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Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery.

by Christopher Herbert. Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2001. xv, 302 pp. $45.00 US (cloth), $17.50 US (paper).

Christopher Herbert has written a provocative work of intellectual and cultural history. Despite its title, Victorian Relativity is not limited to the nineteenth century, but constantly draws parallels between Victorian and twentieth century thinkers. Herbert defines relativity in the conventional sense to describe the principle that "nothing is one thing just by itself [and] the very existence of a thing depends on the co-existence of other things--indeed, of all other things." Put otherwise, human knowledge is confined to understanding the relations between phenomena (and terms); any attempt to invoke fixed and absolute concepts is a "philosophical will-o-the wisp" (pp. 2-4, 36). Herbert uses relativity to designate not only Einsteinian physics but also a broad range of philosophical, political, and cultural schools of thought. No reader would quarrel with this terminology. What is contentious about Herbert's book is his claim that the development of the relativity principle in physics and in other fields of inquiry in the nineteenth century was inseparably intertwined with themes of militant emancipationism and anti-authoritarianism generally. His aggressive polemical thrust is made evident from the outset, with the declaration that "Relativity was in this sense not so much discovered as a scientific property of nature as it was implanted there by a deeply moralized scientific imagination" (p. xiv).

To substantiate his claim, Herbert provides a detailed series of intellectual portraits of (mainly British) well-known and more obscure Victorian figures including Herbert Spencer, Sir William Hamilton, H. L. Mansel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Pearson, John Henry Newman, W. K. Clifford, James Frazer, W. Stanley Jevons, C. Lloyd Morgan, John Tyndall, and J. B. Stallo. Herbert shows convincingly how all these thinkers incorporated, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of relativistic thought in their ethical, philosophical, and political--as well as scientific--pronouncements. He thus succeeds in one part of his objective in writing Victorian Relativity, namely, to demonstrate that there indeed existed an important strand of nineteenth-century speculation--ranging across many disciplines--that grew progressively important throughout the course of the century. Spencer emerges as one of the key protagonists in the book, who clearly delineated in his many writings the radical interconnectedness of all things. Herbert's lengthy analysis of Spencer's writings and activities is astute and justifies the claim that the relativity movement in nineteenth-century science and philosophy was a major cultural project--with many of his contemporaries sharing Spencer's outlook. But Herbert is incorrect when he states that Spencer's importance as an "innovator of modernist intellectual and scientific culture has never since his own day (when it was clear to all) been sufficiently recognized (p. 50)." This is not a trivial error. Historians of Victorian science and culture in the past two decades have restored Spencer to central stage; Herbert, a literary theorist, seems not to be familiar with much of this recent historiography. For a work purporting to deal with the Victorian roots of relativistic thought, Herbert's book often requires the reader to accept speculation rather than conclusive demonstration.

Herbert attempts to pre-empt such methodological criticism by declaring that his "project is not to try to resolve ... contrasting vectors of discourse into a single historical pattern, but to unpack their manifestations in specific texts and to try to situate them within the larger drama of modernist intellectual and spiritual self-construction" (p. 109). And he does provide many examples of the affinities between his Victorian relativists and twentieth-century critics of philosophical, political, and religious authoritarianism and mechanistic paradigms--such as Michel Foucault, Henri Poincare, Jacques Derrida, and Hannah Arendt (p. 236). But Herbert shies away from exploring the broader historical realities and sociopolitical and cultural circumstances which could have contextualized the thoughts and activities of his intriguing cast of characters. The reader is often left, instead, with juxtapositions of texts, without any sustained analysis of the influences and relationships between their authors.

Despite these historiographic and methodological shortcomings, Victorian Relativity makes a valid case for a re-evaluation of certain aspects of the intellectual tradition from which contemporary relativity theory emerged. Though many readers will be wary of the more polemical aspects of Herbert's book, it adds to our understanding of an important Victorian philosophical tradition and strengthens the case for the intertexture of scientific and political/cultural developments. Herbert's depiction of the cultural politics of relativistic thought provides useful insights into the convoluted cultural history of late nineteenth-century science. Victorian Relativity contains some suggestive interpretations of the ethical, political, and social frameworks within which Einstein and his colleagues formulated and developed the modern theory of relativity at the start of the twentieth century.

Martin Fichman

York University
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Author:Fichman, Martin
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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