Title:Geographies of the Mind, the Regional Study in the Global Vision
Author: Tom Steele

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Elisée Reclus and Patrick Geddes:
Geographies of the Mind, the Regional Study in the Global Vision

Tom Steele

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed not only the explosive high point of modernist art, design and ideas but also major developments in the creation and categorising of knowledge. The vigorous specialisation of knowledges into new academic departments took place most notably in the newly founded ‘civic’ universities in Britain and the specialist Grandes Ecoles in France, both to some extent taking their lead from the reformed German universities of the nineteenth century (Scott 1995). The Modern Universities movement in Britain owed a great deal to the work of the university extension movement, which under the leadership of men like Michael Sadler and H. R. Mackinder had created a ‘university presence’ in many of the rapidly developing industrial towns of the north of England.

This presence stimulated local entrepreneurs and civic authorities to found university colleges in the 1870s and 1880s and in turn, around the turn of the century, these became independent universities. The new universities differed markedly from the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge in rejecting the collegiate system in favour of specialist departments of teaching in which new subject knowledges, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and even English studies, were constructed and developed (Steele, 1997a). As such the new universities of the turn of the century can be said to play an exemplary role in the development of the ‘professionalisation’ of working life and society generally. Indeed, the new university specialisms faithfully replicated the idea of circumscribed limits of activity, discrete methods and jealous ownership of specialist knowledge which characterise professional life. Although the seamless robe of knowledge which had been the joy of the middle ages was rudely cut up and parcelled out by enlightenment science, it was the modern university system that put the finishing touches to the high walls of specialisation and policed them with a newly created ‘professional’ staff.

This specialisation, however, ran against the grain of ‘popular education’, which with the exception of positivist science made a virtue of the whole, or holistic, vision. Because, although the practice of popular education really begins with the extension of ‘scientific’ method to a mass audience, the well-spring of desire for learning it tapped was the value the layman placed on personal experience, which recognised no boundaries to knowledge. For him personal experience, scientifically examined and understood, was the antidote to rhetoric of the priest and the politician and the beginning of personal and political liberation (the intelligent laywoman, in the nineteenth century, would however place a higher value on culture and the arts). How did adult educators in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries position themselves within this contradiction between the popular demand for universal understanding and the increasing specialisation of the professions and knowledges? None of the actors then would have seen themselves as ‘adult educators’ or possibly even ‘educators’, because those specialisms had, strictly speaking, not yet be interpellated.

In many respects they simply wanted to share their educated enthusiasms for social change with a public thirsting for knowledge but excluded from the universities. In the far from unique cases of Elisée Reclus and Patrick Geddes it becomes clear that their educational activities could not be separated from their political ambitions. Equally, they were both keen to develop truthful bodies of knowledge and falsifiable methods. Reclus and Geddes were undoubtedly examples of the new ‘professional’ class whose power was derived from their expertise (Perkin, 1996). Both believed in expert solutions derived from scientific theory in a positivist way. But what makes them representative of their time is that they drew on an ethic of progress, equality and social justice. In different ways both subscribed to the ethic of public service, which was to become the mainspring of professional life, but not in the degraded sense of uncritical obedience to an all-powerful state or authority, which later caricatured the idea. Indeed a healthy anti-authoritarianism characterised the attitudes of both of them. As Perkin argues, British society was the first to become professionalised, and hence modernised, through a variety of reforms that included introducing a professional, meritocratic civil service, a public accounts committee, the abolition of commissions, and even the reform of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. But it was only half-complete.

As Hutton and Marquand have argued recently, the regulatory state that was then introduced to Britain preserved many of the quasi-medieval institutions of privilege which allowed ‘Old Corruption’ to continue to flourish (Hutton, 1995; Marquand, 1996). In this respects, they argue, the British state differed from subsequent modernisations in Europe and Japan where much more fully developed ‘stakeholder societies’ were encouraged to develop. Marquand further asserts that although the political consequence of this was a substantial growth of the bureaucratic state and the development of welfarism, it should not be forgotten that the state had already been astir in the previous decades. As Polanyi points out in The Great Transformation, the laissez-faire economics of the earlier part of the century were not at all a ‘natural’ development but, on the contrary, dependent on significant state legislation. Laissez-faire economics were, in fact, nothing less than a ‘state imposed market utopianism’. What was truly spontaneous, however, was the popular reaction to this system, the countervailing activity which led to the movement for social planning. For Polanyi, ‘laissez-faire was planned, planning was not’. Both Geddes and Reclus can be seen to belong to this ‘natural’ reaction to the liberal economics which so immiserised the working people of Britain and Europe. They were instrumental in foreseeing and in some cases founding the ‘intermediary institutions’ Polanyi describes as characterising the long counter-revolution to laissez-faire economics.

They also belong to a powerful strand of libertarian thought which simultaneously accentuated and coupled the global vision, or ‘globalisation’, and the regional study, or more precisely, the regional study within the global vision. Neither was convinced of the necessity for national political boundaries, and Reclus, in fact, early warned against the totalitarian possibilities of the nation state. Both were convinced that the natural unit of geographical study was the economic region which should be understood in terms of the global society rather than national self-interest. Both therefore were of their times but in crucial respects in opposition to it. Both were for want of a better phrase ‘popular educators’ but what I want to argue here is that the forms of ‘popular education’ in which they were engaged were important areas for developing their educational subject matter in an interdisciplinary manner before the subjects themselves became hidebound academic specialisms. Reclus may have invented the term ‘social geography’ to describe what was merely for him ‘history in space’ while Geddes, who admitted to being much influenced by him, was one of the founders of British sociology and town planning.

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus (1830- 1905) was a French geographer and leading anarchist theorist, who participated in the Paris Commune of 1870. He had studied in Germany under Karl Ritter and Frederich Ratzel who were developing the idea of climatic and economic regions. In 1868 he published his first book, La Terre which established him as a geographer of promise (Fleming, 1979: 144). Exiled from France because of his political activities, Reclus travelled widely. He was particularly moved by his experiences of the mass immigration of the European poor in America and of famine-enforced emigration from Ireland, which convinced him that the emergent discipline of geography should not content itself simply with the description of physical phenomena and political boundaries but should reflect human and social movement.

In exile in Switzerland, he came under the influence of the anarchist theorist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and adopted a form of anarchistic socialism, which he was to retain for the rest of his life. Simultaneously, he started work on his multi-volumed work, La Nouvelle Géographie Universelle: la Terre at les Hommes which was intended as an introduction to the nouvelle géographie. It was significant that Reclus conceived this idea, in prison, as a geographical encyclopaedia and published it not as weighty tomes for academic consumption but as a regular series of cheap pamphlets published by Hachette, the first of which appeared in 1875 and the last in 1894.

Ultimately, this work earned him gold medals from both the Paris Geographical Society (1892) and the Royal Geographical Society of London (1894). Because of his growing reputation, he was offered political immunity by the French government, but on principle he refused to return to France until the same exemption was offered to all Communards in exile. He was invited to Belgium to give extension lectures at the Free University of Brussels but at the last minute the university authorities, panicked by his political reputation, rescinded his invitation. Nevertheless, Reclus, who was formerly a freemason, gave his lectures in a local Masonic hall and was involved in founding the breakaway New University of Brussels (Steele: 1997b).

Almost against his will, therefore, Reclus was involved in founding geography as an academic subject, although as the Belgian geographer, Wagner, commented no country had done more than France for developing and popularising an isolated science than France (Ross, 1988: 93). And it was argued that one reason for the popularity of the subject was France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, a defeat that was held to be due largely to superior German maps. Ross claims that something like ‘geography fever’ swept France and led to publication of the first academic journals such as L’Explorateur and Revue de géographie and the demand for the opening of an Ecole superieure de géographie in Paris. During the decade following 1871 more than twelve new geographical societies were formed in France with a membership approaching ten thousand. Ross argues that geography in these circumstances was not just coincidental with the triumph of the bourgeoisie in France but in fact part and parcel of it and coincided with France’s substantial colonial conquests, particularly that of Algeria. However, Reclus, who did not share in this orthodoxy was, as a consequence, academically marginalised by the academy (and only rediscovered seventy years later by the Marxist sociologist Lefebvre and his circle). His response to the eagerly awaited first issue of the Revue de géographie was that it was an attempt ‘to make geography serve political ambitions’ (quoted in Ross, 1988: 94). As against the political manipulation of academic geography he argued that social geography should reveal three orders of facts: ‘class struggle, the quest for equilibrium, and the sovereign struggle of the individual’ (Reclus, 1982, quoted in Ross, 1988: 101). Reclus broke with the academicised form of geography then emerging under Vidal, which concentrated on physical characteristics, and instead attempted to give it a sociological dimension.

His studies emphasised economic populations in their environment, changing social relationships, the evolution of institutions, languages and racial relationships (Fleming, 1979: 145). Epistemologically, Reclus was a positivist who believed in first hand observation from which generalisations could be drawn. Although he remained rigorously faithful to scientific positivism, he saw the earth in an almost mystical way as a historically and spatially related system and one can see in Reclus’s work a ready appeal for contemporary environmentalists and ecologists. Because his political ambitions for his subject lay beyond the academy he adopted the style he admired from Karl Ritter’s lectures of 1851 which, through concentration on les grandes faites, rescued geography from dull textbooks and made it available to a popular audience. Reclus was suspicious of ‘non-natural’ boundaries and the idea of the nation in particular, preferring instead the natural boundaries of mountain and valley systems and water. He believed that there could be autonomous political units based on economically unified areas such as his famous ‘valley section’ which Geddes later adopted.

He especially feared the perversion of the idea of the nation which he detected in 1871 in German nationalism and prophesied also that the British empire would fail because of its lack of territorial unity. He was however sensitive to the validity of the struggles of national minorities for their identity against imperialist oppression, but argued that race and language were not in themselves sufficient to unite a people. National struggles, he argued, should take place in the context of the global struggle for justice and should be accomplished only through investing in the higher morality of rights and duties. After 1871 his positivist viewpoint considerably moderated his revolutionary politics when he disagreed with Bakunin over the nature of the political struggle. While Bakunin was still convinced of the spontaneous revolutionary instinct of the masses, Reclus looked increasingly to science for reassurance for ‘the triumph of the universal social Republic’ (Fleming, 1979: 149).

He believed that the Darwinian theory of evolution would reveal progressive forces and, through skilful observation, scientists would be able to discern and encourage their potential. A remarkable feature of Reclus’s reading of Darwin was that it did not emphasise the evolution of the fittest through tooth and claw individualism but the value of ‘solidarity’: it is always through solidarity, through the association of spontaneous, co-ordinated forces that all progress is made. The historian, the judge who evokes the centuries and who makes them march before us in an infinite procession, shows us how the law of the blind and brutal struggle for existence, so extolled by the adorers of success, is subordinated to a second law, that of the grouping of weak individualities into organisms more and more developed, learning to defend themselves against the enemy forces, to recognise the resources of their environment, even to create new ones. We know that if our descendants are to reach their high destiny of science and liberty, they will owe it to their coming together more and more intimately, to the incessant collaboration, to this mutual aid from which brotherhood grows little by little (Reclus, 1889; quoted in Fleming, 1979: 150) This sentiment was expressed not in the context of a political pamphlet but as in the preface Reclus wrote to Leon Metchnikoff’s La Civilisation et les Grand Fleuves Historiques (1889).

He believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution could demonstrate that the working class, as a class, was superior to the bourgeoisie because of collectivisation and, since mutual aid was superior to capitalism, the bourgeois system of education could only retard the moral and intellectual development of the human race. For all that Reclus did not reject violence and the armed struggle against an oppressive state but saw education as the absolute requirement for proletarian liberation - the maturity of the struggle depending on the degree of education of the working classes. Although he and Marx shared the same respect for a scientific grounding for socialism, where Reclus parted company from Marxist socialism was in his emphasis on the role of the individual and personal morality. Reclus believed that science had in the end to submit itself to conscience, the ‘interpreter of the inner voice’. For him, as for the ethical socialists, the mark of the progress to a higher humanity lay precisely in the development of conscience. Through this the individual would become a social individual and frame his or her ambitions in the context of what was good for the community as a whole, since the individual and society were as cell and body to each other, independent but inseparable. Consequently, although social progress was only accomplished through the thrust of individual wills, anarchists could not be liberals in the economic sphere but only collectivists.

Patrick Geddes

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a biologist, sociologist, and town planner with a strong interest in theories of education and knowledge, the arts, history and many other subjects. ‘His widespread interests were not the result of a pursuit of pure knowledge, but of an attempt to clarify and emphasise - in an increasingly specialised world - the inter-relations between all branches of knowledge for the benefit of human life’ (McGrath, 1996). Patrick Geddes grew up and was educated in Scotland, and studied biology in London. Although began to specialise in biology as a subject area both in London and France, he returned to Edinburgh in his mid-thirties.

There he dramatically shifted his centre of interest to urban renewal work in Edinburgh's Old Town. The most prominent outcomes of this were the Ramsay Garden complex, a development of private flats, a student hall of residence and artists' studios and the Outlook Tower, which Geddes reconstructed as a wholly new form of teaching museum. Like Reclus, Geddes began to develop an interest in geographical representation which concentrated on the organisation of human societies but focused more closely on spatial relationships manifested in the city and the country. ‘Geddes propagated in the following decades a highly individualistic theory of societies and cities drawing from regional theories in biology and geography, philosophical ideas (especially those of Plato) and political Anarchist thought’ (McGrath, 1996). Geddes never abandoned his earlier scientific specialism and between 1888 -1919 he was Professor of Botany at the University of Dundee. In 1903 Geddes published his first major City Design report, City Development: a Study of Parks, Gardens and Culture Institutes, which established him as one of the new breed of town planners. Geddes co-founded the Sociological Society in London in 1903 and in 1911 exhibited his Cities and Town Planning Exhibition. During 1914-1924 Geddes was involved in town planning work in India, where, in 1919 he became Professor of Civics and Sociology at the University of Bombay. During this period he was also commissioned by the Zionist Organisation to design and plan the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Geddes’s final period was dominated by a utopian project to establish an international University dedicated to the pursuit of his philosophy of the renewal of life, in Montpellier. But in 1925 he returned to Palestine and conceived a master plan for the city of Tel Aviv, which for McGrath was perhaps his most important legacy. In 1932 Geddes was offered and accepted a knighthood. He died the same year in Montpellier. Like many others in the new movement for adult education, including Michael Sadler, who was also involved in India, Geddes was inspired by the lectures and writings of John Ruskin. In particular Ruskin’s doctrines of the nobility of manual labour and the ideal of citizenship moved a whole generation of young idealists to throw themselves into social reform through education. Geddes joined the British Association for Advancement of Science and Art and attended congresses in the 1880s and 1890s where he became convinced that the arts and sciences were inseparable and could only be pursued detrimentally in isolation from each other. The importance of the British Association at this time for propagating new developments in the social sciences was seminal and, in particular, the section devoted to geographical studies became the crucible for developing what became the ‘New Geography’ (Cantor, 1960-61). Halford Mackinder was also an active member of this section and, significantly, saw extramural classes as the most congenial place to develop this new tendency (Blouet, 1975; Unstead, 1947). With Sadler, Mackinder also played an influential role in the Oxford Delegacy and in the emergence of the new university colleges in Northern England. Geddes was mostly involved in the section of the British Association where sociologists and economists were fiercely debating the relative boundaries of their subjects.

Significantly - political economists, in particular, were hostile to the emergence and separation of the social sciences from what they saw as their own area of expertise. At the 1876 congress, a number of scientists including Francis Galton strongly reproved them for their lack of a properly scientific approach. This in turn led to a strong reformulation of the subject by the leader of the section J. K. Ingram, a Comtean sociologist from Dublin. Ingram spoke of the ‘‘notorious discord and sterility of modern economics’, and the need for a new sociology based on a synthesis of all knowledge, in which specific problems would be seen as parts of a larger whole’ (Meller, 1990: 58). Geddes at the 1881 congress attempted to develop the holistic approach advanced by Ingram and immediately came into conflict with Francis Galton, the inventor of eugenics. In what became an emblematic split in the approach to the social sciences, Galton subsequently proposed the study of genetics as the basis for understanding society and formed the Eugenics Society in 1904, while, in the same year, Geddes diametrically opposed Galton’s viewpoint by establishing the Civics movement (Abrams, 1968: 177-98). Hence the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument took institutional shape and became embedded in contrasting social formations. (Hovering mockingly over this debate, however, was the shade of the great German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Thus Spake Zarathustra, had recently been translated into English, prompting the waggish dictum ‘neither nature nor nurture, but Nietzsche’). Ingram’s holistic approach appealed greatly to the young Geddes, who as we have seen was scientifically trained, and he also saw adult education as the most propitious environment for developing his subject in an interdisciplinary way.

At Ingram’s invitation in 1881, Geddes began his first teaching in extramural work at the University College in Dublin, where what was in effect the first programme of university extension had been pioneered under the inspiration of Cardinal Newman in 1854. Geddes rapidly developed his own biological theories of social science or ‘social biology’. Relatively soon in his career he advanced the theory that in economics, the ‘biological’ principle revealed that the key objective of economics was not ‘food and shelter’, but ‘culture and education’. He further held that the study of economics would only atrophy in academia and should embrace the broader educational purpose of involving the two great social groups most excluded from higher education, women and the working class. Meller comments: ‘Theories about the importance of economics as a subject and the importance of adult education become entwined. At the centre were the universities, and the new university colleges developing in provincial centres’ (Meller 1990: 62; see especially Armytage, 1955).

In Ireland Geddes was also very impressed by the cultural energy of Irish nationalism and the possibility of developing a pan-Celtic identity for all the subaltern peoples of Britain as a revulsion against English cultural hegemony. His subsequent attempt to launch a Celtic movement in Edinburgh was never wholly successful because, Meller argues, the city’s relation to the Highland Gael and the Celtic fringe was confined to sentimental romances and English Arts and Crafts fashion motives. But the cultural renaissance Geddes inspired in such journals as his (short-lived) Evergreen had a radicalising effect on both Scottish writers and artists and the avant-garde south of the border and was reflected in the content and journalistic causeries of the leading avant-garde journal, Alfred Orage’s New Age (Holbrook Jackson, 1939: 132-140; Steele, 1990). Geddes’s belief in the holistic interdependence of science and the arts was also further confirmed at this time by coming into contact with the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, whose ideas of creative evolution then being popularised in the New Age by T.E. Hulme (Martin, 1967; Steele, 1990). Like Ruskin, Geddes held that the new spirit in art was engendered by the sense of wonder opened up to the artist through modern science to which Bergson’s ideas added a psychological gloss. He was particularly responsive to the idea that the measure of modernity was the extent to which the artist rejoiced in the discoveries made by scientific enquiry (Meller, 1990: 65). Geddes can therefore be located amongst that widespread movement of Ruskinians which ran avant-garde journals, founded small provincial societies and launched themselves into university extension with an interdisciplinary approach to the subjects of knowledge (Armytage, 1961).

As such he belongs broadly to the Ethical Socialist tendency that embraced a wider vision of socialism which included Christian socialism, vegetarianism and theosophical spiritualism. Though never a member, Geddes was also associated with the Fellowship of the New Life founded in 1882 by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson. Here he came into contact with Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter, whose theories on sexuality greatly interested him and with J. A. Thomson he wrote The Evolution of Sex (1889). This book was published in ‘The Contemporary Science Series’, edited by Havelock Ellis, as did Reclus’s brother, Elie’s book Primitive People which was regarded as equally shocking by the late Victorian public. Consequently, he was fundamentally opposed to the Fabian Society which broke away from the Fellowship in 1884 under the leadership of G.B. Shaw, Hubert Bland and the Webbs, which he saw as subordinating moral concerns to a mechanical materialism. He was equally antagonistic to the Fabian ideas of a centralised state and welfare policies because he believed the concept of ‘the masses’ which such policies implied was incompatible with his view of the centrality of the individual and the creative will. Geddes’s interest in biological theories of society and sexuality enabled him to have, for the time, a relatively advanced perspective on women. Generally speaking, he took the line of the Le Playist sociological school of organic evolution which held that society had evolved from simpler to more complex forms and that history and culture were important enabling instruments in that evolution. Geddes saw the role of women as central to the transmission of cultural ideals and as the nurturers and conservators of traditions.

This was radical in that it at least recognised women as equal to men in social significance but conservative in that it accepted woman’s conventional familial role. Geddes moreover opposed suffragism on the grounds that mass action was no substitute for independent wills, adding quaintly: ‘What was decided among prehistoric protozoa cannot be annulled by acts of parliament’ (quoted in Meller: 83). If this eloquently demonstrated some of the limits of the biological approach to political questions, it nevertheless showed a healthy scepticism of the parliamentary road to socialism. Geddes also believed that, because of civilization and education, modern women were more capable of achieving satisfying romantic love relationships than at any time previously and this was a basis for enriched personal happiness. He did not say whether men were capable of the same advances.

Reclus and Geddes

Reclus and Geddes therefore shared common perspectives on a number of fronts. They were both at heart Comtean positivists with a profound respect for knowledge generated by close observation and scientific methodology. Each was however profoundly distrustful of the academic specialisation which was moving apace in the university sector, although in other respects they approved of the modernisation of higher education according to scientific principles. Each adopted a kind of academic eclecticism which privileged holistic approaches to social questions and adopted an almost reverential attitude towards ‘humanity’ as such. No branch of science was complete without its human dimension and no art was interesting which did not recognise scientific advances. Both embraced libertarian social positions, although Reclus was more politically committed to the anarchist movement, while Geddes’s attempted to erect his ‘scientific’ position above politics as such. Both were popular educators who saw their educational priorities among the wider public rather than the traditional elite of the universities. While Reclus undoubtedly valued economic collectivisation more than Geddes, both viewed the concept of the individual over that of the mass and the virtue of the cultivation of conscience as the basis for an ethical political practice. While both were fundamentally opposed to laissez-faire economics, Geddes was more responsible for the idea of planning against the forces of the market.

What powerfully attracted Geddes to Reclus’s ideas was his formulation of the concept of social geography, which appealed to Geddes as the natural extension of the movement to study humanity in its environmental contexts. Specifically Reclus’s concept of the ‘valley section’ appealed to Geddes as offering a manageable unit of regional study. Geddes was so impressed by this concept that it took centre stage in the instrument he developed in Edinburgh for public education, the Outlook Tower. This building was a kind of museum and educational space Geddes developed in the old town of Edinburgh with the intention of creating a kind of public laboratory for social understanding and progress. Meller’s summary of his aims testifies eloquently to his radical vision: What he was pioneering was the study of place and people which hitherto had been largely ignored in the formal educational system. The relevant disciplines of geography and geology, economic history, the natural and social sciences were either non-existent or barely established in academic form in any institution in Britain, and Geddes was one of a small number of academics trying to remedy this. In the 1880s, H. J. Mackinder in geographical studies and Toynbee in history, had been making their mark. As far as Geddes was concerned however, there was a difference. He believed that the reform of academic studies was not enough. There needed to be a synthesis of all new knowledge and such knowledge needed to be based on experience as much as theory. The Outlook Tower as a regional study centre was to give form to educational activities of a totally new kind, outside the confines of conventional academic study. (Meller, 1990: 93) Surprisingly (or maybe not), the Outlook Tower received no funding from the University of Edinburgh although it did receive a grant from the local town council as a museum.

During the 1880s Geddes then developed the Edinburgh Summer Meetings which were summer schools resembling those held in Chautauqua, USA. But convinced that conventional methods of study only stultified creativity and interest among students, Geddes used the schools as opportunities for experimental teaching methods and activities. He included practical laboratory work and field work studies and disallowed students from specialising too narrowly in any one subject. He encouraged an artistic approach for a constructive synthesis of results obtained.

To this end he developed his ‘thinking machines’, one of his less successful endeavours. Students were nevertheless treated to interdisciplinary approaches to economic and social problems, which drew on both science and the arts, and were encouraged to view their work holistically. Geddes was convinced that that he had developed a new philosophy of education and indeed the cross-disciplinary, open-ended, direct-participation approaches he fostered, has been leitmotivs in adult education ever since. Not a little of the exciting atmosphere of the summer schools, though, was generated by the numbers of ‘advanced’ young women, who had read his The Evolution of Sex and, although the liberated atmosphere was undoubtedly highly moral, many enduring relationships sprang from them. Reclus himself participated in at least one of these schools and wrote at that time ‘The Evolution of Cities’ for the London journal, the Contemporary Review (Nettlau, 1928: 288). Other leading participants included his friend the Le Playist sociologist, Demolins, and the idea of the regional study using methods and approaches not yet established in mainstream universities became established.

During the mid 1890s, however, Geddes appeared to have reached a theoretical impasse. The Le Playist school that had influenced him so much in Paris in the late 1870s had gone so far down the road of ‘environmental determinism’, under the influence of Demolins, that it left no room for the role of human agency, especially cultural activity. Contemporary social surveys undertaken in America amongst immigrant groups also undermined the Le Playist approach by revealing that geographical environment played a much lesser role in the local economy and community than familial factors which had been imported from Europe. Geddes returned to his other main French influence, Comteanism, for inspiration and it further convinced him that education was the key to cultural progress. Geddes also took from Comte the belief in sociology as the supreme organisation of knowledge and the need to create an elite teaching core of non-specialist intellectuals who were capable of achieving a synthesis of all knowledge. This was a tall order, even for Geddes, but he believed that in the Outlook Tower he had an ideal teaching instrument.

The spatial organisation of the Outlook Tower enabled a layering of geographical knowledge which took the student from the particular to the universal. Starting at the highest floor, the visitor could see by means of a camera obscura Edinburgh and its environs graphically represented on the walls around her. The next floor down was devoted to a historical evolution of Edinburgh, its current condition and future potential. Below that painted on the floor was a large map of Scotland and around the walls diagrams and pictures devoted to its history and geography. The next storey down was devoted to the British Empire (with a special alcove for the United States) and the spread of English language. Underneath that was Europe, and on the ground floor the world.

Geddes also devised Celtic inspired symbolical diagrams which illuminated his world-view including a stained glass Tree of Life, or Arbor Saeculorum, on which the common root and all branches of knowledge were depicted. Artistic symbolism was an indispensable key to Geddes’s approach, the metaphorical content suggesting ways of seeing with an imaginative vitality that scientific discourse on its own could not approach. According to Meller, ‘The more outrageous his symbolic flights of fancy became, the more he insisted he had a practical purpose in mind’ (Meller, 1990:103). The Outlook Tower was therefore essentially a practical teaching instrument, which in its own spatial arrangement appeared to convey both the distinctiveness of discrete intellectual inquiries but also their interconnectedness. But however inspiring the tower might be it still perhaps implied a unwonted hierarchy of knowledge and linear separation of studies that did not on its own exemplify Geddes’s overall schemes of things. Here Reclus supplied the appropriate symbolism which led to their most involved, if ultimately unsuccessful, venture in public education, the Paris Globe project. In 1895 Reclus began a campaign for building a huge globe for the World Exhibition to be held in Paris in 1900. Like the Outlook Tower, this was conceived as permanent teaching instrument that could be updated as the most recent data arrived from geographical explorations and surveys (Reclus, 1898). For Reclus the globe was a powerful metaphor for the cosmic unity of human life which implied global connectedness regardless of political boundaries, race or creed and testified to a common humanity. Geddes was so moved by the idea, he wrote: this was no mere scientific model in its institute, but the image, the shrine, and temple of the Earth-mother, and its expositor no longer a modern professor in his chair, but an arch-Druid at sacrifice within his circle of mighty stone, an Eastern Mage, initiator to cosmic mysteries...the unity of the world now the basis and symbol of the brotherhood of man upon it: science is an art, geography and labour uniting into a reign of peace and good will (quoted in Meller, 1990: 105).

Here Geddes can be seen as the true devotee of ‘the religion of humanity’ that positivist thought in Britain strove to be, but simultaneously the magus of the Celtic revival which, even among the serious-minded, barely avoided spilling over into esoteric mumbo-jumbo (such as the magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose membership then included W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley and was presided over by the brother-in-law of Henri Bergson, MacGregor Mathers,). There was no doubt that fighting to be heard within the sceptical scientist was indeed the mystic initiate convinced that a deeper cosmic unity underlay all things human. Indeed the new translations of Indian philosophy and religion were shortly to reawaken in Geddes his earlier interest in the mystic, formed when he was close to the Fellowship of the New Life. However, to Geddes credit he never indulged the whackier side of this ideology and instead concentrated on the idea of world citizenship, which implied both civic rights and duties and reserved the symbolism as a spur to desire. Civics was the cause he pursued hereafter and it seems that his involvement in both the Outlook Tower and the Globe project gave him a practical way of negotiating his theoretical difficulties. In the former project he had begun to develop the tower as the prototype of new kind of museum with an educational function for social reform, rather than mere antiquarianism. He envisaged the new type of museum as illustrating social evolution and by acting as an active study centre, complementing what he saw as the modern library. The material contained within would be classified according to evolutionary theory and maximum use would be given to visual representation. He began to map out what he called an ‘Index Museum’ which would emulate an encyclopaedia, ‘of which the articles may be imagined printed separately, and with their illustrations and maps condensed and displayed as an orderly series of labels; labels to which specimens are then as far as possible supplied’ (quoted in Meller, 1990: 110).

Geddes believed the Globe project would complement that of the Outlook Tower (as well as producing a suggestive male/female semiology) by providing the geographical points of reference within a continuous frame. However, with neither Reclus nor Geddes able to raise funds for the building of the globe, it was abandoned. Geddes did the next best thing and took his summer school to Paris for the duration of the exhibition in 1900. He used the entire exhibition as an educational tool and achieved remarkable results. During the four months of the exhibition 134 courses were organised, including eight hundred classes, with an average attendance between forty and fifty in each.


What this small study illustrates is that before the social sciences and related arts subjects such as modern economics, social history, sociology, geography, anthropology and social psychology took on their institutional shape as academic disciplines, a considerable scope for interdisciplinary education existed for those with the necessary motivation. Both Reclus and Geddes can be seen as in some ways the last of the ‘gentlemen scholars’ who wished to know everything, before professional specialisation gradually removed this possibility. Although both of them took their lead from positivist thought as elaborated by Comte and the Saint Simonians, both also maintained that knowledge was in some deep way holistic and interrelated. In Geddes case, this can be related to the climate of ‘orientalism’ engendered among liberal Christian imperialists and mystical socialists like Edward Carpenter, and even Huxley himself. In Reclus’s case, as with his insistence on the centrality of conscience, it may have been echoes of his initial calling to the Calvinist priesthood. This was an important moment for popular education, because what gave the interdisciplinary approach its vitality was its rootedness in social relevance.

Both Reclus and Geddes were primarily social reformers for whom their subject ‘specialism’ was an instrument of speeding up social evolution. Both held to the positivist viewpoint, that merely by exposing the truth of social problems scientifically students would become moved to change their society.

For both it rested on a belief in the power of individual wills to desire and promote change. Reclus was more of a collectivist in economic matters, however, and supported Kropotkin’s programme of mutual aid. Geddes, curiously, believed that Reclus was in some respects, too individualist and overlooked the power of intermediary institutions between the state and the individual. That is why he instituted the study of Civics as the educational key stone.

Although it is easy to see their educational projects as the last gasp of a now archaic holism, heroically but tragically resisting the modern world of specialisation, it is interesting how prophetic other aspects of their activity were. They both grasped early on just how artificial national boundaries were and how dangerous nationalist and racial theories were to become. Almost a century before ‘globalisation’ as a term became fashionable, they were promoting the global vision as a means of peace and harmony. Similarly, decades before the ‘Europe of the Regions’ was being promoted, they advocated the regional economy as the truly democratic unit of sociability. Reclus was active in founding new kinds of university, such as the Nouvelle Université in Brussels which were open to all, while Geddes believed the university to be at the heart of a city’s cultural and social life, not a remote ivory tower nursing an elite of subject specialists. As such they probably influenced the thinking about the new generation of civic universities but in a rather equivocal fashion. For while the new universities recognised the importance of popular education, it was marginalised into university extension and subsequently extramural departments. In the coming era of ‘mass’ university education, modernist compartmentalisation of specialist knowledge may itself turn out to be archaic and universities will have to rethink their roles in relation to their communities. If this happens then the interdisciplinary, experientially-based, holistic approaches to knowledge of Reclus and Geddes will be invaluable.


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