Herder’s Poetic Empiricism
This chapter treats Johann Gottfried Herder as exemplary of an overlooked strain of revisionary, romantic empiricism catalyzed by the new sciences of life. It shows how Herder deployed the latest physiology of sensation to depict sensuous experience—not least the kind that grounds empirical inquiry—as physically poetic, a relay between sensation and cognition that transfigures the observer and tropes the object under view. But for Herder, the poetry of the senses is not only necessary but fortuitous for science and its philosophy: it expresses sensation’s susceptibility to circumstance without reducing its knowledge to sheer social construct, it substantiates a theory of physical nature as itself inclined towards transport and transformation, and, above, all it elevates poetry—whose tropes were long thought to occlude the simple evidence of sense—as a privileged technique of empirical representation. All three possibilities are themselves occulted by our own disciplinarity: a division of labor between the natural and human sciences that was both unfinished and brilliantly contested in romantic period projects.
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