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In Defense of Wordsworth's View of Nature
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Charles Hartshorne IN DEFENSE OF WORDSWORTH'S VIEW OF NATURE William Wordsworth's idealisticinterpretation ofnature has seemed to some profoundly wise, to others "crazy metaphysics" (Macauley) or "charming poetic fancy and no more" (John Morley, editor of an early complete edition of the poet's verses). The Wordsworthian view was summed up in two short poems that he wrote near the close of the 18th century: "Lines Written in Early Spring" and "The Simplón Pass." Today, 180 years later, seems a good time to ask, Who were right, those who saw wisdom and truth or those who saw only fancies in Wordsworth's vision of nature? Our natural science is enormously more comprehensive and penetrating than the science of Wordsworth's time. Do the changes favor or disfavor taking Wordsworth seriously as a seer or natural philosopher? I will show my hand: in my opinion the enthusiastic estimate of the poet's faith was more nearly right than Morley's damning with faint praise. The course of science and philosophy , and of theology too, since 1800 can reasonably be taken as vindicating Wordsworth rather than Macauley. But the matter is subtle and complex, and as with all profound issues, a general consensus among scientists, philosophers, or theologians is not in sight. In saying that intellectual progress since 1800 can be taken as favoring Wordsworth I have a number of facts and considerations in mind. The science of the 18th and early 19th centuries was essentially materialistic (much like the atomism of Democritus in the 5th century B.C.) in its view of inanimate nature and it was dualistic (Aristotelian or Cartesian) in its view of animate nature. Philosophy, especially in England, offered no persuasive alternative to these views. In contrast, recent physics and philosophy (though again least of all in England) have so transformed the idea of physical reality that the very meaning of "materialism" or "dualism" has become problematic. (It never was very clear. Thought and feeling we know; mere insentient, mindless matter has always been a riddle, rather than a definite, positive idea.) 80 Charles Hartshorne8 1 In biology also the traditional view of life has been radically revised so that certain incompatibilities between a Wordsworthian and a Greek or Cartesian dualistic conception of living things are no longer relevant. In Wordsworth's England he or his admirers could get little help from Hume's pluralistic skepticism, the Scottish Common Sense School, or Sir William Hamilton's arid metaphysics. The poet made some use of Hartley's associational psychology and may have been encouraged by Bishop Berkeley's legacy of idealism. He was acquainted with his friend Coleridge's version of German idealism; but this last was an abstruse foreign import, and its harmony with science was far from clear. It is not surprising that Wordsworth dismisses science cavalierly: "We murder to dissect." Science at that time was hostile to his world view. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, however, and increasingly since then, there have been movements in science, philosophy , and theology with which a Wordsworthian, such as I am, can live more comfortably than was possible with the science, philosophy, or theology of 180 years ago. What was Wordsworth's view of nature? It is not systematically set forth or argued for; this writer was a poet, not a scientist, philosopher, or theologian. But the view had some clearly identifiable features: 1.Throughout animate nature, even in plant life, there is feeling, primarily happy feeling, "pleasure." 2.So-called "inanimate" nature is, in a way that Wordsworth is willing to leave vague, not really or strictly inanimate and comes under the previous stipulation. Thus, "The moon doth with delight/Look round her when the heavens are bare." 3.Nature as a whole expresses one supreme Life, Mind, or Mind-like Reality, of which all lesser lives are somehow constituents. 4.That all this is true is directly, though mostly unconsciously, experienced in our perceptions of nature. 5.That most people, in civilized countries, are not aware of the foregoing truths is because, after childhood, we tend to lose the capacity to accept the message of direct experience, being preoccupied with ourpractical concerns...