The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis. Timb D. Hoswell
HoWa: House of Waho/Lulu, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

It is fascinating to see how Blake gets embroiled in mini-cyclones of controversy (particularly considering his obscurity during his own lifetime). The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis has been attracting a great deal of attention online, primarily due to Creationists latching onto it as an ultimate refutation of Darwinism. As Hoswell, currently researching a PhD at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney, remarks in his preface to the book, this promotion of The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis as some simple anti-Darwinian text completely misses the point of his study, which does not seek to invalidate either biology as a science or evolution as a scientific theory, but rather to explore the “epistemic problem” facing scientists who seek “either to discover or create a sound foundation for knowledge.” This book, as Hoswell states in his conclusion, is merely the first step in considering the obstacles set in the way of those who wish to ascribe to imagination a role in structuring our knowledge of the world around us, and a revised edition is now available from

An epistemological critique of science is not itself particularly unique, of course: constructivism, for example, has a complex history since Jean Piaget emphasised the development of scientific knowledge out of peer interactions from the late 1920s onwards, and Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift” has been immensely popular (if also frequently misunderstood and contentious) since its introduction in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. These theorists and many others have emphasised the non-objective elements of scientific knowledge, although the sensible critiques of empiricism and positivism are not concerned to support the foundations of Creationist belief any more than Hoswell’s book. What is particularly interesting about this particular text is the serious evaluation of Blake as a philosopher rather than simply poet or artist dealing with our ideas of the foundations of knowledge, and where The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis demonstrates its originality is by considering the intrinsic role that imagination has to play in all processes of knowledge, linking the insights provided by Blake with those of the anarchist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Of course, it is possible to find some similar insights in critics from Northrop Frye onwards, but these tend to gloss over Blake’s most explicit philosophical texts, the tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, published in 1788.

In his preface, Hoswell discourages viewing his work as an example of so-called “post-atheism”, but instead begins the book proper with what he characterises as the problem for much scientific epistemology, referred to here as both “the Cartesian Quandary” and “the Darwinian Paradox” (with refutations offered in the form of predicate/propositional calculus in the appendices). The first draws on the assumption by Enlightenment philosophers that if God had provided us with reason to understand creation, yet that understanding indicates the absence of God, what foundation is there for our knowledge? If we are simply animals like any other (Darwin’s premise), then belief is adaptive and there is no ground for believing in the truth of evolution: all our knowledge may be faulty, without any fundamental certainties. Descartes attempted to square the circle through a reformulation of the ontological argument, positing a necessary existence of God (if my idea of God is perfect but he does not exist, then he is not perfect – therefore God, defined as perfection, must exist), an argument that never escapes its own circularity and, as Kant pointed out, depended on the assumption that existence is more perfect than non-existence. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, while offering various (and somewhat cursory) rejections of this and other arguments for the existence of God, offers a metaphor of the crane ratcheting up levels of complexity to explain his view of how human consciousness can emerge without recourse to a higher, supernatural power. Dawkins’ own quandary (as well as the fact that his own metaphor relies too much on the old fallacy of the argument from analogy) is that the very Darwinism of his evolutionary biology that insists the watchmaker is blind cannot provide epistemological proof for those beliefs, and it is this faith of science in its own truth that Hoswell correctly identifies as the root of the problem. Interestingly, Hoswell distinguishes the position of the scientist concerned to find a foundation of truth for his ideas from that of what he refers to as the “engineer”, who by contrast is “interested in the principle of use… A large-scale theory of the cosmos is pointless for him unless it contains information he can use to design and build things from.” (18) For the engineer, knowledge is neither necessarily transcendent or immanent: he or she does not need to work out “what reality is” but simply to find the way in which it is contingent to the matter in hand, what Hoswell calls “engineer’s reality” in his conclusion. Dawkins’ crane frequently sticks, has to rely on metaphysical speculations such as multiverses to find the origins of his proof that God is a delusion: from the engineer’s point of view, who cares where the crane came from so long as it works?

Strictly speaking, God could actually be dispensed with but the fault of the Cartesian Quandary would remain, as evidenced by a tendency of positivist science to hypostasise an essential condition – such as the laws of nature – as the underlying reality that will offer proof of the crane’s origins. To repeat, as Hoswell does throughout the book, this is not to say that science does not work – that it is not effective – but to emphasise the epistemological problems of proof which science frequently recognises as problems but then forgets when it seeks to explain its models and theories as explaining how reality is and falls into a reductive positivism. When criticising Hume’s prejudice against fiction and imagination, Hoswell refers to Wittgenstein’s humorous four-dimensional cube as an example of how new knowledge may be created that does not reference the world around us: the reason why this is important is that theories of logical positivism were influenced by Wittgenstein’s early work on codifying language – a position rejected by Wittgenstein’s later anti-systematic language games.

One of my particular pleasures when reading this book is the close attention paid by Hoswell to Blake’s There is No Natural Religion and (to a lesser extent) All Religions Are One, which he uses as one element in his demolition of the Humean prejudice against fiction and imagination. If knowledge can only be synthesised by reason from sense impressions, then how can we account for the accumulation of knowledge that cannot be perceived directly (such as x-rays or sub-atomic particles)? Hume – in a statement from The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding that, as Hoswell points out, is much more restrictive than Locke’s account for the accumulation of knowledge – argues that imagination “cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses” (cited 19). Moreover, “Every idea is copied from some preceding impression or sentiment; and where we cannot find any impression, we may be certain that there is no idea.” (Cited 22) As Blake pithily observes in proposition III from series A of There is No Natural Religion, “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth”. Blake’s innovation, argues Hoswell, is to begin from the observation that what we perceive in this world is not merely sensory: “On the most primary level of sense data, man doesn’t see electromagnetic radiation reflected from the visible light spectrum forming patterns in the ocular lens, he sees actual objects. He doesn’t just receive sound waves he hears noise.” (29) Perception goes beyond empirical experience and the reason why Blake’s epistemology is so important is because by making imagination the starting point for the act of perception (a point that is not dissimilar to Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria) he provides a means of explaining how new knowledge may emerge.

From here, Hoswell proceeds to the second Humean prejudice, the assumption that empirical observation has access to antecedents in the real world that form the basis of our ideas through sense impressions, an assumption that forms the basis of the attempt, via August Comte, John Stuart Mill and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, to provide a coherent, reductive theory for verifying knowledge. One refutation derives from Hume’s contemporary, Thomas Reid, whose emphasis on the sensus communis (common sense) as a means of framing perception emphasised the active nature of imagination in organising sense impressions. As Hoswell observes, rather than assuming “that the coherence of experience is the result of the unity of the empirical world antecedent to our impressions” (57), the theoretical and conceptual contexts in which we operate are required for us to make sense of the world around us (he gives the example of attempts to understand and describe cellular structures before Schleiden and Schwann provided a formal, coherent theory that allowed us to “know” what we were looking at, a similar point underlying Foucault’s understanding of how the archive conceptualises and organises knowledge). Because Blake understands the fundamental importance of the disunity of languages (citing plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake discusses the origins of religion in the stories of poets), he is able to ascribe an active and positive role to imagination in that process of conceptualising reality rather than being limited to the passive reception of antecedent impressions. As Blake wrote in his conclusion to Series B of There is No Natural Religion:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again… He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. (Cited 28)

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis returned me Blake’s early tractates. I must be honest that my tendency is to skip these before settling down to the “real” matter of Blake’s career as author of the illuminated books from Songs of Innocence onwards, but as manifestos of his philosophical position they represent a sort of ground-clearing before putting into practice poetic and artistic principles. The attention paid by critics to these tractates tends to receive less attention than the other illuminated books, though Donald Ault’s Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton and Stuart Peterfreund’s William Blake in a Newtonian World cover some similar ground in terms of dealing with non-empiricist approaches to knowledge. Probably the most important text in this field is Wayne Glausser’s Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century (1998), which begins by warning of the tendency to caricature Blake’s view of Locke as a “convenient foil”. Hoswell does not caricature Locke but instead recognises that the search for a fundamental reality – one, ironically, that is pre-empirical although amenable to the senses – is the rationalist “God” that lies at the root of Descartes’ Quandary. The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis is not without flaws – some of which Hoswell himself draws attention to. Thus the link between Blake and Feyerabend is more implied at many points than explicitly argued, and the author indicates that this is really the work of a future project. Also, the pre-publication manuscript I was sent for review includes a number of typos that I hope were edited out before publication (if not, he needs a good editor). Despite these criticisms – and perhaps the more fundamental one that acknowledging imagination as a foundation of knowledge does not necessarily help us with discriminating knowledge drawn from imagination, a subject dealt with in a different way in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and acknowledged by the author in his final conclusion – Hoswell makes a strong case for Blake’s search for the infinite rather than truth as a source of human creativity and thus removes “the chief obstacle impeding anyone wishing to build an epistemological foundation based on imagination.” (79)

Anarchic Modernism: Blake and Herbert Read

Although the application of the term anarchism as a label for a coherent political doctrine wouldn’t have made sense to Blake (just as it would not have made sense to William Godwin, often appealed to as the source of philosophical anarchism), because the use of that term as principled opposition to compulsory government and state as opposed to the mere absence of government had not gained currency during his lifetime, there is no doubt that plenty of those who have followed after him have seen Blake as an anarchist.

Just as Shelley, who although he actually identified the tyranny of god, priest and king of tyranny with Anarchy in his famous masque remains the most anarchic of nineteenth century poets in the philosophical sense, so Blake’s necessary ignorance of a later political ideology cannot disguise how much he would influence anarchist thinkers, as in his mockery in The Book of Urizen of Urizen’s despotism:

One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law.  (4.37-40, E72)

Algernon Charles Swinburne, author of one of the first work of critical importance on Blake, was later to offer qualified support to the Parisian Communards and, in 1883, was one of several men of English letters who signed a petition by Victor Hugo protesting at the show trial of Pyotr Kropotkin, the most famous of the late nineteenth-century anarchist theorists. Nor was admiration for Kropotkin restricted to Swinburne: Olivia and Helen Rossetti, the daughters of William Michael Rossetti, were excited enough by their enthusiasm for the Russian anarchist to publish The Torch: A Revolutionary Journal of Anarchist Communism in 1895. It may be very true, as George Woodcock observes, that the “fiery earnestness” of The Torch soon burned out (Anarchism, 378), but it is more than mere coincidence that the teenage daughters of one of the most important early editors of Blake should have been inspired to write in support of an international idea that, in the 1890s, was the most important source of opposition to imperial ambitions.

After his death in 1827, Blake lay dormant for a generation: when he was rediscovered, for many internationalism was best espoused not by Marxism but by anarchism (a fact often forgotten due to the dismal successes of the Bolsheviks in 1917). Whether or not Blake was an anarchist is probably as useful as trying to work out his specific Christian denomination, but if we do feel the need to pigeonhole the man who had to create his own systems rather than be enslaved by any other man’s, it is probably the closest label we have to describe his politics. I can never be as enthusiastic as Peter Marshall who, in William Blake: Visionary Anarchist, signs him up as a card-carrying member, but I was rather irritated by the fact that Saree Makdisi’s essay on “Blake and the Communist Tradition” in the 2006 Palgrave Advances in Blake Studies focuses pretty much entirely on Marxism and post-Marxism to the neglect of more disreputable devils who actually spend more time discussing Blake than the figures he advances.

All of this serves as a preamble to the work of Herbert Read. Read (1893-1968), most famous as an art critic and one of the founders of the ICA, demonstrates a particular peculiarity of British anarchism. Although his public espousal of anarchism, influenced in particular by Kropotkin and Max Stirner, would have seen him imprisoned or at least excluded from elite society in just about every European country and the USA, in the UK he was knighted for services to literature in 1953. Of course (and this was noted by anarchist colleagues who were furious), his acceptance of that knighthood compromised his politics, as did his willingness to be co-opted by the elite art establishment of Britain. Yet although Read’s politics may thus often appear deserving of Lenin’s sneer against left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder” (dismissed by Lenin as petty-bourgeois “revolutionism”), Read’s theories of art (far more important than anything Lenin had to write on the subject) owe a great deal to anarchism – and not a little to William Blake.

Herbert Edward Read was born in the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire, and his accounts of childhood are related in The Innocent Eye, first published in 1933 then reissued as part of Annals of Innocence and Experience in 1946 and revised once again as The Contrary Experience in 1963. In the first part of his biography, Read demonstrates the profound influence of Wordsworth (about whom he had written in 1930) in his accounts of Muscoates Grange, the farm where he was born, and his exile to Halifax following the death of his father. Yet implicit in the early title of this autobiographical work, and made explicit in his later versions, the importance of Blake cannot be underestimated. Though the  influence of Blake was to ebb and flow throughout his life, in many respects he was the most significant of pre-twentieth-century artists for Read,  not least because he combined the visual and verbal arts to which Read himself was devoted. As he wrote in an essay “Parallels in English Painting and Poetry” in his 1936 collection, In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays:

it is in the nature of romanticism to confuse the categories, to make painters poetic and poets painterly. The extreme case is that of the painter-poet, represented for example by William Blake, and later by Rossetti. There are some who decry Blake as a poet, others as a painter, but I feel certain myself that his genius finds equal expression in both mediums… In a case like Blake’s the geometrically impossible has happened: the parallels have met in some infinity of genius, and the conditions of our problem are thus cancelled. (247)

That meeting of parallels in “some infinity of genius”, a phrase that could almost have come from Blake’s own early tractates on the poetic genius, is treated by Read as almost unique (significantly, Rossetti as the only other candidate mentioned as a painter-poet is not interesting enough to be taken up again). Certainly Read knew of the work of a contemporary painter-poet, David Jones, although they were not friends despite sharing the experiences of the first world war, but the exemplum of Blake is perhaps the sole narrative for Read of the truly successful artist, the only one to have leapt the boundaries of a logic that had decreed the separation of word and image.

The infinity of genius, the logical impossibility that Read appears to ascribe to the condition of Blake, is perhaps a condition of absolute freedom that Read also viewed as essential to anarchism. Although he never treated Blake extensively, in the way, for example that he treated Wordsworth, or Shelley, or Nash or the Surrealists, yet when Read does write of Blake, as when he describes him as “the English Nietzsche” in The Contrary Experience, there is no doubt as to Blake’s importance. Read’s sometimes official, sometimes unofficial, position as national advocate of modern art to an unreceptive British public added some piquancy to the role that the Romantic engraver was to serve, for Blake’s art simply did not make sense to majority of the public before the rise of Modernism. In a world before Picasso and Ernst, before Eliot and Pound, Blake’s art failed to connect and so it was hardly surprising that he had been unable to find a wider audience. Equally significantly, however, is the fact that to seek, to achieve, such an impossible art required a freedom that all political philosophies other than anarchism sought to circumscribe in some way. In pamphlets and books during the 1930s and 40s, such as Poetry and Anarchism (1938) and The Philosophy of Anarchism (1940), Read had little to offer as a political (or anti-political) and economic philosopher beyond the classical anarchist theories of Kropotkin, Malatesta and Godwin. He did, however, develop an aesthetic theory that meant – probably for the first time if one excludes writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Morris – anarchism could be considered a rich and fertile ground for the arts.

Blake is frequently present in Read’s work, although on first reading he appears peripheral to the critic’s main aims in espousing Modernism. As an art critic, Read’s principal concern was with the contemporary art of his day rather than art history (although he would frequently allude to the roots of modern art in Romanticism in books such as The Grass Roots of Art and Art Now). As a literary critic, he is more concerned with history, although it is Wordsworth and Shelley who dominate his critical efforts. To see Blake as unimportant, however, is to completely misunderstand Read, for whom Blake is the archetype of the artist.

It is not simply that Read values Blake’s technical abilities, although this is eminently clear in many instances, such as his introduction to Stanley Hayter’s New Ways of Gravure (1949), in which he lists Blake as one of the “four great artists” of engraving along with Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya, and for whom “art was something more than a reflection, however subtle, of the phenomenal world – that it is in some sense epiphenomenal.” (16) Throughout different essays and books, Read may alight on a particular artist, writer, or activist, whether Eric Gill, Shelley or Gandhi, but it is Blake who is frequently the synecdoche of this epiphenomenal vision.

The significance of Blake to Read’s philosophy and theoretical positions, as well as his practice as a writer, then, should not be overstated, but Blake remains a guiding vision. Other individuals may be the focus at particular times: when Read wishes to discuss the effects of Romantic creativity in writing, it is Wordsworth, Shelley or Coleridge he turns to at length; for political and philosophical positions, Kropotkin, Stirner or Nietzsche are more momentous; likewise, the role of the artist is to be analysed in detail via reference to Cezanne, Nicholson or Nash. However it is Blake alone who brings together all three strands of poetry, art and politics. Thus, as well as the artist of epiphenomenal vision or the prime example of English Art, Blake was the absolute voice of poetry in Annals of Innocence and Experience and The Contrary Vision, as well as his introduction to alternative philosophies of the self that lead him to Stirner and Read and, in The Philosophy of Anarchism, Blake is one of those invoked as the visionary of a new, anarchistic society:

Certain writers – and they are among the greatest – St. Francis, Dante, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Blake – rank equally as poets and as mystics. For this reason it may well happen that the origins of a new religion will be found in art rather than in any form of moralistic revivalism. (The Philosophy of Anarchism)

William Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.

The Joy of Revolution

While preparing some materials for a talk on the Situationists as part of a course I am teaching, I stumbled upon a delightful reference to Blake in the comic Lulu’s Public Secrets, which can be found on the Bureau of Public Secrets site (

The comic, an act of détournement that will be familiar to anyone with some knowledge of the Situationists, takes the text of Ken Knabb’s The Joy of Revolution dealing with the possibilities and problems of global, anti-hierarchical revolution, and splices it with an episode from one of the Little Lulu comics. (Lulu Moppet was a troublemaker popular in American comic strips in the 1950s and 60s. Despite such promising beginnings, of course, Lulu ended up being thoroughly recuperated into the service of advertising and product placements, so this particular act of détournement feels like a return to first principles. Certainly my students liked it.)

Knapp’s text is fairly standard in terms of presenting Situationist ideas to a new generation – an observation rather than a criticism. After making the pertinent point that capitalism and hierarchy will always generate new obstacles as a matter of course should we overcome old ones, he notes that one aim should be to point out these familiar patterns so that people can recognise and avoid them, which is where Blake comes in:

An anti-hierarchical revolution would not solve all our problems, it would simply eliminate some of the unnecessary ones freeing us to tackle more interesting problems. The new society would be far more diverse than any utopian description. Visionaries like Blake or Whitman, childhood memories, moments of love or enthusiastic creativity, only hint at what it could be like. The only thing that stands in the way is people’s unawareness of their own collective power.

As with so many revolutionary ideas, the gesture is romantic as well as radical, and for all Knabb’s dismissal of utopianism there is much that is utopian here. But, of course, that is why it fits Blake so well, rather like the anarchist Herbert Read’s appropriation of Blake in his work (along with Shelley and plenty of other usual suspects). There is always something rather innocent about ideals of revolution, but while that is often the snide excuse to dismiss them with harsh experience, Blake himself argued that “organiz’d innocence” was the most appropriate state for our lives.