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Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka, And Scientific Imagination


David N. Stamos


New York: State University of New York Press, 2017

Hardcover. xvi+586 p.  ISBN 978-1438463919. $90


Reviewed by Hélène Cottet

Université de Lille





Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) read and interpreted by a philosopher of science: such is the project David Stamos unfolds, as he sets out to prove that, in his “Prose Poem,” Poe “anticipated at least nine major developments and theories in twentieth-century science” [3]. It will take but one of the book’s eight chapters to flesh out this bold claim and detail those nine propositions(1) while the rest of Stamos’s long book is devoted more widely to “the role of imagination in science” [3]. Indeed, the attribution of scientific value and credibility to a text that claims to be “an Art-Product alone”(2) must provide a theory of the kinship between artistic creation and scientific discovery. The notion of “scientific imagination” promises to build an interface between “two seemingly disparate worlds” [3], thereby constituting Eureka as the object of an interdisciplinary enquiry. But if David Stamos presents his work as the missing link that will reunite the “lovers of Poe” and the “lovers of science” [3], the balance is already shaky: among the Poe lovers there are many literary scholars, but the findings of literary scholarship are repeatedly disparaged by Stamos (the reference, in the text, to The Cambridge Calumnion to Edgar Allan Poe [33]—for Companion—sets the tone) along with the “so-called social sciences” misled by their postmodernist bent to reject objective truth altogether.(3) Positing what seems a radical divergence between the aims of science and of literary scholarship, between a quest for the truth and the “unacceptable standards of evidence” [21] of literary interpretation, David Stamos not only antagonizes, surely, part of his readership, but charts a narrower course than the interdisciplinary enquiry we would expect.

It is problematic to consider Eureka as science, insofar as Poe presents it “as an Art-Product alone,” adding: “it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.(4)  Stamos takes us directly through Poe’s literary criticism to solve the paradox of the text’s generic claims and of its full title: Eureka, A Prose Poem. For him, it reveals no inconsistency: following the insight of an anonymous reviewer, he explains that by revising common conceptions of the universe, especially of the universe as a machine, Poe re-imagines it and corrects its “imperfect plot” [72] so that it obeys his definition of a poem, with for instance the swelling, contraction, and throbs of the universe resembling Poe’s “rhythmical creation of beauty” [72]. It is therefore the universe itself according to Poe which follows a poetic behavior in this text. This brings the author to several conclusions: that Eureka is not literally but metaphorically a poem, and that it is a poem in this sense by virtue of the science that goes into it, by virtue of Poe’s revision of current conceptions of the universe.

It is by questioning science, one could say, that Poe arrives at a poetic cosmos in Eureka. But in the context of Stamos’s investigation, isn’t the question raised by Eureka: how can one poetically produce science? It seems that this problem cannot arise as such if there is not sufficient acknowledgment of what makes a literary text such as Eureka different from scientific discourses, if the genre of Poe’s text offers no resistance. By relocating form within a discussion of content, and by adopting a metaphorical definition of poetry, we feel that Stamos is too quick to subsume the status of Eureka as literary text, so that whenever he becomes indignant that Poe’s propositions have not been scientifically recognized we are in turn bewildered that he does not foreground further the very ways in which Poe’s speculative approach resists a scientific reading.

The matter is of great importance if we consider that it is Poe and Eureka that bring Stamos to his key notion of “imagination,” which we expect will therefore reveal how a literary work or a literary mind can arrive at scientific discovery. But “imagination” is a term that in this study remains strikingly under-determined with respect to artistic and literary faculties—it will stand for intuition, unconscious processes, a metaphorical turn of mind (understood through Aristotle as “an intuitive perception of the similarity of dissimilars” [6]), or the leap towards generality, but in the main, this understanding of “imagination” as the hidden thought processes which bring about scientific discovery does not tells us how literature, specifically, can create scientific knowledge.

Perhaps that is not the point, and Eureka must be understood more frankly as being less Stamos’s subject than his provocative introduction to more general concerns. Emphasis, indeed, bears more heavily on the adjective “scientific” in “scientific imagination,” which is defined as “the educated imagination that takes on information that was available to others at the time but that arranges and adds to it in a striking new and superior way, a way that anticipates future understanding of the domain in question, future knowledge” [187]. What becomes important—what marks Poe apart—is the term “educated”: Poe is of interest in this study, and his scientific propositions are credible, because his own curiosity kept him abreast of the scientific theories of his time, something Stamos takes care to evidence. But if Poe is, to put it abruptly, an imaginative man who has a use for science, conversely what use does science have for imagination? This is the question Stamos tackles in a long and very informed review of various thinkers and currents in modern philosophies and histories of science—starting with John Stuart Mill, William Whewell and John F.W. Herschel, then leaping forward to twentieth-century thought with the logical positivism of the Vienna circle and the neighboring logical empiricism of Berlin, the influential propositions of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, New Experimentalism and how it re-negotiates the respective importance of experiments and theory, “inference to the best explanation” (IBE) and the work of Peter Lipton, and the prospects opened by evolutionary biology. It appears that, in the end, these various currents of scientific thought have little to say about the role of imagination proper, and the reader regrets that a much more synthetic review was not offered, with more special emphasis, for instance, on how these philosophies contributed to the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, or to a gradual reappraisal of science as process and not just product, since these issues are indeed pertinent to define as science the tentative leaps that precede protocols of demonstration—and thus to promote a reading of Eureka as science. In the end, it is only with Albert Einstein that Stamos finds an importance given to imagination which he can compare to what he sees in Poe.

To this pair, Einstein-Poe, must be added a third name, that of Poe’s own detective character Auguste C. Dupin, as Stamos continues his investigation by asking whether Poe himself might not have elaborated a philosophy of science prescribing a “scientific imagination.” He looks for this theory in Poe’s fiction and recurrent themes. Here again, as elsewhere in the text, Stamos is not afraid to take us through a series of dead-ends before he makes his point: for instance, neither mesmerism nor the figure of the double appear to him acceptable as Poe’s fictional approximations to “scientific imagination.” The character of Dupin, however, fits the bill in many ways, as he illustrates the use of both a creative and a resolvent process in his work of detection, and sneers at the limitations of the strictly scientific mind. But what are we to make of this reading? In many ways, Dupin serves to tell us what Stamos has already shown about Poe’s interests and personality, and although the illustration is certainly interesting, this thematic reading cannot but seem a belated and tenuous effort to embed Poe’s scientific imagination in his creative writing, even while literature recedes further in the distance. Indeed, implying here an identification of the writer with his character, and, previously, a kinship between the two great minds of Einstein and Poe, Stamos is veering towards the figure of the genius as the final sum of his enquiry into “scientific imagination.” In another uneasy combination, but not imbrication, of the two terms, the book ends with a scientific exploration of the notion of imagination, following various hypotheses taking us into the recesses of the brain, and of biology, neuroscience, or statistics. And as the study fully moves on from the singular work that was Eureka to a series of physiological explanations of “eureka moments,” many lovers of Poe will probably feel they have been led astray…


(1) “[N]amely, the rejection of axioms as intuitively true, Big Bang cosmogony, (including the concepts of a primordial atom and an oscillating Universe,) the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental laws of nature, the nonexistence of laws of nature before the Big Bang, the correct solution to Olbers’ paradox, multiverse theory, space-time interpendence, matter-energy equivalence, and the rejection of the existence of the material ether” [8-9].

(2) Edgar Allan Poe : Poetry and Tales, The Library of America : 1259.

(3) See for instance this comment on the importance of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) in the humanities: “Finally, given Kuhn’s relativism, there should be little wonder that Kuhn quickly became the darling of the many in the humanities and so-called social sciences, who—filled with their own kind of ressentiment, which now masquerades behind the seemingly respectable label ‘science studies,’ combined with their love of postmodernism­—jealously desire to bring the natural sciences down to their level” [275].

(4) Edgar Allan Poe : Poetry and Tales, The Library of America : 1259.



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