Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke

  • That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in 19th-Century Intellectual History by Stefan Collini, Donald Winch and John Burrow
    Cambridge, 385 pp, £25.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25762 X

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her clothes have been stolen and shared out by her offspring, with continual squabbles over who wears the trousers. Intellectual history was tardy in asserting its separate identity and still has trouble in getting recognised – what is it, after all, but the history of intellectuals, by intellectuals, for intellectuals? One merit of That Noble Science of Politics is that it yields an answer to this question. Its subtitle proclaims it a study in intellectual history, and its authorship exemplifies the unity and coherence of the art.

Stefan Collini has made his reputation as the historian of late 19th-century sociological thought. Donald Winch has long been known for path-breaking studies of the Smithian and Keynesian epochs. John Burrow’s elegant anatomy of the evolutionary paradigm in Victorian Britain has recently been succeeded by a rightfully acclaimed historiographical work. Though three names appear upon the title page, they have pooled their intellectual capital to a remarkable degree. Their decision ‘to accept full collective responsibility for the book as a whole’, rather than accredit the essays individually, is the hallmark of this enterprise: ‘the outcome of common tastes and interests, shared teaching duties and, above all, friendship’. Throughout the English-speaking world, one can list universities where the trade of intellectual history is plied as such, beginning with the Australian National University and proceeding through the alphabet to the University of Sussex. Admittedly, this leaves a lot of virgin paper in between. It is thus safe as well as grandiloquent to claim that wherever intellectual history is known to flourish, a spectre has been haunting the infancy of the precocious discipline. It is the spectre of Burrinchini.

The project to which the efforts of Burrinchini are addressed – truly his raison d’être – is to retrieve a historical account of how ‘things political’ were pondered by a number of British writers during the 19th century. If this seems a cumbrous way of putting it, why not simply say that this is the history of Political Science, summarising the contribution of some notable predecessors to its subsequent emergence as an academic subject? Both by precept and by example, the authors show that such an approach falsifies experience by organising it retrospectively into an implicit celebration of the present. This sort of teleological foreshortening and impoverishment of our notions of the past, so that it is no longer another country where they do things differently but one where they simply do them less well, is what, since Butterfield, the term ‘Whig interpretation’ has covered. In this extended sense, ‘the authors of this book would be glad to be described as “anti-whig”.’

Here are no founding fathers, conscripted posthumously into an immanent endeavour where each wrought better than he knew. Instead, essay by essay, the distinctiveness of background, outlook, aims and intention is lovingly reconstituted for each protagonist within its appropriate context. ‘As an ordained minister of the established Church,’ we are reminded, ‘Malthus was as much the successor to Abraham Tucker and William Palcy as to Adam Smith, and as much the contemporary of someone like Bishop Sumner, who did so much to make his doctrines acceptable in Anglican circles, as of his friend Ricardo.’ Macaulay, on the other hand, is to be visualised, as he so often visualised himself, addressing the House of Commons in the tones befitting that palladium of our liberties. Walter Bagehot’s self-image was no less vivid, though certainly different, as he projected it onto the persona of the modern reviewer, ‘glancing lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in jest, unfolding unanswerable argument in an absurd illustration’, for all the world the clubman, with whom, as the authors comment, ‘methodology is a tone of voice.’ If Bagehot knew that ‘the lecture of a professor’ was not his natural medium, Henry Sidgwick knew no other, unless it were sitting in his study, grinding out the ‘632 rather closely printed octavo pages’ of The Elements of Politics, with the sapping doubt as to whether it was worthwhile in one half of his mind, and in the other the dutiful riposte that ‘a Professor must write books.’ Altogether, hardly the makings of a faculty meeting.

At this point, however, the triumph of anti-Whig methodology threatens the whole enterprise. We have agreed to abandon anything resembling the metaphor of a well-drilled team, with each player ready to run with the ball when his turn comes, before passing to the next man. But unless Malthus and Macaulay, Bagehot and Sidgwick can agree on what game they are playing, it is not clear what they are doing here, along with such as Dugald Stewart, David Ricardo, the Mills, E.A. Freeman, Alfred Marshall and Graham Wallas. Are these the First Eleven, or just the first eleven names that cropped up? When the Whigs were in charge, at least we used to have an identifiable team of All Stars, whom the fans either loved or loved to hate. Don’t these chaps, in their motley kit, look rather like the Odds and Sods?

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