Student Idealists and the Specter of Natural Science, 1870-1910

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation examines the normative content of collegiate student intellectual life in art, literature, and philosophy during the period 1870-1910. This perspective allows for some precision concerning the nature of student thought at a time when, historians believe, a shifting curriculum provided an infertile terrain for moral instruction. Based on an extensive use of primary documents" especially essays written in student literary publications" I show how a segment of undergraduates I call idealists resisted natural science, its methods, and especially its application to the humanities: first, because they believed it would obscure certain principles that they wanted to see clearly; second, because they feared it would introduce a post-Christian and thus an amoral world.

My sources come from diverse institutions: Harvard, Wellesley, Princeton, Vassar, the University of California, and Smith. Chapter one describes the socio-economic, religious, and educational backgrounds of students at these schools, so far as available. With this composite in place, I describe the larger intellectual context that shaped the thought of undergraduates.

Chapter two considers late Victorian conceptions of art as expressed by cultural commentators, professors of art, and their students. I show how in the 1860s and 1870s collegians tended to treat art as a vehicle for religious instruction and ethical reflection. By the 1880s, the emergence of an Aesthetic Movement that subordinated moral content to the “art-technique," plus the influence of certain art historians, led students to apotheosize art, rather than treat it as a means to understanding something greater.

In chapter three, I show how students’ interest in exploring normative conceptions in literature was challenged by an empirical hermeneutic that emerged in the 1880s as the legitimate form of textual analysis. While some idealists’ "literary instinct" led them to reject the "scientific method" in literature, others, in their attempt to avoid it, were driven into a mystical literary experience. Led by some professors, student idealists turned the world of English letters into a romanticized space that functioned as a bulwark against the "Papacy of Science."

In chapter four, I argue that the dread of natural science led some students to embrace Transcendentalism and reject Pragmatism.

In chapter five, I demonstrate how students’ sacralization of the humanities was intimately related to a narrowing understanding of science. As the humanities expanded in dealing with phenomena of "enduring significance," science underwent a severe contraction. For most of the nineteenth century, science was a capacious term describing virtually any systematic and rigorous intellectual labor, such as that conducted in philosophy or theology. By the 1880s and 1890s the term commonly only described work in the "natural sciences." This dissertation describes how idealists responded to this development.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-03042008-133407

Author Angel de Jesus Cortes
Advisor James Turner
Contributor John McGreevy, Committee Member
Contributor George Marsden, Committee Member
Contributor James Turner, Committee Chair
Contributor Robert Sullivan, Committee Member
Contributor Thomas Slaughter, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2008-02-28

Submission Date 2008-03-04
  • United States of America

  • intellectuals

  • literature

  • students

  • philosophy

  • the humanities

  • science

  • art

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


Please Note: You may encounter a delay before a download begins. Large or infrequently accessed files can take several minutes to retrieve from our archival storage system.