Empirical Possibilities: Close Attention to Material Things in Early Eighteenth-Century England
English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
My project expands our understanding of what empiricist scrutiny of the material world meant in early eighteenth-century England. As I look at eighteenth-century writers looking at clocks, falling stones, coins, soil, bees and teacups, I argue that careful empirical attention to the material world fostered glimpses of God's activity and concrete knowledge about His will for mankind. It discovered fundamental truths, thought to have a divine or supra-human sanction, about religion and ethics as well as contemporary social, political and economic institutions. Such attention was crucial to contemporary aesthetics, to ways of understanding how poetry works and what it could do. Bringing these possibilities into focus, I recover a tradition of empiricist precision in English literature and culture that does not assume that scientific or novelistic subjects were fundamentally separate from their objects. Instead, empiricist scrutiny could be motivated by a desire to subordinate human actions and institutions to dictates discovered in the material. Close attention could be premised on a trust in the dense significance of things and on a chastening recognition of the limits of human knowledge. I explore this alternative brand of empirical attention in early popularizations of the Newtonian science of gravity: Newton helped contemporaries see the world as a clock, but it was a clock in which God himself spun the wheels. I argue that a related brand of close attention motivated economic arguments about the recoinage problem, as well as a strange subgenre featuring talking coins. I trace the influence of this mode of attention on Alexander Pope's Essay on Man and the Rape of the Lock. Finally, I suggest that the georgic poetry became popular in this early eighteenth-century moment because it provided an apt generic vehicle for this close attention.
Smith, Courtney, "Empirical Possibilities: Close Attention to Material Things in Early Eighteenth-Century England" (2010). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 855.
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Permanent URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.7936/K7NP22HB