In this paper I wish to discuss the revival of the Learned Societies as a form of intellectual freedom in an age of oppression of free-thinking and intellectual pursuit. In doing so I hope to show that the current state of discourse has been stifled by rules and regulations not unlike that of the Church and State of the early 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and else-where.
The history of Learned Societies goes back to the seventeenth century and earlier when the Church, through Rome and the papacy, defined what constituted scientific learning in line with the dogma of the scriptures. Most universities of the time were controlled by strict hierarchy of what was deemed to be suitable for public consumption. Many great scholars found themselves alienated by the Church and the State if they miscalculated the propositions in their science which where to be in-line with religious thought, also that some things were not open to debate as they were a matter of faith. However scientific progress was not halted during this time but often went underground in secret societies where daring ideas could be discussed and investigated amongst the more liberal thinking of the time. Men dedicated to learning free of the rules and regulations inflicted on them by Church and State would gather secretly to discuss the philosophies and ideas of the day. In some countries they became recognised and even supported by Government where more open thought was permitted. Why then did these societies flourish at this time? The answer was the lack of progress in the Universities themselves as they were hampered by dogma from the Church and from the power structure that permitted only research that was approved by the older professors who mostly were Churchmen such as priests, deacons and followers of the one faith. Many who published books were added to Rome’s list of forbidden reading, this made sure no science that conflicted with the “Christian world view” was challenged. Another reason for the Learned Societies was the petty jealousies aroused in Universities by bright young minds applying novel thinking and scientific method to problems that in the past were left to faith. Therefore the often secret societies were fulfilling an important role left undone by the Universities in furthering investigations. I list some of the most influential societies below and there formation dates.
Accademia Secretorum Natural – Naples 1560
Accademia dei Lencei – Rome 1603
Accademia del Cimento – Florence 1657
Other countries stared a little later such as Germany 1700, Sweden 1710, and Russia 1724.
Some more important societies became part of the establishment and often received Royal patronage, such as the Accademie of Sciences in Paris founded by Jean Baptiste Colbert receiving a royal charter in 1666. The other is the Royal Society in England (1662) that went on to provide the support for many discoveries that led to advancements in Natural History and the recognition of achievement in other fields of science.
Many of these societies conflicted with Church and State and were often persecuted if found out and membership could mean excommunication from the Church or at worse beheading or torture and prison. However what forced men to take the risks was a love of discovery, intellectual pursuits and scientific advancement.
20th Century – The Stalemate?
Today we still have some of the original societies that now have become part of mainstream society and seen as established respectable organisations. The Royal Society in England and the Accamedie des Sciences in France both now still exist but there roles are now much more in line with current State and University ideology.
New modern societies have come into existence but have a very different form and notion of scientific advancement. These tend to be publishers of papers, (if approved and inline with current thinking) and more often disciplinary, in that they control membership and so in turn often employment and status. They offer Charters and membership certificates which are really approval papers (if your face fits you get in). This of course is all in line with the idea of a Meritocracy in modern thinking where-by only if you went to the right place and get the correct papers you can become part of the group. In the past of course many great men where interested in many areas of science and discovery and were not hampered by society rules of what you are allowed to do and not to do. Most of the great discoveries of the modern age would have been blocked by this system in the 1600 to 1800 period, as most scientists of the day did not have uniform or accredited papers to say they knew what they were doing. In fact a theology degree was the most common and this was the door at that time to University teaching.
So why did the early Learned Societies flourish, when the State and Church being all powerful, were against them in most cases? It is quite simple – free-thinking men cannot be hemmed in by rules and regulations that control information and restrict access to public dissemination of findings. We should add here that many of the great scientists of the past were not completely correct in their discoveries, but what was important, was that they led a direction that later scientists could follow and perfect.
Remember today’s paradigm is tomorrows folly.
Why call for a revival of Learned Societies today?
In it is the very fact that all the modern societies are rule bound and exclusive to the meritocracy of modern times that we now need to rethink the idea of freedom of thought and expression. As in the past – those that oppose the current thinking or suggest another truth are prevented from publishing or simply defrocked in the sense of losing membership of the society or association as a way to gag descent and prevent the general public from joining in a debate. If you are neatly discredited you cannot have access to journals, university positions, publishing and public assembly. A recent case in the United Kingdom is a good example, a university professor after exhaustive research supported the idea of race and intelligence being linked and that the genetic differences in race determined the intelligence quotient in subjects. In a world where everyone is supposed to be equal this went against government policy of race relations and the scientist’s association who promptly ridiculed him publicly amongst his peers and then proceeded to cancel his membership. This led to his dismissal from the University and subsequent alienation from academia. It is not a question of whether his research was valid or that his results were clearly accepted by other well-know scientists. The fact is he went against the powers that be, just as did Galileo and others in the 17th century and risked excommunication or death. Galileo recanted and had to wait until after his death to have his great discovery about cosmology accepted. Are we now in an age where the new faith of science is in the hands of bureaucrats, technicians and moralists who dictate what a scientist is allowed to investigate and publish?
In the modern world are we now so sure of our knowledge and systems that there is no room for the person, man or woman, who wants to think outside the box? Are we so scared of hearing the lone voice that goes against our thinking that as Kant indicated today’s firm knowledge is but an illusion of reality based on what we understand and know today. The changing of a paradigm is not an easy passage and in the past we made great men suffer for the knowledge they offered when it clearly went against current thinking.
I think it is time to call once again for secret societies, where intellectuals can talk freely without fear of investigation and persecution. The reader may believe I overstate my case but in fact ask most PhD students how much real choice they had in their thesis when under the guidance of an old professor with definite ideas about what constitutes knowledge and scientific enquiry. In the past Art in Paris and Europe flourished because there were no rules, each artist watched the work of others, each artist strived for originality and their own style to impress the world and convey their own emotions and intellect into art. Many died poor; the galleries were controlled by the old guard, the bastions of truth in art, and the money men. Is this where we are at in scientific thought today, needing associations to approve our work, governments to issue licenses to allow us to conduct experiments? Also these association’s codes and rules that hamper our imagination and force scientists to stay within the box, as defined by the past. In my own subject of psychology most learned regulated societies and associations are stuck in a 1950′s time warp and are so afraid of public controversy they heavily police the scientists that can only work with their approval and access to their journals.
Could a secret society today exist and have an impact as they had done so in the past? I believe they could – the internet gives access to blogs, spaces and other media that was in the past impossible to access. Now a secret society can publish its findings on the web and have the freedom to discuss any topic without fear of retribution. However in some countries the net is already being attacked by governments and agencies determined to control the content and access to the public. Sites are often closed down, people arrested and imprisoned in some cases. The Church’s power is now history over science, but the modern faith is now in societies and associations that determine moral and ethical standards that they believe we should be bound too. I am not saying that we do not need some guidelines to protect the innocent and the weak but most rules and regulations are designed to protect the powerful and wealthy for their interests and only a fool believes otherwise.
The New Secret Society
I would like to propose that a, Society of Thinkers, should form in every country to attract those people who want free debate and enquiry. Behind closed doors, with members having pseudomonas and internet handles, to identify them. An international website to allow each secret society to communicate its ideas and thoughts on psychology and philosophy to others around the world who are interested. This is not an anti-government movement or an anti-university movement simply the freedom to discuss and learn and advance science and thinking as it was in the past and maybe one day many years from now this society too with become mainstream and accepted by the State. Then it will have died a respectable death and a future generation must fight against ignorance and persecution from those who become the status quo.
Professor Stephen F. Myler PhD
History of Systems of Psychology (2004) James F. Brennan – Peking University Press (Pearson Education – Prentice Hall Publishers. Pgs 80/81.
Times Educational Supplement (2000) Unknown source.
Dr. Stephen Myler is from Leicester in England, an industrial town in the Midlands of the United Kingdom. He holds a B.Sc (Honours) in Psychology from the UK’s Open University the largest in the UK; he also has an M.Sc and Ph.D in Psychology from Knightsbridge University in Denmark. In addition to this Stephen holds many diplomas and awards in a variety of academic areas including journalism, finance, teaching and advanced therapy for mental health. Stephen has as a Professor of Psychology many years teaching experience in colleges and universities in England and China to post 16 young adults, instructing in psychology, sociology, English, marketing and business. He has been fortunate to travel extensively from Australia to Africa to the United Sates, South America, Borneo, most of Europe and Russia. Stephen’s favourite hobby is the study of primates and likes to play badminton. He believes that students who enjoy classes with humour and enthusiasm from the teacher always come back eager to learn more.