One would like to have a comprehensive history of learned societies in nineteenth-century Britain. To attempt one would be brave and even foolish. Learned societies – in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and in the various universities – were too numerous and varied. Instead, what follows takes up some themes in the history of scholarship – natural knowledge, literary knowledge, knowledge of the exotic (the past, the imperial, the religious, the literary) – and examines some of the societies and their members who studied these themes. Therefore, after a somewhat speculative statement of the nature of knowledge itself and the character of learned societies, the book turns to university societies that provided the opportunities for curiosity, originality, and research, and then, chiefly, turns to London societies, their members, the matter of their studies, the manner of studying them, and their politics. The point is to locate knowledge formation in the social processes in which members of learned societies participated. In so doing, this study rescues some people who, lost in the mist of the past, have been forgotten. Yet in their time they – Wilfrid Ward, Henry Sidgwick, Mountstuart Grant Duff, Thomas Archer Hirst – and those of their ilk plowed significant intellectual and public furrows. In writing about them, perhaps, something of their significance might be recovered.
It is important to state at the outset what this book is not about. It is not about the content, the substantive knowledge, that these societies formed, organized, and dissolved. It is about the social processes that members of these societies devised to make and shape knowledge. It is about the social history of cognition. This book originated in the course of writing Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture. It became apparent that the questions taken up there required a place of their own. I have incurred all sorts of debts to all sorts of people in the research and writing of it. These include professional friends and colleagues: Dr Donald Adamson, Professor J. L. Thompson, Professor Thomas Kennedy, Professor R. J. Q. Adams, Professor Sir David Cannadine, Professor Jonathan Parry, Professor Eugenio Biagini, Professor Miles Taylor, Dr John Gibbins, and Professor Brian Holden Reid, all of whom, in various ways, encouraged and criticized these efforts, to my great advantage.