19 June 2006

Consequences: The Meaning of Practical Engagement

We can come to no conclusions about the success or failure of George Berg’s experimental project, because it achieved neither. The project has no clearly defined end, and so we cannot ascribe to it any local or national consequences. Nevertheless, if we accept Berg’s project as typical of those engaged in by the largely anonymous eighteenth-century gentleman, we can find a meaning for his practical engagement that extends beyond its own details. Berg’s project to learn chemistry and glassmaking takes meaning from its opportunities for intellectual engagement and its social interactions. This is true even as it remains a very personal project.

Berg records in the experiment book his discussions with many people. These people have different occupations, a variety of expertise, and different degrees of skill. In certain extended interactions, particularly those between Berg and Samuel More, George Martin, or Edward Carter, we can trace a friendship as well as an advisory relationship. Other more sporadic and formal-seeming interactions also provide Berg with an outlet to discuss information new to him. So, for Berg, we can say that one meaning of his practical engagement was social. It meant opportunities to work closely with people he might otherwise never have met. Nevertheless, it seems that Berg’s extended discussions were primarily with gentlemen; he refers to conversations with workers or assistants at the glasshouses, but these discussants are not named. We could see this omission as significant: Despite the enlightened rhetoric of the eighteenth century that places little value on social hierarchies, traditional deferential groupings remained. Or this lack of identification could be meaningless. It could be that Berg had no opportunity to learn the names of some of the men who helped him understand the way glassmaking materials combined to make glass. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two theories.

An important aspect of Berg’s project was his exploration of ideas. Berg combined the creation of new formulas for colored glass with chemistry (and to a lesser extent other sciences). Clearly Berg, like his colleagues Samuel More and William Lewis, was determined to incorporate scientific understanding into his practical goals. This notion is another one associated with eighteenth-century enlightened rhetoric. In Berg’s project it takes on additional meaning. Berg was not a practical person learning the sciences relevant to his work, nor a philosopher teaching himself practical skills to support arguments about the interactions of the natural and manufactured world. As a composer and musician, he was a skilled practitioner—but in an occupation that had nothing to do with either chemistry or the creation of colored glass. Because these two subjects were so far from Berg’s professional life, his project shows us the extent of the general belief that the practical and the philosophical could benefit each other. Chemistry suggested which combinations to use and why others might not work. It added a sense of consistency to Berg’s experiments even when such variables as kiln temperatures or the quality of the materials could remain beyond control.

We must assume that for fifteen years Berg sustained the hope of some ultimate success, however he defined that term: intellectual satisfaction, public recognition, new skills learned, economic concerns, or something else entirely. Without a clearly defined success or failure, we cannot identify any public consequences from Berg’s project. But this lack of clear success also suggests a meaning for his practical engagement. Berg’s combination of resources—his reliance on the expertise of others, on learning from books, and on his own developing practical skills—made his project a very personal one. Despite his apparent commitments to what we know were typical eighteenth-century beliefs, his project remained his alone.


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