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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Felt Thought: Neuroscience, Modernism and the Intelligence of Poetry

  • Author(s): Langione, Matthew Paul
  • Advisor(s): Altieri, Charles F
  • et al.

The first decade of the twentieth century was a time of unprecedented epistemic polarization in the American academy. The “tender-minded” orientation of idealism, to borrow William James’s turn of phrase, was quickly ceding ground to the “tough-minded” orientation of scientific materialism on the assumption that, before long, all serious consideration of human experience, meaning and value was destined to come under the care of newly-minted human sciences such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology. This left traditional humanists resentful of what must have seemed to them a kind of epistemic mission creep: the empirical sciences, riding high on the strength of triumphs in fields such as radioactivity and electromagnetics, were suddenly staking claim to territories that had once been the province of literature, religion and philosophy.

One dominant view has been that modernist literature comes into being on the hot fumes of this resentment. Frank Kermode, for example, saw modernism as “a rapprochement between poet and occultist” so that “magic came, in an age of science, to the defence of poetry.” Since modernism is an elastic term, there is an element of truth in this view. But many modernists were, especially in the early years, anything but eager to indulge in a revanchist mysticism that abstracted away from the vitalizing energy of the modern sciences. In particular, T.S. Eliot, whose graduate work in philosophy brought him into close proximity to the scientific currents of the day, produced a body of criticism that reveals a sophisticated and remarkably coherent cognitive structure corresponding with his aim to find in poetry a literary form that could unite “feeling” and “thought.”

Felt Thought begins by establishing Eliot’s motivation both to embrace and to resist the computational ideal of intelligence that was being codified during the period in which he was writing, an ideal that would reach its apotheosis in the 1940s and 1950s with the birth of artificial intelligence. In my introduction I use A.I. as a contrastive paradigm against which to specify the more subtle mode of poetic intelligence that emerges in Eliot’s criticism. It is an ideal that implicates what he calls “sensibility” as it mediates between “feeling” and “thought” in constructive, writerly activity.

But since this cognitive structure finds expression implicitly in criticism written for various purposes, rather than explicitly in philosophy, it must be reconstructed with the aid of a robust bank of supplements. I begin with Eliot’s literary and philosophical influences in Chapter I, particularly Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Henry James and Ezra Pound. I turn to his graduate school influences at Harvard in Chapter II, among whom are Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce and Karl Pearson. In Chapter III, I synthesize these influences in the effort to flesh out a cognitive structure that unites Eliot’s major trilogy of critical formulations—“the dissociation of sensibility,” “the doctrine of impersonality,” and the “objective correlative”—and I substantiate those formulations with reference to contemporary neuroscience. Then in Chapter IV, I make use of this neuroaesthetic cognitive structure to interpret Eliot’s first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, as a work culminating in a unique mode of expressive activity that I have termed intelligent exemplification. My Epilogue begins with a breviary on the ways in which the sciences of mind have been called into action in literary study thus far. Then I recommend a set of principles that I hope will sustain at once a more integrative method of interdisciplinarity, and at the same time an increased commitment to the many and intricate ways that the texts themselves ask to be interpreted.

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