In this well-argued and compelling book, Thomas Dixon traces the reception and dissemination of the term “altruism” from the very invention of the word in the 1850s through mid- and late Victorian times. Building on an extensive literature of Victorian philosophy, science, religion, and morality, the book expands and elaborates the historical account by offering a richly textured outline of the transformation of the language of altruism, thus shedding fresh light on Victorian thinking and culture at large.
Following a methodological discussion that addresses the merits of studying linguistic terms (“key-words”) in historical contexts, the first chapters focus on the invention of “altruism” by the French philosopher August Comte, and on the import, diffusion, and popularization of Comtean ideas in England from the 1850s onwards. The chapters point to the strong association of “altruism” with scientific positivism, humanistic religion, and secularism, the word gradually gaining currency as a signal of an atheist and humanistic ethics even as it was also accommodated by some clergymen themselves. The following chapters are then devoted to Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, showing the centrality of notions of altruistic behavior and sentiment in their thinking. Contrary to widely perceived notions about the egotism implied by the principle of “survival of the fittest,” altruism was integral to Darwinian science as well as to the moral and political writings of Spencer, who was “by far the most influential theorist of altruism in nineteenth-century Britain” (p. 183). Special attention is given in these chapters to the reception and dissemination of altruistic morality in numerous publications, intellectual exchanges, and the social and political debates of late Victorian times. There are separate chapters on the assimilation of altruism in reformist thinking on poverty and the varieties of socialism, and on its strong association with the science of heredity, feminism (with motherhood assuming the ultimate form of “altruism”), race, and the ideas propounded by the eugenics movements. The final chapter, titled “Egomania,” charts the reaction to the culture of altruism and Victorian moralism among some late Victorians—Oscar Wilde and the philosopher G. E. Moore, among others—pointing to the way in which their reactions to the language of altruism perpetuated the word but ultimately led to its being viewed as a relic of Victorian utilitarianism and evolutionary ethics.
The greatest merit of the book and its most rewarding parts are those dealing with the dynamics of reception, transmission and changing connotations of “altruism.” Dixon not only finds the word in well-known philosophic and scientific texts but also explores and pays particular attention to the diffusion of altruism in a wider range of texts, from popular science and religion to novels and children's literature, newspapers and periodicals, political tracts and speeches, scientific lectures, notebooks, autobiographies, and private cor-respondence. He portrays a broad spectrum of prominent and less prominent individuals, offering vig-nettes of their lives and highlighting the diverse and elaborate modes of communication through which they disseminated and publicized their notions and adherence to altruism. These modes of communication included not only numerous publications and correspondence but also networks of kin, friends, and pro- fessional ties alongside more formal institutions, especially the plethora of associations that dominated the public sphere of Victorian society and served as vehicles for publicizing and turning abstract notions to more concrete practices and programs. The result of all this is an intellectual history that is gripping in its reconstruction of socio-intellectual milieus and modes of communication, forcefully pointing to the wide diffusion of the language of altruism practically everywhere (including such unlikely territory as Darwinian science or liberal thought). The traditional concepts of charity, compassion, beneficence, or sympathy were thus transformed and replaced (albeit by no means completely) by more secular and mutating notions of a self that was at once inward, competitive, and ego-centered, but at the same time strongly inclined and even overly committed to others, if not to society and humanity at large.
Given the scope and range of the topics discussed and covered in the book, its conclusion remains somewhat elusive and stops short of making a clearer statement about broader historiographical issues, whether of Victorian Britain or indeed of the transition to modern notions of the self. As a framework for the book Dixon invokes current scientific and philosophical debates on altruism and neo-Darwinism, pointing to the degree to which the “rhetorically loaded” language of selfishness and altruism of Victorian times has remained the basis of our modern habit of making moral judgments and concluding somewhat vaguely that we might consider suspending use of the term altruism altogether. Arguably the book has no less important implications for a long and well-established historiography, according to which the era from the Renaissance onward was quintessentially associated with the emergence of a distinctly modern sense of self: inward-looking, private, competitive, and ego-centered. By demonstrating the force of the language of altruism in Victorian culture, Dixon's book shows that as late as the nineteenth century, with its accelerated secularism and emerging industrial institutions, there was no triumph of “individualism” narrowly defined in terms of self-interest, but rather the formation of a far more complex sense of self that encompassed not only the pursuit of personal goals or self-sufficiency, but also interrelations and the bonding between self and others. In this sense the book contributes less to an understanding (let alone the resolution) of current debates about altruistic behavior and motive and more to an emerging historical literature that points to the intricate route of transformation to modern notions of the self that go well beyond “ego-centeredness” to embrace dimensions of the self that strongly relate to others.