Great Men in Coffeehouses and the Environment for Learning

In a simple description, Great Man history is over-specific, our third theory is oversimplified, and our second sits in the goldilocks zone of “Just right”. Each of these viewpoints foster a varying scope for human technological and scientific advancement. While “Great Man” history tends to focus on the findings and contributions of one person or a group of people, Paradigm-focused history tends to analyze time periods, (though Kuhn specifically refers to innovative periods within scientific history, I believe just this can be applied to much more than the specifically scientific scope due to its influence) such as the renaissance or industrial revolution. The ecosystem theory, in line with the previous two, expands this scope once again, to a scale more geological than historical. At their most basic, these three models essentially vary on one thing: their scale. This leads to “Great Man” history being focused on the individual(s), Paradigm history being focused on time periods, and ecosystem theory being focused on science itself.

Johnson uses the “Great Man” historical theory for his introduction and history of Joseph Priestly. The coffeehouse culture and surrounding environment are set up to describe what made the man (and men) who made the theories and discoveries which the excerpt is about. It incorporates the setting into the story in a direct and appropriate way to be used as a medium for the figurehead(s).
“With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society. How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story.”(Johnson, 53)
I believe this quote accurately sums up what was special about the setting: it was a marketplace of ideas, and allowed for free-thinkers and like-minded folk to share opinions and discoveries, with, again, a focus on those who were there and its environment because of this. A pub would have a different clientele, and therefore, a different ideological environment. A close parallel today would be specialized forums on the web. Over the summer, I spent a month and a half rebuilding an old, broken engine out of my Dad’s old car. The car is a 1968 VW Bug, so not much information is readily available online, if available at all. My most important resource ended up being a site called “TheSamba”, a forum for classic VW owners to share information and innovations they have made with their cars. The examples being numerous, I have chosen one. Older cars usually require higher weight oil, due to comparatively low compression to modern engines. However, an oil too light or heavy can cause serious damage to a motor. My saving grace was the fact that there was an active community with the same problems as me, giving me up-to-date information relative to our collective roadblock. The website served as a “coffeehouse” in terms of discussion and clientele, and due to the community, I was able to repair and bring the car and engine from California to Montana.

4 thoughts on “Great Men in Coffeehouses and the Environment for Learning

  1. Hello! Your interpretation of Johnson’s portrayal of the history of Joseph Priestly was much different than mine. I took from it that the coffee house environment led to an ecosystem theory approach because of the combination of lots of people from different disciplines coming together to create a historical narrative that led to the “invention of air.” After reading your post, I really appreciate your take of it. The coffee house not only created an environment for lots of different people from different disciplines to come together, it also created an environment for lots of great men to come together with their great ideas. I think that this situation could possibly be looked at through both the Great Man theory and the ecosystem theory, because it was a combination of great men through many disciplines that encouraged Priestly to further his studies and ultimately “invent air.”

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  2. I just had to comment because I just got a VW Vanagon and I am in the same boat with the blog posts to figure out the issues with those old cars! Love “TheSamba” and enjoy your 68 VW Bug.

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    1. It’s such an amazing resource! Enthusiast communities give great advice and the community for thesamba is great! Hope to see your vanagon at some point too–if I didn’t have my Bug, that’s the vehicle I’d be looking at.

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  3. The use of the “Goldilocks” analogy brings a new dimension to the discussion of methods of studying the history of science. While Johnson doesn’t explicitly say that the paradigm theory is a better tool for analysis than the ecosystem theory, I agree that the paradigm theory is a better approach for a single historian. As the ecosystem theory is cross-disciplined by necessity, synthesizing all of the different disciplines into a single narrative seems an overwhelming challenge. Furthermore, although it lacks subtlety, the “Great Man” theory has its place. The efforts of individuals, Galileo for example, to persevere in the face of physical and professional danger merits acclaim. Finally, although the ecosystem theory can be challenging, the benefits of this method may outweigh the costs of distilling the ideas of many experts into a historical narrative.

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