Science at the Metaphysical Society: Defining Knowledge in the 1870s

8 May 2013
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Bernard Lightman
Professor of Humanities, York University; Editor, Isis

The talk will focus on the Metaphysical Society as a forum wherein Victorian intellectuals grappled with the problem of defining knowledge in the specific context of the 1870’s.  That is, though the papers dealt with a series of seemingly disparate political, ethical, philosophical, and religious issues, the debates revolved around determining the true nature of “science,” and not merely the establishment of a definitive system of metaphysics.  In the past, historians have tended to assume that by the 1870’s Christian theologians had virtually ceded scientific authority to the scientific naturalists.  If that was true, then the contest appeared to be between scientific and religious authorities.  By contrast, I will maintain that the historical actors saw the debate as taking place between two sets of scientific authorities.  In other words, Christian intellectuals were not willing to give up on “science”—they refused to recognize T. H. Huxley and his allies as the only legitimate scientific authorities who could speak on behalf of “science,” and who alone defined its boundaries, determined its content, and decided its larger cultural implications.

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