Nineteenth-Century Natural Knowledge and the Loss of the Commons

Laura Dassow Walls, University of Notre Dame

What happened to the “commons” of natural knowledge during the nineteenth century? The tendency of science to erase its own past has obscured the multiple and contingent narratives traced in recent years by historians of science. But as Bill Rossi recently observed, what strikes the eye in reading Rudwick, Secord, Daston, Galison, Lightman, and others is hardly a dull royal road to modernity, but rather the sheer strangeness of science in the nineteenth century, a rich and yeasty realm of possibilities constrained by intense pressures to discipline the natural world. The multiple contingent narratives explored by historians often yield some version of a split: science from poetry, nature from (human) history, professional scientist from amateur naturalist, academic specialist from popular generalist, theoretical knowledge from applied technologies, laboratory from field, science from religion, and so on—a contested field of fragmentations held together by the vexed pairing of “Science and Literature.”

Given this history, when we turn to the nineteenth century today, do we see George Levine’s “One Culture”? Or C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”? Or Donna Haraway’s plurality of natures/cultures? Or—? Does the answer change as one crosses the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or traverses the Southern/Northern hemispheres? Every answer we offer will have implications for something we seem to have lost: a “commons” of knowledge; a commons of “nature.” Was the 19th century, that “time of science,” also the time when the fragmentation of natural knowledge and the split of “nature” from “the human” led to the loss of natural knowledge, or even of nature, as a commons? With what consequences for planetary thinking?

Laura Dassow Walls has published widely on Thoreau, Emerson, and Alexander von Humboldt, including most recently The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago 2009), which won the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the Lowell Prize from the MLA. Currently she is at work on a biography of Henry David Thoreau.

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