Murdo Macdonald writes about his book Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins (Edinburgh University Press, 2020)

I have been exploring Patrick Geddes’s work in a serious way since 1992 when I edited a Geddes edition of Edinburgh Review. The idea of writing a book grew over the years but the real issue was finding the right focus. Geddes is a wonderfully complex thinker who achieved a great deal in areas as diverse as botany, geography, ecology, sociology, urban planning and cultural activism.

Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins

Very often he had a pioneering role in helping to establish academic disciplines which we take for granted today. A great deal has been written about him, but I was very conscious that much of his thinking has still not been fully addressed. From my own perspective I could see a particular gap, namely the Scottish dimension to Geddes’s thinking – so that became the starting point for my book.

I think it is important to stress that he grew up at a time when interdisciplinary approaches were commonplace in Scotland. I only became aware of that because I was fortunate enough to be taught by George Davie at the University of Edinburgh. George was author of the classic account of Scottish universities in the nineteenth century The Democratic Intellect and as a postgraduate I help to publish its sequel The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect. As a result of that experience, I realised that Geddes’s interdisciplinarity was part of a Scottish intellectual tradition, and that aspect of Geddes had been missed in previous accounts. So that Scottish interdisciplinary tradition gave me a framework within which to think about Geddes. It also helped me to structure my book, for my concluding chapter focuses on Geddes’s farewell lecture to University College Dundee, given in 1919 before he took up a new role at the University of Bombay. It is one of the great statements of his interdisciplinary approach.

Geddes’s interdisciplinary view, his generalism (to use George Davie’s terminology), continues the thinking of an earlier generation of Scottish thinkers. That tradition includes the pioneer of educational theory and teacher training Simon Somerville Laurie and the Milton scholar David Masson, both of whom Geddes knew. It became natural for me to consider Geddes alongside them and as part of the same tradition, rather than seeing Geddes’s interdisciplinarity as primarily influenced by nineteenth century French thinkers. Those French thinkers, not least Frederic Le Play, Auguste Comte and Elysee Reclus, were of course very important to him but the point is that his receptiveness to their thinking was because he was already part of an interdisciplinary tradition. So, for Geddes it was a genuine Auld Alliance of thinkers, rather than simply French influence. The wider historical and international dimension to Scottish interdisciplinarity is also important here. Laurie in particular drew heavily on the thinking of the seventeenth century Czech philosopher Jan Amos Comenius and Geddes followed suit in his admiration for Comenius’s interdisciplinarity.

Geddes is also one of the great visual thinkers. His friend Rabindranath Tagore said of him that he had ‘the power of an artist to make his ideas visible’. I would like to think that someone will soon produce a well-illustrated book on Geddes and the visual. There is a real opportunity to do so at the moment because a great deal of Geddes’s visual material held by the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde is being digitised. The importance of visual methods to Geddes is directly related to his interdisciplinarity, for the visual encourages a holistic approach. Geddes called his Outlook Tower, packed full of images and models as it was, an Encyclopaedia Graphica. In doing so he was also drawing attention to the fact that the tower was in Edinburgh, the city that gave birth to that great statement of interdisciplinary thinking, the Encylopaedia Britannica, to which Geddes was a contributor.

Geddes grew up in a small cottage with a large garden on a hillside looking over the river Tay and the city of Perth, and onwards to the Highlands. That relationship between garden and wider human-ecological region inspired him throughout his life. Indeed, he saw urban planning as first and foremost a growth of gardens and parks, whether in the opportunistic use of gap sites in Edinburgh, or as parts of wider planned environments, as in his (sadly unexecuted) plans for Dunfermline and Dundee. And those gardens and parklands link directly via rivers, mountains, and oceans – what Geddes called the valley section – to the wholeness of the planet itself. In his farewell lecture to University College Dundee, he puts it thus: ‘this is a green world’ followed soon afterwards by his wonderfully concise ecological statement: ‘by leaves we live’. Never was the significance of ecology of the planet for the survival of us all more clearly stated. And never has it been more relevant than today.

Another aspect of Geddes I wanted to get across was that he was well versed in scripture, and in books such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but he saw such religious texts as sources of wisdom and debate not of dogma. For example, he saw no conflict between science and religion, seeing them as complementary ways of approaching the world rather than as in any sense antagonistic. His deep spiritual commitment emerges again and again not least through his friendships, which numbered several of the key spiritual thinkers of his day. In Scotland they included Alexander Carmichael (of Carmina Gadelica fame), John Kelman (who amongst much else wrote The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson), Alexander Whyte (analyst of Dante and correspondent of Cardinal Newman) and Whyte’s wife Jane Barbour (whose advocacy of Baha’ism brought Abdul Baha to the Outlook Tower). Geddes’s wider friendships included many Indian spiritual thinkers not least Rabindranath Tagore. Geddes and Tagore have a great deal in common for they were both strong advocates of the arts and at the same time saw environmental regeneration as crucial to cultural revival. Geddes’s former student, Annie Besant, headed up the Theosophist movement in India, and Geddes’s close collaborator the artist John Duncan became a Theosophist in 1909. So, Geddes was close to and interested in all approaches to spiritual issues, the more broad-minded the better. Perhaps his view is summed up by the fact that he regarded the Outlook Tower as an ‘Inlook’ Tower also, a place a meditation.

A crucial moment in Geddes’s career was the Paris International Exhibition of 1900, which occurred soon after his major period of Celtic revival advocacy in Edinburgh. It brought together Geddes and key figures who would develop the Bengal revival, such as the remarkable Irish educator Margaret Noble, who took on the name of Sister Nivedita as a disciple of the Hindu revivalist, Swami Vivekananda. Another major Indian figure Geddes met in Paris in 1900 was the pioneering scientist Jagadis Chandra Bose whose biography he would later write. One of the regrets I have about my book is that I was unable to discuss Geddes’s links with Bose in any detail, but that draws attention to how much remains to be done.

If Patrick Geddes had done nothing other than commission Ramsay Garden in Edinburgh, he would be remembered for it. But that was just part of so much more. He was a pioneer of ecology, sociology, planning and geography. In addition, he led the Celtic revival in Scotland and supported cultural revivals elsewhere. Any one of those achievements could be seen as a legacy achievement, worthy of remembering him by. But the crucial thing is that every single one of those achievements was part of a wider educational aim. So, Geddes should be remembered as someone whose aim was to educate us fully about the planet and our responsibilities to it and to ourselves. That is why remembering him is important. That is what I have endeavoured to convey in my book.


The book is available for purchase at Edinburgh University Press


To learn more about Murdo Macdonald’s book Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins and his work you can read the following reviews:


Bella Caledonia by Mike Small

Scottish Review by James Robertson

The Drouth by R J Morris

The Telegraph India by Ramachandra Guha