Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 September 2020
It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honour of kings to search matters out.Proverbs 25: 2
[A]s for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only part … but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.1 Corinthians 13: 8–10
Detailed investigations, however valuable and interesting, are after all but materials to be merged into generalizations, and generalizations proceed mainly from armchairs.Alfred Cort Haddon
Robust intellectual institutions in Britain from 1900 to 1950 – universities, the Royal Society, the British Academy – stabilised, legitimised and authorised knowledge. Less formal coteries in the nooks, crannies, niches on the margins of robust institutions – such as Bloomsbury, the Tots and Quots, the Theoretical Biology Club – served as charismatic sites for stimulating curiosity, imagination and originality. Both, in a certain sense, were necessary; both functions were useful, but they were in tension with each other. Both were productive in different ways, but their relations were unsettled. Robust social units concerned with the protection of conventional, commensurable, conceptions do not stir with creative impulses. Cognitive social units outside those defensive circles entertain incommensurable conceptions that provoke creative impulses.
Were that the Whig Interpretation of History was true. If the Whig interpretation was applied to the history of cognition, knowledge in the first half of the twentieth century – in contrast to the nineteenth century – would have been disciplined, coordinated, bureaucratic and integrated. The diffuse map of knowledge of the nineteenth century would have been replaced by the clear, bright disciplinary lines in the twentieth century. The universities, the Royal Society and the British Academy would have corralled learning, with hedgehog-like robustness, into recognisable mental spaces. On the other hand, small, eccentric clubs and societies, with their fox-like deviousness and insidiousness, would have fallen into disuse and would have passed out of existence. To be sure, the universities, the Royal Society and the British Academy hardened epistemological edges and restrained intellectual adventurism, defensively fending off charlatans, cranks and crackpots. However, at the same time, charismatic individuals, at the epistemological edges, formed ephemeral societies that became sites and niches for curiosity, originality and the formation of different forms of knowledge.