Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Unknowable Realism, 1860–1900: Realism Beyond Herbert Spencer's Limits to Knowledge
by Chambers, Michael C. L., Ph.D., Indiana University, 2019, 254; 27670931
Abstract (Summary)

One of the hallmarks of the Victorian era was its scientific and philosophical achievements: from Darwinian evolutionary theory to the discoveries and formulations of fundamental laws of physics, human knowledge seemed to be rapidly increasing. But Victorian thinkers also had serious concerns about how, and how much, it was possible to know. As important critical studies have shown, one of the manifestations of this anxiety could be found in the period’s literary realism.

In my dissertation, I take up this scholarly interest in the complexities of Victorian epistemology and its connections with realism, but from a different angle. Rather than focus on how knowledge is possible, I train my sights on how late-Victorian realism engages an under-explored yet vital aspect of the period’s intellectual discourse: the notion of what cannot be known, or even thought. This was epitomized in an incredibly influential but now largely forgotten concept called “the Unknowable,” a cornerstone of the agnostic philosophy developed by one of the nineteenth century’s most renowned thinkers, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). The Unknowable—an undefinable “something” beyond the bounds of conceivability—was Spencer’s answer to the era’s increasing clashes between science and religion, and his theory attempted to reconcile the two domains by proving the necessary existence of something literally unthinkable but of which we had a vague, yet real, sense. For many, Spencer’s concept represented a spiritual agnosticism.

Taking Spencer’s Unknowable as my guiding principle, I examine late-nineteenth-century fiction by three authors: Olive Schreiner (1855–1920), Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), and Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). I argue that a constellation of ideas surrounding the Unknowable—such as the spiritual agnosticism it suggests, the limits of knowledge, and the possible human experience of something beyond the bounds of conceivability—heavily influenced how certain late-century authors conceived the project of realism, the mode of fiction that has historically been seen by critics as the most concerned with the practices of gaining knowledge through observation, and of drawing limits to what is possible to know about reality.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Greiner, Rae
Commitee: Morgan, Monique, Kreilkamp, Ivan, Fleissner, Jennifer
School: Indiana University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- Indiana
Source: DAI-A 81/7(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: British and Irish literature, Philosophy of Science
Keywords: Agnosticism, Astrophysics, Spencer, Herbert , Realism, Relativism, Unknowable
Publication Number: 27670931
ISBN: 9781392656624
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