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)

Blake and Science

An article in this morning’s Guardian newspaper on how science has become cool prompted some thoughts regarding the relationship between Blake and science. (Note for visitors reading this page outside the UK: my loyal commitment to reading The Guardian in its dead-tree form condemns me as a liberal of the most hopeless sort, a badge I sometimes wear with pride, so don’t expect anything as Blakean as a definitive opinion in this piece.)

Blake’s antagonism towards Isaac Newton, Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke is well known. In Jerusalem he describes their “terrors” as hanging “Like iron scourges over Albion” and throughout the later prophecies in particular they appear as a Satanic trinity in opposition to Blake’s Christian vision. That is not Blake’s only view of them, however: in the final eschaton with which Jerusalem ends, Bacon, Newton and Locke appear alongside Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare amid the chariots of the almighty, and his great, unfinished epic, The Four Zoas, ends with what is, in this context, the strangest and most wonderful of lines: “The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns”.

It is not my simple task here to defend Blake: some aspects of Blake’s attack on science appear a little perverse and often he was plain wrong. Writing on the cusp of the revolution in the study of geology that was to extend the history of the earth by many millions, then billions, of years, he still seemed to operate in a time-frame that considered this world in a frame of six thousand years (although there are plenty of hints in Blake that this, for him, was but one particular phase of human history). Similarly, before Charles Darwin’s famous publication and with no apparent knowledge of Lamarck his knowledge of evolution is unsurprisingly cursory, although he illustrated the works of Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus, and thus drew on the earlier Darwin’s theories of sexual life and transformation.

Some of Blake’s approach to science can be seen in his description of the motion of the planets in plate 15 of Milton:

That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro Eternity.
Has passd that Vortex, he percieves it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth
Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent.
As the eye of man views both the cast & west encompassing
Its vortex; and the north & south, with all their starry host;
Also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding
His corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square.
Thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth
A vortex not yet pass’d by the traveller thro’ Eternity.

Here Blake draws upon Descartes’ theory of vortices, which, as Donald Ault pointed out in Visionary Physics (1974), was an explanation of planetary motion published in Les principes de la philosophie in 1644. Newton thoroughly discredited this Cartesian explanation, but the theory maintained some respectability even into the eighteenth century. Two things about these lines from Milton fascinate me: first of all, that Blake had any interest at all in such an abstruse cosmological explanation, but also that, in typical fashion, he transforms it into a visionary perception whereby cosmology is intwined with psychology and other aspects of human understanding.

And this, at root, is part of my further fascination with Blake and science. Blake got plenty of things wrong about physics (and I suspect that he picked up on the theory of the vortex precisely because it wasn’t Newton’s theory), and in the new dark ages of anti-science and anti-rationalism he should be taken to task for this. But, Percy Shelley aside, I cannot think of another of the great Romantic writers who has such a fascination in the world of science and technology. Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow, bundles Blake alongside the other Romantics, and at times I have to agree with Dawkins’ assessment, but at other times I think he misses some of the subtlety of a writer who was amazed by the discoveries of the microscope and telescope and brought them into his vision of the universe, while also acknowledging the limits of mechanistic science:

For every Space larger than a red Globule of Mans blood.
Is visionary: and is created by the Hammer of Los
And every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood. opens
Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth is but a shadow

And it is worth bearing in mind that Blake’s quarrel with Newton is less to do with Newton’s science than Newton’s god – for Newton was no eighteenth-century Richard Dawkins, blasting gullible believers with his atheism. The “General Scholium”, published as an appendix to the Principia Mathematica in 1713, describes a universe subject to the “the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”, one who established the system of universal laws: “This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler.” Here (as in his other, alchemical and pseudo-historical work), Newton takes a leap of faith beyond the rational limits his logic allows, or perhaps more accurately he allows his reason to lead him into a thoroughly respectable, deistic view of god as primum mobile that Blake despised and has, ultimately, little more ground in rationalism than the humanistic theism of the Romantic poet: this, I think, is the dark religion that Blake hoped science itself could eventually dispel.

Personally I have little patience with arguments that attempt to justify Blake’s visionary perceptions against science per se. Newtonian physics may not adequately explain the very large and the very small in our universe, but its limits are vast and honourable – and Blake was, to repeat, simply wrong in many of his estimations. In a time when science is so often under attack because it proposes only “theories” (because scientific method, rightly, can do no more), Blake’s insistence on faith can become troubling: I love the lines “If the Sun & Moon should Doubt / Theyd immediately Go out”, but I also refuse to believe it (crass, literal materialist that I am), and some of Blake’s remarks on empiricism are those that trouble me most. However, it is where science arrogates to itself absolute knowledge of all areas of experience (and so moves beyond refutable theories) that it can become irrational – and here I fully support Blake: Newton’s pantocrator is, to me, much more despicable than the Divine Image of mercy, pity, peace and love.

There has been a tendency in recent years to claim Blake as a scientific visionary, a potential precursor to modern discoveries in areas such as quantum physics. Anything that tends towards a simplistic appropriation of Blake’s views as pre-empting modern science are anachronistic to say the least. However, in an essay on “Blake and Science Studies” published in 2006 in the Palgrave Advances book, William Blake Studies, Mark Lussier shows how Blake’s images and way of thinking has often been used by scientists from Jacob Bronowski onwards. Blake was no quantum physicist manqué but, as Lussier points out with reference to writers such as Roger Jones and A. Zee, what Blake does often provide the imaginative and creative means of explaining the world opened up by modern science, one that is not amenable to our normal senses – which is anything but intuitive – and where a person can “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour”.