By Andrew Joron & Adam Cornford

Andrew writes: “The marriage of science & poetry in your work has many sources, which you also mention in the statement, Blake being most prominent among them. Bringing Blake’s thought in line with contemporary science seems plausible the way you put it, yet as you know, in his own day Blake was vociferously anti-science (or at least anti-Newtonian science), to the point of espousing a flat earth (I learned this surprising fact from Gilchrist’s Life of Blake). Leaning into Blake’s infinities seems like the right way to go in order to rehabilitate him for a post-Newtonian metaphysics of science.”

You put your finger on a key point, which is that Blake’s hostility to the science of his day was centered on Newtonianism–or more specifically on three Enlightenment figures: Bacon, Newton, and Locke. In Bacon he opposed inductivism, in Newton mechanism, and in Locke “tabula rasa” rationalism. Behind his opposition to all three was his fundamental disagreement with Descartes. Blake was a monist who believed there was only one reality, not two as in the Cartesian model. The question then becomes: what is the relationship between perception and reality?

Bacon presents the easiest case. Karl Popper (and, in a different way, Thomas Kuhn) demolished inductivism more than half a century ago, echoing Blake’s affirmation that “Reason must have Ideas to build on.” And ideas, Blake insisted, come from imagination, for him as for the Romantics who came later the central and defining human faculty—the power that links us to the Infinite. Blake’s response to Locke is also accurate. As we now know, the mind is never a blank slate, because the human brain is born with the ability to generalize from very limited information (as AIs cannot) and the ability to acquire language, as well as, for example, the ability to recognize the Platonic forms of triangle, circle, and square encoded in the neurology of the eye.

Blake’s objections to Newtonianism are more complex. Newtonian mechanics postulates a “world-machine,” a universe in which objects are moved by forces through a uniform “flat” 3D space and a uniform clock time in a straightforwardly predictable way. More than a century ago, Einstein overturned both these ideas with Special and General Relativity, which showed that time is a function of velocity relative to the observer and the speed of light, that space and time are aspects of the same continuum, and that the curvature of space around mass is what causes gravitation. Blake also believed space to be a function of objects and time to be local and flexible. At about the same time, quantum physics demonstrated that at its most fundamental level, reality cannot be defined independently of the observer. This was also Blake’s view: “A Fool sees not the same Tree that a Wise Man sees.” Yet the entire universe has a wavefunction: all of reality is interdependent. Tßhe same is true of the biosphere. If we don’t bring human civilization into line with the reality of life’s interdependence very soon, our species will die along with countless others.

In saying all this, I don’t mean to suggest that Blake was some sort of cosmological physicist or ecologist avant la lettre. But by rejecting mechanism, dualism (both spiritual and philosophical) and the supremacy of analytical Reason over synthesizing Imagination, he arrived at profound intuitions about the nature of reality. The late English physiologist-poet Peter Redgrove said that poets should be “scientists of the strange.” Science, more than ever, fruitfully estranges us from the trap of the everyday we are caught in—it breaks what Blake called the Mundane Shell. Blake said the goal of his work was “to rouse the faculties to act.” That is also the goal of mine.