Whiggism in the History of Science and the Study of the Life and Work of Charles Babbage

In a recent article in the Annals of the History of Computing (Vol. 10, 1988, p 171) I. Bernard Cohen raised the question of Whiggism in the study of the life and work of Charles Babbage. Although the question of Whiggism is of the greatest interest to the history of science more generally, it has hardly been discussed at all in connection with the history of computing. For 20th century computing Whiggism is perhaps a matter of less urgent concern, though it should be said that there has been comparatively little attempt to study modern computing against a more general historical background. When we turn to the 19th century, and particularly to Charles Babbage, the question of Whiggism insistently demands attention. Many articles and-- one is tempted to say--most comments about Babbage go widely astray because of their profoundly Whiggish approach.

By their very nature problems of Whiggishness can not be solved in general. They require, besides detailed study, the setting of each problem in its proper and many-sided historical context. Thus what one hopes to achieve in a general article is primarily to help in stating the problem.

First I consider what Whiggism is, then I have chosen some general historical questions to illustrate the subject. This seems essential because if specific questions relating directly to Babbage were posed in the first instance, consideration of the general problems would become inextricably involved with matters of detail. For reasons which I hope to make clear, Whiggism not only poses difficult conceptual problems, it also raises serious difficulties in connection with vested intellectual interests.

For general discussion I have chosen questions which are still controversial. To have taken a well established case, such as the 19th century idea that Giordano Bruno[1] was an early scientist, would hardly have sufficed. This is because dealing with Whiggism involves altering the whole way of looking at some subject, and it is one of Whiggism's curious features that once a new mode of thinking about some subject is established the old approach often comes to seem so absurd that one pauses to wonder how it was possible to hold such views. Nowadays no one would seriously think of Bruno, who was a hermeticist of the deepest Egyptian hue, as the prototype of a scientist; though he certainly had an important part in the history of science. By taking currently controversial questions I hope to illustrate how very difficult removing Whiggism can be.

The Whig interpretation of history was given its classic form by Lord Macaulay and other 19th century English historians mainly of Whig political persuasion. It pictured the history of mankind as a continued advance, albeit interrupted by periods of retreat, including the Dark Ages after the decline and fall of the Roman empire, at last reaching its apotheosis in the liberal ladies and gentlemen of Victorian England. To later historians such an approach has come to seem naive, even though some Whig historians were first rate. Whiggish history has two main features: it defines history in terms of an ideal result, rather than investigating how things actually happened; more generally it implies wrenching historical events from their actual historical context. In a sense the complete elimination of Whiggism is impossible. Perfectly neutral history is a meaningless concept. Every generation necessarily writes history in terms of current preconceptions, and as more is learned about any subject understanding of the historical context is gradually enriched. Thus today's `relevant historical context' is liable to become tomorrow's Whiggism. That does not, however, in any way alter the fact that a determined attempt to reduce or eliminate Whiggism is essential to improved historical understanding.

By the 1940s and 1950s Herbert Butterfield, Alexander Korye and others had come to feel strongly that the history of science was fundamentally Whiggish in character[2] and seriously distorted. So powerful was the image of modern science that historians of science were looking back and finding modern science in prototype where it never existed, and were claiming to discover early scientific procedures in historical work which actually had entirely different motivation. In the field of the history of science it is now generally agreed that Whiggism is naughty. However, a Whiggish approach may not be so easily avoided. In the first place it is not simple for someone who has developed a particular historical approach to alter it radically, so that intellectual vested interests may be involved. Then again a many-sided approach to a subject can mean people learning new and unfamiliar subjects, which can involve a great deal of work. For example computer scientists[3] are not always familiar with 18th and 19th century history. Indeed a historical approach may in itself be quite unfamiliar. In the case of Babbage the problem is exacerbated because of the widely varied nature of his interests. None the less, the historical aspects cannot be ignored even when reading other people's studies. Sometimes Babbage's work gives a spurious feeling of modernity so that computer scientists turning to Babbage, and concentrating overmuch on technical detail, not infrequently come to conclusions which may come to seem little more than silly as soon as the context of the work is taken properly into account.

In a sense the very term `the history of science' has itself profoundly Whiggish implications. One may be reasonably clear what `science' means in the 19th century and most of the 18th century. In the 17th century `science' has very different meaning. For example chemistry is inextricably mixed up with alchemy. Before the 17th century dissecting out such a thing as `science' in anything like the modern sense of the term involves profound distortions.

With the concept of `scientist' the case is even worse. The English term was not coined until 1840. It may, doubtfully, apply to some men of science in the second half of the 18th century, though it certainly does not apply to Charles Babbage.[4] For the 17th century the term `scientist' is thoroughly misleading. Nor is it easy to find accurate alternatives. Robert Boyle, for example, is often called a `mechanical philosopher', yet is the term really valid? Boyle was, and remained, an alchemist all his life.[5]

In classical Greece there were indeed doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, though Ptolemy for example was an astrologer as well as an astronomer. Scientists, in any meaningful sense of the term, were nonexistent in antiquity, though the term is all too often used. In my view, despite the caveats which often accompany its use, the term `scientist' when applied to the philosophers of antiquity is, in practice, seriously misleading.

Not only such general terms as `science' and `scientist' cause problems. In the history of science the whole language of discourse needs careful assessment. Consider, for example, the first philosophers of 6th century BC Milesia, that is to say the earliest individuals discussed in the history of science. The Milesians were engaged in taking tribal and immediately post-tribal beliefs, developing their inherited beliefs and giving them a new content. The very words used cannot be understood without considering their tribal background. Yet it is hard to find such questions even considered[6] since the work of Francis Cornford[7] and the Marxist historian George Thomson.[8]

To make a proper assessment of historical scientific developments it is necessary to take into account the general cultural milieu in which the developments took place. Joseph Needham has quoted approvingly the comment that Taoism was `the only system of mysticism, which the world has ever seen which was not profoundly anti-scientific.'[9] However, the same could also be said of Renaissance neoplatonism with its hermetic core, which also had a positive scientific content.[10] Many historians of science have been reluctant to acknowledge the positive part played in 16th and 17th century science by mystical neoplatonism, preferring to look for work which is `more scientific', `cool and rational', or whatever. Such a stance is profoundly Whiggish. For example the terms `mathematician' and `magician' were commonly synonymous in the 16th and early 17th century. Computer scientists straying into the early 17th century should tread carefully. This is very treacherous ground indeed.

A case can be made that the whole history of the scientific revolution needs to be reconsidered to take into account the central role of Renaissance neoplatonism. There had been an important Platonic tradition in Europe[11] which was not interrupted by the development of Aristotelian scholasticism in the 13th century. In the 15th century a new development was launched with the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum by Marsilio Ficino, and developed rapidly with the introduction of cabalistic traditions and the establishment of Christian Cabala by Pico della Mirandola. The ideas spread rapidly and profoundly affected the sciences. The case of Paracelsus has long been known but its importance was conveniently minimized by dismissing him as a charlatan in spite of his obvious enormous influence on medicine.[12] Hermeticism also influenced Copernicus, though how far his adoption of the heliocentric system was influenced by hermetic sun worship is still an entirely open question.[13] In England John Dee,[14] the founder of the English tradition of mathematical navigation, educator of the navigators, inspirer of the mathematical crafts, was a deeply hermetic figure. Jacobean audiences would have immediately recognised John Dee in Prospero when they saw The Tempest.

That Kepler was profoundly influenced by neoplatonism has long been clear, but so also was that sober minded leader of the scientific revolution, Galileo Galilei, who was the leading scientific figure of the neoplatonic Academia dei Lincei. Indeed a strong case has recently been made[15] that Galileo was not tried so much for his Copernican opinions as for his neoplatonic views on the nature of light and the substance of matter.

Although it is becoming quite clear that the picture of the scientific revolution needs fundamental reworking in the light of Renaissance neoplatonism, such suggestions often rouse strenuous opposition. In the first place people who have developed the views which have become standard in the last thirty or forty years, and which in their time represented a major advance in scholarship, are not always happy to see their work requiring fundamental revision. In the second place, as has been indicated above, study of Renaissance neoplalonism rapidly takes one into fields which are not the normal pastures of historians of science. To give one further example to emphasize this point, the Académie Baïf of 16th century Paris was certainly concerned with science but it is more commonly thought of as an academy of poetry.[16]

A great reaction look place in the 16th and early 17th century in both Protestant and Catholic Europe against neoplatonism, which became involved with the witch craze.[17] To be historically just it may be noted that, although the Roman Church and the Inquisition played a major part in later persecution, credit for launching the savage persecution probably goes to the Protestant clergy. Dramatically in England the reaction was represented by Marlow's Dr. Faustus.[18] The neoplatonists who represented the continuing tradition of Renaissance culture simply could not accept the fact that the Council of Trent had irretrievably cleft the soul of Europe in two, and neoplatonism acquired a deeply eirenic character. The neoplatonist current of the English Renaissance was represented not only by Spencer's Fairie Queen but by A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and above all by The Tempest.[19] It is not always realised how bold Shakespeare was in writing The Tempest and presenting the play at prince Henry's court;[20] as also were his friends in placing The Tempest at the front of the first folio.

The reaction also had a most far reaching effect on the development of science. It was the climate of the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno, the roasting of Servetus, the torture and continued imprisonment of Campanella. It was surely also the background to Thomas Harriot's cri de coeur to Kepler: `our situation is such that I still can not philosophise freely; we are still stuck in the mud.'[21] Passing across the Alps, after the brief interlude during the 1620s of the `Marvelous Conjecture'[22] reaction reasserted itself and led to the trial of Galileo, which has come to symbolize for posterity the reaction against science.

The above examples should suffice to show into what wide fields one is led as soon as one begins to set science in its more general background, but the outstanding example is Isaac Newton. Looking backwards to Newton's calculus, to his whole mathematical method of approaching physical problems, Newton may seem modem enough. Was not Principia the very basis of physical science for nearly two centuries? In terms of Newton's own approach to his work, however, we get a very different picture. It is not only that he was deeply involved in prophetical studies, but Newton's alchemy[23] took up more of his time and interest than physical science, and alchemy--'the hermetic art'--profoundly affected Newton's whole approach to the theory of the structure of matter. In terms of his own motivation Newton was not at all the modern idea of a scientist, but the last and greatest of the Renaissance magi.

If we now turn to consider Charles Babbage the same three classes of problem appear: terminology, vested interests, and the great breadth of knowledge required. The Analytical Engines form a semantic minefield which can indeed be negotiated safely, but only if the problems are clearly identified. Although it is still early days, there is the beginning of a habit of discussing both the technical details of the Engines and of his other work out of context, and insistence that discussion of technical detail by itself rarely suffices is not always welcome. Finally, in solving these problems computer scientists, who have thus far shown most interest in Babbage, are faced with the need to study not only the work itself but also the science and technology of his time, his personal life, and the many historic fields into which his rich and varied life leads. To complicate matters further an important part of his life was concerned with the Continent, particularly with France, Italy and Prussia. It is certainly true that one is not here faced with such recondite subjects as tribal belief or Renaissance neoplatonism. However, I am not sure that it is greatly easier for a computer scientist, who may be entirely innocent of the habit of historical thought, to learn his way about late 18th and 19th century history than it is for a professional historian of science to tackle neoplatonism.

Discussion of the Analytical Engines poses semantic problems because of the many features they have in common with modem computers. These abstract features of logical organisation are almost impossible to discuss without using concepts which have been developed in modern computing. Such concepts as the stored program, programming, or array processing carry many implications to a modern computer person which may or may not in some measure have been clear to Babbage. Even to pose such a question as `Did Babbage consider the idea of using a set of registers or scratchpad store in his mill?' raises many problems.[24] Generally it seems more sensible to describe precisely what Babbage did, so far as possible in his own terms, rather than to set up skittles from modern computing and then knock them down. It is reasonable enough, for example, to see in Babbage's Engines the separate store and mill, but Babbage himself uses those terms. I have myself suggested that Babbage developed the concept of array processing,[25] but I use the term with considerable reservation. How far were the many associated ideas which array processing raises in the mind of a modern computer person clear to Babbage? With even more reservation I have discussed the question of how close Babbage came to the Concept of the stored program.[26] This was really unavoidable, if only because it has been discussed so often, but there can only be one possible genera! conclusion: we don' t know, and in the absence of much further information we never shall know.

Professor Cohen has discussed the question of whether Babbage developed the concept of a standard interface between programmer (if that is the right term) and Engine.[27] The period when one might expect to find indications of such a development is Babbage's work on the Analytical Engines between say 1840 and 1847, but there are good reasons why he might have hesitated before defining a formal standard interface even if he did develop the concept. It is not only that he had no real need of one at that stage, but he would probably have preferred to keep the greater flexibility which might have enabled him to save Engine time in particular operations. Perhaps this is also the reason why he seems to have kept his options open for the card control system itself. To the question of whether Babbage developed the concept of a formal standard interface, once again there can really only be one answer: we don't know.[28] Generally one must be very careful before drawing from the detailed plans insecurely founded conclusions about Babbage's general concepts.[29] During this period one can often see Babbage moving away from more general concepts in the detailed plans for Analytical Engines in the interest of practical efficiency. For example his original idea of binary-coded store addressing was abandoned in favour of the one hole per store address used in the variable cards.

To return to the circumstances surrounding the government sponsored project to construct the first Difference Engine, the point that needs to be emphasised is that Babbage's Engine was caught up in dramatic political events which altered fundamentally the political structure of England, and with it the government's approach to science. As Babbage had to deal with government ministers, and often directly with prime ministers (a very different matter from approaching the grant-awarding bodies of today), the Difference Engine project was directly affected by these political events.

The battle for the Great Reform Bill was by far the hardest fought political battle of 19th century Britain. The widest social classes were in action, not only in the towns and cities, including the radical middle classes and the City of London, but involving also the poor in the countryside.[30] To force through this fundamental shift in power from the landowners towards the new manufacturing classes, the landowners had to be assured that the Great Reform Act would not be followed by further radical political change. Introducing the Reform Bill in the Commons Lord John Russell assured the members that it was definitely the last change in the franchise; and he acquired the name `Finality Jack' for his pains.

However, the radicals thought that the Great Reform Act would indeed be a prelude to radical social reform, including backing for science. Thus Babbage was encouraged to hope for greatly increased support for his Engines and for many other scientific projects. The radicals were speedily disillusioned. Reaction set in very rapidly. During the first Melbourne administration lip service was still paid to the desirability of many changes. By the second Melbourne administration all pretence of further radical reform had vanished.

The 1830s witnessed a profound shift in the attitude of government, and of society as a whole towards science. Arnold of Rugby established the public school system[31] with its muscular Christianity and profoundly anti-scientific ethos. The point is not that before the 1830s support for science had been enthusiastic, but rather that science was seen merely as a fringe matter. With the growth of manufacturing, science and technology came to be seen as a terrible threat to the whole way of life of the country based gentleman. Similarly when the professional civil service was later established it too had a profoundly anti-scientific culture. The malign consequences of the developments have affected Britain to the present day.[32] Unfortunately we still want a really thorough analysis of the radical shift in attitudes towards science which occurred during the 1830s. What is certain is that no proper discussion of the fate of the project to construct the first Difference Engine is possible unless it is set against the turbulent contemporary political events.

Babbage studies are beginning to develop quite widely, and it is now time to raise them to a proper professional historical level.[33] This requires a determined assault on Whiggism in all its many manifestations.

I should like to offer my thanks to Prof. I. Bernard Cohen for suggesting this paper, which joins the many studies in the history of science owing their inception to Professor Cohen's encouragement.

R. Anthony Hyman

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Maintainer & date: October 01, 1996