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Natural Science as Humanistic Knowledge: Negotiating Epistemic Legitimacy in Sweden, 1800–1850

Read Isak Hammar’s research article “Classical Nature: Natural History, Classical Humanism, and the Value of Knowledge in Sweden, 1800–1850” here.

Isak Hammar

Stockholm University

A few years ago, while working on an article about the classical paradigm in nineteenth-century Swedish education, I came across a document that would set me on an entirely new research trajectory. While looking at responses to a reform proposal made in 1829, I found a pamphlet signed by twenty-one natural scientists, physicians, and state officials in which they advocated increasing the number of hours allocated to teaching natural history.

Anmärkningar om natural-historiens lärande vid rikets lägre läroverk (Remarks on the teaching of natural history in the kingdom’s lower grammar schools), submited in 1818 to the Swedish government’s Education Committee.

Today, demands to increase natural science subjects in schools might not seem very surprising, but during the first half of the nineteenth century, tensions between different forms of knowledge ran high in Sweden. The humanities – spearheaded by the study of classical languages and literature – dominated the school curriculum, leaving little space for the natural sciences. In sharp contrast to how many think of the two today, 200 years later, humanistic knowledge was deemed invaluable and instrumental to society, while natural science and practical knowledge were regarded with derision or suspicion.

The pamphlet in question brought these tensions to the fore. The collective effort was in itself intriguing, but what piqued my interest was their argument. In order to support the increase in hours for teaching natural history, they did not – as I would have expected – emphasize the material benefits to society. Instead, it became clear from their strangely familiar arguments that they thought of natural history as part of classical knowledge and upbringing. They argued that the mental and moral development of the student – pedagogical objectives associated with humanistic studies at the time – would result from studying nature. In fact, they sounded just like their peers in philology or classical languages.

School reform was a hotly debated topic throughout the nineteenth century, not only in Sweden but also in Scandinavia and Europe in general. As a result, the demands of the group of science-advocates were controversial. Any curricular expansion of the natural sciences or practical knowledge could be interpreted as a threat to classical studies, in fact, it often was. As I read the pamphlet, it was clear that these dynamics frustrated the group. This unexpected finding sparked my interest in the tension between the two different spheres of knowledge. My interest shifted from the perspective of the classicists to that of the natural scientists.

I set out to find more information about the document, discovering that it was originally written in 1818 as a response to the educational reform proposal of 1817 and had been sent to the responsible committee. While I came across a few short mentions of the document in a handful of monographs on the history of education, no one mentioned the astonishing claim that natural history was to be considered classical. The document provided a key to this new aspect of the educational debates. The numerous footnotes and references to other pamphlets and publications made it a microcosm of a larger conflict between the sciences and humanities. Soon I discovered more and more documents that argued for the humanistic value of natural science in general and natural history in particular.

My article “Classical Nature: Natural History, Classical Humanism, and the Value of Knowledge in Sweden, 1800–1850” investigates attempts to align natural history with humanistic knowledge and classical studies in order to claim legitimacy for science by highlighting the kinship and mutual aims between what is often carelessly referred to as “the two cultures.”

By tracing issues raised by the group of natural scientists in the pamphlet, I show how natural history was linked to Bildung and the development of “the faculties of the soul.” I argue that material and practical usefulness was downplayed in favor of moral development in order to gain epistemological legitimacy. The pamphlet thus served as a starting point for my investigation into what I saw as a knowledge regime that favored the humanities and to address the question of how natural scientists maneuvered this “epistemological hierarchy.”1

[1] A term borrowed from Lorraine Daston. Daston, Lorraine. “Comment” on Martin Mulsow, “History of Knowledge.” In Debating New Approaches to History, edited Marek Tamm and Peter Burke, 173–78. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

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