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Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel

By Vanessa L. Ryan
In Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel, Vanessa L. Ryan demonstrates how both the form and the experience of reading novels played an important role in ongoing debates about the nature of consciousness during the Victorian era.

Revolutionary developments in science during the mid- and late nineteenth century—including the discoveries and writings of Herbert Spencer, William Carpenter, and George Henry Lewes—had a vital impact on fiction writers of the time. Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Henry James read contributions in what we now call cognitive science that asked, "what is the mind?" These Victorian fiction writers took a crucial step, asking how we experience our minds, how that experience relates to our behavior and questions of responsibility, how we can gain control over our mental reflexes, and finally how fiction plays a special role in understanding and training our minds.

Victorian fiction writers focus not only on the question of how the mind works but also on how it seems to work and how we ought to make it work. Ryan shows how the novelistic emphasis on dynamic processes and functions—on the activity of the mind, rather than its structure or essence—can also be seen in some of the most exciting and comprehensive scientific revisions of the understanding of "thinking" in the Victorian period. This book studies the way in which the mind in the nineteenth-century view is embedded not just in the body but also in behavior, in social structures, and finally in fiction.

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