essays and reviews (american religious thought of the 18th and 19th
The fundamentalists won at Dayton in 1925. Scopes was duly convicted and, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality, the anti-evolution law remained on the statute book. Evolution was quietly dropped from most American science curricula, and the debate about Darwinism receded into the background for a time. But when it re-emerged it did so with renewed vigour and acrimony.
The American courts started to look again at anti-evolution laws that had been put on state statute books in the Scopes era. In 1968 a case brought by a young Arkansas biology teacher, Susan Epperson, finally made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favour of Epperson and against the Arkansas law, declaring that it was in violation of the First Amendment because ‘fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence’.
For a generation Peter Gay’s book on the Enlightenment (a text which perhaps tells us more about the 1960s than the 1760s) informed scholars that Enlightenment and Christianity were polarities and that the defeat of dogma and metaphysics were the harbingers of secular modernity. In the course of the last two decades the Gay perspective has been modified to the point of being discarded outright: the French experience of Enlightenment (the Gay paradigm) has been proclaimed the European exception rather than the rule and that, far from being its foe, Christianity was the midwife and sustainer of the siècle des lumières. S.J. Barnett’s vigorous and concise book builds on this current scholarly consensus and pushes it further: with examples drawn from England, France and Italy, Barnett’s Enlightenment is one that cannot be understood outside a Christian context in a century that witnessed no significant rise in unbelief. Furthermore, public opinion is deemed central to religious change (1) (as it had been well before the 1750s) and the significance of the philosophes and their writings is declared to be exaggerated, not least because there was no deist movement. Those churchmen who insisted that there was were deceiving themselves, but created ‘a very public antichristian bogey that did not have any substantial reality’ (p. 5).
There are a few slips that, taken cumulatively, detract from one’s confidence in Barnett’s handling of labels: Isaac Newton is referred to as a ‘dissenter’ (p. 122), David Hartley becomes an oxymoronic ‘dissenting Anglican’ (p. 123), Louis XVI’s accession year is predated by 20 years to 1754 (p. 154), there is an allusion to John Lindsey when Theophilus is intended (p. 97) (it further mutates into Lyndsey in the index) and there is a mysterious reference to Lady Drummond, the wife of the duke of York, having the last rites refused her in 1755 (p. 146). Barnett’s occasional resort to the few scholars ‘on his side’ in the debate on deism strikes a rather unfortunately self-conscious note and, as well as the reflectiveness one finds in The Enlightenment and Religion, there are a few too many assertions. Thus he tells us that the Sacheverell affair of 1710–11 was the ‘most serious challenge to the English Enlightenment’ (p. 111). He never tells us when the Enlightenment occurred in England (or anywhere else for that matter), or refers to its components stages in as much as they can be identified; it assumes a degree of intellectual direction (anti-Sacheverellians as an early counter-enlightenment party) to the case that it never possessed because it had nothing to sustain it beyond a nostalgia for the departed days of tight confessionalism in the 1680s. Barnett’s point is that public opinion was to the fore in the affair. The point may be admitted but doesn’t that leave the popular Jacobitism of the 1710s as far more worthy of attention as a challenge to the ‘English Enlightenment’? More generally, his insistence that public opinion was a significant force in the public life of England, France and Italy throughout this era is unexceptionable, but one could have wished for more discussion of changing perceptions of its composition in the course of the century. In an English context, Barnett (p. 94) is inclined to homogenise Protestant dissenters and underestimate the gap between the orthodox and liberal among them on doctrinal questions. The Calvinists might agree with some of the deists’ anticlerical views, but usually remained strictly Athanasian in their theology.
The Cambridge Metaphysical club had its origins in James’s 1868 proposal to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935) that they establish ‘a philosophical society to have regular meetings and discuss none but the very tallest and broadest questions’ (Kuklick 1974: 47). Underway by 1871, the club centered around six men, all with Harvard degrees: James and Holmes, Charles Peirce (1839-1914), Chauncey Wright (1830-75), Nicholas St. John Green, and Joseph Bangs Warner. Green, a Boston attorney, introduced the thought of the British psychologist and philosopher Alexander Bain (1818-1903) to the group, particularly his definition of belief as ‘that upon which a man is prepared to act.’ Wright was a mathematician employed by the Nautical Almanac as a ‘calculator’, and an occasional lecturer in psychology and physics at Harvard. He applied Darwin’s evolutionary theory to the development of consciousness in such publications as ‘Evolution of Consciousness (1873), where he maintains that consciousness comes about not from any new capacity but from using an old capacity–forming images–in a new way.
Although Wright was regarded as the leader of the Metaphysical Club, Peirce and then James proved to be its most significant members. Charles Peirce seemed destined for intellectual achievement from an early age, and he began publishing papers on logic and semiotics in the 1860s. ‘Some Consequences of Four Incapacities’ (1868) contains the first published statement of his view that all thought is in signs, and ‘On a New List of Categories’ (1867) a first statement of his categorial scheme. Peirce presented what came to be called ‘the pragmatic maxim’ to the Metaphysical Club in an 1872 version of his paper ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear'(1878: 132): ‘Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearing, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’ In ‘The Fixation of Belief’ (1877) Peirce considers four ways in which we come to form beliefs: by authority, tenacity (holding on to the beliefs one already has), rationality, or science. Only science, Peirce argues, has the integrity that comes from allowing itself to be determined by ‘some external permanency; by something upon which our thinking has no effect.’ (Peirce, 1877: 120). Peirce worked at the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in the 60s and 70s, and was appointed to a lectureship in logic in the new Graduate School at Johns Hopkins in 1879; but he was dismissed in 1884, and, despite occasional lectures at Harvard arranged by William James, never taught regularly again. In a series of papers in The Monist in the early nineties, he developed a system of metaphysics according to which absolute chance operates in the universe, but so does ‘evolutionary love’; and matter is ‘effete mind.’ Central to Peirce’s many writings was the idea of three categories, Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. He held that all signs are ‘thirds’: besides a purely linguistic element and an object of reference, they contain an irreducible element of interpretation.