Scientific Romance

Nina Power

Conceptual romance is on my mind
I call it abstract romanticism
Conceptual romance is you
It's you and I
It's you and I

Jenny Hval, ‘Conceptual Romance’

Is it possible to fall in love with concepts? Is art the romancing of concepts into new and more profound shapes, such that we better understand in the first place what it was the concept wanted to tell us? Is science not also a romancing of the concept, in a kind of competition with art for the heart of the matter, or, indeed, the heart of matter itself? The French thinker, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), one of the few able to penetrate to the heart of both science and poetry, made it his life’s work to understand the obstacles to thought we encounter on our way to ideas. We are obsessed, he thinks with particular images, metaphors, analogies. We can’t help but think in terms of medium-sized objects and familiar things. When what you most want is a teddy-bear, the whole world starts to resemble a teddy-bear…

We get moored on easy delights. We glorify nature and its rich diversity, without also being able to understand it abstractly. We move, Bachelard suggests, if we are able to overcome obstacles and track the formation of the scientific mind, from the concrete stage, to the concrete-abstract stage to the abstract stage. 1 In this process we are able to move from the mass of intricate and overwhelming images to increasing forms of abstraction—adding in geometry and simplicity, and ultimately detaching from immediate experience and even ultimately engaging in ‘an open polemic with primary reality’. If this sounds harsh and reductive, it shouldn’t. As Fernando Pessoa puts it (as Álvaro de Campos): ‘Newton's binomial is as beautiful as Venus de Milo, but fewer people realise it’.

Must art and science continue to regard one another with a kind of envy, one armed with a paintbrush (or a computer) and the other with a scalpel (or a computer)? Exactly whose heart, or soul, are they competing for? If art and science both claim to be superior modes of knowing the world—whatever we mean by knowing—then who, or what, is their pupil? Art may today shy away from such clunky external demands as pedagogy, meaning, knowledge, and refer instead to the immanent truths it generates—we know it when we see/feel/hear it—but there is room for a kind of compatibilism here. But what about a romance? We should understand neither art nor science in their narrow disciplinary sense, but rather in the vast, romantic senses we can find in earlier iterations of their purpose and scope. The German word, Einfühlung, coined by Robert Vischer in 1873, and translated into English as ‘empathy’, originally meant the projection of human feeling on to the natural world. Its popularisation by Theodor Lipps (1851-1914), a supporter of Freud, used the term in the sense of the empirical examination of the psychology of aesthetic response. Einfühlung, literally means infeeling or ‘feeling-in’. In Vischer’s work, Einfühlung describes the placing of human feelings into inanimate things, plants, animals, or other humans in a specific way. Einfühlung so fuses a human’s experience with an object’s experience that it no longer feels like the human’s own experience but instead like that of the object.

It is interesting to note that the original paradigmatic cases of empathy were inanimate objects, including “expressive” works of art. Once empathy becomes the object of study of psychology and moral thought, persons became paradigmatic. As David Depew puts it: ‘With the exception of a few higher animals, mostly pets, persons seem now the exclusive objects of empathy. In the original theory, empathy acknowledges that the feelings we feel about others are actually our own; in the new meaning, empathy refers to our ability to identify with others by getting in contact with feelings that they have.’ 2

What if we reverted back to this older use of empathy in order to find a link between art and science, the better to understand the world from the point of view of the objects (natural and aesthetic) we feel ourselves into? What new realities could come from such a project? Something crystalline, something beautiful, something colourful, something abstract, something luscious. To fall in love with objects and their concepts—a most delightful dream!


  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Formation of the Scientific Mind: A Contribution to a Psychoanalysis of Objective Knowledge, trans. Mary McAllester Jones (Manchester: Clinamen, 2002 [1938]), p. 20. 

  2. David Depew, ‘Empathy, Psychology, and Aesthetics: Reflections on a Repair Concept’, Poroi, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2005, p. 102. 

Nina Power is a cultural critic, social theorist and philosopher. She teaches philosophy at Roehampton University (London) and critical writing in art and design at the Royal College of Art (London). She is the author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zero Books) and has served as co-editor of Alain Badiou's On Beckett (Clinamen).