Martineau, Harriet (1802–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC052-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

Harriet Martineau has been called the first woman sociologist and the first woman journalist in England, both better claims on the attention of posterity than her mostly derivative philosophical writings. Yet she is a revealing – and was in her own time widely influential – instance of the survival of eighteenth-century determinism and materialism. Although she eventually rejected the Unitarianism in which she had been brought up, the Necessarian philosophy she drew from it merged easily into her mature positivism. Her abridged translation (1853) of the Cours de philosophie positive was the first introduction of this seminal work by Auguste Comte to English-speaking readers.

Harriet Martineau was born in Norwich on 12 June 1802. As a child, she suffered ill health and more than the usual fears and loneliness; by the age of 20 she was almost totally deaf. Her excellent, if formally haphazard, early education was extended by carefully planned reading, with strong encouragement from a family solidly established among the liberal Unitarians in Norwich and elsewhere.

Devotional and religious themes marked her early writing – mostly in the Unitarian Monthly Repository – but she turned increasingly to philosophical issues. Entirely dependent on her pen after the death of her father, a textile manufacturer, in 1826, and the failure of the family firm three years later, in 1832 she launched Illustrations of Political Economy, a monthly series of 23 tales which caught, as she did so often, a new enthusiasm at its height, bringing her a celebrity she never lost. On completion of the tales, she spent the years 1834–6 in the USA. Society in America (1837), the first of two accounts of her travels, shows formidable powers of observation and synthesis and contains much original sociological comment, while in How to Observe: Morals and Manners (1838), she set out general principles for social analysis. Deerbrook (1839), her only large-scale novel, offered a characteristically sympathetic portrayal of middle-class life and enforced the subordination of passion to duty and service to others. Extraordinarily generous with her own modest income, she advocated many causes, among them anti-slavery, education, and the legal, political and economic liberation of women. Her radicalism broadened as she grew older and the stringency of her early political economy lessened.

Stricken in 1840 by debilitating symptoms resulting from an ovarian cyst, she retreated to Tynemouth, where her writing continued apace and her thinking matured, with some oddly self-absorbed turns. In 1845, she pronounced herself cured by mesmerism and resumed an active life, eventually settling in the Lake District. An extended tour of the Near East, recorded in Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848), further distanced her from religion, and Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, written with Henry George Atkinson in 1851, proclaimed her loss of conventional belief. A brilliant, opinionated critic, a gifted contemporary historian and a keen observer of politics and international affairs, in 1852 she began to write regularly for the London Daily News, contributing more than 1,600 leading articles before her retirement in 1866. She died in Ambleside on 10 April 1876.

Harriet Martineau was no mere popularizer. Rather, insistent on candid ‘publication of opinion’ and determined to instruct the nation, she gathered together many of the major intellectual strands of her time, forcing them into broad public awareness at crucial moments.

Like most serious-minded English Unitarians of her generation, she was persuaded by Necessarianism, a deterministic philosophy derived from the psychological and religious speculations of David Hartley (§2), the systematizer of associationism, and transmitted through the scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, from whom she also drew her materialism. Convinced that free will is an illusion, Necessarians distinguished their views from fatalism or Calvinist predestinarianism by insisting on the malleability of motives which, built up through association, inescapably determined all human actions. Education and personal influence could thus bring everyone to think rightly, to understand the laws of nature and even to attain perfection. This optimism and certainty survived her firm, unfairly scornful rejection of the Unitarianism that had engendered it.

Open to a wide range of current discussion, she added her own observations and experience, including mesmeric phenomena, to create a scientistic synthesis in which Baconian faith in fact-based induction was conditioned by insistence on the importance of guiding, selective principle. As religion came to seem no more than a historically conditioned phenomenon, she turned to positivism, for which she had been prepared by the Saint-Simonian missionaries who came to London from France in the early 1830s. In 1853, she published an abridged translation of Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive, its first introduction to the English-speaking world. Although she rejected social hierarchy, the subordination of women and the quasi-religious turn of Comte’s later work, she found in the centrality he gave to laws of thought and to scientific views of society the final distillation of her Necessarianism (see Comte, A.).

She had shared that early commitment with her younger brother James, a Unitarian minister who, from 1833, was in rebellion against Priestleyanism. Influenced by German theology and philosophy and by romanticism, he insisted that apprehension of religious truth was grounded in introspection rather than in revelation and evidences from nature. Their increasing alienation, culminating in his extremely hostile review of the Atkinson letters in the Prospective Review, made her a willing conspirator in the successful campaign in 1866 (led by the psychologist Alexander Bain) to deny him, as a minister, the chair of philosophy at the historically non-sectarian University College London, a post many thought a merited recognition of his periodical writings and his lectures at the Unitarian Manchester College. The lectures became books in the 1880s, too late to have the influence they might have commanded twenty years earlier.

The posthumous publication of her frank and judgmental autobiography inflicted considerable damage on her reputation, which, though she never lacked admirers, only began a real recovery in the 1960s, when historians, literary critics and feminists began to take proper measure of a career of astonishing energy and accomplishment.

Citing this article:
Webb, R.K.. Martineau, Harriet (1802–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC052-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles