Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Maud Ellmann reviews Speculation

Gayle Rogers. Speculation: A Cultural History from Aristotle to AI. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 264 pp.

Review by Maud Ellmann

10 November 2021

Taking a lead from Raymond Williams’s Keywords, Gayle Rogers traces the historical vicissitudes of the single keyword speculation as it weaves in and out of multifarious discourses. According to Rogers, the semantic fluctuations of this term reflect and, in some cases, even instigate significant changes in the social, financial, and cultural landscape of Europe and America. “Speculation,” Rogers claims, “provides the language and conceptualization by which we produce contingent knowledge, ideas, abstractions, risks, and even money and material gains, all of which radically shape our individual and collective future” (p. 3). Learned and remarkably wide-ranging, the book traces speculation back as far as Augustine’s distinction between speculum (mirror) and specula (watchtower), which represent two different conceptions of the presence of God in the creation; either the world reflects its creator (speculum), or a distant view (specula) is required to perceive the hand of God: “'To see from a distance, this is speculation,’” Augustine wrote (p. 14). The ocular implications of the Latin root of speculatio also haunt the future evolution of the term, producing variants like specter that imply the intrusion of the unseen in the seeable. 

Boethius, on the other hand, gave speculation pride of place in his philosophy, assigning it the same prestige that theōria enjoys in Plato and Aristotle. In Boethius’s work, speculation moves away from its literal roots in visual perception and toward its metaphorical implication of insight. “It is more than a mirror (speculum): it is a route toward the divine that escapes and surpasses the very material world that it first ponders” (p. 20). But this transcendence of materiality also foreshadows the future degradation of the term speculation, which comes to be associated with idle woolgathering, groundless guesswork, and “abstract, unprovable knowledge . . . dangerously close to sins of curiosity, vanity, and waste” (p. 29). Thus, René Descartes was dismissed by some commentators in England as a purely speculative philosopher who supposedly disdained empirical observation and material experience. This is the kind of “speculative learning” that Jonathan Swift parodies in the “airy region” of Lagado, whose “Projectors” indulge in such absurd experiments as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers (pp. 42, 62, 52). 

In the financial arena, as Rogers shows in subsequent chapters, speculation came to be associated with imaginary wealth ungrounded in real estate or tangible assets, and the term therefore acquired something of the stigma attached to usury in the Middle Ages. In an economy given over to speculation, “ideas of money could breed more money, as if abstracting abstractions” (p. 3). The stock markets and currency markets that sprang up by the end of the seventeenth century were “largely understood as lotteries and their players as gamblers or diviners” (p. 51). Hence arose the common trope of “speculative mania” that endures to the present day (p. 61). In the US—characterized in 1802 by British travel writer William Priest as the “land of speculation”—speculation came to be seen as an infectious rage that spreads across all classes of society: “'Touch’d by the wand of speculation, / A frenzy runs through all the nation,’” declared a poem published in the New York Daily Gazette in 1791 (p. 61). By the 1810s, countless writers prophesied that the “mania” for “speculation” will spell the end of America. Indeed, this moral panic proved at least as contagious as the disease of “speculitis” that it vilified (p. 115). By the turn of the nineteenth century, as Rogers points out, speculation had “lost nearly any connection to contemplative or reflective observation and instead signals humanity’s least measured considerations” (p. 109).

At this point in Rogers’s story, women begin to assert themselves as agents of speculation, as well as to be demonized as symbols of its vices. Middle-class women, largely excluded from productive labor and supposedly prone to fancy and hysteria, come to be branded with the idleness and recklessness of speculation, while speculation in turn comes to be feminized by association with “ladies of the ticker” (p. 141). One of Rogers’s most arresting chapters shows how nineteenth-century women novelists incorporate speculation into their works, both in characters like George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth, who begins her fictional life at the roulette table, and in the marital gambles of Jane Austen’s works—the romantic equivalent of South Sea bubbles. Like Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, Austen’s heroines are speculators and commodities at once, and marriage the riskiest of flutters. “‘In sober truth,’” wrote Anna Bartlett Warner in her 1854 novel Speculation; or, The Glen Luna Family, “‘all “marrying and giving in marriage” is but a speculation at best’” (p. 160).

Rogers’s book concludes with a sobering coda on the “risk society,” as theorized by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, in which technologies designed to stave off danger have created new dangers arising from these technologies themselves (p. 39). As scholars like Donna Haraway have shown, the distinction between human and machine has become increasingly moot. Rogers agrees: “Our smartphones and digital clouds are integral parts of our lifeworlds, and indeed are some of the most intimate parts of ourselves” (p. 178).

Impressive for its breadth of erudition, Speculation offers an original history of a pivotal concept in Western culture from the Middle Ages to the present. Further, the book advances an innovative critical methodology by exfoliating the connotations of a single word. To do so, Speculation investigates a dizzying range of sources—“economic reports, poems, political tracts, newspapers, philosophical writings, card-game manuals, plays, speeches, letters, novels, magazines and other media”—in a method that Rogers describes as “serial contextualization” (p. 6). This method requires mastery of several languages and disciplines as well as a knack for extracting the gist from an overwhelming archive of material. While some readers might be tempted to skip the philological excursions of the early chapters, the whole book is fired with the author’s intellectual enthusiasm. Indeed, the book is so lucidly written that it has every chance of reaching beyond literary studies to a wider public interested in the history of ideas and the words in which that history is encapsulated.