Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and vocal critic of religion, is a supporter of panpsychism, the doctrine that consciousness arises because every inanimate particle actually has some measure of consciousness. He said this in an interview:

Those who are committed materialists (as I claim to be myself) have to account for the existence of consciousness, or else, like the behaviourists such as Watson and Skinner, deny that it exists at all. There are various ways of explaining consciousness, many of which seem to take the line that it’s an emergent phenomenon that only begins to exist when a sufficient degree of complexity is achieved. Another way of dealing with the question is to assume that consciousness, like mass, is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism), so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees. This is the line I take myself, in the company of poets such as Wordsworth and Blake.

My question is, is Pullman correct in saying Wordsworth, Blake, and other poets of the Romantic era were in support of panpsychism?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You in Advance.

  • blake was a very unusual christain, though, wasn't he? – another_name Apr 16 at 22:36

Panpsychism, vitalism, or hylozoism (from Greek hyle, "matter", and zoion, "animal"), the label most commonly used at the time, and the Romantic movement itself, were a reaction against the mechanistic materialism, the "clockwork universe", (questionably) derived by many Enlightenment figures from Newton's Principia. It seemed to overlook "the sacred and the sublime" in nature, its enchanted liveliness, and accordingly left no place for a creative subject immersed into it, a major point for Romantic poets. For historical reasons the movement's philosophical expression came to be associated with Spinoza, and so the animation and the edification of "living Nature" came hand in hand with its deification, pantheism, derived (also questionably) from Spinoza.

For Romantic poets' the infatuation with "Spinoza's" hylozoism did not start with Blake and Wordsworth however, nor did it start in England. It erupted in Germany during the Pantheismus-Streit (Pantheism Controversy) after Jacobi published a short pamphlet in 1785 accusing Lessing of Spinozism and atheism. The leading romantic poets that took Lessing's side were Goethe and Herder, but Spinoza's philosophy is associated with romantic panpsychism only loosely. Zammito gives a panoramic view of the historical and philosophical context in The Genesis of Kant's Critique of Judgment:

"The resulting controversy proved to be one of the most important events in German intellectual life... While Jacobi and Mendelssohn — and therefore Kant — saw Spinozism as a force (symbolic or actual) driving philosophy toward nihilism, Herder, Goethe and the generation of Idealism saw Spinozism as a decisive resource, once properly reformulated, for the rescue of philosophy from that debacle... The most spectacular outcome of the controversy was this formulation of a heterodox interpretation of Spinoza — a pantheism of an entirely different sort... they saw in his idea of "intrinsic infinity" a kind of holism which provided a resolution to the conundrum of modern epistemology...

While Jacobi read it as empty, a propertyless ground, Herder read it as full, a positive infinity. Next, Herder questioned the sense of claiming the utter transcendence of God. God had to act in and through things to grant them force (Kraft) and order. While he had difficulties with the idea of a "world soul" as Jacobi ascribed it to Lessing, because it seemed to imply that the world was God's body, he claimed that seen properly, i.e., sub specie aeternitatis, the material world turned simply into the realized reason of God... Kant, learning of this development, applied himself in the Third Critique vehemently to the rejection of Herder's vitalist pantheism as well as to the refutation of Spinozist "fatalism"."

Kant's "vehemence" was not very effective, he accused Spinoza's God/Nature of incoherence just a few chapters after describing a very similar "intellectus archetypus" as logically conceivable. His idealist successors, Fichte and especially Schelling, adopted some of that archetypal insight into the animated Nature to solve the "conundrum of modern epistemology", the impenetrable veil of causal appearances created by Kant's critique of metaphysics. For the subsequent developments, including in English romantic poetry, perhaps the most comprehensive source is Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. Here is from Hirsch's review:

"Much space is devoted to the writings of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, as well as those of Goethe, Herder, Hölderlin, Novalis, Schiller, and Friedrich Schlegel. Excepting Byron, who is omitted, the major English Romantic poets receive still fuller treatment, with the place of honor reserved for Wordsworth, whose poetry remains very much at the center of the book, and at the beginning and ending too."

Later German romantics, like Hölderlin and Novalis, moved from "Spinozism" to a more up to date version of the "unity with the living Nature", idealism in the style of Schelling. Panpsychism and pantheism are routinely read into Blake's and Wordsworth's poetry by popularizers, see e.g. Albuquerque, but again one would have to apply the label loosely, in the sense of nature displaying some driving force, and perhaps sense and purpose, irreducible to mechanistic causation.

On the other hand, Schlieper claims that his "study shows Blake as a lucid and consistent thinker whose philosophy is a subjective idealism, not unlike Berkeley's, directed against British empiricism", see his dissertation William Blake, Philosopher. There is also a good argument that the hylozoist/pantheist reading even of Spinoza himself is a misreading ("as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken", Spinoza wrote for himself), and that he is better interpreted as a (notional) panentheist. In some respects Spinoza's position is more akin to Shankara's Advaita, see Dorter's Thought and Expression in Spinoza and Shankara. Dombrowski argues in Wordsworth's Panentheism that the same applies to Wordsworth:

"...Among scholars on this topic Wordsworth's concept of God is in a state of confusion. Some interpreters see him as a pantheist, such that his closest philosophical model was Spinoza. Others deny that he was a pantheist, even if they do not know what of theist he was. Still others see a shift in Wordsworth's thought away from a pantheistic, naturalistic early period to some other form of theism later on. These scholars do not agree about exactly when and to what extent this shift took place, but they are alike in having a great deal of difficulty describing Wordsworth's later theism, which never fits the traditional Western mold. A resolution of problems surrounding Wordsworth's God can be found, I think, if one compares Wordsworth with Whitehead, who was neither a pantheist nor a classical theist, but a panentheist. The mistake most interpreters make is to assume that divine immanence and transcendence are mutually exclusive."

Thus, "panpsychism" in many German and English romantics is a philosophical oversimplification, but it does reflect some key aspects of their artistic mindset.


Yes, I think he is correct that some romantics believed that. I don't know about Blake specifically.

It's also hilarious to me that Christianity is dumb because it's magic and spooky and non-scientific, but panpsychism is somehow intellectually any better.

  • 3
    Can you give quotes or citations for Romantic poets believing in panpsychism? – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 4 '14 at 21:24
  • Yes, it is funny that Pullman frequently criticizes religion, yet he subscribes to a belief system that could arguably be described as religious. – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 4 '14 at 21:24
  • 1
    "Blake does not subscribe to the notion of a body distinct from the soul that must submit to the rule of the soul, but sees the body as an extension of the soul, derived from the 'discernment' of the senses." that's from the wikipedia on blake, so take it with a grain of salt, but it seems related to panpsychism. Don't expect too much precision from romantic poets about philosophical theories. – shane Mar 4 '14 at 23:44
  • I'm not expecting precision from poets, I just want more evidence that there was support for panpsychism. – Keshav Srinivasan Mar 5 '14 at 0:18

is Pullman correct in saying Wordsworth, Blake, and other poets of the Romantic era were in support of panpsychism?

Keshav, correct according to whom? Wordworth and Blake? Other poets? Pullman? You?? Should we instead agree with Nabokov that good readers do not read "for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations"?

Of course, a lot depends upon what is meant by "in support of". Short of written record stating "I, a poet of the Romantic era, hereby am in support of panpsychism" what would qualify as demonstrable proof? Reader assent? No. How then do we know when the interpretative excesses go beyond what the subject matter admits?

Historians, for example, disagree about the past more than on the fact of the matter; they all take the same body of facts and then manipulate and characterize those facts to best serve their purpose. In the end, they’re doing no more and no different than what a literary critic does when he insists what the correct meaning of a play or poem should be. This is not to say that an appreciation of the past cannot be gotten from reading history and literature; it is to say that mere appreciation of the past is not what historians claim to be providing.

Pullman's claim may be "true to Pullman" and he may present convincing evidence soliciting agreement with his claim, however, that is all that is to be made of this claim: agreement or disagreement. There is no rationally assessing the truth value except to note the perspectival or situational content. Who would settle the matter of correct interpretation? How do we adjudicate rival accounts? Does a patient settle on their own disease from a number of alternative diagnoses??

As this is a philosophy forum, it is worth pointing out that

  1. agreement matters not one iota to truth value.

  2. there is a vast difference between hermeneutics and epistemology (the former "what is to [you;me;us;them]" and the latter heuristic), and

  3. that, short of the exception noted above, any evidence presented in support of Pullman's claim that, for example, Blake supported panpsychism, would be a matter of interpretation.

Such is the nature of interpretation (what is to [you;me;us;them]) vs reality (what is).

For example, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/panpsych/

Goethe developed a poetic form of panpsychism that displayed itself chiefly in his writings that personified nature. His most explicit statement came from a short essay of 1828: “Since, however, matter can never exist and act without spirit [Seele], nor spirit without matter, matter is also capable of undergoing intensification, and spirit cannot be denied its attraction and repulsion” (1988: 6). Here we find a beautifully concise articulation of panpsychism: no matter without mind, no mind without matter. This is not to say that mind is identical with matter, nor that one can be reduced to the other. It simply claims (like Spinoza and Schopenhauer) that neither mind nor matter exist without the other.

The above can, of course, be used solicit agreement with interpreting a panpsychism of the type where "consciousness arises because every inanimate particle actually has some measure of consciousness" [your interpretation], as well as supporting the type which "assume[s] that consciousness, like mass, is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism), so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees" [Pullman's interpretation], as well as a dualist or monist interpretations, even existentialist, objectivist, et cetera.

Of note, what are we to make of Pullman's assumption that consciousness is "universal"? What is even meant by universal? Does he mean the totality of all things? If he meant the world as known from the sub-atomic threshold of losing quantum coherence to the event horizon of cosmological black holes, does not "the world" suffice? Considering the etymology and morphology of the term "universe" are we to imagine Pullman actually means "uni"-"verse", i.e. "one turn" (e.g. his)? "One text" (e.g. his)? Not unlike the urging of the sly little weaver in "The Emperor's New Clothes" the question remains: Is the finely-knit raiment of "consciousness is a universal property of matter and everything is conscious in degrees" really there? And to this has Pullman given one iota of logic, reason, argument or evidence? Anything beyond pale utterance and assumption?

Ultimately, do we not need to rationally assess panpsychism to address Pullman's claim? And what is panpsychism except incoherent nonsense? We can read Chalmer's and exclaim, "now there's a TRUTH!" and set about fitting the world to his view of it, but what of this: "I distinguish the phenomenal and psychological (functional) concepts of mind. I argue that every mental state is a phenomenal state, a psychological state, or a hybrid of the two. I discuss the two mind-body problems corresponding to the two concepts of mind, and discuss the various senses of the term "consciousness"" is ponderable or even palpable?

In the words of Searle in their exchange published by the NY Review of Books: "What about panpsychism, his view that consciousness is in rocks, thermostats, and electrons (his examples), indeed everywhere? I am not sure what he expects as an argument against this view. The only thing one can say is that we know too much about how the world works to take this view seriously as a scientific hypothesis. Does he want me to tell him what we know? Perhaps he does."

In short, "The problem with panpsychism is not that it is false; it does not get up to the level of being false. It is strictly speaking meaningless because no clear notion has been given to the claim. Consciousness comes in units and panpsychism cannot specify the units." John Searle, NYRB, 10 January, 2013, pg. 55, reviewing Christof Koch, Consciousness: Confessions of A Romantic Reductionist.

So, is Pullman's characterization of poets of the Romantic era as panpsychists true? No, it is not a matter of true or false, he is simply drawing an analogy. Is he interpreting their work to fit his view of panpsychism (whatever that may be)? Yes.

Hope that helps.

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