University of Notre Dame
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Evolving Science Fictions: Biological Representation in Nineteenth-Century Britain

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posted on 2006-07-11, 00:00 authored by Nathan Robert Elliott
Biological representations, as found in both the literary and scientific texts of the nineteenth century, exacerbated epistemological problems in such a way that it became necessary for nineteenth-century intellectuals' whether explicitly concerned with epistemology or not' to begin formulating practical epistemologies and philosophies of scientific representation. In attempting to make these representations, these writers and scientists gradually became aware that scientific representation complicated scientific claims to objectivity and philosophical realism. Understanding this growing awareness of representational issues allows us to better understand the ways in which nineteenth-century biologies helped to create the theoretical emphasis on the difficulties of interpretation that continue to pervade academic conversations across the disciplines. To this end, this dissertation examines the work of a number of nineteenth-century scientists and literary artists in an effort to understand the nature of the representational difficulties they encountered. The first chapter examines the medical work of John and William Hunter, as well as the plays and theater theory written by their niece, Joanna Baillie. In their collective work we see a continual preoccupation with the diagnostic difficulties that medical misrepresentation can create. The second chapter explicates the use of phrenology in the novels of Charlotte BrontÌÇ; the contradictions found in the work of phrenology writer George Combe led BrontÌÇ to embrace a more open epistemic stance in her last novel, Villette. The third chapter discusses the concept of the biological archetype, as found in the work of Charles Darwin and George Eliot. The archetype allowed them to get beyond the epistemological difficulties encountered by Baillie and BrontÌÇ, but also placed a new emphasis on the importance of tentatively known contexts in scientific observation. The last chapter explores the work of Max Nordau and H.G. Wells; both were concerned about the possibility of distinguishing artistic representation from scientific representation. These last chapters document the emergence of 'conceptual realism;' Wells and Eliot attempted to present narratives that simultaneously recognized the perceptual mediation that occurs in any apprehension of reality and at the same time insisted on the ability to know reality.


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Defense Date


Research Director(s)

Phillip Sloan

Committee Members

Sara Maurer Greg Kucich Phillip Sloan


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation


  • English

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University of Notre Dame

Program Name

  • English

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