In recent years we have seen an explosion of scholarship on the relations between nineteenth-century literary genres (the novel, poetry, aesthetics and criticism) and the human and natural sciences (political economy, anthropology, sociology, geology, evolutionary biology, medicine, neuroscience, etc.). This work has largely overcome the established commonplace of a categorical opposition between “literature” and “science” in the Victorian period, supposedly the era when the modern divide between the “two cultures” occurred. While recent research (e.g. Klancher 2014) has explored the nineteenth-century reconfiguration of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters into a field distributed between the “arts and sciences,” with the formation of the latter into professional disciplines, scholarship has also attended to the reciprocal influences shaping both sides of the division, to the extent of questioning its force.
What is only now being opened up, is an inquiry into shared conceptions and practices of form across the different fields and discourses. Many of the great nineteenth-century thinkers about society and nature, from Comte to Darwin, insisted on their theories as theories of form. In the course of our proposed collaborative research project we intend to bring critical pressure to bear both on the often-noted scientific language through which leading theorists of aesthetic form, e.g. Ruskin and Pater, articulated their project; and on the role of the aesthetic in the apprehension and ordering of natural forms, as well as the elaboration of grand theories of nature, society and culture.