Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

David E. Dunning on Information Management in the Victorian Era

by contributing editor Pranav Jain

David E. Dunning is a historian of science, technology, mathematics, and computing in modern Europe. His research aims to understand the material and social dimensions of abstract knowledge. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the History of Mathematics research group at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford, and an affiliate of the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology.

Dunning spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about his essay “The Logician in the Archive: John Venn’s Diagrams and Victorian Historical Thinking,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.4).


Pranav Jain: You have done an admirable job of situating Venn’s work in relation to similar projects such as the Dictionary of National Biography which astonishingly is still with us. My own forays into early modern English history began with obsessively reading entries from what has now become the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Were there other projects that Venn looked up to or which might help us better understand his work? I am thinking of endeavors like Crockford’s Clerical Directory among others.

David E. Dunning: Yes, Venn surely must have admired Crockford’s; I can’t think of a place where he says so explicitly, or names other models for that matter, but he cites it several times as a source of information on nineteenth-century subjects. More importantly, there is an undeniable resemblance between the projects. Both are huge collections of short individual entries, and the entries consist mostly of highly abbreviated sequences of career milestones and, when applicable, a list of selected publications. The style and conventions are extremely similar, and the likeness between many individual entries can help us situate both projects in an enormous growth of information management practices. Both compilers are converting people into facts—not for any overtly governmental or managerial purpose, but in a schematic manner that certainly resonates with large imperial and business efforts to harness information in the Victorian era. All of these projects respond to and reinforce a context in which it is accepted as possible and productive to render human lives as compact textual information.

That summarizing process presumes a degree of homogeneity among the relevant facts. The extreme abbreviation that Venn and Crockford’s rely upon is possible only because the same kinds of milestones, in the same set of places, recur again and again in these men’s stories, whether we are talking about Venn’s Caius men over the centuries or the living clergy who populate Crockford’s. This homogeneity had to be plausible in the first place for these texts to work on a typographical level. But then these massive tomes are structured around that homogeneity in a way that serves to strengthen it, reaffirming that these are milestones that matter, that the men who achieved them deserve to be gathered, known, and remembered.

But there are also important difference in purpose and practice between Venn and Corckford’s. The latter is a directory of contemporary clergy; it provides information about the present and could be produced by correspondence with subjects. It then becomes a historical resource only as its volumes age. But Venn’s project was historical from the start, and he could only turn to Crockford’s as a resource for the most recent parts of his research. His aim was to show change over time, to reveal a previously hidden perspective on English history through these numerous, directory-style entries. This explains why he finds room for more narrative glimpses of life and character than would make sense in a directory. For example, Venn tells us how in 1857, a physician named Ferguson Branson “owing to weak health … retired to Baslow, Derbs., where he spent the rest of his life, devoted to literary and artistic pursuits. He was an accomplished painter, and much interested in science” (vol 2., p. 206). There is a bit of a humanizing arc fit into what is still quite a concise entry. One of my favorites such details, which I quote in the article, is when Venn tells us that James Hartstongue, a student of the 1540s, became a lay rector whose diocesan authorities once reported, “The seates in [his] churche are very fowly kept, with birdes and fowles” (vol. 1, p. 33). Venn had an eye for these moments of interest and humor. He knew how to insert a sentence or two that would give the reader much more than dates, professions, and place names. Venn insists that a story emerges from what looks at first glance like a directory, and along the way he also uses these occasional narrative details to give it texture.

PJ: You argue that “the twin problems of historical knowledge, for Venn, were to locate the long-dead individuals who constituted particular elite series, and to know those series themselves through their distantly discernible members.” What happened to these problems in the twentieth-century, especially when writers such as Lytton Strachey approached Victorians themselves from this angle, albeit in an extremely subversive way?

DED: With Strachey, as you mention, there is this striking shift of tone to a deeply subversive form of historical memory. There is also a huge difference in the balance between sample size and detail. That difference of scale seems, on the surface, less interesting, but I think it is crucial to understanding the tonal shift as well. The subversiveness of Strachey’s portraits depends on their size and on his subjects’ stature. Eminent Victorians comprises just a handful of extended prose portraits of well-known figures. Imagine if he had written a critical prosopography with Venn’s structure: a few unflattering sentences a piece about thousands of basically unknown people. That would be a strangely uncharitable exercise, and it would fail to be interestingly subversive because most people do not have posthumous reputations to subvert.

The example of Strachey, next to Venn, illustrates the really wide range of projects that fall under this heading “prosopography.” Why do we consider Strachey’s readable little volume to belong in some sense to the same genre as Venn’s enormous, sparsely detailed collective biographies? There seems to be something that feels sufficiently similar to form a stable category in this pairing of biography with multiplicity: the decision on the one hand to focus on individual subjects, but on the other hand to focus on more than one of them, to line them up in a sequence. Whether the sequence contains four members or four thousand members, we still call it prosopography.

PJ: Are there Victorian figures apart from Venn who embody the themes that you have discussed? If so, how do they differ from or are similar to Venn?

DED: In the article I discuss the thematic similarities I see between Venn’s historical work and Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen doesn’t make the epistemic value of scale explicit, but I think very similar commitments are visible in both of these efforts to assemble relatively concise versions of the lives of thousands of people. To invoke Strachey again, this collecting impulse is part of what he mocks in the preface to Eminent Victorians: the Victorian production of “so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it.” In the article, I quote Venn celebrating this vastness, asserting that an exhaustive collective biography of a single Cambridge college is “sufficiently large to claim the steadiness and generality which may be called statistical, and therefore to furnish a tolerably fair sample of what was going on throughout the country.” The DNB tilts a little farther toward exhaustive coverage rather than representativeness in its ambition to describe “all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time.” But there’s still an unstated assumption that so-called “noteworthy inhabitants” will adequately represent British history. Venn’s and Stephen’s approaches to the past hinges on scale, on the sheer number of lives considered, and yet neither emphasizes anything that a twenty-first-century researcher would recognize as statistical analysis. We have instead a basically non-quantitative way of finding epistemic value in the quantitative characteristics of a body of information.

So Stephen is a historical writer worth considering here, and there are relevant comparisons on the logic side as well. Perhaps most importantly, Venn had much in common with the mathematician George Boole, who saw logic and probability as properly a unified set of tools for understanding the world, including human affairs. Boole’s Laws of Thought (1854), a book that influenced Venn enormously, is deeply concerned with sorting individuals into appropriate compartments defined by overlapping classes. And it is full of example problems that indicate he saw this method as a way of analyzing social and moral categories. For instance, early on Boole cites Nassau Senior as defining wealth to “[consist] of things transferable, limited in supply, and either productive of pleasure or preventive of pain.” He then translates this definition into an algebraic equation, “w = st {p(1 – r) + r(1 – p)}.”  That formula then serves as a recurring example throughout the book. For Boole as for Venn, logic existed in the same sphere of inquiry as the moral sciences. But it remained on the level of an instructive illustration of whatever formal logical idea Boole was discussing. The big difference between Boole and Venn from this angle is that Venn actually put these ideas into practice by doing historical research in a manner informed by the logical ideas they shared.

In his specific constellation of spheres of activity—probability, logic, and history—Venn may well have been unique. But in context, the underlying commitments that made his approach to these areas cohesive spoke to widespread Victorian attitudes concerning human affairs, processes of deduction, and the scale on which we collect information.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Frontispiece to the Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, vol. 1 (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1897).

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