Though underexplored in contemporary scholarship, the Victorian attempts to turn aesthetics into a science remains one of the more fascinating aspects of that era. As mind and emotion were increasingly understood in terms of biology, aesthetic experience began to be thought of less as abstract judgment and more as an interaction between the nervous system and the materiality of art. In The Outward Mind, Benjamin Morgan approaches this period of innovation as an important origin point for current attempts to understand art or beauty using the tools of the sciences.
Moving chronologically from natural theology in the early nineteenth century to laboratory psychology in the early twentieth, Morgan draws on little-known archives of Victorian intellectuals such as William Morris, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and others, to argue that scientific studies of mind and emotion transformed the way that nineteenth-century writers and artists understood the experience of beauty and effectively redescribed aesthetic judgment as a biological adaptation. Looking beyond the Victorian period to humanistic critical theory today, he also shows how the historical relationship between science and aesthetics could be a vital resource for rethinking aspects of contemporary literary and cultural criticism—such as materialism, empathy, practice, and form. At a moment when the tumultuous relationship between the sciences and the humanities is the subject of ongoing debate, Morgan argues for the importance of understanding the arts and sciences as being incontrovertibly intertwined.