Category Archives: Intellectual History

philology

By any other name.

Studying the history of ideas can engender a jaundiced perspective on contemporary academic writing.

Weariness can arise from a recognition that each generation is inventing the wheel. To give but one example, every generation since the 1870s seems to have proclaimed that the Anglo-Saxons rather interbred with than ethnically cleansed the older settlers of the British Isles, and then blasted the older generation for not grasping this.

It emerges also from reading the introductory sections of journal articles written by junior researchers who have been taught to begin with a potted history of the problem to be tackled. To anyone who has actually read the older texts so treated (clearly not the junior researchers – when would they have the time?) these histories are a travesty of the facts; but endlessly repeated they work to establish an ingrained miasprehension of a discipline’s own history among its practioners.

Another factor, that which has spurred this post, is the disciplinary myopia that pervades modern academic practice, the partial focus that is mistaken for inter-disciplinary self-awareness. This hit me yesterday following two seemingly unrelated discussions.

The first was a discussion of Tom Shippey’s argument that philology is the key to unlocking the secrets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Shippey supports his claim with a series of dazzling insights and revelations, which he then uses to bash modern students of English, who have turned from philology to ‘literature’ and, says Shippey, thereby lost the true key to the study of English. I have some criticisms of Shippey’s presentation of the practice of philology in English universities before 1914 (it was not the straight line from the work of the Grimms that he presents, but rather mutated in the wake of various discoveries related to the prehistoric past in the 1880s). But in this post Shippey serves simply to remind us that philology once existed, that it was taught and practiced in English universities, that it  was great.

The second discussion followed a reading, on the request of the editor of a special journal issue, of a paper on the nature-society relationship in psychology. The paper was well-written and, within its world of science studies, more than decent. It began, of course, with a long historical survey, in this case intended to establish that language – all language, even scientific language – is not objective and theory neutral, and is ultimately metaphorical. This introduction, mirroring countless other introductory sections in articles on the history and sociology of the sciences, began with logical positivism and its attempt to establish an empirical language of science that could be demarcated from the language of poetry, metaphysics, and nonsense, and then observed how logical positivism had imploded by the 1930s, its very failure opening the door to a new kind of study of knowledge based on a new understanding of the nature of language.

The new approach to the sciences begins from the conviction that language is open-ended, fluid and inherently metaphorical. Its primary method is to chart local variations in specific terms over time. This the paper proceeded to do with regard to the psychological term ‘inhibition’ – noting early pre-psychological uses, different deployments since the French Revolution, and local variations in French, German, British, and Russian psychology, as well as popular uses through this whole period down to today.

All very interesting. But is it not astonishing that the author of the paper sets his own inquiry within an historical framework and never once mentions philology?

For what else is this ‘new’ method of reflection on the sciences but a form of philology? Of course the onus here is on modern usages (although Aristotle and Galen and other ancients are invariably mentioned). But basically we have a flourishing modern research program dedicated to producing papers and books that could well serve as appendices to the O.E.D.

The new method is only new in relation to a myopic intellectual history that pushes one school of philosophy to the forefront while absolutely occluding those who once held the crown of the social sciences, the philologists.

gareth-williams-self-portrait

Some reflections on the modern university

I’ve been studying English intellectual history for nearly three decades, focusing on the years between 1865 and 1925. At the beginning of this period intellectual life in England took place largely outside the universities; by the end of it the modern university had emerged, replete with its professional journals and division of faculties, and has claimed a monopoly over serious scholarship ever since.

And yet a decade ago I resolved to pursue my own research as an independent scholar, without any university affiliation. In this short essay I offer some reflections on how my work has shaped my attitude toward the modern university.

A child of Thatcher, my early research explored the origins of neoclassical economics. Specifically, I looked at the reformation of classical economics at the hands of Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern university economics. Marshall established economics as an independent discipline in Cambridge in 1903, but his intellectual innovations occurred in the early 1870s, when political economy formed part of the ‘moral sciences’ faculty and his university was in the midst of wholesale overhaul.

Oxford and Cambridge are medieval institutions, but the Elizabethan settlement had established them as bastions of the English Reformation. The first part of the nineteenth century saw sustained agitation from religious dissenters to end the Anglican monopoly and ‘nationalize’ the ancient universities. By the 1870s, an alliance of progressive Anglicans and secular reformers had gained a secure foothold within these institutions and non-Anglicans, and also for the first time women students, entered the colleges. At the same time, a number of liberal Oxbridge dons became the vanguard of the ‘extension movement’ that led to the establishment of new colleges and universities throughout the country. The extension movement was the liberal elite’s response to the 1867 franchise extension, in which anxiety about democracy fostered a resolve to educate citizens so they might cast their vote responsibly.

My core discovery was that the reform of Oxbridge and the establishment of new national institutions of higher education was the unstated premise upon which Marshall’s neoclassical economics was built. Classical economics envisages a homogenous labour force paid from past profits. The young Marshall broke the straitjacket of this model by reasoning that an injection of education changed all the relationships: the educated worker was more productive but demanded higher wages, but firms could borrow to cover their higher wage bill. Moving away from a single model, in which two classes of capitalists and workers contest division of a fixed fund, Marshall envisaged a multitude of labour markets in which wages correspond to productivity. Essentially, Marshall was saying that universal higher education would not only train citizens but also usher in a new kind of economy.

In England, then, neoclassical economics was born from the progressive liberal push that established many of our current institutions of higher education. But between Marshall’s 1873 dream of a competitive, classless society, and Tony Blair’s Marshallian election platform 124 years later, something untoward occurred.

In 1873 economics was one of several Cambridge moral sciences, of which philosophy was queen. Marshall subscribed to the Idealist conviction that the human personality is not mechanical and therefore accepted that education cannot be entirely reduced to system. Consequently, he envisaged the university, the foundation of the new economy, as standing in part outside it. But by 1903 Marshall had established economics as an independent discipline. Freed from humanistic constraints, a newly autonomous neoclassical discourse gradually extended itself into all spheres of public policy debate. Today, Frankenstein’s monster has consumed its parent and the result is called the neoliberal university.

Now, the obvious moral of this story is that we have lost today any sure framework of values that can hold the economizing mind at bay. Yet this loss seems built into the modernization of the English universities. Academic specialization is just Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour applied to institutions of research. But such division is merely fragmentation unless some kind of co-ordination and overall supervision is in place. Hence, university government and administrators. Traditionally, the university has been an independent and self-governing institution, its decision-making body the university senate, composed of the professors of the various disciplines. But self-government requires some consensus on the mission and purpose of the institution as a whole, not simply its various faculties.

In early Victorian Cambridge, the governing supervision was clerical, and theology exercised an invisible yet omniscient check on all academic ventures. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some aspects of this central ideology were taken over by philosophy. But once the various faculties of the humanities and social sciences became autonomous the intellectual center was lost. Vague, undeveloped, and increasingly outdated notions of Max Weber’s vision of science as a vocation held things together for several decades. But when in the 1980s vice-chancellors who knew which way the political wind was blowing began to take control from the university senates, they met no effective internal resistance. Today university self-government has given way to rule by professional administrators, who enforce their own discipline of efficient resource allocation and quality control on a disgruntled academic workforce.

Yet those who today rail against the neoliberal university usually ignore, and perhaps fail to even see, a related yet more profound problem. For if disciplinary autonomy undermined the ideal of scholarship as a vocation, it has also undermined scholarship itself.

Whatever you might feel about neoclassical economics, I think there can be no doubt about Marshall’s intellectual creativity. And what is striking here is that his innovations were carried out in an environment in which political economy was not hermetically isolated from other disciplines. Indeed, my research revealed that his achievement rested upon substantial borrowings from philosophy, psychology, and contemporary historical scholarship. Contrast this ‘multi-disciplinary’ reformation of political economy in the face of a changing social reality with the revelation of imperial nakedness that marked the response of professional economists to the 2009 financial crisis. Since Marshall, neoclassical economics has been thoroughly mathematicised and an array of techniques have been added to the professional economist’s toolbox; but any progress in dealing with real world problems on any level beyond the ideological may be seriously doubted.

Subsequent research has reinforced my suspicions. Back in 2004 I discovered in the archive a long essay that the young Marshall had written on the history of the world. Historians of economics had ignored it because they assumed that an essay on history could have no connection to Marshall’s economic thought. The essay became a vital part of my reconstruction of Marshall’s early economic work; but I also became fascinated with the historical vision it embodied and have since dedicated several years to tracing its origins and subsequent fate.

This investigation has led to the unearthing of an entirely forgotten episode in early twentieth-century English intellectual history. Between around 1910 and 1924, a newly established faculty of Anthropology at Cambridge saw the coming together of field anthropologists (recently returned from the Torres Straits), experimental psychologists, Classical archaeologists and Anglo-Saxonists, who together began to develop a new social theory founded upon the idea that the contact of peoples had been (and remained) the key driving force of human history. This truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ research project floundered with the death in 1922 of one of its key figures, W.H.R. Rivers, and sank into the sand in the wake of Bronisław Malinowski’s success in establishing anthropology as an autonomous discipline.

Whether or not the theories of the Cambridge ‘anthropologists’ were correct is not the point here. What matters is that their passing marked the end of a remarkable period of university life, in which the foundations of the modern research institute were laid but academic specialization had not yet limited researchers to communicating with a handful of fellow-specialists and a captive-audience of students.

What I take from these two episodes of Cambridge history is that a university can be a site of astonishingly creative cross-disciplinary work, but that once disciplinary boundaries have ossified, it usually is not.

Let me jump from the early twentieth century to the present day. As an independent scholar I earn my living as a freelance academic editor. I have a busy period in the autumn when I receive floods of grant applications to edit. A good number of these propose ‘inter-disciplinary’ conferences and longer-term projects on various themes. They always explain how the proposed meeting of minds from different disciplines will enrich our understanding and generate new paradigms, and so on. Then, at other times of the year, I’m occasionally asked to edit a collected volume that has emerged from an earlier such project. And what I am invariably confronted with is a series of chapters by distinguished scholars, each writing from his or her own discipline, with no one essay having any relationship whatsoever with the other essays in the volume.

Within my own admittedly obscure field of intellectual history, disciplinary specialization does not simply stultify, it generates fundamentally flawed scholarship. Both my work on Marshall and my discovery of the ‘contact of peoples’ anthropologists break new ground. Nobody has noticed these things before. But this is less testimony to my research abilities than indictment of the disciplinary histories that inform conventional understandings of the intellectual past. A disciplinary history is the work of a practitioner of a discipline who projects that discipline back into history and so discovers a past populated by modern university professionals avant la lettre. The past might be a foreign country, but to the disciplinary historian in an age of globalization all countries look the same.

On becoming an independent scholar my research and writing improved substantially. After a while I realized that this was because I no longer had ready access to reams of secondary literature via JSTOR and the like and had to focus my attention pretty much exclusively on the primary literature (much of which I could access free through the wonderful Internet Archive. In my own field most of the secondary literature is tripe and reading it harmful to genuine illumination of the past.

I recognize that my research shines a light upon only a very limited world, and that my own experiences as an intellectual historian are narrow in relation to the wider world of research and learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget that the monopolization of scholarship by the universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the canonical authors – who were named as such in the early periods of disciplinary formation – worked outside established institutions. And while the likes of Coleridge and J.S. Mill laboured as ‘independent scholars’ avant la lettre, their Oxbridge contemporaries were charged with instilling correct Anglican doctrines in the ‘rising generation’. A good part of the knowledge produced and taught by today’s academics strikes me as no less safe, vapid, and moribund as that disseminated by their counterparts a century and a half ago.

 

Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before 
    Administration.

‘Under Which Lyre’, W.H. Auden. 1946.

 

Bibliography

You can read most of the research on which I draw on my academia.edu page. The research on Marshall is set out in my 2009 book, but some of the relevant arguments are summarized in the second part of my essay on ‘Culture and Political Economy’. For a sustained polemic on modern disciplinary histories see my ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’.

For detailed accounts of the emergence of the neoliberal university in Britain from the 1980s on see Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’ (2006) and his working paper ‘The “Form” of “Reform”: The Postwar University in Britain, 1945-1992’, both available on Keith’s academia.edu page.

These reflections as a whole were inspired by my reading of an early draft of Gregory C. G. Moore’s forthcoming Rounded Globe eBook, Leslie Stephen and the Clubbable Men of Radical London.

 

Simon J. Cook

CC BY-SA. 4.0 license: you are free to share and adapt this text for any purpose.

Joyce_Kaes

War of the Ghosts

The following post was written as a guest post for Tom Hillman’s blog, Alas, not me.

At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.

Does this have anything to do with Tolkien?

It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.

Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.

Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.

Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.

So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.

Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.

Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.

Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.

The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.

Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.

Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.

Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.

One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.

Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.

Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.

 

Some bibliographical references

On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.

Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) archive.org (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).

Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).

You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.

Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my Academia.edu page : ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.

Photo credit: ‘Photomarathon 18: Memories’, Joyce Kaes. Creative commons license.

Granchester_Meadows_bw

Night in the Museum

Reading John Gibbins’ latest post over at the Grote Club I was struck by how much we share in our approach to modern Cambridge intellectual history, but also how divergent are our perspectives.

What we agree on is the vital importance of the Rev. John Grote to this history. This is no small beer. John has dedicated much of his life to bringing Grote to a wider audience. In my own studies of Victorian Cambridge, Grote shone out like a beacon. But the fan club does not extend far beyond us two. The love affair of others with the likes of Henry Sidgewick, Wittgenstein, or John Maynard Keynes, continues unabated, and with such intensity that John Grote is hardly noticed by most commentators on ‘the Cambridge Mind’.

But from his post I take John to see Grote as playing a heroic role in the story of how Cambridge University became a site of intellectual excellence.

I think I can see where John is coming from; but this is not how I view Grote.

From my perspective, Grote is a semi-tragic figure, who initiated a grand research tradition that burned brightly for half a century, but ultimately ended in failure.

I don’t think these different perspectives arise out of some fundamental intellectual disagreement. I assume they reflect rather a divergence of wider values and commitments. Certainly, my own view of Cambridge today as mainly interesting as a museum is bound up in autobiographical accident.

In any case, John can speak for himself but, after reflecting on his post, it seemed to me of importance to step back for a moment and set down some of my own motivations for participating in the newly revived Grote Club.

For those interested in reading further I suggest starting with this trailer for the recent movie ‘Pride’ (2014):

The Miners Strike in Britain (1984-5) coincided with my arrival into ‘young adulthood’. It was a defining moment in terms of my politics and (young and fragile) sense of identity. The movie captures something at the core of those heady days. On the one hand, it shows how a genuine and deeply inspiring spirit of solidarity emerged from the year-long struggle of the miners, a progressive union, if you will, a ‘left opposition’ that came together out of traditional socialism and new age rainbow politics. On the other hand, the movie pinpoints the moment when socialism in Britain died and the politics of the left transformed into the alternative politics of today – from gay rights through environmentalism through (more ambiguously) national independence. The iconic union handshake of the movie is not, after all, a symbol of solidarity between miners and gay activists; it is a passing on of the torch.

But the real illusion of those days was not the sense of a coming together of the politics of socialism and identity politics; rather, it was the deep ambiguity within the politics of socialism, in which no clear line was ever established to place Marx and Communism, as it were, ‘beyond the pale’.

Back in the 1980s I joined the Labour Party, flirted with the Socialist Workers Party, and applied to Cambridge because it was the university of John Maynard Keynes, who, it was evident from my readings of the Adam Smith Society and Institute of Economic Affairs, was public enemy number 1 so far as Thatcher and her ideological henchmen were concerned.

How strange it is today to look back on a youthful self who failed to discern any real tension in hanging out with revolutionary Trotskyists while resolving to study the works of the great liberal J.M. Keynes!

It was on going up to Cambridge in 1988 that I began to understand how bad things really were. Before that date I certainly had a sense of losing battles: the miners, the print workers, the hippies beaten up at Stonehenge. But on entering Cambridge I discovered that the great intellectual opposition to Thatcherism, the grand tradition of Cambridge Keynesianism, consisted of a handful of defeated old men whose most animated moments came when they reminisced about the good old days. As a center of intellectual opposition to Thatcherism, Cambridge was bankrupt. What had appeared as political battles lost now looked like mopping-up operations.

Those were bad years for me. What had hitherto been a moderate pleasure in puffing the odd joint rapidly developed into a full-on drug habit. I spent the next ten years in a stoned haze. It was either that or join my fellow students and strive to become a Yuppie. I made the right decision.

I also resolved to work out where it had all gone wrong. When did Cambridge moral science give up the ghost? Twenty-five years later I’m still working on this. I’m not certain of the answer; but I am in a position to begin to outline some hypotheses. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m doing in the Grote Club.

Of course, I myself have changed a lot over those two and a half decades. At some point, now many years ago, I crossed a Rubicon when I came to a definitive conclusion that the writings of Marx were a dead-end. This was by then more an emotional than an intellectual resolution (my mother’s family had long identified as Jewish communists). But it was important because it allowed the throwing out of a lot of dead-weight baggage. It also confirmed my sense that the tradition of post-WWII Cambridge economics that tried to mix Keynes with the neo-Ricardianism of Sraffa (and, therefore, to return to the Classical economics of Marx) had headed off on a road to nowhere.

Other things happened in my life. A week after Tony Blair’s first election victory I left Britain. I was glad to see it through, but by then contemporary Britain had in some way become dead to me. I lived six years in America, and have now lived even more in Israel. I got married. Have children. I grew up. But while all this certainly shaped my perspectives and informed my thinking (for example, life in Israel has pushed me to think much harder than I might have done about the politics of identity), I’ve remained committed to my project of a slow, laborious digging up of the modern intellectual history of England.

For sure, over time the initial political motivation behind my research has faded into the background. The  politics of the last days of the Cold War now look like ancient history in a brave new world of religious hatred and terrorism.

But what I have become ever more convinced of, as the years have passed, is the inability of the modern academy to truly illuminate the world we live in. This is not a despair with reason, symptomatic of some post-secular move to faith-based politics; far from it. Rather, I am convinced that the professionalization of the modern university and the specialization on which it has been built have been disastrous for our ability to really understand either ourselves or the world we are living in.

This is why I now look back to the days of John Grote and the ideal of a moral science that really did aspire to understand the moral world as a whole.

Still, I would not want these autobiographical ruminations read as a condemnation of all facets of contemporary Cambridge intellectual life. Back around 1990, when still an undergraduate, I gave up on Cambridge economics in disgust and started reading, instead, the History and Philosophy of Science. This was to stumble upon an oasis in a desert.

And of course there are many great individual minds to be encountered at Cambridge. But by and large those minds are astonishingly ignorant about the history of their own studies and, when they do engage in historical reflection, their glance is almost invariably either superficial or directed in the wrong direction.

For there is a strange amnesia among English intellectuals today. Priding themselves on their cosmopolitanism, they tend to seek their own disciplinary origins in the importation of various Continental theories, either the post-modernisms of the 1980s or the modernisms of Weber, Durkheim, and Marx in the 1930s. But my own conclusions to date, after twenty-five years of study, is that the 1930s is when it went visibly wrong; when Cambridge intellectuals suffered a collective loss of nerve and gave up on the great project of moral science initiated back in the 1860s by the Rev. John Grote.

The-Hobbit_01-660x330

Concerning Hobbits

A few years back I stumbled upon a Hobbit hole. I chanced upon it in a lecture of 1900 by John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic. Rhys was arguing that behind the divinities, demons, fairies and phantoms of Celtic folklore are dim memories of various peoples that once inhabited the British Isles. What especially drew my attention was his interpretation of Welsh fairy stories.

Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’, Rhys explained, have their origin in encounters between incoming Celtic tribesmen and pre-Celtic farmers, who the Celts drove into the hills. From the stories he inferred that these first settlers of Britain had been:

“a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground.”

Turning to archaeology, Rhys pointed to the remains of “certain underground – or partially underground – habitations.” He connected these dwellings with Britain’s native settlers, and observed that some of their homes:

“appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature…”

Was this the origin of Tolkien’s Hobbits? If so, how did Bilbo Baggins emerge out of an apparently playful reading of Rhys’ account of Welsh fairy tales? I set out to answer these questions.

Initial results were encouraging. Rhys was still teaching when Tolkien went up to Oxford, and the undergraduate Tolkien probably attended his lectures on the Mabinogian. And serious scholarly engagement with Rhys is evident in Tolkien’s essay on ‘The Name “Nodens”’, a paper engaging with inscriptions unearthed at Lydney Park on the Welsh border and published in 1932 – the year that Tolkien first wrote down the story that would be published five years later as The Hobbit.

The picture became complicated, however, when I opened up Tolkien’s earliest tales. If anything, they suggest hostility to Rhys’ reading of Welsh fairy stories. For the young Tolkien not only belittles Celtic tradition but also identifies as the original settlers of the British Isles, not peaceful mound-dwellers, but Elves, who in his stories are quite warlike and live in cottages and towers and such like.

These early stories tell of the history of the Elves in “the days before the days, in the Northern regions of the Western World.” But they are also imagined as a lost tradition of English folklore. Tolkien describes a pre-migration Englishman, an Angle, who travels to an island in the west where Elves still dwell. This island is Britain. The Elves of Britain tell the traveler their stories and, because he passes these tales on to his sons, and they to theirs, so today the English “have the true traditions of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”

Behind his combative attitude towards Celtic folklore one can discern Tolkien’s unease with the idea that the English took their present lands from others. In these early writings he tells of how, in the face of successive invasions by different Celtic tribes and Roman legions, the Elves of England faded and diminished; but they are said to perk up again on the arrival of the English, with whom they recognize a special affinity. The suggestion – not entirely convincing – is that the Anglo-Saxons were not so much invading the lands of the ancient Britons as coming home to the original land of the fairies.

Tolkien was evidently unsatisfied with this early attempt to tie the English to England. His idea of England as the last refuge of the Elves was soon revised and, by the late 1920s pretty much abandoned.

What I think happened next – my ‘Hobbit hypothesis’, if you will – is that on reencountering Rhys’ scholarship in the early 1930s Tolkien came to see that it offered a new solution to an old problem. The result was the reconceptualization of ancient England as the green and pleasant Shire of the Hobbits.

The key to this new development was Tolkien’s dual theory of national identity. This is articulated in ‘English and Welsh’, a lecture delivered in 1955 (the day after publication of The Return of the King). According to Tolkien, we each receive two inheritances. From what he calls “our speech-ancestors” we receive our “cradle language”, and also the culture associated with it. From our biological ancestors we inherit our inner nature, which manifests itself in our individual dispositions and predilections. There is no necessary connection between our outer language and culture and our inner selves.

Tolkien’s vision of the history of the British Isles gives concrete form to this rather abstract theory. He agreed with Rhys that Britain had been settled before the arrival of Celtic-speakers. He also believed that neither Celts nor Anglo-Saxons had driven these first settlers from the land: the history of Britain is one of racial mixing not ethnic cleansing. So the succession of incursions has given rise to wholesale changes of language, but not of blood; and this entails that many today who speak English (or Welsh) are descendants of those pre-Celtic settlers that Rhys back in 1900 had discerned behind Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’.

If my hypothesis is correct we are now in a position to answer that most delicious of questions: what is a Hobbit?

Well, Hobbits are (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of the little people that back in 1900 Rhys had identified as Britain’s first farmers. But because this original population has never been driven from the land, Hobbits are at the same time a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today.

Hobbits are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.

And The Hobbit is a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.

Sources

For the Tolkien quotes see The Shaping of Middle-earth: the Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the Annals(1986) and The Book of Lost Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien¸ Volume II (1984); ‘English and Welsh’, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). All three of these volumes are edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in the UK by Allen & Unwin. They are given here in the order in which the quotations appear in the essay.

For Rhys’ lecture see ‘Presidential Address to Section H. of the BAAS’, Report of the Seventieth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London: John Murray, 1900, pp. 884-896, available at the Internet Archive.

For the scholarly context informing the work of both Rhys and Tolkien see my essay ‘The Making of the English: English history, British identity, Aryan villages, 1870-1914’, Journal of the History of Ideas, October 2014, available on my academia.edu page and my recent essay J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, available in electronic format from Amazon.


This essay first appeared on The History Vault.

 

Roger_Williams_and_Narragansetts

Meetings of People: W.H.R. Rivers & Diffusionism

Originally posted to the Grote Club.

W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.

Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of  his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.

In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details below) and constitutes a digression from my series of posts on Rivers and psychology. Taking this digression, however, will allow us in later posts to pinpoint more accurately the place of psychology in the Cambridge moral sciences. Continue reading

Woodwose

Emerging unconscious

W.H.R. Rivers was one of the first English psychologists to discover the unconscious. His work with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers during World War One is today well-known thanks to his appearance, alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Identifying the instinct of self-preservation rather than sex as the key to the psycho-neuroses of his patients, Rivers fashioned a version of Freudian doctrines palatable to a respectable English audience.

My intention in this post is to show how Rivers’ notion of the unconscious was derived from the psychological model introduced in my last post. This is not to question the significance of Rivers’ encounter with Freud. I am merely pointing out how easily some of Freud’s ideas could be integrated into the established Cambridge model of the mind. Continue reading

Harlton

The Cambridge Mind, 1868-1920

In this post I introduce the psychological model at the center of a series of posts I am contributing to a new online venture: the collaborative blog known as the Grote Club.

From the late 1860s through to World War One and beyond, this model of the mind was widely regarded within Cambridge as the foundation of the various sciences of Man and of Society. Its distinguishing characteristic was that it looked to a unified physiological account of the nervous system in order to explain both reasoning and  instinctual action. This physiological model was itself evolutionary and hierarchical. But this gave rise to a psychological model that, as we shall see, supported two quite opposite readings of human society. Continue reading

Bag End entrance

What is a Hobbit?

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height…

J.RR. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One day, a few years back, I happened to be reading a forgotten lecture delivered in 1900 to the Anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.* Continue reading