24 July 2009

1850: the watershed

The rise of individualism prior to 1945 was not a simple matter. Probably the factors that would lead to its downfall were present from an early stage, and certainly so by the time the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882.

Herbert Spencer identified a watershed at about 1850. Society, as he saw it, was always in a state of conflict between collectivism and individualism. Up to 1850, individualism was gaining ground; after it, the balance turned the other way and individual freedom declined in favour of collectivism.

Prior to the 19th century, there had been many monopolies. For example, Queen Elizabeth I had granted an exclusive right to print music to Tallis and Byrd (1575). No one could have their music printed by anyone else if they happened to have fallen out with Tallis and Byrd. And the guilds were as monopolistic as the modern medical profession. No one could make and sell candles, for example, unless they had been apprenticed and become a member of the candlemakers’ guild. As the monopolies were abolished, commercial freedom gave rise to intellectual freedom.

After 1850, we may suppose, the consequences of the earlier legislation in favour of free trade and against monopolies continued to bear fruit in the expanding activities of the intellectual upper class, but also in the psychological reactions of some of them against the enjoyment of this freedom by others, even if they had benefitted from it themselves.

In 1794 Prussia was the first European country to bring in state education, wishing to have an educated and indoctrinated population which would provide competent and compliant soldiers for its armies. It also brought in universal conscription in 1862. Prussia won the Franco-Prussian war; other countries thought that the universal education had provided Prussia with an advantage, and followed suit.

My suppressed independent university has a suppressed History Department as well as one in Philosophy, which needs only funding and status to be contributing significantly to the intellectual life of its time.