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Uncertain ChancesScience, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature$
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Maurice S. Lee

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199797578

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199797578.001.0001

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Dickinson’s Precarious Steps, Surprising Leaps, and Bounds

Dickinson’s Precarious Steps, Surprising Leaps, and Bounds

(p.154) Chapter 6 Dickinson’s Precarious Steps, Surprising Leaps, and Bounds
Uncertain Chances

Maurice S. Lee

Oxford University Press

Dickinson’s approach to the limitations of knowledge can be understood in terms of probabilistic expectation, which has profound epistemological and aesthetic consequences for her poetry. As chance becomes increasing visible in American thought and culture, Dickinson pushes beyond a romantic skepticism most powerfully represented by strands of Emerson’s thought to challenge from a probabilistic perspective the providential argument from design. Dickinson is a philosopher of science whose intellectual and formal experiments trace the dynamics between repetitious and aleatory experience. Painfully and wonderfully aware of the impossibility of perfect prediction, Dickinson’s poems enact and theorize chance through its affective correlative, surprise. Surprise not only describes the effects of Dickinson’s poetry, it also composes a philosophical and religious attitude toward a world that is experienced but never entirely known.

Keywords:   Emily Dickinson, surprise, wonder, philosophy of science, Christianity, transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, argument from design

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