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In Pursuit of Genius: Tracing the History of a Concept in English Writing, from the late Enlightenment to the dawn of the Twentieth Century

Essex, Caroline J; (2003) In Pursuit of Genius: Tracing the History of a Concept in English Writing, from the late Enlightenment to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis examines the origins and development of the 'mad genius controversy', a very specific debate that emerged in Europe, specifically in the writings of the Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, in the late 1880s and 1890s. Up to now, historians have accepted that during the whole of the period under discussion, from the Enlightenment to the fin-de-siecle, the idea of 'genius' within certain types of elite British discourse was intimately connected with that of madness. This project illustrates the problems with this interpretation by establishing the ways in which the term 'genius' transmuted within elite scientific discussions over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and demonstrating in the process the degree to which 'genius' is a socially constructed idea. In order to provide a new foundation for assessing the British biomedical response to the notion of a pathology of genius in the later nineteenth century, the project employs a long-view historical approach to trace the genealogy of 'genius' through a broad range of elite British writings from the late eighteenth century onwards. Beginning with an assessment of the ways in which 'genius' was described by later Enlightenment clergymen writers, the project reveals the powerful spiritual dimension that figured in discussions of the term. This thesis also tracks the ways in which the term acquired radical political connotations during the Romantic period, focusing particularly on the ways in which notions of 'genius' developed through the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. The significance of these connotations is then traced through the influential scientific philosophy developed from the 1830s by William Whewell, and the ways in which the meanings of the term were altered by later Victorian gentleman naturalists, specifically Francis Galton. Tracing such a genealogy of 'genius' enables the historian to fully appreciate the significance of the later nineteenth-century British psychiatric ambivalence to continental ideas proposing the category of 'mad genius'.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: In Pursuit of Genius: Tracing the History of a Concept in English Writing, from the late Enlightenment to the dawn of the Twentieth Century
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Thesis digitised by ProQuest.
Keywords: Social sciences; English writing; Enlightenment
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10100428
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