Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

A Breath Sufficed to Topple

I’m preparing a lecture for the History and Theory of Planning course on “foundational” figures in the early planning movement, and ran across this passage, which Ebenezer Howard quotes from The Times, 27 November, 1891:

Change is consummated in many cases after much argument and agitation, and men do not observe that almost everything has been silently effected by causes to which few people paid any heed. In one generation an institution is unassailable, in the next bold men may assail it, and in the third bold men defend it. At one time the most conclusive arguments are advanced against it in vain, if indeed they are allowed utterance at all. At another time the most childish sophistry is enough to secure its condemnation. In the first place, the institution, though probably indefensible by pure reason, was congruous with the conscious habits and modes of thought of the community. In the second, these had changed from influences which the acutest analysis would probably fail to explain, and a breath sufficed to topple over the sapped structure.

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, ed. F.J. Osborn, intro. L. Mumford, 1974, p. 41

I’ve always liked this quotation. Aside from the generational emphasis, with which I don’t particularly agree, it’s actually not a bad synopsis of how I think about historical change – and the complex and usually unremarked interaction between historical change and the ease with which we feel that we have proven or disproven particular ideas.

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2 responses to “A Breath Sufficed to Topple

  1. MT April 1, 2006 at 1:58 am

    The politics he describes sounds quaintly democratic and egalitarian. I wonder if it ever existed, or what is the peer group he’s talking about. I’d guess the House of Lords, but on second guess I think it couldn’t be anything so pure and identifiable, because planning as such didn’t go on before this book, or so I’ve been told.

  2. N Pepperell April 1, 2006 at 10:37 am

    I’m not actually sure who the author of the quotation is – Howard quotes it, so he evidently agrees with it, but I haven’t tried to track the original source (presumably just the paper’s editorial staff?). But Howard’s own politics would, I think, definitely fall into the “quaintly democratic and egalitarian category” – he was heavily influenced by the utopian writer Edward Bellamy, and is seeking to bring about a kind of anarchistic socialist utopia (anarchistic in the sense of decentralised, self-regulating communities).

    I would guess that, in using this quotation, Howard had a more dispersed community in mind that the sort of formal, high-level political community of something like the House of Lords. I think the point was more to highlight the way in which ideas seem persuasive to people – any people – when those ideas conform to those people’s everyday practices. So, people will tend to embrace ideas compatible with their practices, largely in spite of the evidence for or against those ideas.

    Then, as practices change, the reverse can happen – people become more sensitive to evidence against ideas that no longer correpond so closely to practices and, conversely, more insensitive to evidence in favour of those ideas.

    Or maybe I’m just projecting my own views into the quotation… ;-P

    But Howard was interested in trying to bring a new, more just form of society into being. I think this quotation interested him in that it suggested:

    (1) that he shouldn’t propose ideas that were wildly out of synch with people’s current practices – so, for example, he spends a great deal of time in his proposals on the basic economics of how the community will borrow money, charge rents, etc. – it reads as much like a business plan as a utopian proposal.

    This has caused Howard a bit of historical grief from more “radical” commentators – I remember someone accusing him of trying to create socialism with a five percent return on investment. But these reactions, I think, are missing his social theoretic point: Howard doesn’t talk about why his projects are economically viable because he’s too conventional to seek something more bold. He’s talking about these things because he believes they are the sorts of ideas that, because they are consonant with the practices of his contemporaries, need to be addressed to mobilise the project at the time.

    (2) that the best way to change people’s ideas is to change their everyday practices – and, therefore, if Howard wants to bring a decentralised socialist society into being, the best way to do this is by bringing new kinds of practical relationships into being.

    Again, I think this is sometimes misunderstood by commentators, who focus on Howard’s plans for the physical community, and conclude that he’s some kind of physical determinist. I won’t contest that there are some physical deterministic elements in Howard’s proposals (then again, had I lived at the time, I probably also would have thought that you were unlikely to achieve more just outcomes for the poor without fundamentally transforming their physical living environments…). But I don’t think this is his main intention – although, unfortunately, the physical elements of Howard’s plans were the primary elements that actually spread through the planning movement…

    But I don’t claim to be a real expert on Howard – my previous supervisor is a bit of a specialist, but my experience is just impressions based on my personal readings…

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