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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/31/20

The Edgar Poe You Never Knew: a Mere Writer of Horror or a Humanist Master of the Mind

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Do you know that it is not more than a thousand years ago since the metaphysicians consented to relieve the people of the singular fancy that there existed but two possible roads for the attainment of Truth! Believe it if you can! It appears that long, long ago, in the night of Time, there lived a Turkish philosopher (or Hindoo possibly) called Aries Tottle [Aristotle]. This person introduced, or at all events propagated what was termed the deductive or a priori mode of investigation. He started with what he maintained to be axioms or "self-evident truths," and thence proceeded "logically" to results. His greatest disciples were one Neuclid [Euclid], and one Cant [Kant].

Well, Aries Tottle flourished supreme until advent of one Hog [Francis Bacon], surnamed the "Ettrick Shepherd," who preached an entirely different system, which he called the a posteriori or inductive. His plan referred altogether to Sensation. He proceeded by observing, analyzing, and classifying facts-instantiae naturae, as they were affectedly called into general laws.

Aries Tottle's mode, in a word, was based on noumena; Hog's on phenomena. Well, so great was the admiration excited by this latter system that, at its first introduction, Aries Tottle fell into disrepute; but finally he recovered ground and was permitted to divide the realm of Truth with his more modern rival. The savans now maintained the Aristotelian and Baconian roads were the sole possible avenues to knowledge."

- Edgar Poe's Mellonta Tauta

Before we go any further, let's review the definitions of a priori (from the earlier) and a posteriori (from the latter) as per what Poe describes in Mellonta Tauta:

A Priori (Deductive thought); is what he (Artistotle) maintained to be axioms or 'self-evident truths', and thence proceeded 'logically' to results.

A Posteriori (Inductive thought); his (Francis Bacon) plan referred altogether to Sensation. He proceeded by observing, analyzing, and classifying facts - into general laws.

This may appear as mere detail or at least a rather innocent way of organising thinking, but these two methods of thought have been dominant for centuries and still dominate today. For instance, the present day university system continues to trumpet a priori and a posteriori as the only two methods of investigation accessible to the mind. It is thus believed that it is only through deductive or inductive thinking that we are able to formulate an unbiased, 'objective' series of facts. If this is the dominant thought today, we had better make sure that we are able to know that it is a good thing and not take it for granted due to centuries of tradition.

In Mellonta Tauta, Edgar Poe goes on to describe how a priori thought is akin to a form of creeping, whereas a posteriori thought is akin to crawling, but what we actually desire is to soar. Is 'to soar' possible for us in attaining knowledge? Why do you think Poe was putting so much focus and criticism on these two forms of investigation? What did Poe mean when he wrote "But in all ages the great obstacles to advancement in Art have been opposed by the so-called men of science."? If you are not certain of the answers to these questions, keep them in mind as we go further and I will address them at the end of this paper.

For those who are not already aware, as we get to know Poe better we will find that this is the focal point for every short story he has ever written. The theme of comparing deductive and inductive thought with another form of thought, which will remain unnamed for now. Thus, what may at first seem like an odd insight into the mad by Poe, may in fact be the predictable outcome of someone who adheres to an extreme form of deductive or inductive thinking. In fact, I will make a point of it.

The Study of Phrenology: what governs the human mind?

In The Imp of the Perverse, the short story of horror we will be later investigating, Poe brings up the 'science' of phrenology, and thus it is worth saying something on what this subject was and how it influences our present day.

Phrenology was considered a form of science and hit its peak in popularity during 1810-1840, basically most of Poe's adulthood. The brain was divided into 27-43 'organs' and these individual 'organs' represented personality/psychological attributes. By measuring the size of the skull, areas of the skull that protruded were considered dominant attributes and indented regions were considered weak attributes. This 'science' was used in psychology, especially to identify the insane and the criminal. Figure 1 is an image taken from a phrenology textbook, depicting what is supposed to be the hallmark of a criminal head shape [not shown], with 5 specific regions protruding from the skull. It was thought that the more it protruded the greater the degree of criminal impulse.

Figure 1. 1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog.
Figure 1. 1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog.
(Image by Wikipedia (, Author: Author Not Given)
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In Franz Joseph Gall's (the founder of phrenology) book "Naturalist of the Mind, Visionary of the Brain" Gall made the claim that moral and intellectual faculties that governed impulses were innate. In other words, people were born with their moral character and intelligence. For example, if you were a thief, it was because you were born with a predisposition to an impulse of deceitfulness. Phrenology was used not only in court cases to determine whether someone was guilty but how long their prison sentence should be and whether there was a possibility of rehabilitation. It was thus quite influential and prominent and was used up until the 20th century in court cases, both by the Nazis and American eugenicists alike.

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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada).  She has lectured on the topics of Schiller's aesthetics, Shakespeare's tragedies, Roman history, the Florentine Renaissance among other subjects. She is a writer for (more...)

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