Learned Lives in England, 1900-1950

William Lubenow’s latest book (his third for Boydell) explores the tangled relationships between knowledge and politics during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. His fascinating study covers universities as they became research institutions, learned bodies like the Royal Society and the British Academy, and groups such as Bloomsbury Group, the Society for the Protection of Knowledge, and the Scholarship and Theoretical Biology Club.

Always exercise incredulity for it is the sinews of the soul

Epicharmus of Kos (550-460 BC)

Learned Lives in England, 1900-1950 is the sequel to my “Only Connect”: Learned Lives in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2015). The current book, like its predecessor, examines the relations between learned people and the societies and associations to which they belonged. It shows how robust societies—universities, the British Academy, the Royal Society—stabilized, legitimated, and gave authority to knowledge and how looser, more ephemeral, societies—Bloomsbury, Zuckerman’s Tots and Quots, Joseph Needham’s Theoretical Biology Club, the Kapitza Club, the Hardy Club—were charismatic sites which incubated and stimulated curiosity, imagination, and originality. Finally, this research shows how the relations between creative people and the societies to which they belonged consisted of tangled and competing political and intellectual loyalties.

This research approaches these issues in three ways: archival, it biographical, is conceptual.

The research is archival and rests its evidence on unpublished manuscripts in London, Cambridge, and Oxford. Many of these are found in collections of the British Academy and the Royal Society. Others are in the correspondence of such figures as Joseph Needham and Maynard Keynes. The research is empirical in the sense that it honors the traditions of objectivity, accuracy, and documentary verification. Such an approach is often difficult. People such as the subjects of this study often make their own judgments about what is important and prune their papers accordingly. Likewise, their heirs and descendants sometimes make their own judgments and act as curators of their ancestor’s reputations. And then archivists, with their professional protocols, determine how to order and organize manuscript materials for institutional purposes. Those of us who follow after them, often have intellectual interests that differ from those who curate the archival materials, or their descendants. We have to apply independent judgements and exercise active criticism of the very materials we use for evidence. In part, this is what Leopold von Ranke, in his discussion of objectivity, calls the “strictest method.”

It is also empirical in another way: it takes seriously the lives of people engaged in knowledge formation. It is difficult to generalize from the individual to the general (and from the general to the individual), but it is impossible to make sense of the institutions in which knowledge is formed and organized without understanding the individuals who are members of those associations. Such a method and approach has been called collective biography, or, more pretentiously, multiple career-line analysis, or, more forbiddingly, prosopography. The point is to collect uniform information about members of a group in order to understand the grounds of their behavior and general patterns of social structure.

Of course, the problem is to determine what constitutes uniform information and how to fit such evidence into classificatory schemes which establish what is typical and what is sport. Such schemes have to be sufficiently austere enough to exclude what is relevant to the study at hand but loose enough to identify and admit what first appear as apparent anomalies but turn out, after consideration, to be useful leads. Claude Lévi-Strauss took up this question in his distinction between “raw” and “cooked” knowledge. As he recognized, it is difficult to know how to handle such figures as the one he called “the bricoleur,” who failed to fit any classificatory categories. To resolve this problem one might temper the binary of “raw” and “cooked” by adding at least a third gustatory metaphor: the “digested.” That is, distinguishing between features of the evidence which are relevant to an investigation from those which are not produces, by itself, “digested” knowledge. It is an act of criticism, an act of interpretation requiring intuition and imagination. One of the advantages of such an approach is that it establishes the relations between group and individual behavior in the formation of knowledge. The individuals who are the subjects of this research are not important in themselves, nor are the results of their creative behavior; what is important are the relations between individual and institutional behavior. While relations are difficult to observe directly, it is patterns of associational behavior which are important. Another advantage to this approach is that it is an attack on abstract nouns. To subject the lives of learned people to detailed study makes it possible to pry apart what might appear to be coherent behavior such as “science” and such as “elites.” Such an approach rescues the subjects of such studies from the condescensions of posterity and allows us to avoid anachronism and to take seriously, on their own terms and with their own agency, such figures as Joseph Needham, Solly Zuckerman, the children of Charles Darwin and T.H. Huxley, and members of the Haldane family.

This research is conceptual because using archival material and the reconstruction of career profiles requires criticism and imagination. Concepts are the intellectual tools one uses to hack through the jungles of biographical and archival evidence. The representations which arise from the use of concepts are almost always ironic; their very value is connotative rather than denotative. As Harold Bloom pointed out in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) representations are open to multiple readings and interpretations. Thick or thin, porous or dense, concepts are clusters of theories, techniques, information, and interpretations. These are matters which people who have concepts and use them, as Steven Connor has pointed out, have an emotional content. People who know something have feelings about their knowledge. They have what Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling” (“communities of feeling” might be a preferable way of referring to it), or what Wittgenstein called “forms of life.” As John Burrow has argued, concepts are composed of the vocabularies we inhabit and live in. They consist in “various claims, opportunities, and restraints” rather than doctrines to which we subscribe. They are forms of consciousness which are constituted in loose, informal, and, sometimes, barely articulated values and assumption.

All of these thoughts hint at, gestures toward, and sniffs at the nature of knowledge itself. Knowledge is aspirational; it does not represent final certainties. The questions one asks are more important than the answers one gets. Answers merely raise other questions. Knowledge is not a stable entity; it is a series of tentative processes, procedures, and practices. Knowledge consists in the organizing devices that creative people, acting within the societies to which they belong, use to serve a critical function: since it is instrumental rather than substantive it, and the people who use it, is self-correcting. As instruments of criticism concepts help to determine what is true and what is not.

Knowledge is not value-neutral. It normalizes and, therefore, it moralizes. Consequently, it has its enemies and can fall prey to various conspiracy theories. There is sometimes, more frequently than one would like, a sneer or sniff of disapproval when concepts such as “elite,” “establishment,” “expert,” or even “merit” are deployed. As to “intellectuals,” some simply dismiss them using what Stefan Collini has called the “denial thesis.” The societies and associations to which creative people belong, Collini points out, have an “enabling effect” which is “implicit and resistant to demonstration.” Yet, as he admits, the “relaxed agreement on fundamentals can prove fertile ground for thinking of the highest quality.”

Such conceptual relations might be rescued from conspiratorial treatments if one considers the practices and processes out of which knowledge emerges. Such practices and processes should be sufficiently loose as to include as well as protect the richness of knowledge’s content. Mark Granovetter attributes this richness to the “strength of weak ties.” Some of the most creative thinking about the structure of DNA, for example, occurred neither in the Cavendish Laboratory nor in Cambridge University but rather over beer and cheese at lunch in the Eagle, a public house at the foot of Free School Lane in Cambridge. Robert Oppenheimer, in the 1950s, feeling under attack personally and as a member of creative associations, called for a kind of retreat into “villages” in which intimacy, honesty, and personal authority could provide opportunities for creative work. The sort of “villages” he had in mind were the Institute for Advanced Study on Olden Lane in Princeton or in the rencontres he and Agnes Meyer, the widow of Eugene Meyer the owner of the Washington Post, planned for the discussion of Post War political issues. Such “villages,” Oppenheimer, thought might be connected internationally by such organizations as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and in such publications as Encounter. Such an internationalism could cut across “the boundaries which separate academic disciplines, professions, levels of development and political and economic systems.” In his William James Lectures at Harvard, which were never published, Oppenheimer spoke of the “duty of faithfulness to knowledge which belonged to people in their own time and place and the duty of openness to other knowledge.”  These duties, he said, are assisted when “we love not only other truth but each other who purvey it.”


This guest post is written by William C. Lubenow, Distinguished Professor of History at Stockton University, Galloway, New Jersey. His previous books included Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914 (2010) and “Only Connect”: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2015), both published by the Boydell Press.

Learned Lives in England, 1900-1950
By William C. Lubenow
9781783275502, Hardcover, £45.50 or $64.35