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Empiricist Devotions

Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England
Courtney Weiss Smith

BUY Cloth · 288 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813938387 · $45.00 · Apr 2016
BUY Ebook · 288 pp. · ISBN 9780813938394 · $45.00 · Apr 2016

Featuring a moment in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England before the disciplinary divisions that we inherit today were established, Empiricist Devotions recovers a kind of empiricist thinking in which the techniques and emphases of science, religion, and literature combined and cooperated. This brand of empiricism was committed to particularized scrutiny and epistemological modesty. It was Protestant in its enabling premises and meditative practices. It earnestly affirmed that figurative language provided crucial tools for interpreting the divinely written world. Smith recovers this empiricism in Robert Boyle’s analogies, Isaac Newton’s metaphors, John Locke’s narratives, Joseph Addison’s personifications, Daniel Defoe’s diction, John Gay’s periphrases, and Alexander Pope’s descriptive particulars. She thereby demonstrates that "literary" language played a key role in shaping and giving voice to the concerns of eighteenth-century science and religion alike.

Empiricist Devotions combines intellectual history with close readings of a wide variety of texts, from sermons, devotional journals, and economic tracts to georgic poems, it-narratives, and microscopy treatises. This prizewinning book has important implications for our understanding of cultural and literary history, as scholars of the period’s science have not fully appreciated figurative language’s central role in empiricist thought, while scholars of its religion and literature have neglected the serious empiricist commitments motivating richly figurative devotional and poetic texts.

Winner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an Outstanding Work of Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century Studies


Smith insightfully and persuasively reorients current discussions about literature and science in the long eighteenth century to account for the crosscurrents between science and religion. The readings are carefully and often brilliantly wrought, producing wonderful local insights within a larger reconsideration of the persistence of the occasional meditation mode in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The vast range of materials under Smith’s purview—from natural theology and natural philosophy to poetry and economic history, for instance—reflects a sophisticated mind at work. Empiricist Devotions is extremely effective, thoughtful, and persuasive.

Tita Chico, University of Maryland, author of Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture , University of Maryland, author of Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture

Empiricist Devotions is a readable and consistently interesting book.... It is relevant to several different fields of study. Historians of science or philosophy, literary historians, cultural historians, economic historians, and British historians will find it helpful, as will students of eighteenth-century literature and language.


As it probes the complex figural texture of religious, scientific, and literary language of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, Empiricist Devotions upends standard accounts of all three and demonstrates their deep affinities with one another. This nuanced and original book is a valuable corrective to the secularization thesis, one whose exquisite attention to all that language can be and do restores the possibility of devotion—and with it belief—to the empiricist and skeptical protocols long thought to have ruled them out.

Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, University of California, Irvine, author of, University of California, Irvine, author of Air's Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1794

In Empiricist Devotions, Courtney Weiss Smith provides perhaps the most compelling evidence of the benefits of this historicizing approach [to what constitutes "science" in the period].... In her emphasis on the rhetorical strategies deployed by the new scientists in their bid for epistemological authority, Smith draws on more than three decades of work by historians of science exploring the social, political, and cultural factors that shaped the Scientific Revolution.

Literature Compass

[A]dvances an original and important argument, with broad implications for students of this period working in a number of disciplines.... Smith argues that Boyle's devotional reflections on the natural world exemplified a pervasively influential form of "meditative empiricism," and this claim in turn provides the basis for a series of stimulating new readings of natural philosophy, political economy, social contract theory, and georgic poetry from the Restoration to the 1730s.

Modern Philology

"Empiricist Devotions gives us a new framework in which to read scientific and literary texts of the eighteenth century."

George E. Haggerty · SEL

[T]he range of texts and subjects with which the book engages reflects a truly ambitious undertaking and a genuine contribution to eighteenth-century studies. Scholars interestedin the histories of science, religion, philosophy, and literature will find much in Smith’s work to admire and upon which to build.

Eighteenth Century Fiction

[A]n important and bold volume... Smith's book is a dense, complex, and conscientiously argued account of a misinterpreted and overlooked aspect of 18th century writing, and should be appreciated for its resolute and vivid polemic against prevailing scholarly categories.

Reading Religion

About the Author(s): 

Courtney Weiss Smith is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University and the co-editor, with Kate Parker, of Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered.

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