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Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel


Vanessa L. Ryan


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Hardcover. viii+243 p. ISBN 978-1421405919. $55.00


Reviewed by Wendy O’Brien

University of Melbourne



Vanessa L. Ryan is Assistant Professor in English, at Brown University. In Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel she presents a fascinating exploration of the Victorian novel’s preoccupation with the mid-nineteenth-century British mind sciences. With reference to the works of George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, George Meredith, and others, Ryan carefully traces the ideas of the new psychology, arguing that the Victorian ‘psychological novel’ contributed to mid-nineteenth-century debates about the nature of the mind and the nature of thought itself.

The much-celebrated and alarmingly well-read Victorian author George Eliot possessed a keen intelligence and an intimate knowledge of the physiological and psychological scientific works of her contemporaries. Ryan recounts an entertaining anecdote about Eliot that serves as an appropriate introduction to the subject matter of her text. In conversation with Herbert Spencer, a friend and one-time love interest, Eliot commented on the fact that his forehead remained unmarked by lines. Eliot had assumed that considerable concentration would have been required for Spencer's recent philosophical work, and she expected the effects to be etched on his face. Spencer explained his untroubled appearance by saying, “I suppose it is because I am never puzzled.” To this, an astonished Eliot exclaimed, “O! That’s the most arrogant thing I ever heard uttered” [16]. It is doubtful that Spencer felt chided but, nonetheless, he took pains to explain himself in his autobiography. Therein, Spencer detailed a mode of thinking that occurred without conscious effort. Unconscious thought was, rather, a spontaneous, gradual and unconscious habit that ultimately produced a coherent theory: all without the appreciable effort that might wrinkle one’s brow. An attractive prospect indeed, the mode of thinking described by Spencer is one of “unconscious cerebration”, the “thinking without thinking” of Ryan’s title. For Spencer, as for other Victorians, this form of thinking was understood to circumvent conscious rational thought [63] and, operating independently of will or direction, was celebrated as superior in its results.

Nineteenth-century theories of unconscious cerebration underpinned the mind sciences expounded by philosophical luminaries such as William Carpenter, George Henry Lewes, and Spencer himself. Confounding the tenets of Enlightenment Reason and the Cartesian glorification of rational thought, the new mind sciences queried the relationship between the mind and body, exploring the unconscious mind as transcendent to conscious thought. Ryan presents a compelling argument that, at the time that these ideas were being forged, the Victorian novel provided a locus for the exploration and practical application of theoretical notions about the reflexive mind. In so doing, Ryan delves into questions of consciousness, altered states, selfhood, narrative mode, moral obligation and the ethics of the theoretical precepts raised by the new psychologists. Ryan’s text is likely to be most accessible and applicable to those with an interest or specialisation in cognitive science or, more specifically, the philosophical works of mid-nineteenth-century British psychologists. Ryan’s work will also be illuminating for scholars of Victorian fiction, as she recasts selected novels to reveal the psychological nuance overlooked by dominant critical interpretations.

Following a complex, but crucial, introduction, Ryan’s text is organised in three parts. Part I details the theoretical ideas of the mid-nineteenth-century British physiological psychologists, and the means by which their work was taken up by Victorian novelists. Here, Ryan uses the fiction of Wilkie Collins to demonstrate that the new mind sciences fundamentally challenged dominant understandings about the nature of thinking. Ryan positions Collins as a central figure in the Victorian literary preoccupation with the mind sciences, reading his work as demonstrating the Victorian departure from accepted theories of the mind and character. Most interesting amongst Ryan’s work on Collins is her reading of The Moonstone as a psychological detective story and an early example of Victorian fiction’s ongoing preoccupation with unconscious cerebration. For Ryan, the traditional object of investigation, the theft of the diamond, is quickly displaced by a more complex investigation of the mind. Sergeant Cuff, the novel’s ineffectual detective, serves as a foil for the new mind sciences as, relying on physiognomy, he fails to deduce the true course of events leading to the theft. By eschewing physiognomic explanations for character and criminality, Collins decentralises the role of that these ideas had in literature more broadly. For Collins, character and mental process are more complex than is evident in physiognomical or outward descriptions of appearance or gesture. Influenced by the mental science of his own time, Collins turns to the ideas of physiological psychology to explore the unconscious aspects of mental experience.

Part II details the possibilities and problems associated with this theoretical and literary convergence, demonstrated predominantly in the rise of the new functionalist view of the mind. This part opens with a fascinating account of the scientific preoccupation with proving the fact that the mind is not solely purposive, but also acts reflexively and, to a degree, automatically. One of the central questions in Ryan’s text is the degree to which moral responsibility is destabilised by theories of the unconscious or automatic workings of the mind. Ryan uses George Eliot’s fiction to focus the question. Scholars of the Victorian novel often celebrate Eliot’s work for its nuanced exploration of the moral choice or conflict. Ryan’s analysis recasts conventional analyses of Eliot’s novels as exemplars of deterministic moral choice by suggesting that Eliot’s characters are very often unaware of their own decision-making processes until they can assess these retrospectively. In her reading of The Mill on the Floss, Ryan identifies that Maggie is characterised largely by her experience of temporal dislocation. “Maggie experiences her own actions as if they took place independently of active will or intention; she only gains full awareness of them after the fact” [65]. For Ryan, Eliot’s ardent interest in the mind sciences manifests itself as a challenge to the integrity of the self: “Her fiction shows her profound fascination with the ways in which not just the body, but the mind, too, functions in involuntary, reflexive and automatic ways” [64]. The automatic workings of the mind do not, according to Ryan, exempt individuals from moral responsibility for their actions. In an era that glorified the moral character, even the unconscious cerebration of the mind sciences left room for moral agency. For the Victorians, and for Lewes and Eliot in particular, individuals are capable of moral action by training and habituating the unconscious and reflexive mind to act, even unconsciously, in morally appropriate ways. Identifying the Aristotelian origins of this principle Ryan suggests that the nineteenth-century mind sciences were interested in not only understanding the mind, but also in training the reflexive mind. Inspired by theories of the “automaton” and metaphors of self-acting or “intelligent machinery”, proponents of the mind sciences suggested that “if the mind is a machine, can it not be well oiled, greased and maintained?” [80] In other words, mental education could be provided to train and habituate the actions of the mind that take place outside consciousness.

Ryan traces this work through the scholarship of the new psychologists, describing, in fascinating terms the extent to which these ideas were mainstreamed in self-help publications of the time. In her fictional readings Ryan sees this principle at work, most explicitly in George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda. The novel’s protagonist is the unhappily matched Gwendolen Harleth, who unceasingly struggles to control the inner workings of her mind, particularly with regard to her loathing for her betrothed. Her efforts to repress memories and thoughts of foreboding, ultimately result in sufficient self-awareness that she can accept moral responsibility for her imagining of Grandcourt’s death. Ryan also reads Deronda’s extensive advice to Gwendolen as an explicit encouragement for her to engage in the reflexive mental training and self-culture advocated by the new psychologists.

In Part III Ryan theorises the significance of the “active” readership necessitated by the theoretical ideas embedded in Victorian literature. In this final section Ryan draws on the works of Henry James and George Meredith, demonstrating the Victorian idea that the writing and reading of fiction might, in and of itself, offer a means of engaging with the reflexive mind. Ryan argues that the cognitive difficulty inspired by the “difficult style” [149] of George Meredith and Henry James demonstrates both the opacity of the unconscious mind, and also an effort to train the mind [127]. Here, readers are required to be “muscular” and, in the case of Meredith’s self-conscious work, readers are constantly made aware of their effort in reading. In this, Ryan identifies a practical application of the new psychologists’ project to strengthen and train the mind.

In all, Ryan’s text is a relatively compact but extremely rich exploration of the inter-relationship between the British mind sciences of the nineteenth century and the form, content, and reading practices of the Victorian novel. The conclusion to Ryan’s text focuses on the issue of legacy, demonstrating that the theoretical and literary convergence she describes was, in fact, short-lived. Ryan argues that by the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of the British mind sciences had been usurped by the more experimental psychological approaches of continental Europe. She does go on, however, to trace the enduring influence that the mid-nineteenth century British mind sciences had on American psychological and literary sensibilities.

Ryan’s compelling analysis of the convergence of the mind sciences and the Victorian novel alludes only briefly to the broader literary legacy of the Victorian mind sciences. Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of the Victorian preoccupation with unconscious cerebration is the notion of consciousness as a dynamic interaction with an ever-changing environment. There are fascinating and productive links here with contemporary theoretical approaches to practices of reading, identification, knowledge formation and moral action; links that Ryan raises only obliquely.

By positioning Victorian novels as a locus of unconscious cerebration Ryan lays bare a host of narrative characteristics that are, more commonly, preoccupations of post-structuralism (although Ryan does not use this term herself). In pursuit of her argument she posits that individual Victorian novels highlight the inadequacy of language, the unknowable self [61], challenges to the essential and unified self [62], contested ontologies and competing scientific discourses, incomprehensibility, the self-consciousness of fiction, the slipperiness of syntax and the unsettling effects of spatial and temporal disjunctures.

Ryan’s text contributes, above all, to the field of “consciousness studies” which comprises, by her description, those working in the disciplines of “philosophy of mind, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science” [178]. The specificity of Ryan’s text means that it will hold greatest appeal for those interested in cognitive science or Victorian studies. Nonetheless, the links to contemporary literary theory indicate that Ryan’s work has the potential for far broader appeal. Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel is also a rewarding read for those with an interest in the form and function of the novel, or for those interested in theories of the self and literature’s role in influencing moral action.


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