Anne M. Thell, Minds in Motion: Imagining Empiricism in Eighteenth-Century British Travel Writing

Anne M. Thell, Minds in Motion: Imagining Empiricism in Eighteenth-Century British Travel Writing (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2017), 286 pp, £70.14 ($105) Hb, ISBN: 978-1611488272

What happens to our minds when we travel? How do we accommodate, and respond to, unfamiliar sensory data? Is the knowledge acquired in the course of travel superior to that obtained through other means? And what is the best way for travellers to communicate their experiences to others? These are some of the questions posed, and answered, by Anne M. Thell’s book, Minds in Motion: Imagining Empiricism in Eighteenth-Century British Travel Writing.

Because travel writing is preoccupied by the relationship between the self and the world, Thell explains, it lends itself particularly well to investigations of epistemology. Focussing on the long eighteenth century, a period which is especially ‘invested in sorting out its epistemological hold on the external world’ (3), she examines the ways in which travel writing engages with, and challenges, models of empiricism, as well as concomitant debates about knowledge and authority. Travel writing, we are told, does more than simply absorb philosophical ideas and ideals from elsewhere. It is, in its own right, an ‘epistemological playing field’ which ‘operates at the front line of the period’s intellectual developments’ (3), drawing on, and critiquing, a number of ‘empirical concepts’, including ‘impartiality and observational detachment’, ‘the mechanics of sense perception’, and ‘the primacy of first-hand experience’ (4). Thell suggests that these epistemological issues play out on the level of literary form, which means that we should attend to travel writing’s formal self-consciousness, and, in particular, to the rhetorical strategies that travel writers employ in order to establish their credibility.  

Thell claims, further, that the travel literature of this period (she uses the terms ‘travel writing’, ‘travel literature’, ‘travel narrative’, and ‘travelogue’ interchangeably) can be read as an ‘archive’ through which to trace the formation of disciplines, including the eventual cleavage between the ‘literary’ and the ‘scientific’ (5). Ranging across these disciplinary domains, Thell sets out to show that travel writing is at once ‘an expression of the methods and rhetoric of empiricism’ as well as ‘a literary exercise with innate aesthetic functions’ (5). In keeping with her study’s interdisciplinary, or, more properly, antedisciplinary thrust, Thell defines travel writing in broad terms, as texts which ‘chart an individual’s first-hand account of movement through space outside of the habitual […] and therefore document the dislocation of normative perception’ (7), incorporating elements of both history and fiction in the process. Indeed, as Thell goes on to show, the travel writing of the eighteenth century is, in no small part, about travel writing, an interrogation, carried out within and between texts, authors, and geographies, of what the genre should be.

  The study comprises five chapters, each of which situates the writings of an individual author within their wider aesthetic and epistemological contexts. Thell’s aim, as she puts it, is not comprehensiveness, but the use of ‘specific moments’ (26), beginning in the 1660s and ending in the 1770s, to illustrate broader developments in the intellectual history of the period. Chapter 1 considers Margaret Cavendish’s critique of the philosophical programme of the Royal Society, particularly its use of the language of impartiality. It reads Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (166;1668) alongside The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666;1668), to show that Cavendish’s theories of matter are, in essence, theories of motion. For Cavendish, motion is ‘an ontological necessity’ as well as ‘the animating force behind all natural phenomena’ (42), making Blazing World – which, Thell says, ‘is, at its heart, a travel narrative’ (43) – an especially useful vehicle through which to articulate an alternative philosophy. By teasing out the literary implications of Cavendish’s philosophy, Thell reveals that Blazing World experiments with genre, drawing on the tropes and forms of romance, autobiography, and more, as well as with perspective, imitating the shifts between familiarity and estrangement that characterise the experience of travel. The final section of the chapter discusses Cavendish’s underexamined fragment ‘A Piece of a Play’, identifying parallels between the character of Lady Phoenix, the Empress of Blazing World, and Cavendish herself. To my mind, this chapter is the weakest of the five. Although it offers useful insight into the relationship of form and epistemology in Cavendish’s oeuvre, it does not deepen our understanding of Cavendish in any meaningful way. Instead, it reiterates a critical commonplace: that Cavendish occupies a ‘position on the margins’ (42), and that she ‘breaks so definitively’ (65) from figures who paved the way for modern empiricism, such as Bacon, Hooke, and (later) Locke. Without denying the distinctiveness of Cavendish’s epistemology, the argument of the chapter might have been nuanced by a consideration of the ways in which she operated within, rather than in opposition to, her time. For example, Blazing World may be a ‘travel narrative’ of sorts, but it also owes much to the utopian tradition. Still more pertinent, perhaps, is Cavendish’s ‘Oration concerning the Forein Travels of Young Gentlemen’, published in her Orations (1662), which brings together a number of the conventional tenets of humanist travel advice, as well as the tropes deployed in the debates about travel which occurred in the late sixteenth century. Given that this oration constitutes one of Cavendish’s most explicit engagements with contemporary discourses of travel, and, indeed, with the intersection of travel and rhetoric, it is unfortunate that it goes unmentioned.

Thell is on firmer footing in chapter 2, which studies the writings of the naturalist and privateer William Dampier. The chapter examines Dampier’s use of the persona of the ‘modest witness’, and its relationship to ‘nascent concepts of objectivity’ (76), particularly in the context of the Royal Society’s instructions to travellers. Thell suggests that the accounts of privateers like Dampier, who are ‘so obviously invested in the action and rewards of their travels’, reveal the conflicts between ‘detachment and investment, narrative and natural history, and observation and reflection’, present in all travel writing in this period, in particularly sharp relief. She offers readings of Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World (1697) and the later Voyages and Descriptions (1699), discussing the tension between ‘Actions’ and ‘Places’, which Dampier treats as discrete categories, as well as his emphasis on ‘useful knowledge’. Further, she shows that Dampier is vexed by the competing demands of exhaustiveness and selectivity, or, to put it slightly differently (and in terms with which early modern writers would have been familiar), between particular things and general (or ‘universal’) knowledge. Fittingly, the chapter undertakes its own skilled negotiation of particular and general: it considers the significance of particular narrative strategies, such as mimesis and diegesis, of particular rhetorical devices, such as digression, and even of particular words, such as the recurrent term ‘swell’.

Daniel Defoe is the subject of chapter 3. Thell begins with a discussion of a passage from Defoe’s Compleat English Gentleman (c. 1729) in order to analyse his attitudes to the relative merits of geographical study (the perusal of books, charts, maps, and so on) and actual travel. For Defoe, Thell argues, the former is superior to the latter: unlike the traveller, who is limited in what he can see, the reader can access multiple points of view, absorb information more quickly, and, figuratively speaking, cover more ground. The rest of the chapter considers the ways in which these ideas inflect the narrative strategies of Defoe’s prose, paying particular attention to The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720) and A New Voyage Round the World, by a Course Never Sailed Before (172[4]), an account designed to be a competitor to Dampier’s work of the same name. Thell argues that Defoe calls the conventions of early eighteenth-century travel writing into question, and that he offers an alternative model, one which aims to immerse the reader in the experience of travel. This kind of reading, Thell suggests, has parallels with Kames’s notion of ‘ideal presence’, a ‘state of absorption’ in which readers ‘feel as if they are immediately “present” at the scene described’ (126). Experiential reading is explored further in chapter 4, on John Hawkesworth’s compilation of Pacific voyages, published in 1773. The chapter considers the ‘public scapegoating’ (153) to which this compilation was subjected, explaining that early readers took issue with its moral and theological content, as well as with the style of the account. Stylistic elements singled out for criticism include rhetorical embellishment, classical allusion, and, perhaps most controversially, the use of the first-person to relate events which Hawkesworth did not himself witness. According to Thell, Hawkesworth’s compilation was unsettling because it ‘reveal[s] certain generic conventions as conventions’ (155), and, in so doing, ‘raises crucial questions about the nature, reliability, and primacy of first-hand experience and, therefore, the very premises of empiricism’ (178).   

            Chapter 5, finally, attends to Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). It suggests that Johnson’s Journey, not unlike Isaac Newton’s Opticks, is an investigation of sight, and the relationship of perception, cognition, and imagination. The Journey is an unusual travel account, Thell explains, because it theorises and dramatizes moments in which the traveller’s sight is limited, or in which it fails altogether. In articulating the tensions and uncertainties of travel, and undermining the equation of seeing and knowing, the Journey suggests that knowledge can, and indeed must, be obtained through other means. For Johnson, the defamiliarizing effects of travel, the ways in which it inhibits sight, are useful precisely because they enable the traveller (and, by extension, the reader) to comprehend perception itself.

            Minds in Motion is an ambitious book, not only in its interdisciplinary approach, which brings together elegantly the histories of literature, science, and philosophy, but also in the its expansive definition of ‘travel writing’. This expansiveness, which complicates the boundaries of fact and fiction, allows Thell to range from considerations of autobiography and the notion of the ‘modest witness’, to the history of the novel, including, for instance, a particularly memorable discussion of the significance of Hawkesworth’s reference to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Thell certainly proves her central thesis: that the travel writing of this period shapes, and is shaped by, contemporary epistemological debates. But she does much more than this. By insisting upon the inextricability of epistemology and form, her study calls our attention to travel writing’s literariness, showing that debates about the aesthetics of travel writing – conducted in venues as diverse as authorial prefaces, the proceedings of the Royal Society, and periodicals like The Adventurer – were as vigorous as critical writing on and responses to other literary genres. The structure of the book plays an important part in Thell’s reconstruction of these debates. Although the chapters focus on individual authors, they situate these authors and their oeuvres within wider contexts; indeed, in some cases, as in Defoe’s response to Dampier, these authors engage with each other directly. We learn from Thell that attempts to institutionalise and standardise travel writing did not, in fact, result in a narrowing of the genre’s scope. On the contrary, it seems that the more various authorities (be they of the literary critical or scientific sort) try to police travel writing, the more the genre experiments, undertaking travels of its own. Placing travel writing at the centre, rather than the margins, of literary and intellectual history thus helps us to understand this period, and indeed notions of ‘literature’ and ‘literariness’, in a richer, more nuanced way. 

            The book’s historical framing is, however, somewhat problematic. I am not convinced that the phenomena Thell describes are as unique to the long eighteenth century as she suggests. Her argument would have benefitted from some engagement with early modern travel writing, which established a precedent for a number of the issues under discussion. For example, the emphasis that travel writers place on ‘useful knowledge’, an emphasis Thell attributes to ‘the Royal Society’s rhetoric’ (82), has its roots in the much older ars apodemica (‘art of travel’), and in the pedagogical debates about the usefulness of travel which took place in the sixteenth century onwards. Similarly, Thell’s discussion of Francis Bacon’s influence on the Royal Society would have been enriched by a consideration of Bacon’s engagement with apodemic writing: his essay ‘Of Travaile’, as well as the letters of advice to the Earl of Rutland attributed to him, are conventional examples of the genre, grounded in humanist and classical thought. Thell’s references to rhetoric are apt, if underexplored, because a number of the formal and stylistic features she examines would be better understood within the contexts of the rhetorical tradition. Dampier’s writing on the tension between ‘Actions’ and ‘Places’ owes a great deal to the rhetorical topics of circumstance, while Defoe’s preoccupation with experiential reading resonates with classical and early modern writing on the transporting powers of ekphrasis. (And, indeed, Defoe’s weighing up of the benefits of reading and travel is an iteration of a topos that is at least as old as Horace’s Epistles, and which recurs in Thomas Wilson’s sixteenth-century art of rhetoric, as well as in the aforementioned debates). Finally, a longer historical view would have added new dimensions to Thell’s consideration of reason and imagination, which are theorised at length in ancient and early modern writing on the ‘soul’, as well as in earlier travel writing. It would be impossible to cover all of this material in one monograph in detail, of course, but it does seem important to acknowledge that there is a much longer history of travellers grappling with questions of epistemology and form, a history which shapes directly the writings produced by Thell’s protagonists.   

            Minor issues aside, this is an impressive book, full of elegant close reading and difficult, compelling ideas. It is an important and exciting contribution to scholarship on travel writing, as well as to literary history more generally, and will, I expect, make a distinctive mark on the landscape.  

Natalya Din-Kariuki, University of Warwick