Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romanticism and the Experience of Experiment

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romanticism and the Experience of Experiment

Article excerpt

"Experiment" was an important term and concept for many Romantic authors. In All Religions are One, for example, William Blake wrote, admittedly ambiguously, " [t]he true method of knowledge is experiment" (1); more explicitly, Wordsworth described the poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) as "experiments" (i), and seems thereby to have been the first author in the English language to describe poetry as a practice that could be "experimental." In Germany, Novalis also linked the concepts of experiment and poiesis, suggesting in the notes for his "encyclopedia," Das Allgemeine Brouillon, that the problem with Fichte's and Kant's method was that neither "know yet how to experiment [experimentieren] with ease and variety--neither are in the least bit poetical' (445). Novalis concluded that "[i]n the end all reflection seems to lead to genuine experimentation [Experimentieren]--and the need to temper and to prove the so-called doctrine of reason--the necessity, method, etc. of experimentation and of life--through constant experimentation" (402; translations from Francis Henderson's "Novalis, Ritter and 'Experiment'," 154-55). This Romantic appropriation of the term experiment for literature and life turned out to be pivotal for subsequent understandings of art, for since the late 19th century at the latest, experimentation has been understood as an essential capacity of art, and perhaps even its telos or raison d'etre: as Theodor Adorno put it in Aesthetic Theory, "art is now scarcely possible unless it does experiment" (38).

In Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (2013), I focused on the relationship between Romantic literary experimentation and vitalism, and sought to bring to Romantic literary criticism some of the insights on scientific experimentation developed in the work of science and technology studies scholarship, such as the question of the "virtual witnesses" implied by Romantic artistic experiments. In this essay, I consider the relationship between Romantic understandings of experiment and "modernity critiques" of scientific experimentation developed by authors such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, Hannah Arendt, and Sandra Harding. I argue that this mode of critique, and especially Arendt's version of it, isolates a key aspect of the modern scientific experiment that emerged in the 17th century: namely, its rejection of the premise of sensory "givenness" that was assumed in ancient, medieval, and even competing early modern accounts of the process that led to knowledge. In addition, Arendt's analysis illuminates the fact that, since at least the seventeenth century, the term "experiment" was part of a matrix of concepts that also included "truth," "givenness," and "human flourishing"; as a consequence, the history of the concept of experimentation is in part the history of reconfigurations of the elements of this matrix. From this perspective, the Romantic experiment--or at least my primary example here, the form of experimental poem published in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's 1798 Lyrical Ballads--was an attempt to bring givenness back to the experience of experiment by casting the latter as a reflexive engagement with the givennness of common language. This reflexive engagement with linguistic givenness would not lead to knowledge, precisely, but rather to an affective attunement intended to enable what ancient philosophers called eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

Since its emergence in the 17th century, the new experimental mode of science--as well as the "Enlightenment" or "modernity" that this new form of science seemed either to exemplify or inaugurate--has frequently been linked by both advocates and critics to the figure of Francis Bacon. The template for these links among the new sciences, experiment, and Bacon was established early in texts such as Thomas Sprat's the History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), which described Bacon as having provided "the best arguments, that can be produc'd for the defence of Experimental Philosophy" (35). …

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