Peter Garratt, Victorian Empiricism

Peter Garratt, Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010), 244pp. £34.95 hb. ISBN 9780838642665

Peter Garratt is certainly right to point out from the outset of his book just how slippery the term “empiricism” really is. I remember the sense of conceptual disarray when, as a graduate student, I realised that Francis Bacon himself was no sympathiser. “The empiric school,” he opined in that supposed textbook of scientific method the Novum Organum (1620), “produces dogmas of a more deformed and monstrous nature than the sophistic or theoretic school; not being founded in the light of common notions (which, however poor and superstitious, is yet in a manner universal, and of a general tendency), but in the confined obscurity of a few experiments.” He therefore makes a point of the need “to caution others against this school, because we already foresee and augur, that if men be hereafter induced by our exhortations to apply seriously to experiments, there will then be imminent danger from empirics, owing to the premature and forward haste of the understanding, and its jumping or flying to generalities and the principles of things. We ought, therefore, already to meet the evil.”

However, this is not the form of empiricism that Garratt has in mind. His subject is not scientific methodology but theories of mind. The starting point is therefore not Bacon but Hume, and the main target those critics influenced by French post-structuralism who have ended up equating British empiricism with an unquestioning faith in the possibility of simple objectivity. For Garratt this claim is critically flawed. The philosophical tradition of British empiricism, he insists, tended in just the opposite direction. It reserved a central place in its epistemology for the question of the perceiving self, and thus produced an outlook that construed truth in thoroughly relative terms.

In the twentieth century, the habitual misunderstanding of empiricism has found reinforcement in a tendency to see the Victorian age as obsessed with an urge to control and to dominate the external world; an error that Garratt ascribes to the modern period’s refusal to perceive its own historicity. Modern and post-modern thinkers have tended to set their own world apart as the one that finally perceived the constructedness of knowledge, and therefore to depict the Victorians at the opposite end of the epistemological scale, as naïve realists. For Garratt, this is a crude historical error. Far from being the period of overweening faith in the knowing mind’s capacity to dominate the material world, the Victorians were in fact responsible for thinking through the consequences of an empirical philosophy that put the problems of perception at the heart of everything.

The roots of this empiricism lie in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century debates around the epistemological status of the ‘ideas’ formed in the human mind. While idealism and materialism form the familiar opposite poles of this debate, empiricism – Garratt suggests – was developed (particularly in Britain) as an attempt to overcome the terms of this dichotomy. Like idealism, it is predicated upon the unavailability of the object to the consciousness in anything other than mediated form; but unlike idealism it repudiates the existence of any kind of inherent or transcendent categories intuitively available to the subjective consciousness upon which knowledge may reliably be constructed. It is an attitude which focuses purely upon the material world as the proper object of study in the construction of knowledge, but acknowledges – paradoxically enough – the ill-fittedness of the conscious mind adequately to apprehend that material world. This is the tension within which the empiricist outlook must attempt to operate.

Garratt presents a varied array of mid-Victorian thinkers as his exemplars of “empiricist thought”, starting with John Ruskin and his study of J.M.W. Turner’s aesthetics of “realism”, before moving on to the more or less systematic efforts to theorise the mind proposed by G.H. Lewes and Alexander Bain, and finally Herbert Spencer’s effort to theorise scientific knowledge itself. This pathway from artist to psychologists to systematiser is punctuated with regular references to the novels of George Eliot. The breadth of this array of references is not intended, however, as a demonstration of empiricism at work in different domains, but rather as a sign of the prevalence of the sorts of issues raised by the empiricist attitude.

For each of these mid-Victorian thinkers, Garratt shows in detail how their work was dominated by the empiricist epistemology. Each of them, in closely related ways, builds up his or her cognitive world around the perplexed difficulty or impossibility for the perceiving subject definitively to seize the object of his perceptions and to master it as object. Ruskin’s Modern Painters is the rambling encounter of one subjectivity with another whose central concern lies in the communication of a perception; not of a thing seen, but of a moment of perception. Ruskin builds up this outlook, surprisingly enough, into a theory of realism. The mere copyist seeking slavishly to imitate a scene actually distorts the perceptibility of the object and is therefore a failed artist; a Turner, who seeks to translate the perceptive moment, is the true realist.

From this aesthetic starting point, Garratt moves on to authors theorising perception itself. The work of G.H. Lewes and Alexander Bain are presented as exemplars of the attempt to carry the characteristically “empirical” outlook into the systematic study of the mind; to inquire into the links between physiology and psychology. In Lewes’s work, Garratt singles out the attention he gave to the eye itself as the privileged locus for the meeting of physiological and psychological systems; in Bain, he moves on to the body as a whole and more specifically this author’s attempts to describe the ‘higher’ psychological attributes of the sentient being in parallel to the associated physiological structures that frame them. In the cases of both of these authors, Garratt is just as interested in their narrative technique as he is in their theorising. In Lewes, for example, an apparently straightforward linear structure to his work is undercut by an expository style of wide-ranging digressive patterns that block rational stage-by-stage construction of selfhood, and insist instead upon the simultaneity and interpenetration of all of the different levels of the system.

The case of Herbert Spencer provides the climax of the book, bringing to the forefront an issue that had lain dormant in the earlier stages. Garratt acknowledges in Spencer’s work an obvious and puzzling tension between the recognition on the one hand of “the implicitly destabilising effects of relativism” and the goal, on the other hand, “of constructing the solid foundations of a unified system of thought” (172). At theoretical level, Garratt deals with this tension admirably, showing how the “Universal Postulate” upon which the edifice of Spencerian knowledge was to be built should properly be understood as a provisional not a definitive yardstick, thus inscribing the resulting construction in an “evolutionary” epistemology dependent upon historical contingency. In this way, Spencer can be saved as a proper empiricist.

Garratt thus effectively makes Spencer and the other Victorian “empiricists” the intellectual forerunners of Barthes and Foucault, and he provides a convincing case for this unconventional derivation. For philosophers and students of cultural studies, this perception is engaging and significant. For historians of science, on the other hand, the omission of a discussion of empiricism as an experimental methodology seems problematic. There is surely a significant distinction to be made between empiricism as an epistemological theory on the one hand, and its practical implications for scientific methodology on the other.

The two issues are not in fact unconnected. If the philosophical debate foregrounded the difficulty or impossibility of the grasping of the object as object in the subjective mind, it also prompted the pragmatic response that a methodology of mensuration might be brought to bear in support of the perceptive powers. The measurement of the object of study, and the devising of control cases in the experimental setting, are examples of methods that were supposed to diminish our dependency on perceptual processes; and this is of course what most of us mean today by “empiricism”.

This is an obvious point, and one that Garratt implicitly recognises in his study. However, he chooses to leave it on the margins of his discussion, no doubt the better to concentrate on the epistemological issues that concern him most closely. This is fair enough and leads to the important results already outlined. However the exclusion is also problematic, even at a conceptual level. The demonstration of Spencer’s thoroughgoing relativism is an interesting case in point. Although Garratt’s demonstration is internally consistent, it fails to take into account what should be a fundamental consideration, which is simply that the “evolutionism” that was so fundamental to Spencer’s theory of knowledge was anything but “empirical” if we can for once take that term in its methodological sense. The fact that Darwin studied the natural world far more than Spencer ever did is not merely a matter of procedural detail. It is what makes the one system an a priori philosophy and the other a scientific theory. To describe Spencer’s epistemological project as “evolutionary”, implying thereby a close conceptual convergence with the Darwinian model, and ignoring its more proper derivation from neo-Lamarckian thought, is to propagate a conceptual confusion as serious in its way as the philosophical confusion identified by Garratt around “empiricism” as an epistemological position.

Garratt’s study is a timely reminder of empiricism’s roots in a sceptical epistemology of perception. It is challenging and interesting to learn about the extent to which unknowability informed so much Victorian thought about the mind and its phenomena, but perhaps also misleading to ignore the paradoxical confidence of many of the same Victorians as to the viability of the results produced by the “scientific” – that is the empirical – attempts to pin back that theoretical unknowabilty into a practical known. As Garratt himself recognises, Spencer was not a man to let his philosophical scepticism get in the way of his scientific confidence.

Richard Somerset, Université de Nancy 2