Richard Congreve’s Eutopian Spaces: An Intellectual History of Applied Sociology in Britain

  • Matthew Wilson Ball State University

Abstract

Historians of political thought, social science, and environmental design have articulated different interpretations of the system of thought called Positivism, which was the creation of the French philosopher Auguste Comte. Few studies have presented the chief proponents of British Positivism as a cogent intellectual and ethical force seeking a comprehensive social reorganization. Using an intellectual history method, this article draws on scarcely used source material to provide a contextualized account of the praxis of three generations of citizen-sociologists affiliated to organized Positivism. This paper will argue that owing to the efforts of Comte’s first complete and most ardent follower, the ex-Anglican minister and Oxford don Richard Congreve, this movement had a large impact on modern British life. Without Congreve there would have been no such school of organized British Positivism, and the lives he touched would have assumed a different character. Rarely today is Congreve acknowledged as one of Britain’s first sociologists. During the 1850s he developed a historical-geographical type of sociological survey of the British Empire, and over the next seventy years his followers employed national, rustic, and civic types of surveys to explore the effects of imperialism, industrialization, unemployment and overcrowding on physical and mental degradation. This article contends that on this basis, the British Positivists’ praxis of “applied sociology” entailed establishing urban “spiritual interventions,” and issuing programmes and manifestos for structured social change, with the intention to realize Comte’s eutopian city-states of the “Positive Era.” As such, we will see that the Victorian meanings of the words “Positivism” and “sociology” are far different from our own.

Author Biography

Matthew Wilson, Ball State University

Matthew Wilson mrwilson@bsu.edu is an associate professor at Ball State University, College of Architecture and Planning.