Swift's Attitudes toward Science and TechnologySwift's Attitudes toward Science and Technology
David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College
Swift was an upper-class conservative who undoubtedly looked down upon, and frequently derided, mechanists and scientists of the sort exemplified by the members of the Royal Society--disciples of Francis Bacon, who were even then threatening to remake the world in their own image. He lived in a time when a great deal of what passed for science was, at best, pseudo-science. He had little use for abstract science or technology--which he satirized unmercifully in the third book of Gulliver's Travels, the voyage to Laputa--but he was not opposed to science or to scientific experiment if it could be genuinely useful to mankind: he read and approved of Bacon's The Advancement of Learning, for example. He was not, that is, anti-intellectual, but he was passionately opposed to the useless follies of the charlatans, the quacks, the cheats, the speculators, and the virtuosi--to the "aerial studies" of the chymists, mathematicians, projectors, and the rest of that speculative tribe"--who lost themselves in useless abstractions, who wasted time and money (their own, and more importantly, that of gullibles) in vain or extravagant experimentation.
Most importantly, however, he perceived--long before others realized it--that science was ethically and morally neutral; that it could be put to evil uses as easily as to good. Swift insisted that human beings be reasonable, and that their efforts be be both useful and moral, and he found too little practicality and too little morality in the science of his day. He was unwilling to sacrifice moral and ethical considerations to scientific abstractions: it seems unnecessary to remark that subsequent events seem to have proven many of his assumptions correct.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web: July 2000