U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bailey, Bateson, and the Moonlight Tradition

My connection to the S-USIH network has been short but rewarding. In an email to her co-bloggers on a different topic, Sara Georgini let slip this little aside: “Archival work + synthesis = good history.” I’m not sure I’ve seen the practice of history boiled down to so pithy a formula. Then, a few weeks later, again through the network and via email, scholar Daniel Rinn sent an article he’d recently published in the journal Environment and History. He’d been reading my book about Gregory Bateson and included with his article this sentence: “There are moments in your description of Bateson’s naturalism when I think we are chasing the same ideas.”

Together, Daniel Rinn’s sentence and Sara Georgini’s formula allowed me to ponder, in a fundamental way, what it is I—we—try to do. The chasing may be more important than the synthesizing–who knows? But I take the point about the necessity of synthesis. Reading Rinn’s article, titled “Liberty Hyde Bailey: Pragmatic Naturalism in the Garden,” I thought more closely about what that synthesis entails.

Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954) was trained as a plant scientist and became a professor of horticulture at Cornell during a time when higher education was secularizing and academic disciplines were establishing themselves and marking of their turf. In a series of articles and books, such as The Outlook to Nature (1905) and The Holy Earth (1915), Bailey made a case for horticulture as a model for science. Because it involved not only rational analysis but aesthetic considerations, because it encouraged not only experimentation but humility and spirituality, the practice of the garden engaged all the necessary components in the human quest to know.

Liberty Hyde Bailey

In Rinn’s telling, Bailey emerges as yet another voice from a particularly vibrant period of intellectual activity: the decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century, when Americans were responding to the traumas of modernity and the industrial revolution. With its conception of truth not as a fixed property but as “a provisional guide to action” and its intertwining of a belief in the divinity of nature with an advocacy for democratic reform, Bailey’s thought can easily be contextualized with contemporary movements outside plant science, such as the Social Gospel and philosophical pragmatism. Rinn emphasizes the latter. He shows how Bailey, responding to Darwin, saw learning and evolution as similar processes– ongoing, contingent, and participatory. The garden was an intensified home for these processes, “a dynamic space that blurred distinctions between nature and culture.”

Rinn has done his archival work; next comes the synthesis. But here the available terms fail him. The prominent binary in the historiography of American environmental thought is “ecocentrism” and “anthrocentrism.” John Muir best represents the former, Gifford Pinchot the latter. Moreover, their conflict over the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is the central drama on which environmental thinking in America has been read, both backwards and forwards in time. Yet Rinn’s reading of Bailey tells him that Bailey goes better together with James and Dewey than he does with Muir or Pinchot. Thus Rinn assigns Bailey’s thought the category of “pragmatic naturalism.”

Which thinkers go together? Which ideas fit with other ideas, and how best to that describe that fit? These are questions of synthesis, are they not? These are the kind of questions we ask to achieve our goal as historians. This made sense when I also thought about the sentence in Rinn’s email. By bringing up the possibility that we were “chasing the same ideas,” he was asking whether Bailey and Bateson fit together. I don’t like to make assumptions about what’s going on in someone else’s head, but I’m basing this one on the fact I’ve asked that sort of question over and over in my own work. Certain ideas seem to match up very nicely, and yet the thinkers who express them are widely separated, and causal connections are far from clear. On the one hand, Bailey’s ideas and Bateson’s ideas do bear striking similarities. On the other hand, one of these thinkers is a turn-of-the-century American agrarian reformer and the other is a mid-twentieth-century British cyberneticist. What is the thread that connects them? And if there is a thread, why is it so hard to see?

I’ve mentioned Jeremy Lent’s 2017 book, The Patterning Instinct, at this blog before, in reflection on works that cover the entirely of human history in a single volume. There’s a section in Lent that I particularly enjoyed in which he speaks of what he terms “The Moonlight Tradition.”

The dominant tradition in Western thinking, so goes Lent’s analogy, is the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm. It fused a mechanistic view of nature with a deification of reason built on the Platonic-Christian mind-body split. It reigned through the history of Western Civilization and provided the basic framing that supported the West’s dominance in the modern era. It continues to support much that qualifies today as mainstream science. This would be the Sunlight Tradition.

All along, however, there has been in the West a Moonlight Tradition, offering alternative ideas. It begins with Heraclitus, includes Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Spinoza, and Leibnitz. It continues with Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe. (“For a brief period,” Lent writes of the Romantic Movement, “it was as though the sun were eclipsed.”) The thought of Alfred North Whitehead, Gestalt psychology, phenomenology, much of the new physics, ecological science, systems theory in its several manifestations, fractal geometry, and complexity theory gave heft to this tradition in the twentieth century. Most recently, general developments in the science of cognition tie many of the components of this tradition together.

Lent explicitly recognizes Gregory Bateson as part of this tradition. But does Bailey fit in?

I can’t hesitate but to answer yes, simply on the face of his ideas. “Rather than trying to conquer nature,” Lent writes, “Goethe believed a scientist should approach nature as a participant and that scientific insight arises through not detached observation but an intuitive sense of connection with nature’s dynamic flux.” These words, with perhaps some minor adaptation, could have been written by Bailey about the garden.

My thought is this: If we were working in the Sunlight Tradition, connections between points along the thread of ideas would likely go unquestioned. They would be taken as a matter of course. Only because we’re working in the Moonlight Tradition do the connections appear problematic. Bailey and Bateson are panning the same stream. It’s just hard to see the stream because it’s lit by the moonlight, and meanwhile the sun is still shining brightly down.

The sentence I responded to most favorably in Rinn’s article was this one: “Any attempt to understand American twentieth-century environmental thought will be incomplete if it ignores the history of science and the changing meaning of natural philosophy.” I read this as Rinn’s encouragement that we seek a synthesis beyond national borders and strictly American events, beyond political arguments about land use, like the famous one between Muir and Pinchot. The stakes, to put it bluntly, are higher than that.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Yet another good post. You are an impressive writer, Anthony (even in your emails).

    In moving from archival evidence to narrative synthesis, would you say historians are practitioners of the sunlight tradition? Or is there a moonlight way of writing/understanding history?

    If I construct a narrative that synthesizes Bailey and Bateson am I a practitioner of the sunlight who is working on the history of moonlight thinkers? Or am I a moonlight thinker?

    I’m wondering how a moonlight historian would think about history. If the deification of reason is an attribute of the sunlight, it sounds like historians fall squarely in that tradition. Or is there something about our work as synthesizers that suggests otherwise?

    Perhaps the moonlight historian would likely see the past as a dynamic, living web rather than a fixed series of events that are causally bound? In the former the historian is both shaping and shaped by the past and in the latter the past is construed as independent and unchangeable. Or am I just rehashing some version of the story about the ‘cultural’ or ‘postmodern’ turn away from history as social science… probably. But is that relevant?

    • Daniel, your comments made me recall a bit of L. D. Burnett’s recent online commentary, suggesting that doing history wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t believe in “contingency, human agency, and the indeterminacy of the future.” Maybe this qualifies as Moonlight – I don’t know — it would be at odds, anyway, with how Laplace saw things. As for reason – it’s indispensable to historians, of course, as it is to any purveyors of a life of the mind. That doesn’t necessarily mean they deify it, that they see the workings of the intellect as more divine than, say, the workings of the endocrine system.

      But I’m not conversant enough in the history of history, or with non-Western historiographies, to respond intelligently to the provocative questions you raise. I’ll have to sit with them awhile.

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