Ashworth’s book brilliantly reworks a major character and period in the rise of modernity. His William Whewell works within a coterie of Tory Anglicans—the Trinity Circle—to build, defend, and ultimately lose their grip on liberal education in Cambridge. Ashworth’s conclusion is similarly original and startling—Whewell’s Anglicanism is still among us, shaping debates from artificial intelligence to the science/humanities divide.
The Trinity Circle explores the creation of knowledge in nineteenth-century England, when any notion of a recognizably modern science was still nearly a century off, religion still infused all ways of elite knowing, and even those who denied its relevance had to work extremely hard to do so. The rise of capitalism during this period—embodied by secular faith, political radicalism, science, commerce, and industry—was, according to Anglican critics, undermining this spiritual world and challenging it with a superficial material one: a human-centric rationalist society hell-bent on measurable betterment via profit, consumption, and a prevalent notion of progress. Here, William J. Ashworth places the politics of science within a far more contested context. By focusing on the Trinity College circle, spearheaded from Cambridge by the polymath William Whewell, he details an ongoing struggle between the Established Church and a quest for change to the prevailing social hierarchy. His study presents a far from unified view of science and religion at a time when new ways of thinking threatened to divide England and even the Trinity College itself.
In this astute and forcefully argued book, the historian William Ashworth explores the world of a community of Cambridge-based scholars and priests who actively sought to resist what they saw as aggressive and threatening industrial and material programs in earlier nineteenth-century Britain. Ashworth’s study revises many standard views of relations between church, state, and sciences in the Victorian age and offers significant lessons for current debates about the political and moral development of modern social order.