Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Scholarly temptations: self-discipline and desire in Victorian Britain.

How did British scholars and scientists in the period of discipline formation envision, experience and resist scholarly temptations?

2013  -   2018
Léjon Saarloos

The research in this project is concerned with scholars and scientists themselves and the ways in which they disciplined themselves to live a scholarly or scientific life in Britain around 1900. How was a man of science supposed to deal with the temptations of ‘mere money-making’? Or how did scholars withstand the allurements of fame and recognition? In what ways did scientists cope with other desires than those instilled by their vocation? Answering these questions sheds new light on the ideal-typical models and ideals that guided the pursuit of knowledge and the making of the modern scientist.

Description of the programme

Historians of science and the humanities have often described the period around 1900 as the period of discipline formation, specialisation and the professionalisation of the pursuit of knowledge. The historiography on this subject is mostly concerned with the making of modern scientific institutions, new methodologies and the history of ideas. It is only recently that studies emphasizing the practices of science during this time of discipline formation began to appear, broadening historiography with many interesting themes like instruments, expertise, representations, cultural mobility, audiences, language and communities.  What only a few historians have touched upon, however, are notions of character and the scholars themselves as practicing actors and specifically the ways in which they disciplined themselves to live a scholarly life.  The processes of discipline formation also required a disciplining of the self.

This research project  aims to broaden our view of the period of discipline formation around 1900 by studying scholarly temptations in Great Britain. Why temptations? Being a scholar or scientist in the nineteenth century required a constant process of moral self-disciplining. One had to balance multiple commitments and societal roles. It is only logical then, that scholarly lives were plagued by temptations arising from other aims as those recognized as the aims of science. Moreover, because multiple competing ideals of science co-existed, what was seen as a virtuous scientist by one could be seen as a vicious one by another, pointing to the contested nature of scholarly ideals. The debates over good scholarship show that ideal-types were often best defined in the negative sense, by stating what it was not. Exploring the notions of scholarly vices and temptations in debates over scholarly conduct will greatly further our understanding of scientists’ lives, practices and their disciplines, because it is in confrontations with misconduct, temptation and vice that contested models for living a scholarly life show their commitments and boundaries. Also, focusing on vice and temptation also offers a new and empirical perspective on the field of virtue epistemology.

Why Great Britain? Although nineteenth century British science has already extensively been researched, no scholars have focused on the notion of scholarly temptations.  This is remarkable, because the Victorian age (1837-1901) is often described in terms of morality, civilization, temperance and discipline.  As for science, Victorian scientists like Thomas Huxley underlined the importance of ‘the man of science’, a person of ‘broad learning and moral gravity.’ The Victorian universities, often characterized as the breeding ground for future leadership in the empire, are also interesting sites to study scholarly temptations, because here considerations and debates concerning the relation between research and leadership are likely to come to the fore, especially in the late nineteenth century, a formative and dynamic period in the history of modern British universities.

First of all, this project will map how men of science around envisioned the temptations that threatened the pursuit of knowledge. It does so by analysing a large amount of scholarly and scientific obituaries. These obituaries offer an interesting overview of the areas of concern which scholars and scientists identified themselves and in addition, they show how men of science dealt with these concerns. The large number of obituaries enables  me to rise above individual idiosyncrasies and to sketch the contours of Victorian and Edwardian scholarly thought about temptation and desire. In addition, this project will employ case-studies to answer not only the question to how temptation and scholarly selfhood was envisioned, but also how it was experienced and enforced.

If you have questions concerning my research, or if you are interested and like to read or hear more, please feel free to send me an email at j.j.l.saarloos@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

Connection with other research

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