Peter Garratt, Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot. Madison, WI and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010.

Gregory Tate, The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Kay Young, Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Thackeray's decorated initial T

he present popularity of cognitive cultural studies may well be remembered for the way it shows just how sensitive scholars have become to differences, including the difference between one's own mind and minds belonging to others. Cognitive literary historicism, a subfield of cognitive cultural studies, complicates this scheme by privileging reading as a way to explore the general problem posed by “other minds,” which is to say, by this particular form of difference. Literature provides cognitive literary historicists with a special site for exploration of theories of other minds recently advanced by experimental psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists. In addition to the scientific work with which these studies engage, the scholarship also owes much to recent books, like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, which present, in popular and easily digestible form, scientific findings related to such fugitive cognitive processes as intuition.

If the cognitive cultural studies project seems quixotic, that might be because the cognitive orientation slights ordinary understanding so breathtakingly. Only the most dedicated habitué of the life of the mind would be surprised to learn that not only do other minds exist, but that they also produce thoughts, including thoughts about oneself and one's awareness of others -- who may, in fact, be thinking! This skepticism about other minds, and the preoccupation with theories of mind to which such skepticism gives rise, is hardly new; the well-known philosopher Stanley Cavell has devoted his prolific and influential career to it. But we don't need philosophers or literary scholars to remind us of the obvious: theories of mind suffuse all writing. Even the most self-absorbed narrator subscribes to some minimal theory about the mind of an implied reader; any literature involving characters having what we ordinarily recognize as “inner lives” engages with one or another theory of mind by definition. Even the most robotic five-paragraph SAT essay written for rubric-based evaluation evinces a theory of mind. One knows this when one feels oneself transformed, reading such an essay, into a rubric-checking automaton. One thing we don't do -- at least, not while still unemployed by standardized test companies -- is read unthinkingly, in the same thoughtlessly reactive way that we kick when a doctor taps the nerve below the kneecap. Cognitive literary studies may therefore represent less a clean break with what has gone before than a fresh elaboration of a familiar theme: literature as a mode of thought.

But is it all, as leading cognitive literary historicist Ellen Spolsky fears, just old wine in new bottles? It can be hard to come to terms with one's predecessors. Nevertheless, all three books under review manage to break new ground while acknowledging debts to scholars who have ploughed this field before. All three books make much, for instance, of Rick Rylance's Victorian Psychology and British Culture (2000), which presents the psychological work of Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, and George Lewes, tracing intersections with contemporary debates about evolution and religion, idealism and materialism. The cognitivists' concern with epistemology -- how and under what conditions Victorians understood claims about the world to be objective -- owes something as well to George Levine's Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology in Victorian England (2002), which showed how surprisingly perspectival so much Victorian narrative could be. Following Spencer's maxim, "to think is to condition," Victorians did not feel our modern, urgent need to disentangle scientific observation from moral considerations. Discovering how the two interpenetrated was, in fact, was the project of much Victorian psychology. Peter Logan's Nerves and Narratives (1997) rounds out this list of important predecessors, providing a set of links between physiological investigations of hysteria and imaginative writing. Logan's narrow emphasis on hysteria has been followed by broader-ranging studies such as Nicholas Dames' The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007) and William Cohen's Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2008), both of which repeat and extend Logan's attentiveness to the wetware aspect of mental events. More specialized studies by Gillian Beer and Sally Shuttleworth would round out any list of important progenitors to the cognitive literary historicist project, and additional examples could easily be adduced.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the three texts under review share similar thematic preoccupations and even source texts. Nevertheless, their handlings of Victorian psychology differ, particularly when it comes to questions about the limits of knowledge and the ways in which other minds make themselves felt, present, or otherwise known. In Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer and George Eliot (2010), Peter Garratt surveys mid-Victorian literature for moments when writers engage with psychologists in order ask “what it means to know, and to strive for knowledge from an always-limited consciousness, and to be situated yet aspire to see more reality than one perspective allows, and to experience not knowing” (21). Gregory Tate, in The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry (2012), finds that “Victorian poets consistently employed strategies and forms that subjected the operations of the mind to unprecedented levels of scrutiny” so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, “the poetry of psychological analysis became one of the most influential poetic modes in Victorian Britain” (3). While these two explorations of the relationships between Victorian psychology and literature range broadly in the historical sources but do not stray into recent scientific research, Kay Young's Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy (2010) focuses on three authors whose literary output not only reflected contemporary psychological concerns but also, Young suggests, anticipated current findings in cognitive neuroscience, particularly research in narration and cognition. In their reliance on careful argumentation supported by nuanced close readings of source material, Garratt's and Tate's monographs are recognizably scholarly; Young's book, which ranges more widely in the scientific literature, takes correspondingly more risks. In this regard, Young's is the closest to the cognitive cultural studies model as it has been elaborated by its leading proponents, notably by Lisa Zunshine, editor of Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, a recent volume that, as its title suggests, provides an overview of the field.

The trouble with popularizations of cognitive science like Gladwell's Blink is that they rely so much on analogy and metaphor. On these accounts, the mind is not so much one thing as it is like a dozen others: a network, an organism, a web. Metaphors also abounded in Victorian psychology. Victorian writers could and did use them to advance broad claims about human motives and potentials (just as Gladwell does today). In this way, Victorian psychological ideas found their way into discussions that were not necessarily or prima facie psychological or even particularly scientific. Lewes, for instance,had many intellectual interests, of which psychology was only one; Bain was no experimentalist but a professor of literature and philosophy at Aberdeen. Hashing out questions about the relationships between personality and person, between mind and body, in the pages of publications written for general audiences, Lewes, Bain and Spencer worked an intellectual seam that was also available to contemporary novelists and poets. This lack of recognizable disciplinary boundaries yields to the modern scholar a richly interdisciplinary set of sources, even without straying into current research.

Victorian psychology, as presented by Garratt and Tate, involved three distinct but related ideas: associationism, the relationship between knower and the known, and what it meant to have a sympathetic response to outer and inner experience. Leading associationists, such as Spencer, viewed the human nervous system as a network for the transmission and transformation of sensations and ideas. Locating Spencer in the “the associationist tradition of David Hartley and James Mill,” Tate describes the Spencerian mind as “the more or less passive receptacle of physical sensations and experiences” (131) and as something “fundamentally mutable, because mental life exists essentially in the shifts from one sensation or idea to another” (Tate 131). In the Principles of Psychology (1855) Spencer described the mind as 'not an entity but a process,' such that 'the quick succession of changes in a sentient centre, constitutes the raw material of consciousness'” (qtd. in Tate, 131). Spencer followed George Lewes who, in The Physiology of Common Life (1851), asserted that “[t]here is an incessant action and interaction of the various parts of the sensitive mechanism: sensations cross and recross, exciting and modifying each other, and the sum total is a feeling of existence.” (qtd. in Garratt, p. 153).

For at least some Victorian psychologists, the mind was more than a merely passive receptable for inner and outer experience. Victorian epistemology privileged the constructive activity of the observer in the production of scientific knowledge. Both consciousness and intelligence were active and linked; the knower shaped what was known. George Eliot famously opened Daniel Deronda in a strongly constructivist vein, pointing out that “[e]ven Science, the strict measurer is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix a point on the stars' unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought” (35; see Shuttleworth 176-177). Eliot lays her cards on the table here, letting the reader know where she stood on the question of whether objectivity was even possible. For Eliot, where one started, epistemologically speaking, played some role in where one finished up. Garratt's study suggests, however, that this distrust of the grand promise of objectivity should not be conflated with a thoroughgoing skepticism of the sort that Nietzsche made so familiar toward the end of the century. Victorian empiricism, according to Garratt, provided a useful intermediate foothold: “To be an empiricist was at once to place trust in the immediacy of one's encounter with reality, and also to seek a description of reality that might hold beyond the vagaries and limitations of personal point of view.” (16) Following Shuttleworth, who linked her study of the psychological aspects of Eliot's novels to a larger preoccupation with organicism, Garratt links his readings to a preoccupation with empiricism, which may have been at least as compelling as organicism to psychologically-minded Victorians.

All three studies devote considerable space to George Eliot's life and work. This convergence will come as no surprise, given Eliot's long and well-known involvement with Lewes (as well as a briefer interlude with Spencer). Years ago, Sally Shuttleworth's contextualized Eliot's novels by linking them to broader arguments revolving around organicism and, more broadly, the status of positivism. Like Shuttleworth, both Garratt and Young turn to Eliot's novels for examples of how Victorian psychological concepts like “sympathy” might work. Reciprocal influences—between Eliot, Spencer and Lewes—would seem to play a role here, but the precise mechanism by means of which “influence” exerts its effect remains murky, even in the books under review. For instance, Tate says that Eliot's psychological views were “underpinned by her engagement with the materialist psychologies” (126) of Lewes and Spencer, leaving to one side the question of how this “underpinning” may have developed. For his part, Garratt weaves readings of exemplary moments in Middlemarch into his discussion of Victorian psychologists in a way that disperses questions of influence within an attractive contextual tissue that is nonetheless strangely impervious to questions about specific ways and means. Neither Garratt nor Tate does much with Eliot's translations of Spinoza, though Garratt is attentive to the Spinoza-esque elements of Eliot's fiction as well as similar moments in the psychological writers that form the core of his study.

Eliot's characters often display (and suffer) from what Eliot called a “superadded consciousness of others,” which is to say, from their ability to feel other people's feelings as well as their own. Latimer, the unhappy hero of Eliot's short story, “The Lifted Veil” (1859) has a gift called “prevision,” which amounts to just this knack of understanding. He falls in love with Bertha, the one woman whose mind he cannot read and whose hand he cannot have, since she is, unfortunately, engaged to his brother. Latimer, who seems to have too much “superadded consciousness,” is “too susceptible to other people's feelings, his nature too impressionable,” Garratt writes, “to the extent that he experiences their emotional states as though they were his own” (182). From one point of view, this overabundant fellow feeling would seem to violate the Spencerian requirement that all knowledge, even of other minds, is “conditioned,” to use Spencer's term, by one's own situation, the conceptual baggage that attaches inevitably to one's perceptions, including perceptions regarding other minds. But how, or even whether, we ever lose even some of this “conditioning” was, for Eliot, an open question. According to Garratt, Latimer's excess of impressionability marked a subtle departure from the Spencerian “all knowledge is conditioned” element of Victorian psychology. “We could say,” Garratt avers, “that Latimer's condition does not so much signal the abolition of human sympathy as propose a world in which the usual imperatives of relativity have been removed.” But from this, Garratt concludes only that “[i]n doing so, it underscores the necessity of grasping relativistic conditions that produce knowledge and regulate knowability.” (182) Here, I think, Garratt does not go far enough. It seems equally possible Latimer's condition might also constitute a substantial criticism of the Spencerian point of view. In other words, Latimer's empathy may be the mature novelist's as well.

Elsewhere, as Garratt himself shows, Eliot views a lack of impressionability as a kind of immaturity, less a defect than a developmental phase. Contrasting Latimer with Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Garratt observes that Eliot frames Maggie's impetuousness in terms of a blindness to other minds that is the unavoidable consequence of inexperience. But even this is problematic, because Eliot does not integrate this view into the world her characters inhabit; rather, she transfers this burden of explanation to her narrator, who—in keeping with Victorian literary norms, but in violation of the modern requirement to “show, don't tell”—explains things to the reader. “There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth,” Eliot's narrator tells us, “when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories, no superadded life in the life of others'.” Garratt follows with this gloss: “The regret expressed here is for Maggie Tulliver's unfortunate lack of such a 'superadded consciousness' of others which can be translated as meaning a lack of sympathetic involvement with the texture of other people's experience, an inability to inhabit their perspectives and problems” (182). Does she ever outgrow it? Not exactly—but according to Taylor, who devotes two chapters to Eliot, the novelist arrived at a significantly deeper view by the time she wrote Daniel Deronda (94-95). Specifically, Taylor argues that this late work evinced a more complex view of the role of others in the psychological development of the self. On this reading, awareness of other minds comes by means of heightened self-awareness, a dynamic psychology that Young identifies and explores in her book (94-123).

Victorian novelists were not the only ones to address these questions. In different ways, as Tate shows, so did poets, including Tennyson, Browning and George Eliot, to whose overlooked poetic output Tate devotes significant attention. According to Tate, the poets engaged with psychological questions mainly when those questions amplified perceptions of poetic creation. Victorian psychological poetry aimed to capture “the torrent of quick thought,” as Tennyson described it; according to Tate, this poetry presented “the associationist model of the mind as an inexorable sequence of mental states” and identified even thinking “as a dynamic process over which [the poet] has little or no conscious control” (11). Here, again, George Eliot proves useful -- but in an unexpected way. On Tate's reading, Eliot's poetry “register[ed] a far greater degree of skepticism about scientific models of the mind” (126) compared to her novels, “for the simple reason that scientific conceptions of psychology did not square easily with her understanding of poetry” (126-127). In 1868, Eliot wrote “Notes on Form in Art,” in which she was concerned to distance poetry from materialist psychological theories while reserving poetic forms as privileged vehicles for the expression of the mind's productions.

In Poetry -- which has this superiority over all the other arts, that its medium, language, is the least imitative, & is in the most complex relation with what it expresses -- Form begins in the choice of rhythms & images as signs of a mental state, for this is a process of grouping or association of a less spontaneous & more conscious order than the grouping or association which constitutes the very growth and natural history of the mind. Poetry begins when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image; but poetic form begins with a choice of elements, however meagre, as the accordant expression of emotional states. (qtd. in Tate, p. 129)

From here, Tate goes on to explore extent to which Eliot's own poetry bears out her claims, using the first of Eliot's two volumes of poetry, The Spanish Gypsy (1864) as his primary source material. As she did with Daniel Deronda, Eliot in The Spanish Gypsy explored essentially psychological tensions between personal and group identity but Eliot's blank verse epic went further in terms of distancing her from Lewes and Spencer; according to Tate, it “reinstat[ed] the metaphysical soul in her representation of psychology,” putting her at odds with contemporary materialist psychological views (143-152).

As experiments in cognitive literary historicism, this set of books is a bit of a mixed bag. While there is nothing wrong with using psychology or cognitive science as a lens to explore literature, the exploration must do more than merely test the utility of the lens. Unless the exploration leads toward some larger conclusion, reading the Victorians through this (or any) lens can seem more like a proof of concept than a substantial contribution to knowledge. Lacking rigorous contextualization or even an elaborated theoretical motivation, these “proofs of concept” can seem markedly under-baked. For instance, one section of Young's book appears only in outline. This skeletal “cognitive map” (101) records Young's observations of moments when George Eliot deploys a “linguistic modal shift” that permits Eliot to “borrow from metaphor's metamorphosing magic to transform one being into another,” or as Young explains, “to claim equivalence between beings, so that 'this' is 'that'” (101). Well, certainly any figure in Eliot's writing could be this, or it might be that -- but Young's presentation (one cannot call it an argument) here is so loose as to be nearly meaningless. Her so-called “cognitive map” asserts precisely what needs to be argued, as if halfway through her book she had suddenly lost faith in ordinary forms of persuasive writing.

Naïve scientism threatens to undermine these works as well. For instance, Young repeatedly recurs to the linguists Lakoff and Johnson in order to lend scientific credibility to her claims about how language and knowledge relate to one another; but Lakoff and Johnson hardly constitute the last word on applied linguistics. Garratt makes a similar gesture, toward the work of neuroscientist and popular author Antonio Damasio (139). Why privilege these scientists? Taylor's embrace of science goes so far as to permit her to include, as an “coda” to her volume, an essay she wrote with Jeffrey Savers, MD, that describes the possible neurological substrate of “human narrative capacity” (193) and speculates about clinical manifestations of “dysnarrativia,” a disorder that has yet to make it into the DSM.

It would not be difficult to make cognitive literary historicism a more convincing mode of scholarly inquiry. But the project must move out of the proof-of-concept phase. One way to do this would be to adapt the “lens” of cognitive science to more specific purposes, ideally extending beyond literature to the productions of ordinary life. If these theories of mind were truly general among Victorians, one should be able to find traces of them in the letters and diaries of ordinary Victorians as well as in their novels and poetry.

Related Material


Cohen, William. Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1876. London and New York: Penguin, 1967.

Dames, Nicholas. The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Garratt, Peter. Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot. Madison, WI and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2005.

Levine, George. Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Ryan, Vanessa. Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Rylance, Rick. Victorian Psychology and British Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Spolsky, Ellen."Cognitive Literary Historicism: A Response to Adler and Gross." Poetics Today 24:2 (Summer 2003): 161-183.

Tate, Gregory. The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870 . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Young, Kay. Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Zunshine, Lisa, ed. Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

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Last modified 25 February 2014