prolonged act of deference, a deference then broken by the ‘Romantic’ reaction, nothing much was going on, in geology, or natural history, or medicine, or any-where else. All these, it was claimed, got started in the 19th century, and scientists of the 19th century made sure that they wrote up the history of the sciences in time to guarantee that this was the view of posterity. The most extraordinary of these acts of intellectual banditry remains Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, of 1830-1833, where Lyell argues that geology starts with himself. So, an Enlightenment which believed in materialism and progress, but which was a scientific non-event. Strange.

The great merit of The Ferment of Knowledge is that it takes the trouble to expose the impoverishment – and simple inaccuracy – of this view. The book is most unusual in that it merely wishes to serve: to serve interested readers by guiding them to the places where knowledge may be had. The Enlightenment is not seen as the clever conversation of a few household names, but a period of originality and even drudgery. Indeed, the sense of drudgery, the laying down of methods and practices that the 19th century could call its own; is the unifying theme which links a wide range of the essays in the collection. It is not often thought of as an academic’s defining characteristic, but (with one or two exceptions) the essays are self-effacing. The beginnings of geological science, of the modern hospital movement, of geographical thinking on a worldwide scale, of experimental methods in general and break-throughs in chemistry in particular – none of these are rendered as glamorous. And many of the authors help to place science itself as only one small part of 18th-century European culture – and as part of ‘high culture’, in ways outlined by Peter Burke and Robert Darnton.

Science and technology can then be distinguished, and theoretical advances, in, say, the earth sciences, are not assumed always to have produced great practical breakthroughs. As one of the contributors, Steven Shapin, neatly turns it, Was ist Aufklärung? is now also Wofur ist Aufklärung? – what is it for? And the information gathered here will assist anyone wanting to see the myth behind the view that the sciences were spontaneously generated after the Treaty of Vienna. The Ferment of Knowledge alters the received answer to the old question, and ends the established idea of the Enlightenment as an intellectual event for progressive people. It is, in a gentlemanly way, one more goodbye to (Isaiah) Berlin.

Can Romanticism be similarly‘discovered’? Certain inquiries – pursued in this journal, among other places – suggest affirmative answers. Two notable studies have appeared recently: Marilyn Butler’s Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, reviewed in the LRB (Vol. 3, No 21) by Christopher Ricks; and Thomas McFarland’s marvellously over-the-top Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin, which also appeared in 1981. (One might commend, en passant, the Princeton University Press as a place where inventive, wordy studies in Romantic ideas receive elegant publication.) The suggestiveness of both these books – suggestiveness about politics and art, about Europe and England, and, more important, about failure and fragmentation – repays attention. And one of the first things to be attended to must be Romanticism’s burdensome relationship to the legacy of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

What, for example, about the ‘opposition to science’? In the old formula, Romantics are seen as enemies of science, and especially of scientific abstraction. In some cases, often cited, this may be true: Keats on the rainbow, Blake on the monomaniacal Newton. But one of the genuinely new things in Romantic studies is that this old abstraction – that science was too abstract – won’t do. Within German Romantic philosophy, science is the heart of the matter, but has to be properly accompanied by a visionary politics. The life sciences and the earth sciences conjoin, in Naturphilosophie, and the ‘drudgery’ of the Enlightenment becomes the ‘druggery’ of Total Philosophy. More modestly, it becomes the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

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