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Title: The poetics of mid-Victorian scientific materialism in the writings of John Tyndall, W.K. Clifford and others
Author: Mackowiak, Jeffrey Robert
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2008
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Abstract:
My dissertation examines the representations of materialism -- a philosophy stereotypically associated with a reductive, anti-theological and mechanistic world-picture -- in the published prose and (typically) unpublished poetry of several figures central to scientific discourse in the latter half of the nineteenth century, most notably W. K. Clifford, a mathematician, and John Tyndall, a physicist and media-savvy ‘champion of science’. These engagements, and representations, were not merely on the level of ‘direct’ argumentation, however. A self-consciously allusive, even polyphonous tone was far from uncommon in the many literatures arising from mid-Victorian scientific encounter, and this openness of form permitted both popularisers and critics of materialism to choose the vocabularies in which to relate their observations –- the texts with which they would engage –- towards specific ends. As I argue, such was a task they performed with great care and an often astonishing felicity: an essay on cosmology, after all, acquires quite a different colouration when interleaved with the cadences of Milton, another again if illustrated with quotations from Whitman or an epigram from ‘Tintern Abbey’. My 1st chapter provides a broader context for those that follow, analysing both changing nineteenth-century ideas of materialism and also a range of potential reactions to -– and inter alia a variety of the contrasting vernaculars used in illustration of –- contemporary metaphysical or ‘methodological’ materialism. My 2nd chapter offers a reading of Tyndall’s August 1874 Belfast Address, the locus classicus for practically all later elaborations of materialistic belief. My 3rd chapter contrasts the theologically orthodox position of James Clerk Maxwell (buttressed by allusions to the theologically doctrinaire George Herbert) with the radically atheistic and materialistic philosophy of Clifford (underpinned by the similarly atheistic Algernon Charles Swinburne). My 4th and 5th chapters are paired studies in the ‘private’ nuances of Tyndall’s ideology, elaborating on my 2nd chapter’s scrutiny of its more public attributes. The former discusses his notions of cosmic connectedness, ironically derived from the non-materialistic works of Carlyle. The latter examines both the exultancy and the despair explicit in Tyndall’s poetry and implicit in his prose. As I note in conclusion, such contrary emotions, phrased with striking clarity in Tyndall, are common in mid-Victorian writings concerning materialism, directly or indirectly. They are rooted in the hopes afforded by materialism’s explanatory prowess, on the one hand, and the ‘atrophy of spirit’ born of its austere, even dehumanising, epistemology, on the other; that is to say, in a salutary awareness of both power and pitfalls.
Supervisor: Beer, Gillian; Clifford, David Sponsor: Cambridge Overseas Trust ; UK Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals ; Master and Fellows of Trinity College ; Cambridge
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID: uk.bl.ethos.567847  DOI: Not available
Keywords: John Tyndall ; James Clerk Maxwell ; William Kingdon Clifford ; Victorian scientific poetry ; Victorian scientific materialism ; Victorian thermodynamics ; Victorian popular science
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