Speculative Realism and British Romanticism by Evan Gottlieb Edinburgh University Press 2016


Speculative Realism was born in 2007 at a conference in Goldsmith College, the same college that gave us the YBA.

Gottleib wishes to ally to a grouping of speculative realist philosophers the names of the Romantic poets as a counter-balance to Kant and his followers. Despite his assertion that the links are so obvious and strong he does not suffer from a lack of historical perspective, his work has as much to recommend it as a work suggesting Darwin and Aristotle are linked.

Of course they are. But they are very, very different.

In brief Speculative Realism separates itself from Kant. Kant asked the question ‘how do we handle knowledge?’ because after Descartes no one had a good answer to the question ‘how do we know this is not all a dream?’ Speculative Realists argue that you cannot reduce all existence to the human experience of existence. Like most philosophies there are as many positions taken on this as there are positions taken on what postmodernism means.

We should also be aware that today politics and philosophy are as intimately entwined with art, as politics and religion used to be and as such we should hold in our minds this I also an attempt to strengthen the academic foundation to the ‘everything is art’ movement even as that movement is dying.

The Romantic poets were highly political. Byron’s only speech in the Lords inveighed against slavery, Wordsworth supported the early French Revolution when in France, Shelley supported free thinking, their lives are punctuated by a sense of women’s rights and the right to freedom of expression. They were a group of men who with Leigh Hunt published much about the misguided stringencies of conformity. Leigh Hunt was imprisoned for his publishing, Byron self-exiled for his lifestyle, Shelley and Keats died young. Their love of nature washes over the reader even today in much the same way as Shakespeare’s brilliant observances on human character still ring out. Can we truly subpoena them to stand against Kantian expositions of what is knowledge and how our brains interpret reality?

This books runs to two exercises : to elucidate certain poems in terms on Speculative Realism and object oriented philosophy, and to interpret the poems in terms of Speculative Realism and object orientated philosophy.

Although they never had Kant the Romantics knew the Declaration of Independence from the USA, knew about the new theories that were to become neuroscience and knew Darwin had published, in 1774, how animals had experience of the same sensations as humans. And here is where academics often mistake poets. Not every poem from the same poet follows the same philosophy, not every thought is homogeneous with a consistent vision of the world. Ascribing poems to a philosophy of ‘things’ is a grand exercise and as much use as ascribing all poetry to ‘entertainment’. True, or course, insightful, not a bit. It is a flake from the marble that is to become the statue. You can talk about this flake, where it was in the marble, it’s size, the day it was hacked away, why it had to go…but with all the talk at the end you are left with the flake, not the statue. So this book talks of the flakes of words from the Romantics but the political philosophy of nature these Poets describe is lost.

We may use astrophysics as a yard stick here. To test the accuracy of their theories astrophysicists work through their equations to see if they produce the necessary Universe for us to evolve. If we are impossible in their theory, their theory has the wrong parameters. In the same way poets and philosophers have long been trying to describe a reality in which thinking beings can question that reality ‘absolutely.’ So far they have failed but new developments in brain research may help in the future.

Speculative philosophers could as easily go to Li Po as the Romantics for a theory of ‘things’, for an engagement with nature that side-steps Kantian theories of knowledge. For in every word ever written by every poet we can derive not questions of experience in and of itself but questions of what experience means. All poets are philosophers, politicians, sociologists, commentators, legislators, and prophets.

Gottleib says:

Coleridge, like Wordsworth, was not prepared to accept fully the radical implications of a reality that exists autonomously from humanity’s thoughts and needs.’

hinting that within their work we might find the exact opposite of what Gottlieb is trying to prove. And we can because he leaves out many poems and does not deal with the greatest element of Shelley, the rights of mankind and the loss of freedoms to ordered society with which nature endowed us.

There are great insights in this book:

For Coleridge a cardinal value of the arts was that they humanized nature and so helped repossess it for the mind from which it had been alienated.” M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature.

and again the

..epoch-making claim that the mind actively processes or organizes experience in constructing knowledge, rather than passively reflecting an independent reality.” Lee Braver, A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism

but chief amongst them is Gottlieb’s observation that Byron was asking “What if society itself is an effect and not a cause?” The book that discusses this is a book worth reading.

But few of these are mined deeply as this is not primarily a book of literary criticism though most of its pages are taken up with a close readings of famous poems.

Ultimately this book is an academic exercise, a good thesis for a Doctorate, but you cannot suborn to a modern philosophical movement names from the past without loss. The loss here is that the Romantics were all highly individual. They came together with a shared love of poetry and a deep empathy with nature. They were also wise critics of their society. They would have read and discussed Descartes, Berkeley, Hume. Human rights were on their agenda both from the wild wind of change blown by Napoleon that fell on bloodied battlefields across Europe, and from the fall of Monarchies. These are all ‘real things’ to these thinkers. Pain and sorrow are caused and they understood the causes.

I am not unconvinced at the worthwhile endeavour to grasp as the nature if things and the processes of knowledge, but this book merely attempts to include in a field of many whose names are unknown, names that everyone knows.

Daniel Nanavati UK editor

Volume 31 number 3 January / February 2017 pp 29-30

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