Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery [NOOK Book]


One of the articles of faith of twentieth-century intellectual history is that the theory of relativity in physics sprang in its essentials from the unaided genius of Albert Einstein; another is that scientific relativity is unconnected to ethical, cultural, or epistemological relativisms. Victorian Relativity challenges these assumptions, unearthing a forgotten tradition of avant-garde speculation that took as its guiding principle "the ...
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Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery

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One of the articles of faith of twentieth-century intellectual history is that the theory of relativity in physics sprang in its essentials from the unaided genius of Albert Einstein; another is that scientific relativity is unconnected to ethical, cultural, or epistemological relativisms. Victorian Relativity challenges these assumptions, unearthing a forgotten tradition of avant-garde speculation that took as its guiding principle "the negation of the absolute" and set itself under the militant banner of "relativity."

Christopher Herbert shows that the idea of relativity produced revolutionary changes in one field after another in the nineteenth century. Surveying a long line of thinkers including Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Alexander Bain, W. K. Clifford, W. S. Jevons, Karl Pearson, James Frazer, and Einstein himself, Victorian Relativity argues that the early relativity movement was bound closely to motives of political and cultural reform and, in particular, to radical critiques of the ideology of authoritarianism. Recuperating relativity from those who treat it as synonymous with nihilism, Herbert portrays it as the basis of some of our crucial intellectual and ethical traditions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226327365
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 264
  • File size: 426 KB

Meet the Author

Christopher Herbert is a professor of English at Northwestern University. He is the author of Trollope and Comic Pleasure and Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century.
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Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery

By Christopher Herbert

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Christopher Herbert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226327337

CHAPTER ONE - Difference, Unity, Proliferation

Sir Joshua Reynolds: You cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself, who is always at hand. Blake: Nonsense--Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye--Such the Object

--Poetry and Prose of William Blake
The child born in 1900 would, then be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple.

--The Education of Henry Adams
No doubt unintentionally, Einstein misled the archbishop in assuring him that relativity in physics was purely a scientific matter unrelated to religion. In fact, the early literature of "the new outlook" reveals unmistakably the emergence of the modern relativity theme from the matrix of nineteenth-century religious debate. Though this theme owed much of the energy of its nineteenth-century development to its monopolization by militant freethinkers hostile to religion, it takes one of its earliest forms, very surprisingly, as nothing other than a piece of theological apparatus. Lenin's association of the scientific relativism he despised with reactionary ecclesiastical interests is to this extent not utterly fantastical.

Above all,Victorian relativity cannot be understood as a simple maxim but only as a complex, shifting, logically problematic nexus of themes-- one that has little in common in any of its versions with that philosophical chimera, "the doctrine that all views are equally good" (Nozick). It can be said to appear in the course of the nineteenth century in two aspects or phases. The first is dictated by the militant principle, "No absolutes!" The second is an attempt to define the paradoxical-seeming properties of what can be called the relativistic field. The two phases take shape in close association with each other, and in many notable texts can hardly be disentangled except as an artifice of exposition. I shall try in this chapter, in any case, to trace this broad twofold pattern of intellectual innovation, deferring to the next chapter, as much as possible, my discussion of the motive of ideological critique in the early history of relativity. Considering that issues of freedom and authority are embroiled with theoretical and scientific speculation at nearly every moment in the literature I will consider, and that writers of the Victorian relativity movement took for granted the inseparable connection between the political and intellectual regimes of their society, the division of topics I propose to follow must also be somewhat artificial and awkward, even if not rigidly adhered to. I will enforce it only up to a point.

Difference, Anglican and Utilitarian

The modern history of relativity theory extends well back into the Enlightenment, and especially into Kantian and Humean philosophy. My goal is not to attempt anything like a full reconstruction of that history, and still less to identify the ultimate origins of relativity. (As I have said, I start with the assumption that abandoning the fantasy of originary moments is a prerequisite of scientific intellectual history, the other main one being the abandonment of the idea that cultural formations such as theories and doctrines possess any fixed or given ideological content which scholarship can ever take for granted.) For the purpose of tracing the destiny of relativity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, a significant point of departure is found in the work of Sir William Hamilton (especially his once famous essay of 1829, "Philosophy of the Unconditioned") and of his follower, the clergyman and eventual Dean of St. Paul's, H. L. Mansel (especially The Limits of Religious Thought [1858]).

For many subsequent writers, Hamilton and Mansel inaugurated modern relativity by their formulation of what we can call the law of Difference. This principle, recognizably a version of the axiom of Protagoras that "nothing is one thing just by itself," had been definitively stated by Hobbes and then became an article of faith for an increasingly radicalized relativity movement in the nineteenth century. "The condition of intelligence," says Hamilton, stating the law by means of a quotation from Victor Cousin, "is difference; and an act of knowledge is only possible where there exists a plurality of terms" (Hamilton, "Philosophy of the Unconditioned," 37). What emerges by implication, or by extrapolation, from this formula is a doctrine of what a writer to be considered later in this chapter calls "twofold relativity": the doctrine that knowledge of any thing is a function both of the relations obtaining between it and the perceiver and of those between it and other things with which it is compared. Hamilton and Mansel, following this chain of inference, argue that human knowledge is confined strictly to the relative properties of phenomena, and is therefore necessarily conditioned by the subject's cognitive faculties and circumstances and by the act of cognition itself. To speak of any possible knowledge of "the One, the Absolute, the Unconditioned" or of the absolute properties of things is consequently, they declare, an impossible and wholly nonsensical contradiction (Hamilton, "Philosophy," 14). "Our knowledge . . . can be nothing more than a knowledge of the relative manifestations of an existence," and "the absolute is conceived merely by a negation of conceivability," says Hamilton (22, 21). "Consciousness is . . . only possible in the form of a relation" between subject and object, echoes Mansel; but since "by the Absolute is meant that which exists in and by itself, having no necessary relation to any other Being," therefore "the Absolute . . . is a term expressing no object of thought, but only a denial of the relation by which thought is constituted" (Mansel, Limits, 96, 75, 97).

For Hamilton and Mansel, to pose the law of Difference as the originary principle of philosophy is unmistakably a revolutionary act; it is to call for a radical cleansing from the philosophical vocabulary of its heavy incrustation of reference to that specious category, "the absolute." Hamilton goes so far in this direction as to declare that "philosophy, if viewed as more than a science of the conditioned [i.e., the relative and contingent], is impossible" ("Philosophy," 22). He credits Kant with having demonstrated the unknowability of things in themselves, but claims that philosophical absolutism--a vainglorious refusal "to limit philosophy to the observation of phenomena, and to the generalization of these phenomena into laws"-- remains alive nonetheless in Kant and in later writers including Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Cousin, and others. Their various philosophical enterprises "are just so many endeavors . . . to fix the absolute as a positive in knowledge," says Hamilton; "but the absolute, like the water in the sieves of the Danaides, has always hitherto run through as a negative into the abyss of nothing" (25-26). The demystifying principle of relativity reveals "the absolute" to be a philosophical will-o'-the-wisp, an empty signifier without any possible referent--none, at least, within the realm of human cognition. Hamilton then derives from this negation of the absolute a further principle: that objects of knowledge do not exist wholly independent of human thought. They have no intrinsic and permanent properties but are inescapably affected by the very act of cognition. "To think is to condition," says Hamilton famously (21), framing at the very early date of 1829 a prototype of a cardinal principle of twentieth-century natural and social sciences: the idea that "by its intervention science alters and refashions the object of investigation" (Heisenberg, Physicist's Conception of Nature, 29). (It is now understood, for example, that a physicist cannot glimpse an electron without deflecting it from its path; nor can an ethnographer observe a tribal community without altering it in the process.) If "The Philosophy of the Unconditioned" marks the first distinct statement of this thesis, as Hamilton's nineteenth-century commentators believed, this essay can be said to represent a fateful moment in the history of modern awareness.

Hamilton's and Mansel's critique of absolutist philosophy under the banner of Protagorean relativity (not that they acknowledge their affiliation with the great criminal of philosophy) is noteworthy for the precociousness which which it introduces trends of discourse and matrices of imagery we are likely to think of as the innovations of later intellectual generations. But it is also noteworthy and surprising for the moral that they derive from this critique. Their goal in subverting the category of the "absolute" is not to call for the development of relativistic philosophy, still less of relativistic science, but to argue that the inescapable defeat of the intellect by the refractions of relativity necessitates and is precisely the condition of religious faith. "Philosophy . . . is impossible" in a world where Difference is sovereign, they conclude, and the place of the defunct discipline is to be claimed by theology. They imply that the craving for religious assurance is necessarily exacerbated by the failure of philosophy, represented as the nightmarish spectacle of positive knowledge turning to water and running off into "the abyss of nothing." "By a wonderful revelation, we are thus, in the very consciousness of our inability to conceive aught above the relative and finite, inspired with a belief in the existence of something unconditioned beyond the sphere of all comprehensible reality," says Hamilton ("Philosophy," 22).

Abrupt and arbitrary as this argumentative turn may seem, Mansel in The Limits of Religious Thought carries it to a drastic set of conclusions, highlighting as he does so the treacherous instability that affects the whole subsequent history of relativity. On the one hand, this striking text by the future Dean of St. Paul's goes far to delineate the paradigm of a thoroughly skeptical and radicalized modern sensibility. Basing his theological speculations squarely on Protagorean principles, Mansel develops a sophisticated, uncompromising critique of the philosophy of absolutes; in this respect, he frames the paramount motif of the relativity movement ever afterward and the ground of its inevitable antagonism toward systems of authority. He sounds strong notes of what would later in the century be named "humanism" and pragmatism in philosophy and would serve as an important vehicle for Nietzschean intellectual modernism. No "complete system of scientific Theology" exists ready-made in Christian revelation, he declares, for example; "if it is to exist at all, [it] must be constructed out of it by human interpretation" (Limits, 48). In its own context of Anglican orthodoxy, Mansel's constructivist formula represents a transvaluation of values every bit as extreme as--and closely similar to--that proclaimed by Nietzsche several decades later. ("Facts are precisely what is lacking," says Nietzsche in The Will to Power [2:12], for example; "all that exists consists of interpretations.") Mansel does not fail to see that the project of interpretive construction in theology, necessitated as he claims by the absence of a transcendent signifier even in the holy scriptures, must contend at every moment with "an inextricable dilemma" (Limits, 79). The "absolute" things that it is the task of theology to represent lie forever outside the reach of human cognition, limited as our knowledge must always be to the domain of the mundane and the relative. The use of analytical reason in this form of investigation, therefore, is "on every side involved in inextricable confusion and contradiction" (Limits, 91); it leads inescapably to self-refutations, aporias, antinomies. "The Absolute cannot be conceived as conscious, neither can it be conceived as unconscious: it cannot be conceived as complex, neither can it be conceived as simple: it cannot be conceived by difference, neither can it be conceived by the absence of difference" (79).

As the rest of this chapter shows, Mansel's analysis of the self-contradictory character of theological absolutes furnishes an exact model for the critique of established doctrines that came to define avant-garde natural and social science several decades later. Similarly, his rules of method for "scientific Theology" prefigure language that was to become widely characteristic of modernistic movements across a range of sciences in later years. "In renouncing all knowledge of the Absolute," he remarkably says, for example, "[theology] renounces at the same time all attempts to construct a priori schemes of God's Providence as it ought to be . . . but confines itself to the actual course of that Providence as manifested in the world" (Limits, 132). It is precisely this rule, we may infer, that gives theology the right to call itself "scientific." Mansel's formulation of it prefigures Durkheim's disavowal of idealized preconceptions in the scientific study of sociological phenomena such as religion itself (Durkheim, Elementary Forms, 38); or Lucien Levy-Bruhl's disavowal of "general and abstract principles" in favor of localized positive science in the study of ethics (Levy-Bruhl, Ethics and Moral Science, 155); or Ernst Mach's and then Einstein's disavowals of a priori notions like "absolute space" in physics in favor of a self-analytic science focused on the process of actual measurement of physical events; or Dewey's insistence that philosophical truths "are made, not a priori," and that a reconstructed philosophy needs to inquire rigorously into the dynamics of the "experimental" process of their making (Dewey, Essays in Experimental Logic, 320). Mansel's theology is closely continuous with all this trend of avant-garde secular speculation, of which he deserves to be named as one of the noteworthy pioneers. Most modernistic of all is Mansel's embrace of paradox as a necessary component of the scientific mode of knowledge--as, indeed, the identifying mark of intellectual rigor once the unsparing demystification of "the absolute" has been carried out. "It is our duty . . . to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite," he says, for example, adding, "it is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other" (Limits, 106).

But The Limits of Religious Thought does not, as it might seem, develop these provocative arguments in order to emancipate "human interpretation" from the sway of orthodoxy and superstition or in order to banish the Absolute--that imponderable category that has disappeared "into the abyss of nothing," according to Hamilton--to the limbo of unmeaning metaphysics. Quite the contrary: for Mansel, relativistic critique in the Hamiltonian style leads simply to the discovery of a disabling flaw in all human speculation, and the lesson to be derived from it is the necessity of unquestioning submission to religious authorities in all matters both of belief and of conduct. The transcendent and binding character of Christian doctrine, including a strict principle of biblical infallibility, is taken for granted from the outset. In expounding this credo, Mansel shifts Hamilton's earlier declaration that one is "inspired" to religious faith by the relativistic critique of absolutes into a new register of obligation, coercion, and duty. Comparing the religious sensibility of the two parallel texts makes a vivid exhibit, indeed, of the cultural shift that had occurred in Britain between 1829 and 1858, by which time the influence of Calvinistic Victorian Puritanism had reached its high-water mark. Since reason is incapacitated in the field of religious speculation, we must abandon any attempt at critical evaluation of the dictates of "Faith," says Mansel. In religious matters, "it is a duty . . . to believe in that which we are unable to comprehend" (Limits, 110); nor is the smallest deviation from orthodoxy ever to be tolerated, since to "reject one jot or one tittle of the whole doctrine of Christ" is to asperse all Christian religion as fraudulent (215). In setting forth these precepts, Mansel emphasizes that he is concerned less with abstract theological issues than with the enforcement of codes of behavior following not from speculative but from "regulative ideas of the Deity"; from these, he declares, we derive, and must all obey, an "absolute standard of right and wrong," "an Absolute Morality" (132, 122). Mansel's Christianity is very much a system of rigid practical control appealing to an expressly authoritarian and absolutist ideology--an instance of precisely the mentality that Mill identifies as the bane of the age in On Liberty.

On the theological plane, the leading elements of Mansel's thinking are the primacy of the doctrine of "the Conviction of Sin" (Limits, 121) and a strong affirmative emphasis on the world of eternal torment reserved for the faithless after death. To readers who might be troubled by the idea of a supposedly benevolent deity visiting infinite punishment upon finite sins, Mansel asks, with the air of a philosophical inquirer exploring all reasonable hypotheses, "are we then so sure . . . that there can be no sin beyond the grave?" (196). We seem at this moment to tumble down a rabbit hole from a mode of sophisticated "scientific" analysis into another discursive mode altogether. It is no use protesting, however, against the eruption of the most bizarre fantasy in the midst of Mansel's reasoned inquiry, since as far as His function of prescribing moral laws goes, "God's judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out" (202). It would be no less futile to protest against the sinister model offered to worldly governments by theological imagery of a giant agency for the infliction of torture upon any person who might infringe "one jot or one tittle" of official doctrine. Mansel's critique of the Absolute in the name of Protagorean relativity has at all events troped itself here in dizzying fashion into a celebration of profoundly mystified authoritarian absolutism; the law of Difference has become a law of subjection to an "Absolute Morality" that tolerates no difference whatever.

To the extent that Hamilton and Mansel deserve credit or blame for injecting the virus of Protagorean relativity into the bloodstream of modern discourse, their efforts can only be said to have fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences. The relativity principle they played notable roles in formulating soon became the instrument of a broad nineteenth-century insurgency against Christian religion, which for various critics (who could only dimly imagine the rise of totalitarian regimes on the twentieth-century model) stood as the defining instance of ideological tyranny and of the inherent tendency of absolutist systems to reach out from the realm of speculation, theory, and official mythologies into the exercise of practical power over human lives. But I am anticipating the story to be told in the next chapter.


Excerpted from Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery by Christopher Herbert Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Herbert. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Relativity and Ideology
Introduction: The Conspiracy against Truth
1. Difference, Unity, Proliferation
2. Relativity and Authority
3. The Relativity of Logic
4. Karl Pearson and the Human Form Divine
5. Frazer and Einstein
Afterword: Protagoras and History-Writing
Works Cited
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