Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes - The Correspondence
Edited and introduced by Frank G Novak, Routledge, London (1995)
ISBN 0 415 11906-5 hardback

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a vitalistic philosopher of catholic interests - the ‘professor of things in general’ - Lewis Mumford was his pupil, friend and ultimately his successor. Their relationship, and the nature of the succession is of more importance than might first appear, for they have resonance today in arguments around bioregionalism and the history of eco-anarchism. For Mumford, Geddes was a ‘systematic thinker comparable to Leibnitz, Aristotle or Pythagoras’ , a claim which deserves some serious scrutiny. Geddes’ recent re-emergence from what some have referred to as ‘mislaid history’ reflects the contemporary relevance of his socio-ecological analysis,and a growing trend of Scottish cultural renewal.

Frank Novak’s immaculately researched book is a healthy contribution to the growing debate on the Geddesian legacy. By collating and deciphering seventeen years of correspondence between these prodigious and undervalued figures, Novak has done much to present their work in an international context. Mumford and Geddes’s unifying idea was the need for holistic, evolutionary analysis of the city in the region. Analysing their own evolution, we see that Geddes brought radical ideas from Continental Europe and combined them with traditions of Scottish philosophy. He applied them in Edinburgh, Bombay, Jerusalem, Dublin, and elsewhere, and Mumford took them, moulded them and, arguably, influenced Roosevelt’s New Deal. To a great extent this is the story of ideas being shared across the globe, and being misapplied and dilluted en route. Geddes himself wrote that ‘the central and vital tradition of Scottish culture have always been wedded with that of France’. He was deeply impressed by the founding fathers of French geography, Elisee Reclus (1830-1905) and Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918), as well as the conservative sociologist, Frederic Le Play (1806-82) and his student Edward Demolins.

From Le Play, Geddes developed the ideas of folk, work and place as tools of social geography, whilst Reclus inspired his Valley Section method of analysis (a prototype bioregionalism). Peter Hall, in his classic Cities of Tomorrow (1988) first elucidated the importance of this anarchist tradition in Regional Planning. Hall recognised that Proudhon, Reclus and Kropotkin had been the dominant influences on Geddes, who had in turn come to inspire Lewis Mumford’s Regional Planning Association in America. But Hall, like Novak, also recognised that ‘the truly radical quality of the message got muffled and more than half lost; nowhere on the ground today do we see the true and remarkable vision of the Regional Planning Association of America, distilled via Geddes from Proudhon, Bakunin, Reclus and Kropotkin’. The task then, is to discover how the elan vital of Geddes became dilluted into the brackish liquid of contemporary town planning. A key to this, suggests Novak, is the strange relationship between Geddes and Mumford, the restlessness of Geddes’ mind and the indecision of Mumfords. This is classic biographical material, set in the history of ideas, rather than social history viewed through biography. It marks the disintegration of the master-pupil relationship and the rigidification of Geddesian thinking after the death of his son and his first wife. First hand we see Mumford struggle with the demands of the irrepresible Geddes - that he join him in India, Palestine, France or Scotland.

As Novak comments: "Sophia Mumford succinctly formulated the essential difference between Geddes and Mumford as she saw it: ‘Geddes spent the latter part of his life codifying the insights he had between 1880 and 1890. Lewis spent the latter part of his life developing and enlarging the intuitions he had in his youth’." But, as Novak suggests, "Mumford’s youthful ‘intuitions’ were, of course, in large measure inspired and nurtured by Geddes." What is the reason for the unfullfilled promise of the collaboration between Geddes and Mumford? Novak suggests: "Another reason for Mumford’s early skepticism about the possibility of effective collaboration with Geddes was his observation of how Geddes’ associates, particularly Victor Branford, insisted upon a rigid and unquestioning application of certain tenets of Geddesian thought, rather than building upon those original and liberating aspects of the outlook Mumford found so stimulating.’ ‘Branford and others’ claims Novak, ‘reduced it to what Mumford viewed as an arbitrary and ossified sytem, to something purportedly complete, authoritative, even sacred’.

Yet Geddes cried out for constructive criticism and debate throughout his correspondence with Mumford, who did not always hold his tongue. In a letter dated 9 May 1921 Mumford writes: ‘The weakness of the Edinburgh School so far has been the weakness of the Aristotelian school after Aristotle: the work of the founder has been so comprehensive and magnificent and inspiring that it has in appearance left nothing for scholars to do except to go over and annotate and dilute the master’s work’. Perhaps this is the danger of theory unrelated to social or political movement, or visionaries surrounded by acolytes mesmerised by their masters brilliance. Ultimately, it was the calm and organised Mumford, rather than the chaotic and inspiring Geddes who influenced regional planning. Perhaps, as Novak hints, the two together would have been more than the sum of their parts, and the truly radical elements of Geddes work survived intact. But the fact remains that Geddes constructive-generalism was too broad to fit into ‘planning’ alone. A third explanation as to why Geddes and Mumford’s relationship was not more fruitful, comes from Murdo Macdonald. Writing recently in the Edinburgh Review he notes: ‘Mumford always asserted that much of the tension between Geddes and himself was because Geddes had the unreasonable expectation that he, Mumford, should replace Geddes’s dead son.’ As Macdonald goes on to explain, not only was Geddes looking for a son, but Mumford, whose mother had been effectively twice-widowed, was searching for a father. This confusing psychological relationship explains much about both the energy and barreness of the relationship. A final possibility explaining the dissolution of Geddes radicalism is that regional planning was not a large enough field for Geddes to influence.

Geddes has been hijacked by the planning fraternity, who have, in preserving his name from oblivion, also narrowed it into a space in which it cannot breath. Gone is the pioneering ecology, the arguments for self-management, mutual aid and decentralisation, and in its place an insipid and technocratic paternalism. The glaring contradiction between the crimes that have been done by planners, who still claim Geddes as their inspiration is breathtaking. But two final points emerge from Novak’s compelling collection. First, that whilst planning has cocooned Geddes essence for posterity, his ideas are now thawing out, ready for re-examination. They arrive, relatively intact and remarkably resonant for the 21st Century. Second, that whilst Geddes and Mumford’s relationship remained unfulfilled both personally and theoretically, the energy they exchange is incredible and pours off the pages of their letters in great waves. Now it is possible to reconstruct the lineage of ideas from Elisee and Paul Reclus and Peter Kropotkin through Geddes and Mumford to social ecologists today. This is a rich and fecund history of urban ecology of immense importance today with over half the worlds population living in cities for the first time.

As Novak himself acknowledges, both Geddes and Mumford have expectations above and beyond mere policy and planning, and are stretching towards a concept of a rounded self, a citizen, which anarchists can draw inspiration from. Lest this be considered an artificial construction, there is a further element which demands a mention, connecting, as it appears to do the ideas of Geddes with the organicist Murray Bookchin. Mumford writes that ‘Geddes made an important contribution in restoring the Aristotelian concept of potentiality and purpose, as necessary categories in the interpretation of life-processes’. Novak explains that ‘...for Geddes such "potentiality and purpose" are represented in man’s capacity for "insurgence". To which Mumford adds: ‘Man for him (Geddes) was not just an adaptive organism...but increasingly the shaper and molder of his own world.’

Keith Wheeler has suggested that ‘It can be argued then, that it is possible to trace a line of descent from the morphological thinking of Goethe, through Humboldt, Reclus, and Haeckel to Geddes, which represents an alternative tradition in Western European thought deriving inspiration from the paradigm of geography and ecology.’

This may well be true, but it now seems clear that Geddes should be seen as also a part of three further traditions: the utopian tradition from Charles Fourier to Ernst Bloch; the Scottish tradition of generalism, and the organicist tradition from Aristotle to Hans Jonas and Murray Bookchin today. Frank Novak’s book touches on these emerging debates. In doing so he lays an important foundation for the arguments over the history of eco-anarchism/social ecology, and highlights Geddes as more than a piece of mislaid history.

Mike Small

More book reviews here:

Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, Volker Welter and Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde ALLAN ANTLIFF

Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford the Correspondence, Frank Novak

Patrick Geddes Social Evolutionist, Helen Meller