Victorian empiricism

Peter Garratt

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review


Empiricism, one of Raymond Williams's keywords, circulates in much contemporary thought and criticism solely as a term of censure, a synonym for spurious objectivity or positivism. Yet rarely, if ever, has it had this philosophical implication. Dr Johnson, it should be recalled, kicked the stone precisely to expose empiricism's baroque falsifications of common sense. In an effort to restore historical depth to the term, this book examines epistemology in the narrative prose of five writers, John Ruskin, Alexander Bain, G. H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and George Eliot, developing the view that the flourishing of nineteenth-century scientific culture occurred at a time when empiricism itself was critically dismantling any such naive representationalism. Dr. Garratt argues that by the 1860s empiricism was both a dominant cultural language and a reflexive epistemic theory, producing a model of contingent selfhood conceived simultaneously as the route towards knowledge and its obstacle. For this reason, Victorian empiricism predicated its search for knowledge on a profound instability, one embodied within the textual language through which it sought its articulation. By examining familiar works, such as Ruskin's Modern Painters and George Eliot's fiction, alongside the voluminous psychological and philosophical prose of Bain, Lewes, and Spencer, he illustrates, using detailed examples, how the imperatives of empiricist thought shaped the aesthetic of realism, as well as nineteenth-century views towards perception, human embodiment, and relativism. In all cases, their works give shape to empiricism's skeptical impulse. In Ruskin, for example, the narrative journey into knowledge is one of haphazard progress and fraught autobiographical engagement; in Bain's psychology it forms a story of precarious accumulation; in Lewes and Spencer, sprawling form expresses the proliferating potential of knowledge itself. George Eliot's novels are read as interventions in, as well as commentaries on, this pre-disciplinary discourse, which emerges from the British philosophical tradition while being transformed by intellectual developments in evolutionary theory and nervous psychology. Victorian Empiricism will therefore appeal to students and researchers working in literary studies, history of science, and nineteenth-century interdisciplinary cultural history.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherFairleigh Dickinson University Press
ISBN (Print)9780838642665
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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