Lecture and discussion – Angus Nicholls: ‘Scientific’ Literary Studies During the Late Nineteenth Century and Today: A Critical Overview

Date: December 20, 2017; 15:00-17:00
Location: University of Amsterdam, PC Hoofthuis, Spuistraat 134 (room 5.59)


The late nineteenth century was a period in which academic disciplines began to form and professionalize themselves in modern research universities. Like many disciplines during this period, literary studies (Literaturwissenschaft) attempted to establish itself by arguing that its methods were ‘scientific’ or wissenschaftlich. But here the key term in the debate – that of ‘science’ (Wissenschaft) – was a contested one, and was defined in different ways, in different cultural contexts, by different protagonists in the field. In this paper, I will attempt to show that these nineteenth-century debates on the ‘scientific’ nature of literary studies bear a striking similarity to present day discussions. This is so because – especially in the UK system – the humanities continue to be assessed and funded according to models predominantly derived from research in the natural sciences; models which favour a linear conception of objective scientific progress and which valorise quantifiable impact upon society. This paper will offer an overview of this subject in relation to British and German intellectual history, as part of an introduction to a larger monograph project. Some of the better-known thinkers treated will include Matthew Arnold, Thomas Henry Huxley, Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm Scherer. For those interested, further information on the larger project can be found here:



Angus Nicholls teaches in the Departments German and Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London, and served as the Chair of Comparative Literature between 2013 and 2016. Some book publications include: Goethe’s Concept of the Daemonic (2006), Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (co-edited, 2010), Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth (2015), and Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought (co-edited, 2017). He co-edits two journals: Publications of the English Goethe Society (Routledge) and History of the Human Sciences (Sage). Further into and publications here: