The writings of William Blake and Paul Feyerabend have each in their own way influenced my own writing in this blog, but it wasn’t until I recently became aware of Timb Hoswell’s The Blake Feyerabend Hypothesis that it occurred to me that there might be some exciting new synthesis to be drawn out of considering them together. I was therefore very much looking forward to reading this book, originally published in 2010 and now apparently in its second edition. Unfortunately, first impressions based on the back cover blurb suggest a work of clumsy pretentiousness. We are promised that in less than a hundred pages Hoswell, “one of Australia’s foremost cutting edge philosophers” will succeed in “demolishing over four hundred years of traditional Western Philosophy” in this “primus opus of the Nuevo-neo wave of philosophy … within a framework laid out by the radical English poet William Blake and the French Anarchist thinker Paul Feyerabend”. French?!
Luckily, however, the book itself is written in more sober terms. Hoswell takes great care to explain his aim of providing an account of imagination that will allow the beginning of a new epistemology. This will be “more of a fountainhead for channels of creativity and imagination, rather than grounding a universal premise, a privileged kind of awareness or thought, or an absolute theory or meaning”. He starts the book by setting out what he refers to as the “Cartesian Quandary” and its attendant “Darwinian Paradox”:
If science starts with an assumption that man can understand the universe because God gave him the faculties, and ends up concluding there is no God, then science either has to conclude there is a God, but he’s a trickster, or there really is no God and no reason that man really can understand the universe
Putting aside the references to “God”, this means that if we want our theories to represent the world as it really is, then we must first presume that our imaginations have the capacity to model the world as it really is and, second, have good reason to argue that the particular theories we hold now substantially do represent the world as it really is. However, these presumptions come to seem rather remarkable if we are also committed to the idea that our capacities and our present state of knowledge came about through entirely natural processes subject to natural selection. The evidence of other life forms and our own history of holding quite different theories of the world show that the possession of such capacities and knowledge as we presume above are not necessary conditions of survival, so it would seem remarkable that we possess the capacity to imagine models of the world as it really is when vast varieties of other life forms do not and even more remarkable that we happen to possess theories that substantially represent the world as it really is when the vast majority of our own ancestors did not.
There are simple ways around this quandary, of course. For instance, “approximately correct” models of the world are always likely to work better than wildly incorrect ones, so we can allow our realism to be approximate rather than perfect. Hoswell, however, is concerned by “the development of deeply rational scientific atheism which undermines the rationalist foundations of modern Epistemology” and wants to meet it with a “new type of foundation for knowledge”. He points to Newton’s formulation of the inverse square law of gravitation. Coming to understand that the sensation of weight in a brick, the fall of an apple from a tree, the trajectory of a cannon ball and the movements of planets in the night sky were all manifestations of a common underlying principle didn’t so much depend on new observations as on a conceptual re-categorization in Newton’s imagination.
Hoswell’s inspiration for this ‘epistemology of the imagination’ is drawn from the works of William Blake. This is evident in many of Blake’s writings, of course, but Hoswell draws particularly on the short aphoristic work There is no Natural Religion which he quotes in its totality and which I will do too:
There is No Natural Religion
Man has no notion of moral fitness but from Education. Naturally he is only a natural organ subject to Sense.
I. Man cannot naturally perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.
II. Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv’d.
III. From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.
IV. None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions.
V. Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions; none can desire what he has not perceiv’d.
VI. The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by anything but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.
I. Man’s perceptions are not bound by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
II. Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
IV. The bounded is loathed by its possessor. the same dull round, even of the universe, would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
V. If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
VI. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
VII. The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.
If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.
Hoswell analyzes this piece in detail, but the essence of it has been discussed by many other authors. While the title denies the possibility of ‘Natural Religion’, Blake was also at pains to discredit empiricist philosophy. The Argument and first set of aphorisms set out Blake’s version or parody of the empiricist creed. The second set of aphorisms progressively rebut the first set with the idea that the “Poetic or Prophetic Character” (imagination) is not derived entirely from sensory experience and that is why knowledge and understanding continue to grow, apparently endlessly. This apparently limitless imagination is what Blake regards as the divine. Since the divine is part of us, there can therefore be no natural religion.
Hoswell’s concern is more with the implications for epistemology, however. He wants to make Blake’s idea of divine imagination the root of a new theory of all knowledge. This is expected to inform our understanding of the various concepts invoked by scientific theories of things that we never perceive directly with our senses (atoms, electric currents, gravitational fields, genes, tectonic plates…). Sensory experience only corroborates their existence indirectly; the theoretical concepts have to be represented as real things in our imagination if we are to feel that we understand and believe in them. Once such theoretical concepts have entered our imagination, they lead us to direct our senses differently than before and therefore what we perceive (its scope – what we observe) changes. This reminds of something that is really rather obvious: our practices of observation are the exercise of our imagination. Thus, Hoswell credits Blake’s concept of divine imagination as being at the root of all scientific knowledge. He concerns himself with rebutting the “Humean Prejudices” against the deriving of knowledge from imagination and against imagination itself being anything other than recombinations of sensory impressions in some detail.
That Blake opposed the dominant empiricist philosophy of his day is hardly news, of course. Since then, both empiricism and its opponents have discovered new degrees of philosophical sophistication, so that today, Blake’s relevance to philosophy usually appears of only historical interest. This is where Hoswell makes the very interesting move of pairing Blake with Feyerabend: “They both share the idea that knowledge expands essentially through the conflict of different ideas and principles”. Unfortunately, having piqued the reader’s interest with this potential new synthesis, Hoswell doesn’t actually flesh the idea out very much. Altogether, he says rather little about Feyerabend (Against Method is the only work he cites) but does suggest that “his account can be made all the stronger supplemented with an interpretation of the issues through Blake”. As far as I can tell (he’s not altogether clear on this), Hoswell considers Feyerabend’s epistemology incomplete in that his commitments to theoretical pluralism (not rejecting theories inconsistent with one’s own preferred theory) and to the theory-ladenness of observation (our choices of what we observe are driven by theory) provide no account of how the necessary multiplicity of theories ever appears in the face of a supposedly singular and consistent real world. Hoswell suggests that Blake’s account of limitless human imagination is the piece that completes Feyerabend’s picture of a “radical” and “comprehensive” theory of knowledge but does little to explain the idea in detail.
In short, the Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis is an intriguing work that makes a case for taking William Blake seriously as a seminal figure in the philosophy of knowledge. If we accept that, then it suggests that Feyerabend’s anarchistic epistemology too may become much more generally acceptable. For the time being, however, Hoswell’s Blake-Feyerabend hypothesis itself remains more a statement of intent than a fully-fledged theory. It remains to be seen whether Timb Hoswell will succeed in realising the promise that he has put before us.