“The Spirit of the Age”: Virginia Woolf’s Response to Dynamic Psychology



Although Virginia Woolf argued that the moderns were “sharply cut off from [their] predecessors” (Essays III 357), she also believed in the continuity of culture, and in writers’ role as “receptacles” of cultural currents (Meisel, Absent 160). S.P. Rosenbaum has examined some of the currents affecting Woolf herself, but his claim that Woolf’s “writing was shaped by a series of intellectual assumptions about reality, perception, morality, government, and art” needs to be extended to include human psychology (“Virginia Woolf” 11). Through reading and discussions, Woolf directly encountered and interrogated psychologists’ working hypotheses about all aspects of personality, and she responded to psychological discourse that had entered into contemporary culture. In her own ambivalent, idiosyncratic way, Woolf acknowledged both of these sources in a draft of “Character in Fiction” (1924), a paper given before the Cambridge Heretics Society. She claimed:

No generation since the world began has known quite so much about character as our generation.…[T]he average man or woman today thinks more about character than his or her grandparents; character interests them more; they get closer, they dive deeper in to the real emotions and motives of their fellow creatures. There are scientific reasons why this should be so. If you read Freud you know in ten minutes some facts — or at least some possibilities — which our parents could not have guessed for themselves. That is a very debatable point. But how much we can learn from science that is real… and make our own from science? And then there is a… vaguer force at work — a force which is sometimes called the Spirit of the Age or the Tendency of the Age. This mysterious power is taking us by the hand, I think, and making us look much more closely into the reasons why people do and say and think things.…(“Character” 504)


Internal Reality Dynamic Psychology Dream Life Psychic Phenomenon Transcendental Theory 
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  1. 13.
    Woolf mentions the work of another American psychologist — John Dewey’s Psychology (1886) — in her essay “Hours in a Library” (Times Literary Supplement 30 November 1916: 565–566; Essays II 55–61). Woolf may very well have read this work since she includes it in “a list of the books that someone read in a past January at the age of twenty” (Essays II 56), and we can speculate that this someone may well have been Woolf herself. Dewey’s work contains sections on imagination and intuition, including intuition of God, and treats the Self as “a connecting, relating activity”.Google Scholar
  2. John Dewey, Psychology 1886. 3rd Edn. New York: Harper, 1891, 242).Google Scholar
  3. 17.
    Leonard Woolf, Letters of Leonard Woolf, Ed. Frederic Spotts (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990), 556.Google Scholar

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© George M. Johnson 2006

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