Christopher Dawson in context: a study in British intellectual history between the World Wars
Stuart, Joseph T.
Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was a British historian of culture and a pioneer during the 1920s in linking history with the social sciences. Much existent writing on him today simply tries to summarize his views on the historical process or on specific time-periods. There is a fundamental lack of real historical perspective on Dawson, linking him to his own intellectual environment. This thesis attempts to remedy that lack. It demonstrates that the most important years in which to understand Dawson’s development were roughly those of the interwar period (1918-1939). During those years he wrote scholarly books as well as social and political commentaries. This thesis uses Dawson’s life and writings as a window into his world—hence it is a “study in British intellectual history between the world wars.” A number of contexts will be examined through relevant archival and published source material: textual, social, cultural, and biographical, all in order to account for the numerous ideas and events that raised questions in Dawson’s mind to which he then responded in his writings. Chapter one studies Dawson’s reputation from the interwar years up until today in order to highlight his broad visibility, the diverse images through which his work was viewed, and the central themes he engaged with and which are the subjects of the following chapters. Those themes are: (1) Dawson’s entry into British sociology during the 1920s; (2) his response to the question of human progress in Britain after the Great War; (3) his response to historiographical problems surrounding religious history, nationalism, and empiricism; (4) the various ideas of religion present in interwar Britain and the wider Western world by which Dawson informed his thinking not only about religion but also about (5) those “political religions” (as he saw them) taking shape in the totalitarian regimes during the interwar years. The purpose of this thesis is to contribute to general knowledge of interwar British history, aid more historically sensitive readings of Dawson’s work today, and reveal something of Dawson’s “cultural mind”: the fundamental interdisciplinary and catholic ways of historical thinking by which he viewed the past and the present and which were his most important contributions to the discipline of history.