Date of Degree
Literature in English, British Isles
The British are credited—or charged—with establishing empiricism, the view that all knowledge is embedded in sense experience. My project argues for and describes an undercurrent of idealism within British empiricism: the writers of my study investigated modes of thinking that transform sensory experience. To see their idealism at work, it is necessary to look closely at how they conceived of ideas in the mind as pictures. Given that the term “picture” was used to refer to both inner ideas and actual paintings, it is not surprising (though rarely noticed) that when empiricists wanted to consider how the mind shapes ideas, they turned to the history of painting. Painting theory has long manifested a sharp tension between the ambition to reproduce observation and the drive to transform what the eye sees. For this reason, it has been a congenial medium for thinkers unwilling to give up the authority of sense experience but unsatisfied with its yields. I set nineteenth-century texts against foundational Enlightenment works to show how that later age worked within and against the tradition known as British empiricism. My argument centers on British figures who were compelled to revise the empiricism they inherited from the eighteenth century. Constrained as they were within their empirical moment, they found empiricism too rigid to accommodate their own modes of thought, the cultural products they encountered, and future imaginaries. I examine how a range of authors imported artistic concepts and images into theories of mind in texts of various genres: the philosophy of John Locke and the Earl of Shaftesbury, the art criticism of John Ruskin, the fiction of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and the anthropological scholarship of J.G. Frazer. They represent a spectrum of views about the relationship between empiricism and idealism, and degrees of skepticism about the relative explanatory power of either.
Poised at an intersection of literary studies, intellectual history, and the history of art, this project turns on two pictorial paradigms: the ideal landscape and the grotesque figure. Framing my accounts of Victorian idealism are two skeptical accounts of the mind, by Locke and Frazer. Their texts fret over the mind’s ability to imperil knowledge by producing grotesque—unnatural, fantastic—images derived from data of the external world. Idealistic accounts of the mind by Ruskin and Eliot theorize its ability to form scenic views superior to any offered to sight. Works by Hardy and Frazer elegize the disappearance of such scenes, marking the disintegration of the project of an empiricist idealism at the end of the nineteenth century. This project is at base a defense of the humanities. To read philosophies of mind through the lens of aesthetics is to better understand how major British writers invested in ideas, and how they confronted the problem of knowledge and its limits.
Kravetz, Rachel, "The Art of Cognition: British Empiricism and Victorian Aesthetics" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.