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Response to Review no. 757

Professor Jones’s scholarly expertise on the political writings of Auguste Comte and on the secularisation of intellectual life in Victorian Britain qualify him particularly well to comment on The Invention of Altruism. I am therefore extremely grateful to him for his sympathetic, accurate and insightful review, which identifies the themes and methodological issues raised by my book with clarity, rigour, and fairness. I am very pleased that he finds much to agree with in the book, and am intrigued by the further very interesting uses of the language of altruism to which he rightly draws attention.

Even in the couple of years since I completed the research for The Invention of Altruism a wealth of new digital resources have become available, including the Nineteenth-Century British Library Newspaper archive (see Review no. 730) and the pilot online version of Hansard 1803–2005. These resources are of immense benefit to historians of all kinds, for the reasons Jones suggests, including those interested in the careers of particular words. As well as the two political uses of ‘altruism’ mentioned in Jones’s review, Hansard records a use of ‘altruist’ which nicely illustrates the gendering of the term which is one of the themes of my book. In February 1897 Henry Labouchere MP argued against the extension of the franchise to women: ‘Woman was essentially an altruist, if he might be allowed to use the expression – she worked through somebody else.’ It is notable not only that Labouchere apologised for using the word, but also that he used it to mean something it no longer means. Whereas an ‘altruist’ now means someone who acts for the good of others rather than self, Labouchere used it in 1897 to mean someone who acted vicariously, or through an intermediary.

This is a good illustration of the lag which Jones rightly points to between the coining of a neologism and its acceptance in wider usage. In the intervening period its users are relatively few and its meanings unstable. The historian interested in words as both mirrors and engines of intellectual change will discover, within this pre-history of what is later an established term, the kinds of processes of meaning-making and semantic struggle that form the subject matter of my book. Most neologisms either fall out of use very rapidly or remain confined in a narrow, technical or specialist, semantic field. Only very few come into general use. To trace how that happens is to study how obstacles of linguistic resistance and cultural conservatism are overcome by influential social groups.

I was particularly pleased that Jones appreciated the inclusion of contributors to the culture of ‘altruism’ who do not belong to the canon of ‘great thinkers’. I am keen to see the history of philosophy liberated somewhat from canonical constraints. Tracing the history of a philosophical word, and following it where it takes you – whether to the works of Spencer and Mill, or to a popular scientific book for children, a bestselling religious novel, or to pamphlets by Liverpool secularists or Manchester positivists – is one way, but by no means the only way, to effect such a liberation. More broadly, we might aspire to produce a cultural history of philosophy which pays closer attention to the meanings that were made by the producers, distributors and readers of philosophical works at the time, and which pays correspondingly less attention to the retrospective judgements of professional philosophers. In other words, I see my book as an experiment in the cultural history of philosophy as well as a contribution to the theory and practice of ‘word history’.

I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect further on what I was trying to achieve in The Invention of Altruism in the light of Professor Jones’s perceptive review. And interested readers of ‘Reviews in History’ who are pressed for time can also be very grateful to him for providing an extremely reliable and concise summary of the book’s aims, methods and results.