Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science

Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 368 pp. £26.00 Pb. ISBN: 9780226462202

Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature undertakes a compelling and persuasive analysis of the somewhat obscure but nonetheless engaging relationship between aesthetics and science in the Victorian period. As Morgan explains in his introduction, the text explores ‘Victorian aesthetic thought from a perspective that places particular emphasis on scientific inquiry, and on the sciences of the mind in particular, in order to relocate empiricist, materialist, and positivist thought as central to critical traditions of human interpretation’ (5). This agenda is well illustrated with the opening anecdotes: the example of David Ramsay Hay’s scientific demonstration of why the Venus de’Medici is beautiful, which involved identifying the ratios of the statue’s body parts and determining their alignment to ‘a numerical system of bodily proportions…extrapolated from [Hay’s] study of musical harmony’ (1), and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson’s effort to gauge the effect of looking at the image of a Greek case, which culminated in ‘Thomson telling her listeners that a “lifting pattern” on the vase “thrusts into our body a feeling of lifting”’ (1-4); the connection between aesthetics and the body, in both instances, strongly emphasized.

As Morgan explains, two lines of reasoning emerge from his study: the one that ‘scientific and literary accounts of aesthetic experience intersection through a common grounding in a particular version of materialism’ (5) (one that the book works to define), and the second that ‘the materialist strain within Victorian aesthetics often occasioned nonanthropocentric accounts of affective responses to art, literature, or beauty’ (6). For those readers engaged with the study of Victorian aesthetics more broadly, Morgan’s engagement with this latter point, the ‘materialist strain’ and the ‘nonanthropocentric accounts’, is particularly intriguing because it draws these more obscure efforts to understand beauty into keen focus, not only with current efforts, but also with the aesthetics of William Morris, Walter Pater, and John Ruskin, whose studies are well incorporated into Morgan’s work to provide context.

The book divides into three sections. The introduction is extended to provide a firm grounding of material aesthetics, drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgment to contextualize Kant’s ‘key principles of disinterestedness and subjective universality’ (7) in relation to Victorian aesthetics (as Morgan notes, ‘[f]ew arguments about beauty of occasioned more philosophical reflection than Kant’s exclusion of bodily inclination from aesthetic judgment’ [7-8]) and likewise outlining why ‘philosophers have rarely taken post-Enlightenment British aesthetic theory seriously’ (9), as Morgan clearly does.

Part One, titled, ‘Towards a Science of Beauty’, outlines in two subsections the significance of form to aesthetics and the various measures of affect. The chapter on form discusses ‘widely shared aspirations in mid-nineteenth-century Britain to develop an empirical science of beauty’, opening with another anecdote of a meeting between the empirically-minded Hay and John Ruskin, whom Morgan describes as understanding aesthetics according to very different principles: ‘social rather than mathematical; organic rather than transcendental’ (28). Importantly, Morgan explains that ‘[f]or many who wished to transform aesthetics into a science, superstructures such as culture or society were understood as secondary determinants of aesthetic judgment – mere inflections of the permanent and universal laws actually governing taste’ (29), setting up a strong counterpoint to Ruskin for the works of Hay and contemporaries discussed from Morgan’s ‘oblique angle, focusing on vernacular attempts to understand the aesthetic that were parallel but ultimately also peripheral to the more influential projects of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites’ (30).

The opening of the second subsection on the scale of affect poses the question whether it would be ‘possible to read a poem by tabulating whether its individual words induce pleasurable sensations?’, explaining that this was indeed the ‘gambit’ of science writer and novelist, Grant Allen, whose Physiological Aesthetics (1877), was a ‘direct rebuttal to John Ruskin’s claim, in the first volume of Modern Painters, that any inquiry into why humans take delight in beauty is futile’ (86-7). Morgan discusses several other positions in this chapter, lesser known studies of ‘material aesthetics’, but in each case, he persists in aligning his discussion to more familiar ideas and works, to Ruskin and Pater’s theories, and, where appropriate, to fictional works such as Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native for its engagement with aesthetic response.

Part Two, entitled ‘The Outward Turn’, divides into three subparts, including the Epilogue. The first section discusses materiality in relation to Walter Pater and so-called ‘Late-Victorian Materialists’, exploring, in particular, the ‘Victorian notions of materiality as bearing qualities of mind, or as “enminded”’ (136).

The second section, ‘Practice: William Morris’s Socialist Physiology’, examines Morris’s engagement with ‘the materiality of language and of art as an aspect of his socialist politics’ (175), arguing that ‘Morris treats aesthetic experience from the perspective of relational environments rather than individuated units such as “the artwork” or “the spectator” and that romance, as a literary genre, provides Morris with a formal means of developing his claims against individuation and introspection’ (177).

In the third section, ‘Empathy: Counting Words with Vernon Lee and I.A. Richards’, Morgan brings his discussion into the early twentieth century, examining ‘the fate of the materialist, physiological, and somatic aesthetics pursued by many Victorians’ by approaching the concept of ‘empathy’ as developed in the early twentieth century by Vernon Lee, particularly.

Finally, in the Epilogue, Morgan concludes his study by turning his full attention – drawing the various points of focus from the previous chapters – on to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, identifying it as ‘the period’s most renowned aesthetic object’ (255).

Although there are a great many reasons to read this book – not least to gain an understanding of a relatively obscure branch of Victorian aesthetics - one of the strongest is simply to attain a firmer grounding in the mindset of the period. Throughout each section of the book, Morgan succeeds in mapping the broader debates in which his primary subjects were participating.

Charlotte Fiehn, Lucy Cavendish College
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