Empiricist Devotions

Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Courtney Weiss Smith
  • Charlottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Smith’s book on Empiricist Devotions has deservedly been awarded the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for outstanding scholarship in eighteenth-century studies, for it is an important and bold volume. In five well-informed and extremely well organized thematic chapters and a methodological introduction, Smith identifies a devotional empiricist modus operandi in a wide variety of texts and genres. The introduction takes as its point of departure Boyle’s Occasional Reflections (1665), and the work of contemporaries such as Robert Hooke and Ralph Austen who wrote influential popularizing scientific works in the tradition of empiricist observation, but as Smith argues, their methodology had close affinities with devotional meditations. Early 18th century natural philosophy, political economy, social contract theory, and georgic poetry simply exhibit a fundamental devotional attitude towards empiricist observation.

The importance of the volume is due to the systematic deconstruction of traditional pervasive scholarly narratives of late 17th and early 18th century “modernization.” Smith insists and illustrates—as other scholars have done before her—that religion did not decline but lay at the very foundation of empiricist writing. Protestant meditation and scientific practice merged in the pursuit of religious, moral, economic and political truths. She challenges the assumption that a process of secularization and disenchantment resulted in a separation of reality and language, the literal and metaphorical. Empiricist writers based their observations in Christian ontology. The key to God’s creation, the great Book of God—a prevailing metaphor for the world in the period (39)—was similitude, and had to be approached figuratively in order to lead to divine truths. Nature had to be approached with analogical sensibility. 

Smith also challenges the narrative of the “rise of the novel” as a force of modernity: a narrowly defined realist style characterized by particularity, the nonfigurative, and referentiality (18). Smith parallels it with the contemporary and widely popular georgic poetry in order to illustrate that particularity and figurative language coexisted and “far from setting the autonomous human self over against nature, empiricist description allows poets to explore the dense meaningfulness of the world.” (19) Contrary to traditional narratives, empiricists embraced the view that nature had agency, that it prompted analogies between natural phenomena, and taught the observer important lessons on the world:  empiricists found truth in nature. They trusted in “nature’s fraught meaningfulness,” but were never dogmatic about their “truths.” As Smith states in the introduction, “These writers wanted allhuman constructs—including economic politics and governmental institutions—to approximate a supra-human order, even as they recognize the difficulty of ever getting it exactly right” (5). The empiricist writers particularized the world and humbly resisted the construction of cosmological systems of meaning. The observer could learn lessons from nature, but truth was with God (47).  

Smith deconstructs the traditional tendency to distinguish between science and literature, two disciplines which were to a large extent mutually constitutive in the period. Science, religion and literature did not stick to a “plain style”—in spite of empiricists’ suspicion of “Rhetorical Flourishes” as stated in the statutes of the Royal Society—but used figurative language in the form of tropes (personification and periphrasis). The frequent use of analogies were not empty rhetorical gestures, but a heuristic mode of expression used, as Smith states, by “empiricists of all stripes in the period” (60). Observations of nature had to be applied and could, by way of analogies, lead to real insight. 

The volume’s subsequent chapters illustrate the persistence of meditative empiricism in a range of fields. Chapter 2 deals with Newtonianism and the metaphor of the world as a mechanical clock (vividly criticized by Leibnitz for being far too magical). Smith demonstrates that the Newtonian clockwork metaphor relied heavily on divine presence. Nature is like an immense machine, but “God was the clock’s crucial power source” (71). Gravity was simply the “immaterial Presence and Power of the Deity” (76). Smith uses select works by George Cheyne, George Berkeley, and the poetry of J.T. Desagulier as examples of how Newtonian science of gravity was, by way of analogy, applied to human morals. Chapter 3 deals with money and value, focusing in particular on two aspects: the recoinage debates of the late 17th century set forth by John Locke versus critics such as Nicholas Barbon and James Hodges’s popular writing on consumer culture written in the genre of it-narratives by, for example, Charles Gildon and Joseph Addison, that gave voice to and personified natural phenomena. Scientists and people in general craved a kind of stable value of money and turned to nature for an answer. They grappled with the question of stable value, whether it could be symbolically constructed by humans or was coded into natural materiality as a real intrinsic value set by God’s design. The writers mentioned in Smith’s account all found their arguments in nature by way of empiricist meditations. In the fourth chapter Smith deals with social contracts in the political sphere and how different ideologies were identified and legitimized through empiricist meditations on nature. Conservative Tories like Bolingbroke and Alexander Pope argued that people organize socially in specific ways in order to “subordinate themselves to a supra-human order encoded in nature” (145). Nature begets civil society and humans simply approximate to it (147). The Whiggish social contracts construed by Locke and Daniel Dafoe represent an opposing position, albeit the argument is, on a methodological level, based on the same modus operandi. Humans simply make attempts to mimic and approximate the laws of nature by way of analogy. Both ideologies agreed on the importance of learning from and subordinating to nature, while also accepting the fallible state of humanity. In the final chapter Smith illustrates that poetry in the georgic style is in its very core an empiricist devotional poetics. The agricultural theme of the genre serves to extrapolate a magical and animated world. In the poetry of John Dryden and Pope, nature is imbued with genius, an almost realist and natural personification (179). Georgic poetry is an attitude towards life, illustrated by minute particular observation, by moral lessons learned from nature.

What shines through Smith’s volume is the impression of a period struggling with interpretation. Truth was mediated by nature, but the empiricist observer was never certain to get it right. Empiricism magnified, pulverized, repeated, correlated, hypothesized, and skeptically sought application (47). Smith conjures up a representation of early 18th century empiricism as a capacious field in opposition to the traditional scholarly accounts of science as a tidy scene consisting of permanent insights. She illustrates how empiricists worked to extract truth on how to be in the world from a fundamentally polysemic divine creation, well knowing that “truth” was slippery and did not come unmediated. Truth could be re-evaluated and discarded. Smith’s book is a dense, complex, and conscientiously argued account of a misinterpreted and overlooked aspect of 18th century writing, and should be appreciated for its resolute and vivid polemic against prevailing scholarly categories.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a postdoctoral fellow in Art History at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Courtney Weiss Smith, Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the editor, with Kate Parker, of Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.