From the Shelf
 

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Fall/ Winter 03

 

From the Shelf
A Review of Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England, by Professor George Levine

The phrase "I'm dying to know" usually implies an unquenchable passion for a very specific bit of knowledge, and with it, an assertion of the subjectivity of the speaker. After all, only someone with powerful and individual curiosity would be willing to offer such an unfair trade, even if only in a casual exaggeration. In his new book, Professor George Levine turns this phrase inside out, taking the meaning "dying in order to know" as an apt metaphor for nineteenth-century epistemology. He argues that the pervasive Victorian notion that approaching true knowledge requires self-sacrifice - and that perfect knowledge can only be achieved in death - suggests a powerful defense of objectivity as a goal.

In academic discourse, claims to objectivity have been much criticized in recent years, derided as signs of either ignorance or duplicity. Professor Levine notes that his own book was begun in that vein, but eventually became an appreciation of the moral and philosophical questions that writers and scientists alike have encountered in the drive toward objectivity. He writes: "The animus of this book has changed as it has lived through at least a decade of reflection. If it began as a critique, by way of the metaphor, of the impossible scientific ideal of disinterested knowledge, it has ended in discontent with seemingly complacent contemporary refusals not only of the possibility of objectivity but of the good faith of quests for it. It has thus turned into something of a defense of those impossible strivings toward disinterest and an implicit attack on the view that all attempts at objectivity are disingenuous and politically suspect."

Dying to Know makes a major contribution to the cultural history of the ideal of objectivity. Professor Levine weaves together a "narrative of scientific epistemology" through subtle and provocative readings of works from many different disciplines: not just literature but science, criticism, and the scientific autobiography, including interpretations of writings by Darwin, Eliot, Dickens, Pater, mathematician Mary Somerville, political economist Harriet Martineau, social theorist Beatrice Webb, and statistician, eugenicist, novelist and playwright Karl Pearson. In so doing, he succeeds in reinvesting the pursuit of scientific objectivity with the humanistic intentions that spurred it on through the nineteenth century. He also addresses one of the central questions of cultural criticism today, by suggesting that a properly sympathetic critique of scientific objectivity does not have to lead to a valueless and relativistic worldview. Instead, it can support a profoundly moral, even altruistic, epistemological framework.

This project thus brings together concerns from Professor Levine's two important roles at Rutgers, as Director of the vital and interdisciplinary Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture (CCACC), and as the Kenneth Burke Professor of Literature in the English Department. Professor Levine has written extensively on Victorian literature and culture, with particular emphasis on the intersection of scientific and literary understandings. His earlier books include Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction, The Realistic Imagination, and Lifebirds, a scientific autobiography about his own pursuit of avian knowledge.

   
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