European Science & Society in the 19th Century

 Mesmerized

Science & Society in the 19th Century

  Science, since its inception, has been a noble enterprise, spearheaded by a handful of men in each age, to gently unlock – or in some cases pry open with force – the secrets of nature so that they may be used to improve mankind.  While philosophers and politicians dealt with muddled theories and social (thus subjective) forces, scientists handled “facts,” objective truths that could be held, measured, and thus did not give in to the whims of man.  Or at least this is the idea of science held by most of the Western world since forever, it would seem.  The three books we read for this session not only challenge, but are successful in debunking, this Whiggish history of science’s unimpeded progress.  Moreover, Alison Winter’s Mesmerized reveals that until the mid nineteenth century, “science” as a unified enterprise comprised of experts in specific fields did not even exist.  Gerald Geison’s Private Science of Louis Pasteur calls into question the notion of private versus public spheres, and prompts us to ask what exactly the role of a scientist in society is. The Culture of Time and Space, a very problematic book by Stephen Kern, forces us to completely rethink how we as historians have been viewing the turn of the twentieth century.  Traditional periodization markers fall to the wayside as he emphasizes new themes: conceptions of time and space, the influence of technology, and the interplay of the different aspects of European culture.  All of these books present a much more complicated – and therefore accurate – picture of science’s place in European society.

In Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, Alison Winter explores a Victorian movement that has hitherto been regarded as a fringe fad or margin pseudo-science:  mesmerism.  When “animal magnetism” (as it was sometimes called) arrived in England in the 1830s, it was just one of many practices that questioned the nature of life (40).  In this way, it was similar to other practices, like those that we today would label as “science.”  In fact, Winter convincingly argues that “Rather than occupying a different world from orthodox or legitimate intellectual work, animal magnetism called into question the very definition of legitimacy itself” (5).  Mesmerism, then, helped define science, rather than being a fundamental opposition to it (though, scientists later set themselves in opposition to it).  By highlighting this, Winter is calling into question the allegedly ascending, inherently progressive nature of the scientific discipline.  It was not until this point in time in Victorian England that such a discipline emerged.  It was through discussions of what constituted legitimate knowledge (the mysterious practices of the mesmerizer, or the quantifiable results of lab work?) that science emerged.  More specifically, it was an atomization – or specialization – of knowledge that occurred, thus giving rise to specialists who thought of themselves collectively as “scientists.”

This specialization affected, as well as being affected by, the ascendancy of experts.  In other words, there was a competition between the emerging scientists, mesmerizers, as well as other philosophers who were trying to explain the nature of reality.  This competition was over who had the authority of the knowledge of reality.  The result was a split between trained “experts” and the untrained ‘lay’ masses.  Winter shows that this was not just a metaphorical, abstract debate carried out in journals.  By the 1840s, there were movements for education reform, and even laws that would put the power of medicine in the hands of only those with certified credentials.  “Lay attitudes [also] had to be brought into line with doctors’ own definitions of expertise and legitimacy.  But doctors did not agree on these definitions themselves” (165).  Again, this reveals the haphazard process by which scientists asserted their authority in the nineteenth century (indeed, had to first define authority and then wrest it out of mesmerizers’ hands).

A rather exciting aspect of Winter’s book was the way in which she showed how mesmerism was a nexus of a number of issues for Victorian culture.  Moreover, it does not simply represent a nexus through which we can study that time period; the Britons themselves realized that when they were doing an experiment in mesmerism, for example, they were actually doing an experiment on their society at large.  Mesmerizing revealed attitudes towards gender, class, and race relations.  Most mesmerizers were white, upper-class men, while most subjects were women, either from the same class, or from a lower one.  Because mesmerism was understood as one individual exerting force and control over another’s body, the practice was interpreted as a physical manifestation (and therefore justification) of social stratification.  Moreover, power over one’s body (whether manifested as the ability to control another’s body, or through the ability to halt the powers of the mesmerizer) came to exonerate moral superiority.  Mesmerism also interested priests and pastors because they saw first, a threat to their influence and authority, but also insight into how to increase their own influence, power, and authority over their flocks (247).  Moreover, the “question of whether the effects [of mesmerism] were natural or supernatural made experiments a testing ground for faith and doctrine” (4).  Ultimately, Winter convinces us that these questions, far from being seen as marginal, were very serious for Victorian Britons, because they “understood natural laws as underpinning, or having implications for, social laws” (31).

The implications for mesmerism on notions of race and empire were profound mainly because it caused people to directly think about the relationship between themselves and the empire’s subjects.  It “became the occasion for self conscious reflections about the basis of race, inequalities, and the natural laws that helped one people to bend another to its will” (7).  Winter’s story of James Esdaile and his interactions with a local Indian healer deftly illustrates her larger points.  Esdaile, and those who read his stories, relied on the assumption that the “magician” (as the healer was called by the Enlgish) was but superstitious and gullible.  By projecting superstition onto the Indian/magician/subject, Esdaile portrayed the events as occurring in a way that reinforced the preconceived notions of gullibility and superstition (187).  Moreover, performances such as these reiterated the hierarchies of race and power.  “Although individuals like the “magicians” might be able to produce the same phenomenon, European science alone could discern their cause” (188).  In a final display of dominance, Esdaile obliges the “magician” by performing mesmerism on him, thus stripping him of authority (at least in the eyes of British readers).

A final point on Winter’s book:  As professional science emerged “victorious” (as a Whiggish interpretation would attest), and was able to perform the same tasks as mesmerists (the use of chemical anesthesia to suspend pain, for instance), it dictated the definition of legitimate evidence.  “The emerging scientific disciplines left no place for testimony on new scientific truths, unless it was subservient to laboratory apparatus” (305).  Testimony of events that had already occurred, or were known to occur were acceptable, but “testimony to new, startling truths [mesmerism] were not admissible on its own” (305).  Seen in this light, science emerged not as a progressive movement open to new methodologies, but rather a conservative one bent on defining and keeping authority.

In  The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison uses a new supply of sources that have only recently become available to reevaluate the practices of famed French scientist Louis Pasteur.  By using Pasteur’s own private laboratory notebooks, Geison reveals a new, more complex, and somewhat ethically ambiguous Pasteur, one that varies greatly from the Pasteur myth that took hold even before Pasteur’s death.  In essence, Geison reveals the “private science” of Pasteur that was confined to his notebooks.  These notebooks revealed that Pasteur played fast and loose with the rules of the Scientific Method, completely disregarding it when it came into conflict with his preconceived notions.  This “new” and private Pasteur downplayed the role of his assistants and collaborators, and even administered his famous rabies vaccine without first testing it on animals.

It seems that Geison is not as shocked by these actual revelations themselves as he is by the fact that Pasteur seemed to have two separate lives. While Geison admits in the introduction that there is no real distinction between “private” and “public” science, he does not seem quite able or willing to forgive Pasteur for fashioning a particular public image of himself while practicing something else in the privacy of his own lab.  This raises questions of what we think about science in general – and moreover, its relationship with “the public.”  It also calls into question the private/public dichotomy that has so pervaded modern Western thinking.  By page 5, Geison admits that science is shaped by the anticipation of how the results will be accepted by an audience (other scientists, the government, or the public at large).  Pasteur chose problems and experiments that he knew would go over well with the public, and that would fit in the expectation of what a public scientist should be doing.  This already calls into question the distinction of private/public.  Also, knowledge cannot be divided up neatly – or at all, however neatly or messily – into private/public.  The work of one individual or generation is built on the knowledge and work of others and past generations, showing that no idea is ever completely our own, or “private.”

But, even while Geison admits all of this, he still seems upset that Pasteur quite consciously performed while in public (he was a “shrewd sociologist of knowledge” Geison states, 132); Pasteur fashioned a public image for himself that Geison deems today is inappropriate for a scientist.  But I wonder if these expectations were the same in the second half of the nineteenth century.  What was expected of a scientist?  It seems like Pasteur (especially towards the end of his life) was somewhat of a rock star, embodying far more than just the quest for knowledge about nature:  a symbol of nationalistic French pride, of the triumph of Western knowledge over nature, and perhaps of racial & intellectual superiority.  Perhaps a scientist (especially one getting paid so much) was meant to have this sort of public prestige.

But this book – and the revelation of Pasteur’s private notebooks – also reveals the discrepancies we have about scientific knowledge.  As science became more specialized and professionalized, the idea grew that science was (and should be) completely objective, removed from the influences of everyday life (even as it strove to explain everyday life).  So, what Geison’s work reveals is that scientists are just like people in other fields who are influenced by a multitude of factors, including (as in Pasteur’s case) religion.  Geison quotes Steven Shapin as stating, “Science, no less than any other form of culture, depends upon rhetoric.”  Geison continues, “And the superficially anti-rhetorical language of most modern scientific discourse is itself but another rhetorical resource or strategy” (269).  I think what Geison is trying to get at is that science, as a mode of thought, a way of understanding, is itself a particular type of rhetoric (or “socially constructed narrative” to use postmodern terminology), rather than being an expedition to discover the real facts that other narratives use to explain the world.  So, Geison complicates the story of science, especially the idea that it exists outside of culture; it is influenced by culture, and is a culture.

Finally, there is The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern’s provocative – and, I believe, problematic – work on how the ways in which technological innovations changed the way Europeans and Americans perceive both time and space. He pulls from a number of sources – philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, literature, and politics, though is eerily quiet on economics – to show how these changes affected all aspects of culture.  In his final chapters, he then shows what consequences these revolutions in thought and perception had on the “July Crisis” and World War One.  Kern’s basic assertion that technology impacted conceptions of time and space is accurate, and the specifics that he provides are for the most part convincing, not to mention interesting and thought provoking.  But, because I am already running too long, I would rather save my discussion of the ‘specifics’ for our meeting, and use this space, instead to raise some objections I have to Kern’s premises.

First and foremost, I take issue with his talk of “essential” or “basic” aspects of humanity, of “universal” traits.  It represents little more, I think, than an attempt to nail down a singular “human nature.”  He compares the conception of time (and its passing) to hunger: it is an essential expression of being human that we have hunger, and we all conceive of time and its passing. “The structure of history, the uninterrupted forward movement of the clocks, the procession of days, seasons, and years, and simple common sense tell us that time is irreversible and moves forward at a steady rate,” he claims (29).  But what of peoples that experience time so differently, that it is difficult – if not impossible – to compare their conception with our own, or to explain their conception in the terms of our own?  He seems to pay lip service to the acknowledgement (by Benjamin Whorf) that some people “actually experience time differently than we do” (xxii).  But the rest of his book is based on the assumption that we, as humans, experience time and space fundamentally the same around the world, and that we can trace large, sweeping changes and revolutions in these conceptions across large spaces.

I challenge this basic assumption, and view it as forcing our own understandings on others.  Moreover, I think his book misunderstands the processes of causality on many occasions.  For example, when discussing World War One he states, “The drive to expand and control space was universal” (241).  But what is that supposed to mean exactly?  This drive was somehow basically human, perhaps even genetic?  Instead of looking for how a human nature affected/caused political action, perhaps it is more helpful to ask if particular aspects of culture (products of historical processes) produce the government’s desire to expand.  Similarly, he claims that Great Britain and France, as dominant empires, were more confident going in to the Great War; they were less worried about a future, because the past showed that they were “always” there.  Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, had just become modern states, so they “knew” that they were fragile and could disappear in tomorrow’s war.  But did the leaders of these countries think of themselves as new and fragile?  What about all of the attempts to construct histories for themselves (not to mention the very real history that their cultures had, predating national boundaries)?  For example, what about the Heimat movement in Germany that attempted to give the German national history roots in the local, provincial pasts?

I think that Kern’s misunderstanding of this situation (and others throughout the book) stem from his belief in the dialectical nature of knowledge and reality: every thesis must have an antithesis.  Therefore, the opponents in World War One must have been opponents due to diametrically opposed conception of both time and space.  I do not wish to completely dismiss Kern’s book.  But, I do think it is more helpful, instead of setting up dichotomies, to explore how changes in the ideas of time (the anxiety that time had sped up, for example) affected all European leaders and pushed them to act quickly.

The greatest contribution of Kern’s book is that it reveals that a powerful revolution in the way Europeans understood time and space did in fact occur during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It can be understood as fundamental in so far as the change in conceptions of time and space affected a number of facets of European culture: literature, art, science, warfare.  But I am not convinced that we are talking about fundamental shifts in human nature.

In conclusion, all of these books make us reevaluate the way we understand science and its place in European history.  All of them reveal that European society expressed deeply rooted anxieties about the pace of life, about how the march of time had sped up.  Many saw themselves as shooting into a progressive utopia, while others felt as if technology had them hurtling towards an apocalyptic end.  Second, these books show (if nothing else) that truths and knowledge were not solidified or agreed on; only hindsight makes them appear that way. In reality, definitions and knowledge were up for negotiation, much as they are today.  Third, Geison’s work in particular (and Kern’s in a less direct way) warns us to be careful of applying our own knowledge or standards onto the past.  It seemed that Geison’s understanding of what a scientist should be hindered him from understanding Pasteur’s crossing of a public/private boundary that may not have existed at the time.  And lastly, all three of these authors reveal that Western science is only one way of understanding reality, one method of acquiring and analyzing knowledge.  In short, it is but one genre in the larger literature of human knowledge.

Books under review: 

  1. Winter, Alison.  Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998
  2. Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  3. Kern, Stephen.  The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.  With a new preface by Stephen Kern.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Creative Commons License
European Science & Society in the 19th Century by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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