Isolation in Thought

Upon the commencement of John George Bartholomew’s tenure as director of John Bartholomew & Co. in 1888, there is a marked tendency towards the cartographic. The riotous miscellany which characterised earlier times was replaced by better and better mapping. However, there are always exceptions to this rule, with the subject of this entry being just such an exception.

On the 15 November, 1909, Bartholomew printed 260 copies of a diagram, tongue-twistingly entitled Isolation in Thought of the Antithetical Positions & Inter-Relations of the Forces of Nature Illustrating Synthetic Unity of World-Conception or Correlation of Physical Processes & Physical Functions in the Evolution of Substance and Spirit Based on the Principle of the Immutable Mean by Arthur Silva White.

So who was Arthur Silva White and what is the meaning of his diagram? It is perhaps natural to place Silva White amongst the number of the ‘now forgotten’ British philosophical corpus. Intriguingly however, this is certainly not the case.

Arthur Silva White (1859-1932) was the first Secretary, magazine Editor and key founder member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He is remembered in his obituary for his gift for language and his extensive knowledge of literature and geography. He had travelled widely, chiefly in diplomatic and official circles, and most especially in Africa. Other titles in his oeuvre include The Development of Africa (1892), The Expansion of Egypt under Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899) and On the Achievements of Scotsmen During the Nineteenth Century in the Fields of Geographical Exploration and Research (1889).

With credentials such as these it may come as no surprise that Silva White and John George Bartholomew were close friends. This friendship may go some way to explain the exception made by John George in terms of printing this highly non-cartographic item.

It is hard to say quite why Silva White produced something so far removed from his expertise. The work that this diagram was destined for, Logic of Nature: A Synthesis of Thought (1909), was privately printed and the limited run of 260 diagrams is suggestive of a project highly personal to Silva White as opposed to something intended for wider dissemination. Correspondence from Silva White to his old friend John George, sent in March 1909, reveals a man who is desperately keen to seek a more fulfilling life by following humbler pursuits. For five years Silva White had been Assistant Secretary to the British Association for the Advancement of Science but in this letter he writes that he has “chucked it in” and was thinking of starting a rose farm, despite knowing “nothing of rose-farming”. This is not to say that these events necessarily influenced Logic of Nature but nevertheless, the letter reveals glimpses of a man keen to express himself in new and startling ways.

So what of the diagram itself? Sadly the National Library of Scotland does not appear to hold a copy of Logic of Nature* but we do have a review, printed in Nature, volume 83 (1910). Luckily for me it corroborates my initial and continuing impressions of this diagram (and by extension the work), being that it is extremely complicated and nigh on impossible to understand. The review reads thus, ‘This is an attempt to “outline a system of thought by which unity of world-conception may be predicated”…the pamphlet…is very tough reading even for those who have spent much time and thought on the subject. The following “heads”, however, will suggest the general drift. There are four spheres or planes in the macrocosm: lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and ethersphere, which last-named is “the psychosphere of mind” – “the energy of thought”. Matter is the vehicle of energy. Intelligence is at the root of things; immanent Deity must be postulated. “Nature is the thinking-process of the God-head” – a striking and suggestive phrase…His conclusion is of course idealistic. “The ultimate reality of the sum of things cannot – so far as man is concerned – have existential import except in terms of thought; and therefore thought itself is the ultimate reality”. Perhaps in this there is a degree of concurrence and reference with the most famous philosophical statement of René Descartes “I think, therefore I am”.

The diagram is beautifully elegant, it hovers on the fringes of art; but the ideas that it conveys are extremely difficult. It seems to embody the culmination of fifty years of questioning and pondering and in so doing, illuminates an unexpected facet of a key member of the nineteenth century geographical cognoscenti.

*Update. Subsequent to the publication of this entry, a close relative of Silva White kindly donated a copy of Logic of Nature, to the Library. It can be found at this shelfmark, PB5.212.17/14.