, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 589-607

Observation, Inference, and Imagination: Elements of Edgar Allan Poe’s Philosophy of Science

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Abstract

Edgar Allan Poe’s standing as a literary figure, who drew on (and sometimes dabbled in) the scientific debates of his time, makes him an intriguing character for any exploration of the historical interrelationship between science, literature and philosophy. His sprawling ‘prose-poem’ Eureka (1848), in particular, has sometimes been scrutinized for anticipations of later scientific developments. By contrast, the present paper argues that it should be understood as a contribution to the raging debates about scientific methodology at the time. This methodological interest, which is echoed in Poe’s ‘tales of ratiocination’, gives rise to a proposed new mode of—broadly abductive—inference, which Poe attributes to the hybrid figure of the ‘poet-mathematician’. Without creative imagination and intuition, Science would necessarily remain incomplete, even by its own standards. This concern with imaginative (abductive) inference ties in nicely with his coherentism, which grants pride of place to the twin virtues of Simplicity and Consistency, which must constrain imagination lest it degenerate into mere fancy.