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Adela Pinch. Thinking about Other People in Nineteenth-Century British Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780521764643. Price: US$95.00/£55.00

  • Rachel Ablow

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  • Rachel Ablow
    University at Buffalo, SUNY

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The questions that Adela Pinch raises in Thinking about Other People have something of the quality of a hologram: from one angle they appear so strange as to be startlingly original and, from another, they seem so obvious that it is only surprising no one has already asked them. In this book, Pinch explains, she “seeks to explain why nineteenth-century British writers—poets, novelists, philosophers, psychologists, devotees of the occult—were both attracted to and repulsed by” the notion that “thinking about another person could affect him or her, for good or ill” (1). However anomalous such a belief may seem initially, as Pinch describes it in her lucid and entertaining prose, “radical or substantial notions of purely mental relations between persons” quickly come to seem ubiquitous (1). How many of us have reassured a friend in distress, "I'm thinking of you," despite our commonsensical conviction that thinking alone makes no tangible difference? And how many of us have found the obverse unsettling: the knowledge that anyone can think of us who wishes to do so, even those who might wish us harm? As Pinch shows, engaging seriously with nineteenth-century versions of the magical thinking that gives rise to impulses like these opens out onto a wide range of diverse topics (mesmerism, telepathy, gender, marriage, friendship, poetic meter, and the omniscient narrator, to name a few); it offers a new perspective on nineteenth-century debates about ethics, psychology, belief, and the experience of reading; and it makes available a new taxonomy of thinking, grounded not in an empiricist assumption of the dependence of ideas on sensations, but in an opposition between thinking and sensation, or even between thinking and ideas.

Although Pinch starts with the question of why nineteenth-century writers imagined that thoughts have material consequences, Thinking about Other People quickly moves beyond the question of origins (in part by making us see that it is the rare person who does not at least occasionally hold this belief) to a series of meditations on its forms and consequences in the nineteenth century. The book opens with two chapters on a wide range of philosophical prose. The choice of writers here is idiosyncratic: the first chapter is devoted to the relatively obscure philosopher James Frederick Ferrier, whose importance for Pinch has to do with his rejection of the empiricist tradition that has dominated accounts of nineteenth-century philosophy and psychology. For Ferrier, “consciousness is actively antagonistic to sensation” (35), identity is the product of a kind of heroic act of self-assertion, and ethics depends not on knowledge or understanding, but is instead “linked directly to the primary act of thinking itself” (39). The next chapter follows up on this notion of ethics as inhering in thinking by exploring a wide range of writers committed to thinking as a form of force: Charles Bray’s notion that thought may be continuous with other forms of energy; James Hinton’s vision of thinking as a form of altruism in and of itself that need not be expressed in acts; and the various authors collected in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which describes “a world of people who are ‘thinking intently’ about people they love, producing and receiving strange extrapersonal mental effects” (60). This chapter also addresses the epiphenomenalists’ conviction that mental life causes absolutely nothing, not even the behavior of the bodies to which any individual consciousness appears to be attached.

As much through her choices of texts as in the questions she asks of them, in these chapters Pinch offers what we might call intellectual history from below, seeking to determine not the dark disciplinary underbelly of Victorian discourses—the exclusions, repressions, or power relations that motivated particular knowledge projects—but instead the kinds of questions that were being formulated by diverse thinkers with highly differing relations to authority and power. Defining her project in this way helps Pinch resist what she quotes Lisa Gittelman calling “the tug of teleology” (46). Taking seriously the work of thinkers who are now largely forgotten also enables us to see a side of British thinking about mind and world that is all too often obscured by an overly exclusive focus on the empiricist mainstream. Hence, too, Pinch also shows us the close relations between such apparently marginal pseudo-sciences as mesmerism and telepathy and the work of the more mainstream philosophers, poets, and novelists to whom the remainder of her book is dedicated. Here, Pinch is aligned with critics and historians as diverse as Nicholas Dames, Cannon Schmitt, Laura Otis, and Alison Winter, all of whom are committed to excavating the relations between relatively obscure Victorian philosophers and scientists, and the poets, novelists, and other writers whose names are comparatively ubiquitous. Such a widening of the of the lens does not just enable a more detailed picture to emerge; it makes available new kinds of questions, new avenues of interest.

The next two chapters shift gears, examining how Victorian poetry engaged ideas about the consequences of thinking about other people. Even though Pinch acknowledges that the poets she examines may not have been directly influenced by the prose writers, by the time we reach these later chapters, the philosophical background has helped make it seem almost self-evident to regard the modes of thinking exemplified in and encouraged by the poetry as having substantial ethical implications. Pinch is highly attuned to the literary dynamics of all the writers she examines. Nevertheless, the inextricability of Pinch’s literary and philosophical questions only becomes fully apparent in the explicitly literary chapters of the book which examine “the ways in which aspects of poetry have historically come to be associated with aspects of our experience of thinking” (78). This is a form of literary history that is refreshingly literary at least as much as it is historical.

The third chapter, on “thinking in the second person,” contrasts the aggressivity implicit in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s address to “gentle Charles” in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1800), with the reciprocal forms of thinking explored in Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s “Night at Sea” (1839) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s response to Landon’s poem, “LEL’s Last Question” (1839). Despite its relatively limited selection of texts, this chapter explores many ways of imagining that thinking about another can serve as a form of either care or harm. The next chapter focuses on the relation between meter and ethics. Seeing both Coventry Patmore and George Meredith as concerned with the difference between speaking to a beloved and thinking about her, Pinch suggests that in their different ways, both poets used poetic forms to consider problems not easily articulated in any other way: Patmore uses his free iambs as a way of working out the limits of our capacity to track the layers of social embeddedness. Meanwhile, Meredith dramatizes the gap between language and experience through similes in which vehicles and tenors fail to coincide. If in the first two chapters, thinking comes to seem like a particular form of ethical relation, or even action, in the next two, poetry comes to seem like a very specific form of thinking: “Perhaps we only know what second-person thinking feels like by reconstructing in our minds these forms of poetic address. In this way, we might redefine a philosophical problem as a literary practice” (97).

Pinch’s final chapter on Daniel Deronda (1876) “wants to discover whether the discussions about poetry in the preceding chapters have any new news for the study of the form of the novel” (144). Tackling Daniel Deronda seems like a difficult way to answer this question, however, particularly since, as Pinch admits, the critical literature has already considered how this novel pushes well beyond the boundaries of realism. Even though the argument of this chapter may seem less striking than those of the rest of the book, its primary claim—that in George Eliot’s last novel, we can see an interest in a kind of thinking that has relatively little to do with knowledge or understanding—offers a useful corrective to the longstanding assumption that “thinking about other people in the novel is constricted to a concern with the knowability of ‘transparent minds’” (145). Although Pinch herself contrasts her work with that of Andrew Miller, here their projects actually seem quite closely related insofar as both are interested in ways of conceiving the relations between persons that have less to do with epistemology than with something like disposition, recognition, or care. This represents a striking new way of understanding the ethical project of the novel.

Thinking about Other People takes questions that might initially seem only obliquely related to the concerns of most of today's Romanticists and Victorianists—questions that emerge from such apparently marginal figures as the “idiosyncratic metaphysician Shadworth Hodgson, the utopian polygamist ear doctor James Hinton, the philosophical ribbon-manufacturer Charles Bray, [and] the psychological mathematician Mary Everest Boole” (46)—and demonstrates their absolute centrality to any investigation of nineteenth-century psychology, philosophy, or literature of the period. What initially seems quirky, in other words, quickly reveals itself to be deeply important for thinking about thinking, but also ethics, reading, and poetics in the nineteenth century.