ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 1966


Tony Wooton

New Courses


From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution
Christopher Hill
Oxford, 45s

‘Our search for intellectual origins has revealed no Rousseau or Marx; but it has perhaps suggested ways in which men’s minds were prepared for new courses, by men whose proffered services the old regime was unable to use’ – this represents both the theme and method by which Hill in his latest book continues his enquiries into the intellectual origins of the English revolution. In this book the principal characters are Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Edward Coke and the new men of learning in Gresham College, and Hill attempts to interconnect the ideas of these men with the general syndrome of Puritanism. Their ideas offered points of contact for those dissatisfied with the old ways; in the case of the professors at Gresham these ideas accentuated the marriage of theoretical mathematical speculation with the practical difficulties bound up with the economic expansion of the bourgeoisie; in the case of Coke they reflected the inherent conflicts in the legal superstructure of a society whose form of economic expansion merited new conceptions of property rights, taxation and freedom of trade. By 1621 the old regime had dispensed with the services of Bacon, Raleigh and Coke but they were children of their time whose ideas were eagerly perpetuated by the men of 1640.

To be evaluated the book must be seen in terms of the arguments out of which it arises. Broadly three main theoretical interpretations have been put forward to explain the rise of scientific activity in Britain – one, theories of the gifted individual; two, theories showing new science met the demands, and was thus determined by, an expanding economy; and, three, theories stressing the influence of Puritanism or radical Protestantism on the scientific mind.

Hill prefers not to speak of causes, but rather of connections, and in effect his work bridges positions two and three while stressing other circumstantial factors peculiar to the British situation: that is Hill recognises independent influences attributable to Luther which ‘unwittingly helped to create an atmosphere favourable to science’ and also the important impetus given by merchant trading interests, for example, to navigational problems. Yet he also goes further and accentuates the importance of the prevailing power situation; without the revolution itself and the possibility of scientific organisation the rise of science would have been much slower; without the Reformation and its challenge to authority, impetus to education and free discussion, and without the relaxation of censorship under Edward VI, popular science would not have broken through, he claims.

Many of his ideas are stimulating, but one feels that many of his most provocative statements are backed by little evidence. He also tends to lose sight of a realistic theory of the relation of ideas to social structure and misses many of the opportunities for comparative analysis which the data give him.

Thus when Hill asserts the ‘unwitting’ influence of Calvinism in promoting scientific attitudes he cites little evidence beyond mere correlations of scientists and dissenters and certainly does not deal thoroughly enough with the reasons for, and the ways in which, science and religion became deliberately separated after Bacon. Feuer and others have shown moreover that it was in the coffee houses and the homes of the Scottish ‘moderates’ rather than in the homes of arch-Calvinists that the new science came into being. Ultimately Hill simply seems to assume his own case here. Whether his correlations could be explained away in terms of more significant denominators he does not stop to consider. His difficulties arise mainly because he is so limited by his theoretical assumptions, for he claims to be dealing with the ideas (‘the steam’) and not the structure (‘the engine’) of this period. It could well be argued that this leads to the wrong impression of excessive causal determinance by elements in the social superstructure as well as an understatement of the role played in the growth of science by common conditions of living and by the problems being thrown up by the expanding economy. Lastly, although Hill makes several sets of comparisons with the growth of European science, nowhere is this done in any systematic manner – in the main he just uses the method of the confirmatory example and fails to remember that if one is using comparative techniques the anomalous example is just as crucial as that which is theoretically satisfying. Moreover he underplays the potentialities for comparison within England itself; for example why did the state support some scientific activities and not others? Does this give us clues as to the relative importance of the power structure or of social needs in influencing the evolution of different sciences?

The book as a whole however is lucid, witty and full of insights into the interrelationship of social phenomena which Marxist historicism can claim as its own. What is more, Hill is not one to take delight in closed dogmatisms of either the academic or determinist variety.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24 April 2010