14 July 2016

Review: Fact and Feeling by Jonathan Smith

Hardcover, 277 pages
Published 1994
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination
by Jonathan Smith

Smith's monograph traces the use of Baconian induction in Victorian literature. Smith begins by tracing out a model of what Baconian science means, summarizing it as 1) collection of facts, 2) gradual movement toward truth, and 3) rejection of hypotheses. He argues that the Victorians were finding cracks in Baconianism: for example, fact-collecting cannot really be indiscriminate (you need some kind of hypothesis to drive your data collection). But Bacon was still valorized by some, though not necessarily for the things he actually said or did.

The most interesting of the later chapters (to me, of course) were the ones on John Ruskin and Sherlock Holmes. In the Ruskin chapter, Smith is able to carefully delineate Ruskin's point of view on science. Ruskin wasn't opposed to science in general, but what he saw as foolish science: science that subordinated vision to inductive reason, prioritizing what could not be seen over what could be seen. This feels kind of reasonable on the face of it, until you remember that Ruskin rejected the idea of glaciers moving because he couldn't see them moving. Ruskin prioritized sight, and felt that scientists like Tyndall were too rapid and superficial in their observations.

His chapter on Holmes admirably and thoroughly lays out what it means for Holmes to think "scientifically": Holmes claims to be a naive Baconian that doesn't let theories affect his sight, that jars with the very strong personality Holmes portrays throughout the stories. Smith shows how Holmes both decries the dangers of the imagination and utterly relies upon the imagination to make the leaps of logic that the police (who Holmes derides as naive Baconians) cannot. It's a compelling discussion of why we shouldn't take Holmes (or Doyle) at his word when describing his detective method, but should instead look at what he actually does and how it interacts with the philosophy of science of the day (or, rather, the past, since naive Baconianism was mostly out by the 1890s).

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