Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore, Brian Young, eds. Economy, Polity, and Society: Essays in British Intellectual History, 1750-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. viii + 283 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-63978-1.
Reviewed by Stephen L. Keck (Department of History, National University of Singapore)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2001)
Economy, Polity, and Society: Essays in British Intellectual History, 1750-1950 is part of a two volume work (History, Religion, and Culture, Cambridge, 2000) edited by Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young. These volumes, which may one day be recalled as a snapshot of the field at the new millennium, are built around papers which were delivered at a colloquium held at Sussex in September 1998. As such, they bring together the efforts of a considerable range of scholars who work in, or at least around, the field of modern British intellectual history. At the same time, this project was also designed as a salute to John Burrow and Donald Winch, who both conveniently reached their sixty-fifth birthdays in the year 2000. Readers of this List know that the former has been distinguished by many significant publications, the most prominent of which include Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (1966) and A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981); the latter^Òs major works include Economics and Policy: A Historical Study (1969) and Adam Smith^Òs Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (1978); last, these two scholars co-authored (along with Stefan Collini) That Noble Science of Politics: An Essay in Nineteenth Century Intellectual History (1983).
Burrow and Winch (who make critical contributions to each volume) played an instrumental role in leading a small group of intellectual historians who have become known as the ^ÑSussex School^Ò. This term has been used partly to describe and partly to caricature a body of historical writing which has been produced largely by a group of figures associated with the University of Sussex. However, the absence of any programme or definable method linked to this body of scholarship suggests that the label can at best be considered academic shorthand. As much as anything else, it seems clear that the contributions of Donald Winch, John Burrow and Stefan Collini led outside observers to conveniently connect their work to a common location.
The chapters in Economy, Polity and Society are grouped into sections that reflect the work^Òs tripartite agenda. The first, which focuses on economic thought, shows that Adam Smith, and more broadly, the Scottish Enlightenment cast a shadow over the first half of the nineteenth century. The essays by E.J. Hundert, Dario Castiglione, Nicholas Phillipson and Richard Teichgraeber III not only illustrate the salience of Smith and Scottish thought, but also invite readers to participate in what amounts to a virtual symposium on different ways to approach the subject of intellectual history. For instance, Hundert^Òs well-crafted essay reveals the connections between moral writing and Smith^Òs ideas. To cite another example, Teichgraeber^Òs piece serves to remind readers that works such as Wealth of Nations usually come to us as part of a tradition--be it `received wisdom^Ò or as a part of a canon of a discipline or field of research; yet this essay also provides hints about the ways in which this tradition was itself constructed. Above all, it becomes clear that one serious challenge for historians of thought is to reconstruct not only an author^Òs intention or the manner in which the original audience might understand the text, but also to recover the extent to which any understanding of a given work is now at once encumbered and enriched by the tradition or paradigm with which it has become associated.
These fine essays are matched by those which are concerned with mainly political themes. The chapters supplied by David Lieberman, Richard Whatmore, Marilyn Butler and Norman Vance illustrate the rich and varied character of early 19th century political discourse. In particular, Butler^Òs treatment of Maria Edgeworth (which also conveys the impact of Scottish thought) represents a story opposite of Wealth of Nations: namely how an author^Òs reputation (due to the sectarian conflicts of the 1820s and 1830s) is not buttressed by tradition, but was undermined by external factors. Last, in exploring key aspects of Richard Whately^Òs career, Norman Vance offers an example of the way in which the recovery of a forgotten figure can illuminate the surrounding cultural landscape. These essays, loosely connected to patterns of political discourse, then, leave us not only with new questions about the first decades of the nineteenth century, but also provide examples of alternative approaches to the practice of intellectual history.
The chapters devoted to select facets of British social thought are also impressive. Again, Jane Garnett, Sheldon Rothblatt and Donald Winch explore their subject in different ways; the first relies on textual interpretation, the second traces institutional developments and the last, fittingly, reveals an instance in which a cultural icon--Dickens^Ò Gradgrind (from Hard Times)--has shaped subsequent historical interpretation. Garnett^Òs chapter examines the way in which Ruskin used the concept of the `household^Ò as a means for undermining the authority of the `science^Ò of `political economy^Ò. Winch^Òs marvelous essay makes an appropriate conclusion to the volume. By showing how F.R. Leavis, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams drew upon the image of Gradgrind--and what it had come to represent--Winch demonstrates that the use of this cultural icon has been problematic, leading these influential figures to oversimplify the complexity of mid-nineteenth century ideas about the interconnections between political economy and social organization. For scholars who have come to the study of nineteenth century Britain through Dickens, Winch^Òs essay serves as a call for academic and empirical vigilance.
Nonetheless, the volume has its limitations. To begin with, it does not adequately fulfill its promise to connect the intellectual history of Britain to similar or parallel developments on the continent. Instead, the relative insularity and the autonomy of the subject are at once clear. At the same time, despite a wide range of approaches some readers may be put-off by the lack of postmodernist considerations. For example, the contributors to Economy, Polity and Society have not concentrated their energies to consider any kind of detailed or sustained theoretical discussion regarding intellectual historical method; moreover, evidence of `the linguistic turn^Ò is rather scant. This is not a complaint, but it does suggest that the state of modern British intellectual history in the year 2000 is not as pluralistic as it might be. Finally, the volume is weighted too heavily towards the first half of the nineteenth century to justify a title which suggests coverage leading to 1950 (even Winch^Òs piece is mostly pre-1950). Readers who are concerned primarily with the intellectual history which ranges between 1850-1950 may feel that their subject has been given short shrift.
Yet, this remains a valuable and useful book. Taken together, these essays raise a host of new questions about both key figures (Smith, Paine, and Ruskin, etc.) and also about the ways in which historians now think about the intellectual history of modern Britain. Regardless of the viability of the term `Sussex School^Ò, it is evident that the very richness of the scholarship which makes up Economy, Polity and Society illustrates that the maturation of the field of modern British intellectual history has taken place. Furthermore, these achievements should nicely help to frame the contributions of John Burrow and Donald Winch. Finally, the book will also be useful for advanced undergraduates and lower level graduate students because it offers many ways to conceptualize intellectual history.
Therefore, a generation from now Economy, Polity, and Society: Essays in British Intellectual History, 1750-1950 may be remembered as more than a work of commemoration or an index of academic trends, but also as a book which helped to shape future research agendas.
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Stephen L. Keck. Review of Collini, Stefan; Whatmore, Richard; Young, Brian, eds., Economy, Polity, and Society: Essays in British Intellectual History, 1750-1950.
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