Harriet Martineau and the Quiet Revolution

A Summary of Chapter Five of Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press) 1996, p.70-96.

My intention in this chapter was to present Harriet Martineau in the context of the current of social-scientific thought which she helped to pioneer: a philosophical perspective referred to as "evolutionary naturalism". The book's major thesis is that -- in evolutionary naturalism -- we finally have the outlines of a conceptual framework capable of providing an integrating paradigm for the entire field of social-psychological-cultural relations. I was concerned, throughout the book, with identifying the historical sources and philosophical underpinnings of what appears to be emerging as the kind of social-scientific paradigm that is characteristic of all authentic science: a unifying model of a relevant problem area from which fruitful, refutable hypotheses and theories can be derived. The defining components of this current of thought are cited as (1) the idea of evolution as the key to understanding change at all levels of existence; (2) a recognition of the operation of cause and effect in human behavior; (3) an acceptance that knowledge is invariably devised and verified by human beings; and (4) the belief that morality, creativity and will are not autonomous but are, instead, both grounded in and restricted to human experience.

The introductory section of the chapter identifies the various streams of naturalistic philosophy feeding into the intellectual culture of Harriet Martineau's time. These were the sensationalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as well as the associationism of David Hume; Adam Smith's theories on the political economy and on the role of sympathy in human relations -- along with the ideas of Thomas Malthus on natural limits to population growth; the necessarianism of Joseph Priestley (which owed much to the work of the Scottish Moral philosophers); and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. The premise here is that it is impossible to understand Martineau's contributions to evolutionary naturalism without some awareness of the seeds of her subsequent ideas that were floating around in family discussions, classrooms and readily available books of the period.

The highlights of Martineau's many-faceted life and remarkable work are organized into nine subsections, beginning with her life "as a girl-child". Her story is then discussed under the following subtitles: "as an early feminist", "as a philosopher", "as an educator", as a novelist and writer of children's stories", "as a social reformer", "as a pioneering social scientist", "as a journalist" and, finally, "as a victim of institutionalized sexism". Each section is necessarily concise and packed to the brim with the arresting views and substantial accomplishments of this remarkable woman -- as much as possible expressed in her own words. My intention throughout was to point the reader to those who have dealt more thoroughly with Harriet Martineau's work, and not to attempt an in-depth analysis of any particular aspect other than in the matter of her contribution to the naturalistic and evolutionary current in modern social-scientific thought.

Martineau's philosophical stance -- and the problems she encountered in being taken seriously in a male-dominated world -- reflect so much of my own experience in academia during the decades following World War II, that I had trouble maintaining objectivity in writing this chapter. Furthermore, the very title of my book echoes the words with which she described her breakthrough into evolutionary naturalism: "I felt the fresh air of nature," she wrote in her autobiography, "after imprisonment in the ghost-peopled cavern of superstition." In so many ways, this is the defining chapter of Leaving the Cave. For Western culture in general, and for social science in particular, Martineau consolidated what had gone before. But that was only the beginning of her contribution to the current of thought being traced in my book. In almost every subsequent chapter, as the work of those who followed after her is discussed, one can recognize the concepts that she had sharpened or expanded. Indeed, the process is still ongoing. If sociology is ever to achieve the goal envisioned in Leaving the Cave I believe that it will be due, in large part, to the success of the "quiet revolution" instigated by Harriet Martineau.

(Pat Duffy Hutcheon, The Harriet Martineau Sociological Society Newsletter (Spring 1998), p.2-3.)