Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Matthew Arnold and Herbert Spencer: A Neglected Connection in the Victorian Debate about Scientific and Literary Education

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Matthew Arnold and Herbert Spencer: A Neglected Connection in the Victorian Debate about Scientific and Literary Education

Article excerpt

Arnold's defense of literary culture and education against the advances of science has usually been examined with regard to his arguments with T.H. Huxley. But though little notice has been paid to it, Herbert Spencer was also an important figure for Arnold in the shaping of his ideas about the value of literature in a scientific age. Arnold had no personal respect for Spencer the self-taught philosopher of science, but the popularity and influence of Spencer's multitudinous writings on every subject under the sun, together with the respect given to his ten volumes of "Synthetic Philosophy" by people such as J.S. Mill, Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and T.H. Huxley, meant that he was someone impossible to ignore in the intellectual world of the time. Accordingly, Spencer makes several appearances in Arnold's writings, normally as the purveyor of cranky ideas on evolution, religion, science, and ethics, and as a target for some easy Arnoldian irony. Spencer's Essays on Education (1861), however, which argued the case for scientific education against the claims of literary education, demanded more serious treatment. Though Arnold does not cite these essays specifically, his own case for literary education, which makes much of particular Spencerian terms and concepts, suggests that they played an important part in the formulation of his thinking about the primacy of literary study. Evidence also suggests that Arnold's dismissive attitude toward Spencer and his writings was partly related to a personal resentment at what Spencer's popularity and influence represented: namely, the transfer of authority and power from the literary to the scientific intellectual in the late nineteenth century. Arnold's defense of literary culture and education can therefore be seen as an attempt to recuperate some of this dwindling power for the man of letters. Arnold did little damage to Spencer's reputation at the time, but his arguments helped deepen the divide between the "two cultures," and gave grounds for a continuing hostility toward science on the part of literary teachers.

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In most accounts of Arnold's polemics in Victorian debates about literature and science, the emphasis has fallen on his arguments with T.H. Huxley. (1) Hardly any attention has been paid to his dealings with Herbert Spencer on the same subject, which on closer inspection can be seen to be of equal importance in shaping his ideas and deciding his arguments on behalf of literary education. Arnold clearly had much greater respect for Huxley the brilliant "scientist" than he had for Spencer the self-taught "philosopher," author of the massive "System of Synthetic Philosophy," (2) but Spencer's prominence as a pundit on scientific and social questions, and his reputation as (in Darwin's words) "our great philosopher," (3) made him a figure impossible to ignore for someone with Arnold's interests and concerns. Though Spencer's reputation rapidly declined after his death in 1903, from the 1850s to the 1890s he was highly regarded by the likes of John Stuart Mill, G.H. Lewes, George Eliot, Frederic Harrison, T.H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Charles Darwin, Leslie Stephen, and many others. (4) When his famous 'Synthetic Philosophy' was finally completed in the 1890s, he received a congratulatory letter from more than eighty leading lights of the day who praised both 'the great intellectual powers' displayed by the work and "the immense effect it had produced in the history of thought." (5) Arnold was dead by this time, but it is highly unlikely that he would have been among those congratulating Spencer, since from the 1860s he had been contesting Spencer's views on a range of subjects and regarded his popularity and influence as dangerous signs of the times.

Born in Derby in 1820 and educated by his father and uncle in an atmosphere of strict puritanism, intellectual debate, and radical politics, Spencer first trained as a railway engineer and then became a journalist and author, developing along the way a passion for science and philosophy, a faith in evolution theory, and an unbounded belief in his own powers as a thinker and writer. …

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