The speculative mode: intersections of literature and the new science in Restoration England

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Crystal Lee Matey (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Jennifer Keith

Abstract: Within the field of Restoration and eighteenth-century studies, critics have investigated the relationship between literature and science for almost a century. Even among specialists, however, there has been insufficient enquiry into epistemological tensions between categories for what now might be called “pre-science” and what was then known as “natural philosophy.” Even less attention has been paid to the relation between natural philosophy and the category of speculation, in which speculation is understood scientifically and literarily. I explore how what I define as speculative writing about natural philosophy assisted in publicizing and spreading new epistemologies during the Restoration and early eighteenth century. In analyzing speculative writing, I investigate the cultural reception of natural philosophy, tracing responses to such changes. I argue that the speculative mode emphasizes a more integrated vision of knowledge formation at that time, a vision that is now divided by the categories of art and science. Emphasizing the contemporary reactions to these various models of knowledge, my methods require a deeply historical approach. To focus this approach, I consider writings in the Restoration that respond to the formation and practices of the early Royal Society: its institutional presence and public mission made it an especially attractive target of speculative writing that would challenge the Society’s official promotion of the experimental method and rejection of the speculative method. I take as evidence both literary and nonliterary documents, representative of a range of genres: these include dictionaries printed at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society and Abraham Cowley’s opening ode, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and Blazing World, as well as Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso and Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon. My argument considers the mixed and conflicting strands that informed the broader category of natural philosophy and recognizes the many ways in which the texts concerned with natural philosophy are by no means easily separated into so-called scientific or literary ones. I conclude the study by looking forward, linking the beginnings of the speculative mode in the Restoration period to a popular eighteenth-century text – Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I end with a call to understand the cultural moment of the Restoration better by joining together works of science and art as both valid and necessary avenues toward knowledge and literary history.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2018
Literature, Natural philosophy, Restoration England, Science, The Royal Society
Literature and science $z Great Britain $x History $y 19th century
Great Britain $x History $y Restoration, 1660-1688
Royal Society (Great Britain)

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