University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'Sybil' in particulars and generals: inductive logic and Victorian narrative

'Sybil' in particulars and generals: inductive logic and Victorian narrative

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Much of the triumphalism of early Victorian writing about physical science came from a belief that modern inductive reasoning gave much stronger methodological underpinnings than those supporting earlier science. While not claimed to be infallible, inductive science was held to incorporate methods for allowing for and dealing with fallibility, so that errors could be rectified without fundamental principles being affected. In the words of the Scottish writer James Douglas, an advocate for progressive education, ‘being rooted in nature, inductive philosophy has the principle of growth in it’. All the scientific disciplines, it was widely argued, were now founded on this logic; indeed it was the defining quality of a modern scientific discipline that it be so founded. And induction was also being taken up by practitioners of other kinds of knowledge, who were spreading the benefits of its secure method well beyond the sciences.

Following work by Susan Faye Cannon, recent scholarship by Jonathan Smith, Laura J. Snyder, Mary Poovey and others has questioned the usefulness of nineteenth-century inductivism for practicising scientists. I will argue that the interesting point about the early Victorian period’s tendency to rally round the banner of induction is less its practical effects on the history of scientific discovery than its role in constructing standards for measuring the difference between modernity and pre-modernity, and for disseminating a narrative pattern which seemed to represent the shape which authoritative knowledge should take. Both these effects of the triumph of induction were felt extensively in culture outside scientific circles. My paper investigates the effects of the spreading prestige of inductive reasoning from science into other areas of knowledge production, particularly those predicated on narrative. As my title suggests, I will focus especially on the role of the inductive method in the ‘social problem’ or ‘condition of England’ novel of the 1840s and 50s.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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