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.
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”.
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”.
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.
generated by the presence of the metropolitan Establishment.
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”.
Edgeworth 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.
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 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.
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.
Although Richard Lovell Edgeworth is more often remembered for being the father of Maria, the novelist, than for his ideas on politics and education, he was conversant with Rousseau’s theories as well as a champion of experimental philosophy.