British Romantic Cognitive Science


A review of The Embodied Imagination: British Romantic Cognitive Science, by Lisa Ann Robertson.

Lisa Ann Robertson’s dissertation is an ambitious tour de force about Romantic theories of mind of scientists and poets alike. On the one hand, Robertson corrects the commonly received notion of British empiricist theories of mind as purely passive; on the other hand, she shows how this knowledge allows for a new and more nuanced reading of William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834) theories of mind, by considering their work as “part of the discourse on cognitive science” (p. 119).

Robertson situates The Embodied Imagination in response to new historicists, such as Jerome McGann and Marjorie Levinson, who have ignored and misrepresented empiricist theories of mind and their significance on literary Romanticism. The cognitive historicist approach, which in Romantic literary studies has been championed in particular by Alan Richardson over the last decade, allows Robertson to set Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s theories of mind and imagination in a new context: British empiricism and cognitive science. Being aware of the contingencies as a scholar and the influence of our present knowledge on our understanding of the past, Robertson’s other goal is to render the scientists’ and the poets’ theories “more intelligible to our cultural moment” (p. 25). Hence, central in this work are past and present “materialist theories of mind” (p. 2): Romantic cognitive science, informed by “enaction,” a cognitive theory of the twenty-first century. Enaction contends that our knowledge and perception of the world neither reside in the object, nor in the subject, but that they are the result of constant mediation between the two. In other words, it mediates between the seemingly incompatible dichotomies materialism/transcendentalism, subject/object, structuralism/post-structuralism, and culture/biology, which — as Robertson argues — Romantic scientists and poets did too.

David Hartley (1705-1757) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) are well-known for the theory of association and political radicalism respectively. In Chapter 1, Robertson draws attention to a fairly neglected aspect of their works, namely the central role of the body in their theories of cognition, and argues that they inaugurated the “British Romantic science of the mind” (p. 27). Hartley’s Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749), Priestley’s abridged publication of the former, Hartley’s Theory of Mind on the Principles of Association of Ideas, with Essays Relating to the Subject of it (1775), and Priestley’s own Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) criticize the “Christianized neo-Platonic views of the body” (p. 27) and relegate it a central role in the higher divine scheme. In Hartley, this criticism is implicit, but within his “larger epistemological commitment” (p. 34) the body is necessary to access divine truth. Priestley more explicitly proposes Christianity as a “materialist philosophy” (p. 45) and “cognition as a function of organization” (p. 46), as Robertson argues. She then shows how embodied cognition is connected to the natural world and social change in Hartley’s and Priestley’s works, and closes the chapter with a discussion on their vital influence on Coleridge’s idea of Pantisocracy and Wordsworth’s poetic theory, which are both predicated by the embodied cognition found in Hartley and Priestley.

Despite the revolutionary nature of Hartley’s and Priestley’s works, they depict a mind that only “passively registers experience” and remains “constrained by mechanical principles” (p. 69). The second chapter presents close analyses of three scientists — Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Humphry Davy (1778-1829), and Tom Wedgwood (1771-1805) — whose contribution to the British empiricist notion of the mind has been neglected and underrated. Not rejecting but extending their predecessors’ works, they developed “materialist theories of the active mind” (p. 72). Robertson’s discussion on Erasmus Darwin, who initiated this second wave of British cognitive science, shows in detail the shift from the mechanistic to the organic view of the mind in his biological approach. In Darwin’s wake, Humphry Davy attempted to explain the active mind by means of chemistry. Most of his theorizing on cognition and the mind is not found in any published sources but in his unpublished notebooks. While he interrogates questions about abstract ideas, transcendence, and the sublime, he remains “firmly rooted in the British empirical materialist tradition” (p. 89). In her discussion of Tom Wedgwood, Robertson again heavily relies on manuscript material to analyze his thoughts on “the subjective nature of perception,” “the role of feeling in the process of association,” and that of “pleasure and pain” in “character formation” (p. 104). Throughout the chapter, Robertson further delineates the influence and close connection these scientists had on Wordsworth and Coleridge, thus establishing the basis for the following chapters that return to the poets in more detail.

In Chapter 3 Robertson argues that Wordsworth’s poetical work and his philosophy, in particular his philosophy of mind and imagination, have to be considered in the light of this Romantic cognitive science. Tracing influences of the scientists discussed in the previous chapters, Robertson adds Baron d’Holbach’s (1723-1789) The System of Nature (1770) as a major influence. Robertson does not agree with previous critics, such as Alan Grob, that Wordsworth replaced his early materialism in favor of transcendentalism; instead, his theory of imagination shows that he retained and integrated elements of both poles and considered the “relationship between human beings and nature not in terms of rupture, but reciprocity” (p. 122), i.e. “in enactive terms” (p. 123). Enaction maintains that cognition is not the mere reaction of the mind to environmental stimuli, but involves a complex pattern of co-dependent actions and reactions of the perceiving organism and its environment. The body at once enables and restricts our perception of and our engagement with the external world, for which Baron d’Holbach provided the Romantic “theoretical corollary” (p. 128). Within this new context, Robertson underlines the notion of embodied cognition in Wordsworth’s early poetry, reads “Tintern Abbey” and The Prelude in provocatively new ways, reconsiders his philosophical allegiances, and delineates the embodied and enactive elements in his theories of mind and imagination. In line with past and modern enactive theories of mind, Wordsworth was not wavering between empiricism and transcendentalism, as critics have argued, but attempted to establish a ground on which both approaches meet and enrich each other.

Although by the 1810s Coleridge renounced all material influences and sought to establish a purely transcendentalist account of mind, Robertson opposes the opinion of eminent Coleridge scholars such as Kathleen Coburn and Thomas McFarland, and maintains that he also “combines aspects of transcendentalism and empirical materialism” (p. 179). In addition to the previously discussed scientists, John Thelwall’s An Essay, Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality (1793) serves as an additional source for Coleridge’s enactive theory of mind in Chapter 4. Robertson thus resituates Coleridge’s philosophical position, and argues that it mediates between the object and the subject. She also considers his notion of (physical) organization, the role he attributes to consciousness and that of emotion in experiencing knowledge and perception. The picture Robertson draws is a complex one: a poet and thinker who neither could accept the contingencies of embodiment due to his opium addiction and his wish for transcendence, nor could shake off the influence of contemporary materialist theories. The result is an oeuvre that seems contradictory. Robertson’s cognitive historicist approach shows, however, that the result is in fact not contradictory but complementary, and that Coleridge unwittingly sought what modern enactionists actively seek: a philosophical middle ground.

The last chapter returns to various issues and authors, presenting in a broader context the trends that the Romantic period and the twenty-first century share. Robertson locates the reason for this amount of convergence in embodied cognitive theories in the “cultural conditions” (p. 240) and the “historical development of the science of the mind” (p. 241). Both Romantic cognitive science and enaction grew out of more limited, mechanistic theories of mind in order to come to terms with concepts such as selfhood, free will, consciousness, and emotion in a more universal and complete way than their predecessors. More explicitly than in the previous chapters, she “reconnect[s] the present with the past” (p. 243) and convincingly establishes the relevance of two-hundred-year-old theories to our present understanding of the subject and its embodied interaction with the world.

In the burgeoning field of cognitive historicism, Lisa Ann Robertson’s dissertation is a vital and timely contribution to the critical debate on the science and literature of the Romantic period. She significantly redraws some boundaries by putting to the fore neglected aspects of famous scientists and authors and by establishing the relevance of lesser-known scientists from this period. Moving seamlessly between literary, past and present scientific, and philosophical issues and discussing how they overlap and blend at times, Robertson provides a very broad and simultaneously detailed picture of the Romantic cognitive science. This dissertation is of interest to literary scholars, historians of science, and cognitive scientists interested in the history of their own discipline.

Markus Iseli
Institute of English Studies
University of Neuchâtel

Primary Sources

Humphry Davy’s Manuscript Notebooks, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, United Kingdom
Tom Wedgwood’s Manuscript Letters, Keele University, Keele, United Kingdom
Tom Wedgwood’s Manuscript Notebooks, Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom
The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth
The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dissertation Information

University of Alberta. 2013. 308 pp. Primary Advisor: David Miall.

Image: Logical and creative brain hemispheres, by andreea. Desktopwallpaper4me. Used with permission.

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