Patrick Geddes’s sociology and the democratic intellect in Scotland
On a visit to Edinburgh in 1994 the Italian architect Giancarlo de Carlo said the following:
‘Here in Scotland, in Scottish culture, from what I have read and I have studied, I think you have one educational pillar which is very important. It is what you call generalism . . . Specialisation, specialists, I consider in a way to be an accident of our present time. I think we should go back to the idea of the general view, and in Scotland you have a good grounding in this approach, not least because of the work of Patrick Geddes . . .’
What I want to do today is reflect of that Scottish gneralism in the context of Geddes advocacy of the emerging discipline of sociology as he saw it from the 1880s onwards.
From the beginning of the 1880s the Dundee Naturalists’ Society had played a key role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the city, indeed a significant impetus for the formation of University College Dundee came from the society. Its forward-looking nature is clear from a lecture given on 27 December 1881. The subject was ‘The Classification of Statistics’ and the lecturer was the twenty-seven year old Patrick Geddes. In the 1880s the nature and use of statistics and their wider implications for the structure of the social sciences were matters of intense debate, not least with respect to their potential for providing the scientific foundation for the nascent discipline of sociology. Geddes’ talk was based on a three-part presentation he had made earlier in the year to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In his own words ‘it was probably the first [paper] which has attempted to organise the whole body of our recorded social knowledge into a form presentable to the cultivators of the preliminary sciences’. The ideas that Geddes discussed at that meeting were to have a major influence on the establishment of sociology as a discipline. This was because Geddes’ sociological ideas influenced the direction of patronage of a member of the Dundee Naturalists Society, namely Geddes’ friend James Martin White. In due course White was to become a key source of finance not only for Geddes but for the development of sociology in the United Kingdom. In his account of the origins of British sociology Philip Abrams notes that White’s ‘interest in sociology was largely formed by his early friendship with Geddes’ and that early friendship, forged in Dundee, led some thirty years later to White financing both of the first two chairs of sociology at the University of London. It may seem surprising that a meeting held in Dundee before it even had a university should have had such major academic consequences, but this gives an insight into why Dundee was so much in need of its own university at this time. An underlying point is that Geddes was firmly part of the Dundee academic network the brought the university into being.
It is likely that Geddes’ invitation to speak at the Dundee Naturalists’ Society was initiated either by Martin White himself or by the honorary secretary of the society, Frank Young, for both men already knew Geddes. Young may also have attended Geddes’ lectures at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Geddes had been elected as a Fellow on 7 June 1880 and Young himself was elected on 1 May 1882. His proposers included Geddes himself, Geddes’ friend the geologist James Geikie, and the mathematician George Chrystal. Geddes again lectured to the Dundee Naturalists’ Society on 8 February 1882 on the subject of the occurrence of chlorophyll in animals. A topic on which Geddes’ had made a pioneering research contribution. This biological topic is at first sight in marked contrast to the sociological subject of Geddes’ paper on the classification of statistics, yet it shares two important features with that earlier paper. First of all it was an original piece of research, an account of the then little understood symbiotic relationship of plant and animal functioning together within one body. Secondly it tackled an area which required insights from both botany and zoology. Thus both papers were pioneering and both had an interdisciplinary slant. As such they were typical of Geddes, however different the subject matter may have been. Taken together they also hint at his abilities as a generalist thinker. He was elected an Honorary Member of the Dundee Naturalists’ Society later that same year.
Geddes’ pioneering and wide ranging thinking, frequently in areas which have only been properly defined as academic disciplines in the wake of his exploratory work, was to confuse his more conventional colleagues for the rest of his career, even though it continued an earlier Scottish generalist tradition of thinking. Geddes was capable both of presenting an expert view, and of understanding and valuing the wider cultural context of such expertise. One of his aims was to develop the academic discipline of sociology as a way of giving structure and method to the study of such wider cultural contexts, issues and sympathies. His papers to the Dundee Naturalists’ Society in 1881 and 1882 had already illuminated this breadth for they reflect both his specialist knowledge of biology and his desire to situate all knowledges within a wider sociological framework. However this same generalism opened him to accusations of lack of focus and such comments did not help him in his academic career.
This is something of an irony for far from this being a maverick trait in Geddes, her was representing a well established but by then threatened tradition of generalist thinking. So to understand Patrick Geddes we must understand his Scottish intellectual background.
Illuminating here is the fact that in The Democratic Intellect, the philosopher and historian of ideas George Davie notes Geddes as a representative of a Scottish philosophical approach to teaching. Davie reminds us that in nineteenth-century Scotland generalism was recognised as a philosophy of national education, a philosophy of cultural action. Davie’s account of this as an educational legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment provides a context for the wide-ranging thinking we associate with Patrick Geddes, not least with respect to his vision of sociology as an all encompassing, generalist discipline. With respect to Geddes this is very often seen only in terms of Comte or Spencer or Le Play, as if its some kind of import into his thinking. But that misses out Geddes’ own educational background. George Davie points out in The Democratic Intellect that generalist thinkers in the Scottish tradition held that one area of thought or expertise benefits from illumination by another and it is therefore culturally and educationally desirable to be able place them in relation to one another. By extension, any aspect of knowledge, culture or society benefits from the illumination of other aspects and the task of education was to facilitate such processes. Such interdisciplinary views characterised the Scottish intellectual culture into which Geddes was born in 1854. So such philosophically informed generalism was fundamental to his thinking.
There is, of course, nothing exclusively Scottish about a generalist intellectual tradition. From a European perspective one of the great early modern generalists was the Moravian educator, Jan Amos Comenius, a thinker admired by nineteenth-century Scottish thinkers and praised by Patrick Geddes in his book Cities in Evolution. In the seventeenth century Comenius put the rationale for generalism like this:
‘We see that the branches of a tree cannot live unless they all alike suck their juices from a common trunk with common roots. And can we hope that the branches of wisdom can be torn asunder with safety to their life, that is to truth? …. He deprives himself of light, of hand and regulation, who pushes away from him any shred of the knowable.’
Geddes, as we all know, was never one to push away from himself any shred of the knowable, and he may well have read that very quotation for it appears in a work by his older Edinburgh contemporary, David Masson. Geddes himself makes a similar point in his final lecture to students at University College Dundee:
‘[a] general and educational point of view must be brought to bear on every specialism. The teacher’s outlook should include all viewpoints . . . Hence we must cease to think merely in terms of separated departments and faculties and must relate these in the living mind; in the social mind as well – indeed, this above all.’
But Geddes knew the value of specialisation: as we know, he was a biologist by training and he helped to bring into being the disciplines of sociology, geography and planning. But he understood that disciplines depend for their origin on interdisciplinary thinking. They emerge from the interaction of earlier formulations of study; they come from the spaces in between. The irony is that, as they develop into disciplines, their interdisciplinary origins are no longer seen as relevant, and the significance of their relationship to other disciplines may no longer be perceived. Indeed, it will be in the interests, both financial and professional, of the practitioners of the new discipline to demarcate it clearly from other disciplines. Brian Robson refers to Geddes’ ‘diluted legacy’ in planning, geography and sociology and comments that ‘the bare bones, not the spirit’ of Geddes’ work were taken up in those disciplines. That lost spirit was, in large part, the interdisciplinary spirit.
My task here is to illuminate Geddes’ generalism rather than to regard it as an inconvenient distraction from a specialised career. From this perspective, some of the earliest commentaries on Geddes’ work are also the most useful. In 1914 his friend and close colleague Victor Branford published Intepretations and Forecasts, a book which can be considered the first major published outline of Geddes’ thinking. Branford was no mean thinker himself and the purpose of his book is to reflect on the value of the nascent discipline of sociology, which Branford, like Geddes, had helped to legitimise. Branford’s book reflects his close collaboration with Geddes but, while Geddes’ thinking informs it throughout, the book is not explicitly about Geddes.
The first book to give an account of Geddes’ thinking as such is The Interpreter: Geddes, the Man and his Gospel by Geddes’ assistant in Dundee, Amelia Defries. It was published in London in 1927 and in New York the following year. It is a key source of Geddes’ thinking both verbal and visual. But neither Branford nor Defries gives much insight into Geddes’ Scottish intellectual background. For that one must turn to a book by one of Geddes’ Scottish peers, a collection of essays by the distinguished educationist Stewart Alan Robertson. It was published after Robertson’s death in 1933 and with respect to understanding Geddes it is important for two reasons. First of all it contains an insightful essay about Geddes himself. Second, the book as whole is an expression of the internationally inclined, culturally aware, Scottish generalist tradition of which both Robertson and Geddes were part.
In due course two industrialised wars fostered specialisation in the twentieth century and the Second World War was a watershed for how Geddes was considered. Despite the best efforts of Lewis Mumford, after that war Geddes’ generalism begins to be seen as an eccentric quality, not of importance in its own right. Yet just as Geddes’ generalism was fading from public consciousness, C. P. Snow was having to invent his ‘two cultures’ debate as though there had been no previous thinking about the relationships between arts and sciences in the twentieth century. As the confident high modernism of the immediate post war period faded, Geddes’ generalism again became of interest. In 1966 George Davie’s friend the poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of Geddes’ constant effort to help people to think round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits. He continues that Geddes ‘knew that watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.’ So intellectual generalism was again on the agenda and not only in Scotland. In Mind and Nature, published in 1979, in a most Geddes-like way the anthropologist Gregory Bateson summarised the argument for generalism as follows: ‘break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality’. But by this time Geddes’ relevance to the generalist debate was little noted and his reputation was seen primarily in terms of his role as a pioneering planner. Indeed it was only in the 1980s that real assessment began of a cornerstone of Geddes’ generalist approach to education, namely his advocacy of the visual arts. This included his role in the early congresses of the Arts and Crafts movement in the nineteenth century, an involvement that found later expression in relation to his cultural activism worldwide. Speaking in his final lecture to his students in Dundee in either 1918 or 1919, Geddes made clear that he considered visual art to be of fundamental educational importance and placed it in the wider context of disciplines:
‘We need to give everyone the outlook of the artist, who begins with the art of seeing – and then in time we shall follow him into the seeing of art, even the creating of it. In the same way the scholar and the student may be initiated . . . into the essential outlook of the astronomer and the geographer, of the mathematician and the mechanic, the physicist and the chemist, the geologist and the minerologist, the botanist and the zoologist, and thence more generally, of the biologist. Next, too, the anthropologist . . . and the economist.’
Why doesn’t he mention sociology? The reason is that he is speaking as a sociologist.