The Victorians are known for their commitment to materialism, evidenced by the dominance of empiricism in the sciences and realism in fiction. Yet there were other strains of thinking during the period in the physical sciences, social sciences, and literature that privileged the spaces between the material and immaterial. This book examines how the emerging language of the “imponderable” helped Victorian writers and physicists make sense of new experiences of modernity. As Sarah Alexander argues, while Victorian physicists were theorizing ether, energy and entropy, and non-Euclidean space and atom theories, writers such as Charles Dickens, William Morris, and Joseph Conrad used concepts of the imponderable to explore key issues of capitalism, imperialism, and social unrest.
One of the articles of faith of twentieth-century intellectual history is that the theory of relativity in physics sprang in its essentials from the unaided genius of Albert Einstein; another is that scientific relativity is unconnected to ethical, cultural, or epistemological relativisms. Victorian Relativity challenges these assumptions, unearthing a forgotten tradition of avant-garde speculation that took as its guiding principle "the negation of the absolute" and set itself under the militant banner of "relativity."
Christopher Herbert shows that the idea of relativity produced revolutionary changes in one field after another in the nineteenth century. Surveying a long line of thinkers including Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Alexander Bain, W. K. Clifford, W. S. Jevons, Karl Pearson, James Frazer, and Einstein himself, Victorian Relativity argues that the early relativity movement was bound closely to motives of political and cultural reform and, in particular, to radical critiques of the ideology of authoritarianism. Recuperating relativity from those who treat it as synonymous with nihilism, Herbert portrays it as the basis of some of our crucial intellectual and ethical traditions.