Their Way

Jose Harris

  • The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain by Thomas Dixon
    British Academy, 420 pp, £60.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 726426 3

Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages uncut more than a hundred and fifty years after his death. Yet the residues of Comtean visions and conceptions still permeate many aspects of European thought and institutions. They may be discerned in the emphasis on social science as the supreme guide to public policy, on the ‘priestly’ role of technical, medical and managerial ‘experts’, on human welfare as the sole touchstone of ethical life, on ‘law’ as a set of disembodied norms rather than the edicts of rulers or case law, and on the future destiny of Europe as a unified ‘Great Western Republic’ in place of an inchoate cluster of historic nations. All these perspectives are clearly recognisable in the public culture of Europe in the early 21st century. Yet the name of Auguste Comte is unknown to countless people whose daily lives and mental outlook are widely shaped or impinged on by his principles.

It was not always thus. Much recent research on the history of social reform and ‘planning’ movements in Britain and Europe before, during and after the Second World War has suggested that those movements drew their direct inspiration at least as much from the ‘positivist’ legacy of Comte (and his mentor Saint-Simon) as from the more obvious influences of either democratic socialism or Soviet-style Marxism. Some of the most prominent social planners of those years, such as William Beveridge and Barbara Wootton in Britain, Pierre Laroque and Francis Netter in France, together with many campaigners for a united or federal postwar Europe, were heirs and exemplars of the positivist tradition of social, political and legal thought. Two generations earlier, in the mid-to-late-Victorian era, many British citizens of widely differing backgrounds, temperaments, belief systems and levels of education had likewise been fired with enthusiasm for Comte’s ideas, and the same was true in much of late 19th-century Europe and North America. That enthusiasm often waned as Comte’s doctrines were more fully understood (most famously in the case of John Stuart Mill, whose early admiration for Comte’s phenomenalism and rationality gradually gave way to revulsion at his dogmatism, religiosity, ‘moralism’ and hostility to personal liberty). Nevertheless, prominent 19th-century figures who acknowledged a close intellectual debt and allegiance to Comte included some of the most powerful and seminal intellects of the Victorian age – among them George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, the historian J.R. Seeley, the natural scientist John Tyndall, and many social scientists and social reformers such as Charles Booth and Beatrice Potter (later Webb).

Moreover, many who could not accept the whole package of Comtean positivism still tacitly or explicitly acknowledged its intellectual inspiration. Both Darwin and Herbert Spencer, for example, appear to have worked out their own models of biological and social evolution at least in part as a response to Comte’s insistence on the universality of ‘altruism’, co-operation and group solidarity in both the natural and human spheres. Positivist influences were also widely diffused among trade unionists, suffragists, temperance campaigners, Nonconformists and working-class autodidacts, all of whom played an important role in the provincial and cultural life of mid-Victorian England. Many Victorian theologians vehemently condemned Comte’s dismissal of the possibility of transcendental knowledge; yet his influence could clearly be discerned in the increasingly humanistic and ‘immanentist’ strands in both Catholic and Protestant religious thought (most explicitly in the controversial ‘modernist’ volume of Essays and Reviews of 1860 and the incarnationalist and Christian-socialist teachings of Lamennais and Frederick Maurice). Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1857) dismissed Comte’s doctrines as intrinsically ‘absurd’; yet the poem centred on the heroic tragedy of a man who practised the supreme positivist virtue of ‘altruism’ or ‘sacrifice for others’, at the expense of the more prosaic Christian qualities of common sense, kindness and love. The very term ‘social science’, popularised from the 1860s onwards, bore witness to a widespread endorsement of Comte’s claim that social institutions and relations should be studied by using exactly the same kinds of assumptions and techniques as those employed by investigators of the ‘natural’ world (a claim that remains salient in many of today’s methodological controversies).

The Invention of Altruism takes as its starting point the Comtean origins of the term, which was unknown in the English language before Comte’s ideas were introduced to a wider English audience by G.H. Lewes in the Westminster Review in 1852. In tracing the subsequent development and uses of the term, the book adopts the position recommended by Quentin Skinner, that words may be ‘engines’ as well as mere ‘reflections’ of social change. Indeed, it aims to go further than Skinner, by arguing that words in themselves may actively remould the concepts to which they refer. Thus, Dixon suggests that ‘altruism’ did more than merely replicate older terms such as ‘charity’ or ‘beneficence’, with which it seemed to be synonymous; it added new dimensions of substantive meaning and application that subtly altered the ways in which Victorians and post-Victorians thought about moral duties and social life. He also suggests that words may be reactionary as well as progressive forces. Thus, ‘the reasons why some people objected to . . . the new language of altruism’ may be seen as evidence of how resistance to linguistic innovation in general may provide a clue to opposition, not merely to neologism for its own sake, but to wider ‘intellectual and social change’.

Dixon explores such themes with reference to the deployment of the language and sentiments of ‘altruism’ in a wide range of late Victorian and early 20th-century settings. These include the development of semantics and etymology as formal disciplines; changes in the structure of moral theology and religious belief; methodological debates in the natural and social sciences; approaches to poverty, social welfare and motherhood; and finally, the intellectual revolt against ‘altruism’ that characterised parts of the European and British avant-garde in aesthetics, literature, and social and moral philosophy during the early years of the 20th century – a revolt that ‘looked for ways to escape from the dull and cloying cult of sentimental selflessness that characterised high Victorian moralism’. Throughout the book, and particularly in its introduction and conclusion, there are recurrent hints of the direct relevance of these Victorian debates to many present-day controversies, for example scientific-cum-philosophical debates about the ethical and practical implications of the ‘selfish gene’. Victorian themes are also seen as anticipating recurrent tensions within contemporary Christianity as to whether religion should be seen as a medium of spiritual devotion and salvation, or as a strategy for ‘altruism’, social justice and doing practical good. Above all, Dixon suggests that throughout its history the meaning and provenance of ‘altruism’ have been widely misinterpreted, and that what is often nowadays portrayed (either approvingly or disapprovingly) as a Christian virtue, was initially conceived as a critique and rejection of Christian morality. It was designed to lead to a society in which (so positivists claimed) self-development, personal inspiration and deluded notions of a bogus spiritual ‘transcendence’ would all give way to the more pressing, tangible and ‘selfless’ claims of wider humanity.

The Invention of Altruism is ambitious in scope, and full of suggestive discussion of important themes. Nevertheless, different parts of the argument are executed with differing degrees of success. The analysis of the linguistic evolution of ‘altruism’, based not just on authors’ uses of the term in publications, but on examples of its use submitted by members of the public to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, is of considerable historical interest, particularly in its suggestion that the compilers of the dictionary had their own views about the significance of moral terms, which went well beyond the boundaries of professional lexicography. (This is an approach that might usefully be applied to many other neologisms or new usages of the Victorian epoch, which historians often tend to treat as static or self-explanatory: ‘society’, ‘police’ and ‘virtue’, for example.) The discussion of ‘altruism’ and allied concepts in the context of Darwinism is revealing, not least because it emphasises the very substantial presence in Darwin’s own thought of lines of inquiry – such as adjustment to environmental pressures, and evidence of ‘co-operation’ among insect species – that are now often considered to be inherently non-Darwinian. Indeed, the insects studied by Darwin himself seem to have been peculiarly willing to immolate themselves for the collective good of their species, in a way quite alien to much current neo-Darwinist thought.

However, some aspects of the cases discussed in the book do not seem consistent with its wider claims. The account of the style of ‘altruism’ advocated by Spencer (limited, common-sense-based co-operation among freely choosing rational individuals) is certainly an accurate account of Spencer’s views, but it scarcely corresponds to the model of extreme self-sacrifice on the altar of wider humanity that is portrayed throughout the book as having distinguished late Victorian ‘altruism’ from more muted and old-fashioned models of generosity and mutual aid. Similarly, a chapter on the eugenics movement and the Edwardian ‘cult of motherhood’ reveals the wide and often unpredictable cleavages of opinion that existed, both between and within different strands of progressive evolutionary thought. These ranged (at two polar extremes) from proposals for the breeding-out of ‘bad’ motherhood by sterilisation of the unfit, through to the apotheosis of ‘virtuous’ motherhood, along the lines of Comte’s secular beatification of his muse and helpmate, Clotilde de Vaux. These were debates in which women themselves, with a few marginal exceptions, played a surprisingly silent part; and, despite their undoubted interest as historical episodes, it is not entirely clear how these motherhood debates should be seen as slotting into the wider national pattern of the rise and fall of ‘altruism’.

The discussion of ‘altruism’ in relation to late Victorian and early 20th-century movements for the study and relief of poverty rightly stresses the part played by Charles Booth, Beatrice Webb and other self-confessed admirers of Comte in terms both of research and of advocacy. But Dixon downplays the numerous non-positivist contributions to the Edwardian debate; in particular, he overlooks the fact that welfare reforms were also supported by figures like Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes and other disciples of G.E. Moore, all of whom he identifies as the advance guard of the Edwardian reaction against ‘altruism’. (In fact, most of the Bloomsbury set saw no incompatibility at all between redistributive social policies, and psychological ‘self-realisation’ in art, morals and personal conduct.) Oscar Wilde’s ‘Soul of Man under Socialism’ is likewise identified as a classic text of the egotistical ‘aesthetic reaction’, but no mention is made of Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’, which could well be interpreted in exactly the opposite light, as a moral paean to unselfishness.

Similarly, in the sphere of religion, Dixon’s account of the wholesale invasion of later Victorian Christianity by the ethic and language of ‘altruism’ is not wholly convincing. Undoubtedly it was the case that over the course of the later 19th century many strands of Victorian religious belief shifted away from a purely atonement-based understanding of Christian theology towards a more ‘incarnationalist’ one, and that this entailed a much more ‘social’ and ‘fraternal’ emphasis. But as Mill pointed out in 1865 in Auguste Comte and Positivism, the long history of Christianity contained no lack of figures, from the time of the New Testament onwards, who had put self-sacrifice and service to others before personal salvation and spiritual self-realisation (or vice versa), and there was no reason to suppose that Comtean thought was at all original in this respect (Mill himself compared Comte’s ideas on altruism to the ecstatic, self-sacrificing fervour of Thomas à Kempis). And, although by the turn of the century ‘altruism’ had been absorbed into sermons by Anglican bishops like Boyd Carpenter and Winnington-Ingram, and by the Congregationalist preacher Hugh Pryce Hughes, the precise cultural and imaginative resonance of the term by this date seems open to some doubt. Major British theological innovators (including Bishop Gore, Hastings Rashdall, Evelyn Underhill, Stewart Headlam, J.N. Figgis and the arch-modernist R.J. Campbell, to name but a few), all wrote at length about the interaction of moral and spiritual matters with the ‘social question’, and all were to a greater or lesser degree imbued with ‘incarnationalist’, ‘modernist’ and even quasi-positivist ideas. But in the writings of such authors, even casual references to ‘altruism’ – let alone any sustained discussion of the term – were conspicuous by their absence. This suggests that by the start of the 20th century ‘altruism’ was being domesticated into Christianity – and into the English language generally – as a popular cliché, rather than as a major new theological paradigm. It seems to me that ‘altruism’ as the crucial measure of seismic intellectual and cultural change is here being asked to carry more weight of evidence than it is able to bear.

In the end The Invention of Altruism doesn’t quite live up to its promise of helping us to ‘experience and make sense of ourselves and our society, in part, through the categories we inherited from . . . our Victorian predecessors’. It tries to do too much in relation to some aspects of the subject, and not enough in others. A rather different approach (though one in keeping with Dixon’s sensitivity to current ethico-scientific debates) might have been to follow through more intensively the linguistic history of ‘altruism’ and its synonyms over a much longer period, by comparing its Victorian affiliations not just with the much older language of ‘benevolence’, but with that used in the positivist revival of the 1940s and 1950s, and again with the language of Euro-positivism (prominent in the edicts of New Labour) that has re-emerged in recent decades. Such a time-scale would far more aptly fit the claim that ‘altruism’ has annexed contemporary Christianity. Another approach might have been to select fewer but deeper Victorian case-studies, thus consolidating the admirable aim of ‘using their words’ to ‘see things their way’ (instead of the wider range of sometimes rather impressionistic studies offered here).

Strangely, despite an extensive bibliography, Dixon makes no reference to the classic interpretations of 19th-century positivism and its impact on 20th-century thought published half a century ago by Talcott Parsons, Noel Annan and H. Stuart Hughes. Although overtaken in detailed respects by more recent research, those three studies raised a number of questions – relating to the intellectual lineages of positivist thought, to its peculiar relationship to ‘Englishness’, and to the very nature of positivism, both as a belief system and as a methodology – that remain no less difficult to answer than when they were first published. The Invention of Altruism goes some way towards clearing away the undergrowth, but the basic historical problems identified by Parsons, Annan and Hughes still remain largely unsolved.