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Richard Lovell Edgeworth, or the paradoxes of a “philosophical” life

Isabelle Bour
p. 15-27


Richard Lovell Edgeworth est plus connu comme le père de Maria, la romancière, que pour ses idées sur la politique et l’éducation, et pourtant il était familier des théories de Rousseau ainsi qu’un ardent défenseur de la philosophie expérimentale. Il attachait beaucoup de prix à l’atmosphère de « la Lunar Society », où la confrontation réciproque des idées était perçue comme un moyen d’atteindre la vérité, et ses idées ou ses préférences en matière de religion n’avaient rien de dogmatique. En un mot, ainsi que cet article entend le démontrer, Edgeworth, qui vivait à une époque où le concept d’intellectuel n’avait pas encore été forgé, était un philosophe au sens où l’entendait le xviiie siècle.

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  • 1 Francis Jeffrey, ‘Memoirs of Dr Joseph Priestley’, Edinburgh Review, n° 9, 1806, p. 147. Quoted in (...)

It has often occurred to us […] that there is universally something presumptuous in provincial genius, and that it is a very rare felicity to meet with a man of talents out of the metropolis, who does not overrate himself and his coterie prodigiously. In the West of England in particular, there has been a succession of authors, who […] have fancied that they were born to effect some mighty revolution in the different departments to which they applied themselves. We need only run over the names of Darwin, Day, Beddoes, Southey, Coleridge, and Priestley to make ourselves perfectly intelligible. It is […] chiefly, we believe, for want of that wholesome discipline of derision to which everything is subjected in London […]. There is something […] in the perpetual presence of the more permanent aristocracies of wealth, office, and rank which […] teaches aspiring men to measure their own importance by a more extended standard1.

  • 2 According to the OED quoted by Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford, Oxfo (...)

1In this outrageous statement – all the more outrageous as it came from a Scotsman – a leading intellectual authority of the early years of the nineteenth century, Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, inextricably links intellectual achievement and the je ne sais quoi generated by the presence of the metropolitan Establishment. This kind of social prejudice forecloses the acknowledgement of the “intellectual”, or indeed of the “philosopher”, as a valid categorical ascription. Of course, the word « intellectual » was not used as a noun in a sense akin to its modern one until 18132, and it did not become current in this sense until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But the point is that Jeffrey implicitly denied that an important thinker or a philosophe often alienated from metropolitan élites such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had been, could have achieved in Great Britain the recognition he had in France.

  • 3 Francis Jeffrey knew Richard Lovell Edgeworth through the latter’s collaborative work with his daug (...)

2Francis Jeffrey does not mention Richard Lovell Edgeworth, but he might have, as the men he names were either members of the Lunar Society – Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day, Joseph Priestley – or had some connection with it3. Those men had very different specialities, from botany (Darwin) to medicine (Beddoes), chemistry, rhetoric and theology (Priestley), politics and children’s literature (Day), and poetry (Southey and Coleridge). Clearly, however, in Jeffrey’s mind, they belong to the same kind: they are men with excessive intellectual ambitions of some sort or other.

3Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) would have seemed superlatively provincial to Jeffrey, as he was Anglo-Irish, and only occasionally visited England after he decided to settle on his County Longford estate in 1782. Yet, he has a place in the intellectual history of the British Isles, primarily as an educationalist, but also as an inventor, a politician and an improving landlord. This essay will not try to project modern definitions of the intellectual onto the achievements of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, but will examine the major aspects of his intellectual career, bringing out the paradoxes and tensions in it, to argue that it embodies and illustrates the tensions and ruptures in the intellectual life of the British Isles at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The “mechanic” and the scholar

  • 4 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, London, Hunter, 1820, vol. 2, p. 188.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 185.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 188.
  • 7 In the educational treatise Practical Education (1798), which Richard Lovell Edgeworth wrote with h (...)
  • 8 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, p. 188.
  • 9 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 139.

4Edgeworth belonged to the Lunar Society of Birmingham from 1766, that is to say that he joined it in its second year of existence. He explains in his Memoirs that he also belonged to an informal London gathering of men of learning, which he calls the society of Slaughter’s Coffee House, and whose distinguished members included John Hunter, Joseph Banks and Captain Cook4. It is clear that, in his mind, these two societies were not radically different, though twenty-first-century scholars would say that the Birmingham Lunar Society was much more concerned with the technological applications of science than the London coffee house society. Indeed, of the members of the Birmingham Lunar Society, who met at Matthew Boulton’s house, Edgeworth says that they were “men of very different characters, but all devoted to literature and science5” and the London society he defines as a “literary society6”. The great difference we perceive between those two groups has to do with the increasing differentiation among fields of knowledge which took place from the turn of the nineteenth century and with the attendant widening gap between the meanings of the words “literature” and “science”. To Edgeworth, “literature” still meant polite learning, and “science” was knowledge acquired by study as well as experimental science7. The porousness and flexibility of the concepts is confirmed by his definition of a “literary society” : in such a society, he says, “the first hints of discoveries, the current observations, and the mutual collision of ideas, are of important utility8”. Edgeworth much enjoyed the collaboration, the mutual help which were defining features of those societies. Such was his altruistic interest in the progress of knowledge that he did not resent other people’s appropriating his ideas or building on them to effect a discovery. As his daughter Maria puts it in the second volume of his memoirs which she wrote up after his death, “he was careless about fame, to a degree that would hardly be believed by those, who are jealous of every petty rivalship of invention, and who raise the cry of plagiary at the appearance of every resemblance or coincidence of ideas9”.

  • 10 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 329.
  • 11 Talcott Parsons, “The Intellectual: A Social Role Category”, in Philip Rieff (ed.), On Intellectual (...)
  • 12 Thomas Day bought two successive estates, but that was mostly because he wanted to live away from t (...)
  • 13 Richard Lovell Edgeworth, The Substance of Three Speeches, delivered in the House of Commons of Ire (...)

5Edgeworth was particularly interested in mechanics. Over the years, he worked on and designed carriages, carriage wheels, sailing carriages, an improved road surfacing, an early form of the semaphore telegraph, among other things – his home, Edgeworthstown, was full of the results of his “mechanical” ingenuity and that of some of his children. What had started as the desultory research of a dilletante in his youth was “in more mature years” “pursued in the patient spirit of philosophical investigation, and turned to good account for the real business of life, and for the advancement of science10”. With him, there was never any split between theory and practice. Though, as Talcott Parsons reminds us, “the experimental method necessitated technological operations, and the gentleman was not permitted, except for those of arms, to ‘work with his hands’11”, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was the only gentleman among the members of the Lunar Society12 – insofar as he was the only landowner – never thought that practical work was demeaning. Indeed, in the first speech he made in the House of Commons of Ireland on 6th February, 1800, he stated trenchantly: “One manufacturer is worth more than twenty squires13”.

  • 14 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 46.
  • 15 Alice Paterson, The Edgeworths: A Study of Later Eighteenth-century Education, London, University T (...)
  • 16 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 361.

6While Edgeworth, thanks to his direct and epistolary contacts with men such as Matthew Boulton and James Watt, was abreast of the most modern science, he was also a very good classicist, having had the education essentially focused on Latin grammar, rhetoric and “themes” which was still current in the second half of the eighteenth century. He describes his introduction to “ancient learning” as “[o]ne of the great eras in a boy’s life14”. He would often quote Latin verse in his letters to Thomas Day and Erasmus Darwin. Despite his interest in “experimental philosophy”, he never deprecated the classics, and thought that they should go on figuring prominently in the education of future gentlemen. As Alice Paterson comments, from a twentieth-century standpoint, Edgeworth seems “to have combined in the oddest way a passion for mechanics with a love of classical literature15”. He appears, at one point, to have carried the taste for disputatio to extremes. Thomas Day was a precise and relentless dialectician, and Maria Edgeworth comments that “[d]uring his intimacy with Mr Day, he adopted, perhaps, too much of his friend’s taste for arguments; experience convinced him, that these protracted discussions seldom ended in any satisfactory conclusion, either to the understanding or to the temper16”.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 329.
  • 18 Diderot et d’Alembert, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Paris, Briasson (...)

7Earlier on, she evoked “his earnestness to arrive at truth17”. Indeed, ultimately, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, in his sensible rationality and thirst for knowledge, matches closely the definition of the philosophe given in the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers18:

Le philosophe […] démêle les causes autant qu’il est en lui, & souvent même les prévient, & se livre à elles avec connoissance : c’est une horloge qui se monte, pour ainsi dire, quelquefois elle-même. Ainsi il évite les objets qui peuvent lui causer des sentimens qui ne conviennent ni au bien-être, ni à l’être raisonnable, & cherche ceux qui peuvent exciter en lui des affections convenables à l’état où il se trouve. […] la raison détermine le philosophe.

The disciple of Rousseau and the Baconian empiricist

  • 19 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 177.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 178.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 179.

8As Richard Lovell Edgeworth candidly recounts in his Memoirs, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) made a great impression upon his “young mind”. He explains that he was attracted by the novelty of it, its eloquence and its “plausible ideas”, which contrasted with the “deficiencies and absurdities19” of the standard education of boys. At twenty-three already Richard Lovell Edgeworth was a man to act upon his convictions and thus, with the agreement of his first wife, he undertook to leave the “body and mind” of his eldest son Richard, born in 1764, “as much as possible to the education of nature and of accident20”. Just as candidly, he admits that while, at the age of seven or eight, Richard was very hardy and bold, he “shewed an invincible dislike to control21”. In order to try and make his son more manageable, when Edgeworth went to France in 1771, he sent his son to the school of the Oratorian brothers in Lyon! This was only after taking young Richard to Rousseau in Paris for him to judge of the success of his course of education. Rousseau approved of Richard and was gracious enough to remark that, unlike what he had written in Emile, history could be profitably taught to young children, but he also pointed out that young Richard was excessively proud of all things English.

  • 22 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Practical Education, 1798, 2nd ed., London, Johnson, (...)

9Always honest and outspoken, Richard Lovell Edgeworth repeatedly says in his memoirs that Rousseau’s educational system is misguided. Edgeworth learnt from his mistakes, and when, with his second wife Honora, he decided to embark on a systematic course of education for his growing family (he had twenty-two children in all, from four different wives), he left dogma and primitivism behind, and decided to adopt a Baconian approach to education. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he became a radical empiricist who now maintained that there is no such thing as “natural genius” – innate predispositions – and that a child’s personality and knowledge are the result of his upbringing and schooling only. Edgeworth devotes most of the preface to his Essays on Professional Education (1808) to trying to prove that point; he now advises against letting children develop freely their supposed natural abilities. In the course of the home education which his children received, he and his wife, from 1778 onwards, would make notes on the children’s progress, and those would provide the empirical basis for steering their course of study in particular directions. This first-hand experience of the education of children provided the material for the very innovative educational treatise Practical Education, published in 1798, the joint work of Richard Lovell and his daughter Maria. They state in the preface: “To make any progress in the art of education, it must be patiently reduced to an experimental science […] we lay before the public the result of our experiments, and in many instances the experiments themselves22.” As a Member of the last Irish Parliament, and a member of the committee of the Board of Education, Edgeworth made a speech on the education of children from the lower classes, which was reported in the press; in it he made very similar points, still informed by the disastrous Rousseauian experiment with his eldest son:

  • 23 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 246.

On this subject there was vast room for speculation; he did not signify by the word speculation, any wild new theory; he meant to proceed on matter of fact, on the deduction of facts accurately ascertained; this was the right difference between theory and practice, and in it consisted that true useful speculation which was founded in experience. It was by collecting a number of facts in any case, and by drawing deductions from them, that mankind were properly directed in scientific and moral pursuits23.

  • 24 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 185-86.

10This might be a very brief summary of Francis Bacon’s inductive epistemology as expounded in The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum. And, indeed, Maria Edgeworth proudly says: “I claim for my father the merit of having been the first to recommend, both by example and precept, what Bacon would call the experimental method in education24”.

  • 25 Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Oxford, Clarendon, 1972, p. 172.

11In the long term, Practical Education was a very influential educational treatise, but initially it was well received only in liberal circles, because 1798 “was not a year for welcoming progressive books25”, with the French Wars going on and the general suspicion towards advanced ideas of any kind. Apart from its empirical approach to learning, Practical Education was remarkable for the breadth of topics included in the curriculum – traditional subjects like ancient literature, chronology and history, but also modern subjects such as chemistry and mechanics; the book also discussed moral education, and asked fundamental questions about the balance between memory and invention.

  • 26 J. P. Nettl, “Ideas, Intellectuals, and Structures of Dissent”, in Philip Rieff, op. cit., p. 63.

12Edgeworth’s ideas were new both in their quality, “defined as acceptance or rejection of the axio-normative (or value and norm) structures of given systems of thought” and in scope, understood as “the broadening of the area of discussion through the addition of genuinely new or at least newly relevant knowledge26”. The Dissenting Academies, earlier in the century, had already “modernised” the curriculum by including science and practical subjects into it, but the actual pedagogy was not grounded in first-hand experience systematised into learning methods. Edgeworth, apart from his pedagogical experience with his children, used the familiarity with various aspects of science, technology and industry he had acquired in his years as a member of the Lunar Society.

  • 27 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Practical Education, 1798, 2nd ed., London, Johnson, (...)

13Where Edgeworth ultimately went back to Rousseau, or perhaps never moved away from him, was in the strong individualistic slant of his educational theory. Each child received an education specific to himself. Being in favour of home education, Edgeworth never considered the dynamics of class teaching. He was such an upholder of individual education that, at least at the time when Practical Education was published, he thought that there should be very little contact among the children of the same family, as such contact could only undermine the work done by the tutor or tutors. “Children should not be educated for the society of children; nor should they live in that society during their education”, he wrote27. On this point, as on others, as his daughter is at pains to emphasise at the end of the Memoirs, he changed his mind, and partly gave up his a priori notions :

  • 28 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 399.

My father became thoroughly convinced, that the separation of children in a family may lead to evils, greater than any partial good that can result from it. The attempt may induce artifice and disobedience on the part of the children; the separation can scarcely be effected; and if it were effected, would tend to make the children miserable. He saw, that their little quarrels, and the crossings of their tempers and fancies, are nothing in comparison with the inestimable blessings of that fondness, that family affection, which grows up among children, who have with each other an early and constant community of pleasures and pains28.

14Though claiming to be a thorough-going empiricist, Richard Lovell Edgworth, even after his rejection of Rousseau’s “speculation” in Emile, remained a doctrinaire – over-reliant on the strength of human reason, under the influence of Locke’s ideas in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), and essentially convinced that education could overrule any inclinations a child might have towards certain areas of knowledge and certain avocations. With him, the primacy of experience became an axiom which superseded the dogmatism of Rousseau’s faith in the child th hible savmpiric9 of pleass="texte">

  • 27 Alice Paterson, The Edgeworths: Am>, p. 63.3/li>
  • 15<3span> Ibid., vol63.70li>

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The Irishman : between non-sectarianism and Ascendancy
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  • 28<3span> Ibid., p. 3 14li>

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  • 24<38pan> Ibid., p. 1 2/li>

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  • 28<3span> Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 3 243-244li>

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  • 27<4span> Ibid., vol. 2, p. 3 14/li>
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  • 21<4span> Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Praoirs, vol. 1, p. 3 24/li>
  • 20<4span> Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thestance ofc>, p. 6 2/li> 20<4span> Ibid., vol46.
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  • 28<45pan> Ibid., p. 1 4/li>
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