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Romanticism's Gray Matter
British Romanticism and the Science of Mind, by Alan Richardson; xx & 243 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, $55.00.
THE ANTAGONISM BETWEEN science and the humanities is an old story, one whose basic themes were inspired by a new understanding of the utility of science that emerged from the Enlightenment. If faith in the efficacy of human reason to renew human society was no longer quite so robust after Robespierre's Reign of Terror, science itself did not suffer but instead assumed the central place in intellectual inquiry. Half a century later, the opposition between humanistic inquiry and science not only carried over into the conception of literary studies in its embryonic phase as an academic discipline; the rise of science provided, ironically, a primary impetus for the institutionalization of English studies, since the study of language and literature was envisioned as an arena of spiritual values and social polish. But according to Gerald Graff, the picture is even more complicated than this: the oppositions between literature and science are largely matched by those within English/literary studies from the very beginning. If English was envisioned as a repository of value and cultivation on the one hand, it was driven, under the influence of science, to professionalize and develop a research industry on the other—which itself fostered a divide between criticism and academic research, areas that have only recently come together. 1 [End Page 443]
Since conflicted attitudes toward science were thus at the heart of literary studies from the very beginning, it is hardly surprising that debates about the relevance of science to literary theory and criticism are vital today. These debates are the healthy result of the twentieth century's attempts to apply scientific research and models to literature, for early efforts at scientific criticism help locate both the potential benefits and possible drawbacks of interdisciplinary approaches. Yet some humanistic research paradigms have remained largely immune to the influence of science, maintaining the two-cultures tradition by virtue of the body of knowledge they adopt—and therefore by what they implicitly exclude—to frame our understanding of written works. Chief among these are literary history and the history of ideas, which have drawn principally on the fellow humanities of philosophy and history, and only superficially or sporadically on the history and philosophy of science. (Interestingly, despite differences in theory, method, and values, recent projects like the new historicism are in this respect generally continuous with traditional literary historical practice.) In British Romanticism and the Science of Mind, Alan Richardson expands the parameters of the history-of-ideas approach within literary criticism, rendering it more fully congenial to developments within scientific thought. With great diplomacy, Richardson points to the limited conception of context that has informed historical accounts of British literary romanticism, and proceeds to demonstrate what a knowledge of romantic-era brain science can bring to our understanding of the ideas and works of a selection of romantic-era writers. The result is a book that, in providing a detailed account of the major theories of brain-mind and in constructing the plausible grounds of influence on several major literary figures, largely succeeds in the difficult task of appealing to an interdisciplinary audience.
As Richardson notes in his preface and first chapter, the overlap between literary and scientific representations of mind has been generally neglected in romantic scholarship. Work on the romantic mind has, for the most part, drawn selectively on Hartleyan associationism, psychoanalysis, and the German idealist tradition within epistemology, even though the historical period of British literary romanticism (roughly 1789-1832) corresponds with an unprecedented development of theories of the brain and nervous system, many of which were vigorously discussed—in no small part for their ideologically inflammatory implications—in the major literary periodicals of the day. To [End Page 444] remedy the neglect of contemporaneous science, Richardson supplies a discussion of the major brain scientists in his first chapter, following this with four chapters on major figures and works of literary romanticism (Coleridge...