Tag Archives: altruism


Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1303305900625129.pdf

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher.

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/mrs-thatcher-implanted-the-gene-of-greed-in-britain-8565716.html

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4504722.stm.

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260


This post by Thomas Dixon is the first in a series on Philosophical Keywords, exploring the changing historical uses, meanings and impacts of philosophical terms which have taken on broader cultural resonance. 

A couple of years ago, travelling on the Central Line to Mile End on the London underground, I started to notice a series of posters and images like the one below – using the familiar imagery of the London tube map to suggest connections being made between people – the red line was now not linking Liverpool Street to Bank but ‘self’ to ‘other’.

'Fellow Feeling' copyright © Michael Landy 2011

‘Fellow Feeling’ copyright © Michael Landy 2011

This struck me as an interesting expression of the philosophy of altruism – the idea that the essence of moral goodness is a devotion not to self (egoism) but to others (altruism). The term ‘altruism’ ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning ‘other’. Intrigued by the artworks on the tube, I searched online to find out more about them. It turned out that they were part of a project called ‘Acts of Kindness’ by the artist Michael Landy who said about the project, ‘I want to find out what makes us human, and what connects us, beyond material things. For me the answer is compassion and kindness.’

There is now a kindness movement, with followers all over the world celebrating the value of what are sometimes referred to as ‘random acts of kindness’ towards others – often strangers. Such acts are also recommended by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ such as the UK organization Action for Happiness. The kindness and happiness movements are quite recent phenomena, and they tend to recommend altruism – doing good to others – on the apparently paradoxical basis that it is good for our own mental health. The ideal of altruism to which these movements appeal, however, has a longer, and quite surprising history.

‘Altruism’ entered the English language in 1852. Before then, there were all sorts of moral virtues, philosophical isms, charitable intentions, and perhaps even random acts of kindness too, but no ‘altruism’. The term had been coined just a year before in French – altruisme – by the pioneering philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in his System of Positive Polity (1851-1854). Altruisme was the name Comte gave to the other-regarding social instincts, and he located them physically towards the front of the human brain. ‘Altruism’ was a keyword not just in Comte’s speculative early brain science, but also in the atheistic religion that he founded, with himself as its High Priest – the Religion of Humanity – which was designed as a substitute for Catholicism, complete with its own calendar of secular saints and festivals, and humanistic hymns. The main aim of the Religion of Humanity, along with Comte’s envisaged re-organisation of society (things would be run mainly by bankers and scientists) was to see egoism subordinated to his new ideal of ‘altruism’ throughout the civilized world.

A gallery of some of the secular saints - including men of science and Madame Clotilde de Vaux - in the Comte's Chapel of Humanity in Paris. J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

A gallery of some of the secular saints – including men of art, science and politics and a figure representing Comte’s belief in the moral superiority of women – in Comte’s Chapel of Humanity in Paris. Picture credit:  J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

In the decades following its coinage, ‘altruism’ really took off. It became a fashionable term first among scientific atheists sympathetic to Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’. Later, British philanthropists and socialists of various kinds found it a convenient term to express their devotion to all classes of society and even to the whole human race.[1] The word was initially resisted by clergymen as an unnecessary scientific neologism – one pertinently asked whether it was really a ‘sweeter or better word than charity’ – but eventually it was even appropriated by Christians too, most notably the Scottish evangelical Henry Drummond in the 1890s, as nothing less than a synonym for Christian love.[2] Today ‘altruism’ is a modern philosophical keyword of quite wide appeal, and it still retains a flavour of its scientific and its humanistic origins: it is used both as a technical term in evolutionary biology and as an approving term within those systems of secular thought for which devotion to one’s fellow human beings, or to Humanity as a whole, is the foundation of ethics.

It is pretty surprising that Comte’s ‘altruism’ was such a successful neologism in the English-speaking world. The Religion of Humanity, although it had some followers in Britain, was widely mocked by leading British intellectuals, such as the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) . Comte had been a respected historian and philosopher of the sciences, but as his career wore on, he became obsessed not only with his new religion, but also with the sacred memory of a married woman – Madame Clotilde de Vaux, to whom he had become spiritually and affectionately devoted before she died. In the British press Comte was ridiculed as eccentric, egotistical, tedious and humourless.

Several British visitors to Auguste Comte’s flat in Paris, including the philosophers Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, formed very unfavourable impressions of the man. Indeed, the British reputation of Comte in his later years in some ways foreshadows the very negative reception of ‘Continental’ philosophy in Britain during the twentieth century, as something both foreign and dangerous.[3] In his classic work, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described the social and religious system envisaged by Comte as ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.[4]

The two figures who probably had the most impact in spreading the use of ‘altruism’ as a term of both science and ethics in Britain in the century and a half since Comte’s death were both popular writers devoted to the theory of evolution and hostile to religion: the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1825–1903), and the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941).

Herbert Spencer depicted as 'Philosophy' in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer depicted as ‘Philosophy’ in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his day. When he was caricatured for Vanity Fair in 1879, the illustration was captioned simply ‘Philosophy’. Spencer was the embodiment of the English philosopher in the mid-Victorian period. He was hugely critical of almost all aspects of Comte’s thought, but borrowed from him the terms ‘sociology’ and ‘altruism’, which he defended as useful coinages.[5] In his book, The Data of Ethics (1879), Spencer gave his own new definition to the term ‘altruism’, using it not to name a kind of moral intention or humanistic ideal, as Comte had done, but to refer to animal behaviour.

Spencer redefined ‘altruism’ to mean ‘all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.’ Such altruism, Spencer claimed, had been in evidence from the very dawn of life, in the lowest and simplest creatures, and especially in the evolution of the parental instincts which ultimately evolved into social sympathy. In Spencer’s broad defition, ‘acts of automatic altruism’ were to be included along with those with some conscious motivation. The splitting of the simplest single-celled organism, such as an infusorium or a protozoon in an act of reproduction, was also to qualify as an act of ‘physical altruism’.[6]

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Richard Dawkins shot to fame when his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Whereas Spencer had taught that altruism was inherent in all animals throughout the evolutionary process, Dawkins wrote that those hoping to build a more cooperative society could expect ‘little help from biological nature’. Instead, Dawkins exhorted his readers: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ ‘We, alone on earth,’ Dawkins wrote, ‘can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.[7] The story does not end there, however, as Dawkins had second thoughts about altruism and, in his atheistic manifesto The God Delusion (2007), argued that altruism towards non-relatives was a ‘misfiring’ of a hardwired instinct that evolved through ‘kin selection’ to favour organisms who co-operated with close relatives. We used to live in groups mainly comprised of close relatives, the argument goes, and so our kindness and altruism would almost always be favouring our genetic kin. Nowadays we continue to feel pity and show generosity towards those around us, even though they are generally not our close relatives. This is a misfiring – a Darwinian mistake, but Dawkins adds, a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ mistake. [8] Now, it seems, Dawkins thinks we are born altruistic.

Dawkins may have changed his ideas about the naturalness of altruism, but in both cases his writings illustrate a general philosophical problem – namely the difficulty of getting by rational argument from an observation about nature to an ethical imperative – making the journey from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. This problem faces anyone trying to construct an ‘evolutionary ethics’. In the case of the quotation from The Selfish Gene, we might ask why not cultivate individualism rather than altruism? And readers of The God Delusion might reasonably wonder why Dawkins considers altruistic urges to constitute a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ misfiring rather than an inconvenient and undesirable malfunction. In both cases, Dawkins’s own ethical preference for altruism seems to have been imported without justification into a purportedly scientific discussion.

So, whether we are contemplating works of art on the tube, or reading popular science books, we might at any time find philosophical ideas and assumptions seeping through. Knowing a bit about the philosophical history of our everyday language can help to keep us alert.


[1] Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Witness of Christ to History (London: Macmillan, 1871), pp. 144–146; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapters 3 and 7.

[3] Thomas L. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Continuum, 2010), especially chapter 1.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Collected Works of John Start Mill, 33 vols, ed. John M. Robson et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 18, p. 227.

[5] Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, pp. 202–206.

[6] Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), pp. 201–202; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapter 5.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 3, 200–201; original publication 1976.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 253.

Further Reading

Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

Fern Elsdon-Baker, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy (London: Icon, 2009).

Jules Evans, ‘Set the controls for the heart of happiness’, Philosophy for Life Blog, 19 October 2012.

Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (eds), Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013),

Samir Okasha, ‘Biological Altruism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009).


Words in history: mirrors or motors?

The Invention of Altruism by Thomas DixonSome years ago I wrote a book devoted to the history of a single philosophical keyword, ‘altruism’, coined by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte in 1851. It was my first foray into the cultural history of philosophy.

Partly inspired by this previous project, I decided to include a series of posts on the Cultural History of Philosophy blog on ‘Philosophical Keywords’ – short essays on the histories, meanings, and significance of words that have crossed over from philosophy into broader culture. Unsurprisingly, I chose to write the first post in this series on ‘altruism‘. Other keywords will be written about by others, including students taking the ‘Philosophical Britain’ module at Queen Mary.

In the first chapter of my book about altruism, I set out my thoughts about how to approach writing the history of a word. The post below is a short and slightly modified extract from chapter 1 of  The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the British Academy. 

Historians have long recognised the value of words and their changing uses as sources of information about the past. The Victorian lexicographical project headed by James Murray which gave rise to the Oxford English Dictionary was founded on the recognition that the current meanings of a word could not be fully appreciated without some knowledge of the history of its uses. Studying past uses of a word can throw light on more than simply the processes by which it took on its present meanings, however. Richard Chenevix Trench, the scholarly clergyman whose speech was one of the driving forces behind the original plans for what was to become the OED, was someone who recognised the potential of words as historical sources, arguing that past uses of a word could also illuminate the cultures and societies within which they had occurred. His book The Study of Words (1851), which was made up of lectures delivered to an audience of trainee teachers, used the history of words to explore the history of humanity. Trench endorsed Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s view, expressed in the latter’s Aids to Reflection (1825), that there were cases when ‘more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign.’[1]

In the twentieth century, other writers adopted Trench’s idea that words could bear testimony to past realities; that they could act as witnesses. Two members of the Oxford group of writers known as the Inklings, C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, both wrote historical studies based on the same central idea. Barfield, in his History in English Words, first published in 1926, compared the English language, along with the other languages of the world, with ‘an imperishable map’ which ‘has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul’.[2] His friend C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, first published in 1960, and based on lectures given to Cambridge students in the 1950s, consisted of a series of essays on words chosen for ‘the light they throw on ideas and sentiments’ that prevailed in past societies and as an ‘aid to more accurate reading’ of the literature within which they were used.[3] The words chosen included ‘nature’, ‘wit’, ‘simple’ and ‘conscience’, and were illustrated with a wealth of examples from philosophical, literary, and religious works in classical, medieval and modern languages. Although Lewis claimed that his studies were ‘merely lexical’, they in fact shed considerable light on historical matters; and Lewis took a particular interest in the social and moral status associated with certain uses of key words. His essay on the interrelated connotations of ‘free’, ‘frank’, ‘villain’, and ‘liberal’ is a particularly good illustration of this approach.[4]

Historians of modern Britain and its language have noted that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their dramatic industrial and scientific transformations, saw the English vocabulary expanded and enriched by a wide range of new terms. Eric Hobsbawm opened his study of the Age of Revolution with the observation that ‘Words are witnesses which often speak louder than documents’, and went on to mention ‘factory’, ‘railway’, ‘scientist’, ‘proletariat’, ‘Utilitarian’, ‘sociology’, and ‘ideology’ as examples of key English words which ‘were invented, or gained their modern meanings’ in the period between 1789 and 1848.  Their importance for Hobsbawm was as pointers to the arrival or transformation of ‘the things and concepts for which they provide names.’ [5] The French linguist Georges Matoré, writing in the 1950s, made a distinction between mots temoins and mots clés – witness words and key words. The former category consisted of neologisms arising from material, technological, social or intellectual changes or turning-points.[6] The terms on Hobsbawm’s list would fit into this category. Key words, on the other hand, for Matoré, were words that captured the leading idea or sentiment of a whole society or period. He suggested prud’homme and philosophe as early modern French key words.[7]

The most influential study of witness words and key words in the English language has undoubtedly been Raymond Williams’ 1976 book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams explained that, on returning to Cambridge after the war in 1945, it seemed to him that the whole vocabulary of the place had changed – that people were speaking a different language. He heard the word ‘culture’ much more often, for example, to signify a cluster of values or a way of life.[8] The resulting study, eventually completed thirty years later,  was an alphabetically arranged dictionary of key words in modern English, such as ‘art’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘charity’, ‘democracy’, ‘elite’, ‘family’, and so on. Each entry offered etymological, historical, and semantic reflections on the developing definitions, connotations, and significance of the chosen words. Williams himself struggled to classify his book but suggested it might be considered a contribution to cultural history, historical semantics, literary history, sociology, and the history of ideas.[9] When I refer to ‘altruism’ as a ‘key word’ in this book, I intend something closer to Williams’ quite broad sense of that term than to Matoré’s more ambitious idea of a mot-clé.

Many of the suggestions surveyed in the previous paragraphs inform The Invention of Altruism in quite obvious ways. ‘Altruism’ could be described both as a witness to significant shifts in the sources of moral authority, and also as a key word that captured some of the most characteristic sentiments and ideas of the Victorian period. The pattern of its dissemination from its Comtean origins, via the writings of a small group of intellectuals, into a wide and various range of other texts, in which it took on multiple meanings, could be thought of as constituting a map of intellectual and social connections. I hope to go somewhat beyond these characterisations, however. While it is useful to think of words as witnesses to historical transformations, and of linguistic change as a map or mirror of social change, metaphors such as these are very passive. They rely on the idea that real historical change is material, social, political, technological, or even emotional and intellectual, and that we can map or track such fundamental change by looking at linguistic change, which is then little more than a marker or by-product.[10] These passive metaphors can be supplemented by more active ones.

The image of a word as a key with which to unlock and open up the texts and values of a previous culture is certainly less passive than the idea of language as a map or mirror. However it depicts the word as something in the hands of the historian rather than of its past users. If we want to think about linguistic change as more than merely epiphenomenal, then we could look at the history of words as a branch of the history of technology. Doing so would be to recognise the obvious fact that words are tools that allow people to do things such as creating identities for themselves, arguing with each other, and articulating new visions of the natural and social worlds.[11] Linguistic change can be seen as a kind of social, technological, ethical, and intellectual change itself, rather than as a map or mirror of such change. One could go even further and think of linguistic change as the motor of other kinds of change. Many new identities, new ideas, and new ideologies rely for their existence on the creation of new words or on the transformation of the meanings of old ones. As Quentin Skinner puts it, by tracing the genealogy of our evaluative vocabularies, we ‘find ourselves looking not merely at the reflections but at one of the engines of social change.’[12]


[1] On Trench’s philological works and his admiration for Coleridge’s conception of words as ‘living powers’, see McKusick 1992, esp. 12-17

[2] Barfield 1954, 14; quoted in G. Hughes 1988, 1.

[3] C. S. Lewis 1967, vii.

[4] Ibid., 111-32.

[5] Hobsbawm 1973, 13-14.

[6] Matoré 1953, 65-7.

[7] Ibid., 67-70; see also G. Hughes 1988, 24-5; G. Hughes 2000, 30-2.

[8] R. Williams 1976, 9.

[9] Ibid., 11. A recent, multi-authored volume, directly inspired by Williams’ 1976 book, is New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. It includes ‘alternative’, ‘biology’, ‘celebrity’, ‘deconstruction’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘fundamentalism’, and so on; Bennett et al. 2005. This new volume seems generally to put rather less emphasis than Williams on historical semantics and more on cultural and social theory.

[10] This is the model that I tended to favour myself in my study of the transition from theories of ‘passions’ to theories of ‘emotions’ in the nineteenth century. Dixon 2003, 249-51.

[11] My approach here is similar to Neil Kenny’s. He has written that his approach to the history of the language of ‘curiosity’ is ‘designed to replace any approach that would see language as a mere epiphenomenon of underlying social, cultural, or intellectual contexts, as a mere “effect” that is “caused” by them.’ Kenny 2004, 24.

[12] Skinner 2002, 178.


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