Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 02,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 21-43 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 21:]

Chapter II

Scientific Thought

The scientific way of thinking was one of many influences on Poe’s literary work. Mathematics, which has been called the language of science; analysis, a part of the scientific method; and the various forms of inference induction, deduction, and analogy — constitute a part of his equipment as a writer.

Both his earlier and his later writings show an interest in mathematics, for which, according to a classmate, he “had a wonderful aptitude. . . .”(1) At the United States Military Academy, he stood seventeenth in a class of eighty-five in the subject, one of the main studies at West Point in 1830. “Hans Pfaal,” an early tale, contains some mathematical lore; Eureka, one of his last prose works, has several comments on it; and his “Addenda to Eureka” is made up largely of mathematical calculations. His interest is manifested in [page 22:] three phases: mathematics as a limited form of deductive reasoning, the general data of algebra and geometry, and the calculus of probabilities.

In Poe’s opinion, mathematics as a science of pure inference is definitely limited. To it must be added imagination before the highest thinking can be attained. His story “The Purloined Letter” turns on this point. Dupin explains it: “As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all.”(3) The narrator in the story expresses the idea that Poe attacks through his mouthpiece Dupin: “The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”(4) Dupin refutes this belief in a conversation recorded in three pages, in which he argues that mathematics is not applicable to morals, to motives, to chemistry. The mathematician tries to apply universally, he argues, what is applicable only to relation of form and quantity.”(5) The mathematician cannot “be trusted out of equal roots,”(6) and resents any questioning of his axioms.(7) In Eureka Poe expresses the idea thus: “What lay not distinctly within the domain of Physics, or of Mathematics, seemed to them [mathematicians] either Non-Entity or Shadow.”(8) The weaknesses of mathematics are alluded to elsewhere:

Pascal, a philosopher whom we both love, has said, how truly! — “que tout notre raisonnement se réduit à céder au sentiment;” and it is not impossible [page 23:] that the sentiment of the natural, had time permitted it, would have regained its old ascendancy over the harsh mathematical reason of the schools.(9)

It is clear that Poe admired mathematics, especially its precision,(10) but saw its limitations particularly as practiced by men of small imagination. His emphasis on the restricted applicability of mathematics suggests that he felt an antipathy between poetry and science.

Throughout his tales and reviews are scattered references that demonstrate his knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. For example, in “Hans Pfaal,” he writes that the area of a convex surface of any segment of a sphere is, to the entire surface of the sphere itself, as the versed sine of the segment to the diameter of the sphere.”(11) The fact is introduced into the story to show how much of the area of the earth’s surface Hans could see from his balloon. Such mathematical details as this one help to give an air of reality to the story. The largest body of mathematical calculation in his works is found in the “Addenda to Eureka.”(12) There Poe uses the calculations to present his newest ideas on planetary motion. He mentions the use of permutations and combinations(13) and variable exponents,(14) and defines arithmetic, geometry, and mathematics in genera1.(15) Elsewhere he defines algebra.(16) In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” he [page 24:] explains:

The bees — ever since bees were — have been constructing their cells with just such sides, in just such number, and at just such inclinations, as it has been demonstrated (in a problem involving the profoundest mathematical principles) are the very sides, in the very number, and at the very angles which will afford the creatures the most room that is compatible with the greatest stability of structure.(17)

Such a discussion was fairly common in Poe’s day.(18)

A note, “Squaring the Circle”(19) published in the column “Omniana” in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, is further evidence of Poe’s interest in the subject.(20) In Eureka he defines a mathematical circle as “a curve composed of an infinity of straight lines.”(21) He then uses this conception to illustrate the immensity of the universe.

Poe relates mathematics to beauty through the idea of equality. He writes of the “merely mathematical recognition of equality which seems to be the root of all Beauty.”(22) The pleasure of contemplating equality increases [page 25:] geometrically up to a certain point, he suggests, as one sees more and more examples of equality as in the many faces of a crystal.(23) “Verse,” he writes, “originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness.”(24) The idea of equality “embraces those of similarity, proportions, identity, repetition, and adaptation or fitness.”(25) In a similar vein he writes of music: “The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music.(26) Throughout “The Rationale of Verse” he returns to the idea of equality as fundamental.

The utility of expressing a thought mathematically is emphasized in one of his comments, which incidentally refutes the old notion that Poe was not interested in everyday affairs in his own country:

The loss of time (not to mention temper) through the insufferable nuisance of street-noise in many of our most frequented thoroughfares, would overwhelm all reasonable people with astonishment if but once fairly and mathematically a; and that time is money — to an American at least — is a proposition not for an instant to be disputed.(27)

And finally there are a number of passages in his works that are illuminated by the light of mathematical language. For example:

Fourthly, the result of the combination of a number of intellects is seldom in any case — never in a case like the present — equal to the sum of the results of the same intellects laboring individually — the difference, general’ being in precise ratio with the number of the intellects engaged.(28) [page 26:]

In his review of The Doctor, Poe introduces an elaborate mathematical figure of speech to make a point about the book.(29) Something which he thinks will never come to pass must be considered “unshaken, until it can be proved that any multiplication of zeros will eventuate in the production of a unit.”(30) He uses this comparison also to emphasize his conception of plot:

A mere succession of incidents, even the most spirited, will no more constitute a plot, than a multiplication of zeros, even the most infinite, will result in the production of a unit. This all will admit — but few trouble themselves to think farther. The common notion seems to be in favor of mere complexity; but a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass.(31)

To indicate vagueness he compares it to “the species of indefinite definiteness which mathematicians are, at times, forced to put up with in certain algebraic formulae.”(32) To express the idea that “we can form no conception of a pyrrhic as of an independent foot, he employs the terminology of mathematics: “we are merely floundering in the idea of an identical equation, where x being equal to x, nothing is shown to be equal to zero.”(33) A related thought is expressed about rhythm:

As in mathematics two units are required to form number, so rhythm, (from [page 27:] the Greek [[Greek text]], number) demands for its formation at least two feet.(34)

These random uses of mathematical terms to express non-mathematical ideas help demonstrate his considerable indebtedness to mathematics.(35) Eureka has much mathematical material in it, some of which has already been noted. It speaks of proportions, ratios, etc. Up to a certain point the Universe of Eureka is a mathematical one. “We thus establish the Universe on a purely geometrical basis,”(36) Poe writes.

It is to his credit as a thinker that he realized the possibility of applying the calculus of probabilities to the solution of problems in human affairs. He emphasizes the use of this branch of mathematics in “The Mystery of Marie Roget, and bases many conclusions upon it. It can be used, he believes, to stifle the half-belief in coincidences that the mind tends to:

Such sentiments for the half-credences of which I speak have never the full force of thought — are seldom thoroughly stifled unless by reference to the doctrine of chance, or, as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. Now this Calculus is, in its essence, purely mathematical; and thus we have the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation.(37)

The story presents other comments on the doctrine of chance: [page 28:]

Accident is admitted as a portion of the substructure. We make chance a matter of absolute calculation. We subject the unlooked for and unimagined, to the mathematical formulae of the schools.(38)

. . .the fact of sixes having been thrown twice in succession by a player at dice, is sufficient cause for betting the largest odds that sixes will not be thrown in the third attempt.(39)

The entire tale is built upon the supposition that the calculus of probabilities will deny that the happenings detailed could have been mere coincidences, and it closes with a brief dissertation on the mathematical principle.(40)

In “The Gold-Bug Poe speaks of “experiment (directed by probabilities)” as the only means of determining the language in which a cipher is written.(41) And the logical basis of his argument in the “Longfellow War” is that the probabilities are so greatly against what he calls plagiarism being mere coincidence that certainty is established against Longfellow. “The affair is one of probabilities altogether, and can be satisfactorily settled only by reference to their Calculus”(42) He writes about the same subject again in The Opal in 1845.(43) At a time when the calculus of probabilities had only the last century been developed by Laplace, Poe suggested the use of it in solving non-mathematical problems. In general he was ahead of his times in putting the theory to work.(44) It was only in 1835, about six years before [page 29:] Poe’s first use of it, that L. A. J. Quetelet (1796-1874), a Belgian astronomer, “showed that the theory of probability could be applied to human problems.”(45)

And the various branches of fundamental mathematics — algebra, trigonometry, geometry were so much a part of Poets thinking as to be used in figures of speech and in analogies for the exposition of ideas.

One process of scientific thought that especially appealed to Poe was analysis, which is, of course, a philosophical method as well as a scientific one. He mentions the importance of analysis and uses it in his essays; he exemplifies it in stories like “The Gold-Bug” and the other tales of ratiocination.

At least once he speaks of the ability to analyze as “the most important of the powers of mind.”(46) Elsewhere he suggests that he considers the ability a prime one. In speaking disparagingly of certain writers on prosody, asserts, “They pretend to no analysis. . . .”(47) The power is interesting to him because he considers it vital to the creative artist. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” which itself is an exercise in analysis, he identifies the process with reconstruction and urges the interest of analysis:

. . .the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is suite independent of any real or fancied interest in the [page 30:] thing analyzed. . .(48)

The constructive ability, he explains in his “Marginalia,” is based, to be sure, in great part, upon the faculty of analysis, enabling the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and regulate it at will. . . .”(49)

But Poe’s fullest exposition of the importance and character of analysis appears in the opening passage of the final version of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” This story opens with an essay, more than four pages in length, on analysis. There he reasserts its pre-eminence among mental faculties, notes the joy it brings its possessor, distinguishes between true analytical ability and mere ingenuity, urges the use of the power of identification along with analysis, and declares “the truly imaginative Carel never otherwise than analytical. “(50) An earlier version of the same story presents the opinion that if analysis be not a part of phrenological ideality, it is a separate faculty itself.(51)

Several of Poe’s essays are exercises in analysis. “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” the Southern Literary Messenger of April, 1836, is the first. this essay he takes a newsworthy subject and develops it according to the method of detailed analysis. His conclusion that the automaton was operated by a man hidden inside was not new.(52) The originality of his essay and its [page 31:] superiority over others on the same subject53 lie in the thoroughness with which he conducts his analysis. No detail is too small for his scrutiny. “Maelzells Chess-Player” is not an attempt to prove that the machine is not pvrelymechanical, but rather an essay to show step by step how the human operator concealed inside can prevent detection.

His articles on secret writing likewise emphasize analysis and method. Writing of enigmas, Poe declares: “Their solution affords one of the best possible exercises of the analytical faculties, besides calling into play many other powers.”(54) His whole series on secret writing, which ran in Graham’s Magazine from July to December, 1841, echoes and exemplifies the thought that the analytical method is important. From his early writings he showed an interest in decyphering(55) and in Champollion,(56) whom he seems to have idolized as the greatest of the decypherers. It has been suggested that his method was much like Champollion’s.(57)

Although, as Col William J Friedman has pointed out, Poe was only an amateur in comparison with professional cryptanalysts, he did have a mental quickness which if trained might have carried him far in the work of decyphering [page 32:] secret messages.(58) And his contemporaries were certainly impressed with his analytical powers. The following excerpt from the Philadelphia Saturday Museum illustrates the fact that his publishers made the most of his reputation for quick solution of cyphers and demonstrates the sort of cypher he solved:

We have published in the Biographical sketch of Ar. Poe, some evidence of the wonderful power which his mind possesses in decyphering the most complicated and difficult question. We have another striking instance of the exercise of this power. The Spirit of the Times copied the following puzzle a few days since.

A Nice Puzzle. — The Baltimore Sun gives the following oddity, and asks for its solution: — “Vgx chc Zezl ahsd sgd zookd?” rzhc z rbgnnkizisqp sn z hntmsqx anx. “Abdztrd gd gzc mn imbed sa fts ha,” pdokhdc sgd anx.”

The moment it met our eye, happening to be in company with Mr. Poe, we pointed out the article, when he immediately gave us the following solution: “Why did Adam bite the apple,” said a schoolmaster to a country boy. “Because he had no knife to cut it,” answered the boy.(59)

“The Gold-Bug” published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper for June 21 and 28, 1843, climaxes Poets cryptographic writings(60) and is also a good example of the tale of ratiocination in which his powers of analysis again came into play. A careful step-by-step analysis of the process of solving a crime and apprehending a criminal or discovering a lost document is the method of his tales of ratiocination. It is illustrated in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is professedly a story illustrating the method, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” in “The Purloined Letter, in “Thou Art the [page 33:] Man,” and in “The Gold-Bug.”

Since reason is one of the scientists’s best tools and since the scientist and the philosopher are generally the ones to use reason most accurately, it is worthwhile to consider what Poe has to say about reasoning. He does say a good deal.

“Logic. . .,” Poe asserts, “is the science of Relation in the abstract-of absolute Relation — of Relation considered solely in itself.”(61) Reason is “man’s chief idiosyncrasy.”(62) Pure reason is something of which man in his present state catches only occasional glimpses,(63) for knowledge is “not meet for man in the infant condition of his soul.”(64)

Such comments on reason are the background of Poe’s longer discussions of the subject. The opening of Eureka is devoted to an exposition of his contention that induction and deduction are but plodding means of reaching truth and that intuition is the best and swiftest way. Although Poe realized the necessity of checking theories by repeated experiment and observation, he minimized the importance of such a procedure. He probably would have been impatient of modern laboratory methods. The word merely in the following quotation makes his attitude clear:

The Keplers, I repeat, speculate — theorize — and their theories are merely corrected — reduced — sifted — cleared, little by little, of their chaff of inconsistency — until at length there stands apparent an unencumbered Consistency —. . .an absolute and unquestionable Truth.(65)

This idea, expressed in Eureka, is in accord with his opinion that the person [page 34:] who attends only to details may easily err but that “he who keeps steadil, in view the gemeelitv of a thesis will. always at least appro. is the truth b.

Poe’s last published statement on the subject may be taken as a good summary of his final opinion:

One word more on this topic and I will be done boring you. Is it not passing strange that, with their eternal prating about roads to Truth, these bigoted people missed what we now so clearly perceive to be the great high-way — that of Consistency? Does it not seem singular how they should have failed to deduce from the works of God the vital fact that a perfect consistency must be an absolute truth! How plain has been our progress since the late announcement of this proposition! Investigation has been taken out of the hands of the ground-moles and given, as a task, to the true and only thinkers, the men of ardent imagination. These latter theorize. Can you not fancy the shout of scorn with which my words would be received by our progenitors were it possible for them to be now looking over my shoulder? These men, I say, theorize; and their theories are simply corrected, reduced, systematized — cleared, little by little, of their dross of inconsistency until, finally, a perfect consistency stands apparent which even the most stolid admit, because it is a consistency, to be an absolute and an unquestionable truth.(67)

A few scattered comments on reason in general demonstrate his further attention to the subject. He distinguishes between “reason, which deals only with the true,” and taste. And in a review of “The American Drama” he asserts that only reason added to feel n and taste will revive the drama.(69) Of sophistry he declares, “An appeal to one’s own heart is, after all, the [page 35:] best reply to the sophistry just noticed.”(70) And several times he expresses in various ways, the following thought: .it is the nature of Truth in general, as of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial.”(71)

But Poe does more than comment in general on reasoning. He speaks specifically of deduction, induction, and analogy as modes of reasoning, and briefly mentions simplicity, consistency, classification, and definition as fated to thinking.

It is a paradox in his thinking that although he frequently belittles deduction as a means of arriving at truth, he nevertheless uses it and cites examples of it to prove his case. Typical of his idea of the limitations of deduction is this statement:

The fact is that à priori argument is much worse than useless except in the mathematical sciences, where it is possible to obtain precise, meanings.(72)

Especially is it useless, Poe declares, in a subject like government. His argument against a priori reasoners rests partly on his assumption that “there is something in the vanity of logic which addles a mans brains.”(73)

He implies that such reasoners merely play with words, and concludes a short disquisition on the subject as follows:

. . .by ringing small changes on the words “leg-of-mutton,” and “turnip” (changes so gradual, as to escape detection), I could “demonstrate” that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be a leg-of-mutton.(74) [page 36:]

He attacks a priori reason again in commenting on phrenology. He is not entirely consistent, and seems sometimes to shift his opinions as the immediate argument at hand requires.

It cannot be denied that phrenology, and in great measure, all metaphysicianism, have been concocted à priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs — to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed to his satisfaction the Intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind.(75)

Poe himself explains the human difficulty of being objective with respect to matters of bias. “In no affairs of mere prejudice, pro or con, do we deduce inferences with entire certainty even from the most simple data.”(76)

On the other hand, although he holds intuition to be a faster and truer road to truth than deduction, nevertheless he employs deduction himself. He occasionally appeals to a priori reasoning in a statement like this: ‘This might be supposed a priori, and experience confirms the supposition.”(77) And his argument in the following passage illustrates the point again:

. . . the initial ‘sneer at Bacon, as “the meanest of mankind.” These assertions are passés, and a truly profound philosophy might readily prove them ill-based. We would undertake to show, à priori, that no man, with Bacon’s thorough appreciation of the true and beautiful, could, by any possibility, be “the meanest,” although his very sensibility might make him the weakest “of mankind.”(78) [page 37:]

Approval of deduction is also implied in the “Rationale of Verse.”(79)

Poe shows, furthermore, knowledge of some of the devices of traditional formal logic. His story “X-ing a Paragrab”opens with a syllogism(80) which for humorous effect he deliberately makes invalid. In “Pinakidia” he refers to a chain of logic. Reasoning in a circle is also pointed out(81) often enough to help establish his familiarity with deduction and certain of its fallacies.

As has already been shown, Poe sometimes referred the conclusions of deductive reasoning to the verification of actual observation and a posteriori inference. Although scornful of the man who looks only at facts, he does see a place for induction as well as deduction. One use of induction is to convince him who does not respond to deduction:

Some of these observations are intended merely to prove that the machine must be regulated by mind, and it may be thought a work of supererogation to advance farther arguments in support of what has been already fully decided. But our object is to convince, in especial, certain of our friends upon whoa s a train of suggestive reasoning will have more influence than the most positive a priori demonstration.(82)

But he sees a need for induction in its own right. He appeals to induction to prove his contention that the essence of a poem is the imaginative or [page 38:] creative part.

Induction is as well applicable to this subject as to the most palpable and utilitarian; and by its sober processes we find that, in respect to compositions which have been really received as poems, the imaginative, or, more popularly, the creative portions alone have ensured them to be so received.(83)

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” likewise, he betakes himself “to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve. . .as a key-note in the construction of the poem.”(84) Poe does not fail to mention that conclusions reached by induction may seem mysterious to those not in the know.”(85)

Poe alludes to the chief danger of induction the hasty generalization. Commenting on what he considers a principle applicable only to landscaping, he explains: “it is but the headlong spirit of generalization which has led him to pronounce it true throughout all the domains of art 86

In addition to his conviction that intuition is the swiftest, surest way to truth and that deduction and induction have a limited utility, Poe was of the opinion that a difficulty in the path of reason is sometimes the key that opens the door to further truth. He expresses this idea in various ways at various times. His emphasis on it seems to be an original contribution to the science of reasoning. His fullest exposition of the idea is [page 39:] in eureka as follows:

Now, I have elsewhere observed that it is by just such difficulties as the one now in question — such roughnesses — such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in her search for the True. By the difficulty — the “peculiarity” — now presented, I leap at once to the secret — a secret which I might never have attained but for the peculiarity and the inferences which, in its mere character of peculiarity, it affords me.(87)

A somewhat similar thought is expressed in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”:

Yet experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger portion of truth, arises from the seemingly irrelevant. It is through the spirit of this principle, if not precisely through its letter, that modern science has resolved to calculate upon the unforeseen.(88)

The road to truth, in his opinion, sometimes lies beyond the apparent difficulty to a theory or upon the path of the seemingly irrelevant.(89) [page 40:]

Still another highway to truth is the thoroughfare of analogy. A complete system of reasoning, in Poe’s opinion, would have analogy as one of its basic components. In “Mellonta Tauta” he emphasizes the lesson “never to run directly contrary to the natural analogies.”(90) In “The Purloined Letter,” he suggests the use of analogy.(91) In a “Literati” sketch of Richard Adams Locke, whose Noon-Hoax” he is discussing, Poe asserts: ‘analogy here will often amount to the most positive demonstration.(92) But he was aware that analogy as a method of reasoning is strictly limited and often liable to error, as the following quotation illustrates:

“The enigmas,” says he, in substance, “which perplex the natural theologian, are the same in all ages, while the Bible, where alone we are to seek revealed truth, has been always what it is.” Here Mr. Macaulay confounds the nature of that proof from which we reason of the concerns of earth, considered as man’s habitation, with the nature of that evidence from which we reason of the same earth, regarded as a unit of the universe. In the former case, the data being palpable, the proof is direct; in the latter it is purely analogical. Were the indications we derive from science, of the nature and designs of Deity, and thence, by inference, of man’s destiny, — were these indications proof direct, it is then very true that no advance in science could strengthen them; for, as the essayist justly observes, “nothing can be added to the force of the argument which the mind finds in every beast, bird, and flower;” but, since these indications are rigidly analogical, every step in human knowledge, every astronomical discovery, in especial, throws additional light upon the august subject, by extending the range of analogy. That we know no more, to-day, of the nature of Deity, of its purposes, and thus of man himself, than we did even a dozen years ago, is a proposition disgracefully absurd. “If Natural Philosophy,” says a greater than Macaulay, “should continue to be improved in its various branches, the bounds of moral philosophy would be enlarged also.” These words of the prophetic Newton are felt to be true, and will be fulfilled.(93) [page 41:]

Poe himself makes use of this method of reasoning in his writings. The most striking analogy perhaps, which he expresses several times, is that the universe is a plot of God and that a perfect plot is like the universe, which Poe thought to be a perfect unity of completely interdependent parts.

As a reasoner, he considers the relations of cause and effect, and on his belief that all purposes should be exactly proportioned to their ends he predicates a principle of art: “. . .it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes. . . .”(94) Poe believes “that supererogation is not presumable of any Divine Act. . .”;(95) therefore anything extraneous is imperfect. The principle that the means should be exactly proportioned to the end, he advances several times in Eureka.(96) It is his belief that the mind must try to see the connection between means and end. He writes in “The Gold-Bug”:

This is the usual effect of such coincidences. The mind struggles to estab — lish a connection — a sequence of cause and effect and, being unable to do so, suffers a species of temporary paralysis.(97)

And in “The Black Cat” his main character, fearing to believe that there is a supernatural cause for his misfortunes, asserts:

I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect.(98) [page 42:]

In Eureka Poe discusses the nature of a First Cause, the effects of which are our universe. His First Cause is God.(99)

On other subjects that fall under the classification of scientific thinking, bestows passing attention. He believes in simplicity,(100) perhaps following Whewell, who points out “the constant Tendency to Simplicity in true theories.”(101) Poe comments on classification,(102) consistency,(103) on proof and corroborative evidence(104) and by implication on the interpretation of assertions to get their logical meaning.(105) Throughout his writings Poe uses many careful definitions.

No observant reader can fail to notice his more than ordinary use of the scientific method in his thinking. He explicitly comments on and employs such processes of thought and investigation as mathematics, analysis, induction and deduction, analogy, classification, and definition. He continually asserts his belief in intuition as the best road to scientific truth and holds the theorizer or thinker of vigorous imagination to be definitely superior to the mere observer of facts. He observes the perfect unity of the [page 42:] universe as interpreted by scientific theory and tries to give his writings the same rigorous unity. Some of the processes of reasoning which are tools for the scientist, Poe himself uses in his literary craftsmanship.(106)



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 21:]

1.  George E. Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston and New York, 1909), I, 70.

2.  At the University of Virginia Poe received from John Allan “the Cambridge Mathematics in 2 vols.,” for which, he asserted, he had no use because he “had no means of attending the mathematical lectures.” — Edgar Allan Poe Letters Till Now Unpublished in the Valentine Museum Richmond, Virginia (Philadelphia, 1925), p. 255.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 22:]

3.  Works, VI, 43.

4.  Ibid., VI, 43.

5.  Ibid., VI, 44. This idea is essentially the same as one stated by Abercrombie, whom Poe praises. He contended that mathematical reasoning must be limited to quantity and relation and that attempts to apply it elsewhere lead to absurdity, — John Abercrombie, Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers, and the Investigation of Truth, Revised Edition (New York, 1849), p. 188.

6.  Works, VI, 45.

7.  Ibid., VI, 44.

8.  Ibid., XVI, 223.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 23:]

9.  Ibid., IV, 204.

10.  Ibid., VI, 183.

11.  Ibid., II, 68.

12.  Ibid., XVI, 337-346.

13.  Ibid., XIV, 130-131 and Clarence S. Brigham, editor, Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for Apri1,1942 (Worcester, Mass., 1943), 01). 74-75.

14.  Works, XVI, 37-38.

15.  Ibid., XVI, 240.

16.  Ibid., XI, 11-12.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 24:]

17.  Ibid., VI, 94 and Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 30.

18.  For example, see Thomas C. Upham, Elements of Mental Philosophy (New York, 1841), II, 121; William and Robert Chambers’s Information for the People, fifth American edition (Philadelphia, 1853), I, 648; and the Farmer’s Cabinet, VII (Jan. 15, 1843), 191.

19.  Poe once facetiously suggested that he might write a poem on the “Quad-rature of Curves” or “the Arithmetic of Infinities,” — Works, XVI, 11. In a like mood he wrote: “For anything that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse or go through with the three several demonstrations of the binomial theorem, one after the other, or indeed all at the same time.” — X, 69.

20.  “Either there are no angles, or there are an infinity; either supposition makes the quadrature of the circle impracticable — for the proportion of figures cannot be ascertained by angles. A round figure is the only one capable of perpetual motion. The heavenly bodies have alone perpetual motion, because the external cause of motion is incessant in its operation. — VI (June, 1840), 290.

21.Works,  XVI, 296.

22.  Ibid., 41.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 25:]

23.  Ibid., XVI, 84-85.

24.  “The Rationale of Verse, Ibid., XIV, 218.

25.  Ibid., XIV, 218.

26.  Ibid., XIV, 219. See also XVI, 163.

27.  Ibid., XIV, 166.

28.  Ibid., VIII, 209.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 26:]

29.  “This monogram is a triangular pyramid; and as, in geometry, the solidity of every polyhedral body may be computed by dividing the body into pyramids, the pyramid is thus considered as the base or essence of every polyhedron. The author then, after his own fashion, may mean to imply that his book is the basis of all solidity or wisdom — or perhaps, since the polyhedron is not only a solid, but a solid terminated by plane faces, that the Doctor is the very essence of all that spurious wisdom which will terminate in just nothing at all — in a hoax, and a consequent multiplicity of blank visages.” — Works, IX, 69.

30.  Ibid., VIII, 124.

31.  Ibid., XIII, 44-45.

32.  Ibid., III, 247.

33.  Ibid., XIV, 241.

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34.  Ibid., XIV, 246.

35.  Some other specific references to mathematics may be found in Works, VI, 141-142; VI, 237; IX, 49; XIV, 161; X, 188; XIV, 239; XIV, 9; XIII, 43, and XII, 209.

36.  Ibid., XVI, 209. Compare this with Emerson’s statement in “The American Scholar”: “The astronomer discovers that geometry, a pure abstraction of the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion.”

37.  Ibid., V, 2.

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38.  Ibid., V, 39. See also Doings of Gotham, p. 67.

39.  1bid., 66.

40.  Ibid., V, 65-66.

41.  Ibid., V, 132.

42.  Ibid., XII, 66. See also XII, 81 and 82. Abercrombie may have given Poe a suggestion here, too. He asserts that two concurring witnesses to the improbable suggest its truth to the degree of the improbability. — Op. cit., p. 72.

43.  “The theory of chance, or as the mathematicians term it, the Calculus of Probabilities, has this remarkable peculiarity, that its truth in general is in direct proportion with its fallacy in particular.” — Works, XIV, 186.

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44.  For a statement of the importance of the calculus of probabilities [page 29:] to science and of the way in which people gradually began to use that branch of mathematics, see Richard Harrison Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (Philadelphia, 1936), p. 163.

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45.  Sir William Cecil Dampier, A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy & Religion, third edition, p. 306.

46.  Works, XIV, 116. See also VI, 183.

47.  Ibid., XIV, 211.

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48.  Ibid., XVI, 67

49.  Ibid., XIV, 195.

50.  Ibid., IV, 150.

51.  Ibid., IV, 288-289.

52.  The Boston Weekly Messenger for June 7 and 14, 1827, while Poe was in Boston, carried a report that in Baltimore the automaton had been discovered to contain a person as operator. See also Niles Register, XXXII (June 2, 1827), 229.

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53.  Poe mentions some of these in his essay, and there were many others both before and after Poe’s. For example, “The Automaton Chess Player,” Washington Library Gazette, N. S.,II (Sept., 20, 1834), 158. In “Poe and the Chess Automaton,” American Literature, XI (May, 1939), 138-151, W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. gives a full discussion of Poe’s accuracy and originality in this essay. He concludes that the article has been overrated, is only partly correct, and illustrates Poe’s artistry rather than his original thinking.

54.  Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, p. 13.

55.  For example, see Poe’s “King Pest,” first published in the Southern Literary Messenger, Works, II, 170.

56.  Works, XVI, 196; VI, 205, and XV, 81.

57.  Morris R. Cohen and Ernest Nagel, An Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method (New York, 1934), p. 329.

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58.  “Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer,” American Literature, VIII (Nov., 1936), 266-280. See also W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “What Poe Knew About Cryptography,” PMLA, LVIII (Sept., 1943), 754-779.

59.  Philadelphia Saturday Museum (March 4, 1843), p. 2.

60.  A story that may have suggested to Poe the use of a cryptographic message to be decyphered as an essential part of the tale is “The Fatal Silver Bullet,” The Casket, XIII (Jan., 1838), 17-18. Poe was a reader of The Casket.

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61.  Works, XVI, 240.

62.  Ibid., XVI, 6.

63.  Ibid., II, 359.

64.  Ibid., IV, 202.

65.  Ibid., XVI, 196.

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66.  Ibid., X 158. The germ of this belief Poe expressed as early as July, 1836: “The broad and solid basis of its superstructure — the scrupulous accuracy of its data — the disdain of mere logic in its deductions — the generalizing, calm, comprehensive — in a word, the German Character of its philosophy, will insure it an enthusiastic welcome among all the nobler spirits of our land.” — Ibid., IX, 53.

67.  Ibid., VI, 205-206. Compare Poets statement here on imagination and truth with Keat’s idea, “What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not. . . .”

68.  Ibid., IV, 204.

69.  Ibid., XIII, 36.

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70.  Ibid., VI, 147

71.  Ibid., XIV, 210 and II, 332-333.

72.  Ibid., XVI, 38.

73.  Ibid., XVI, 37.

74.  Ibid., XVI, 38.

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75.  Ibid., VI, 145. See also XIV, 256. VIII, 209.

76.  Ibid., III, 17. See also XVI, 39,

77.  Ibid., XVI, 71. See also XVI, 228, 234 an

78.  Ibid., XII, 2470

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79.  “Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes, and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples.” — Ibid., XIV, 217. See also XIV, 257.

80.  “As it is well known that the ‘wise men’ came ‘from the East,’ and as Mr. Touch-and-go Bullet-head came from the East, it follows that Mr. Bullet-head was a wise man. . . .” — Ibid., VI, 229.

81.  Ibid., VIII, 247 and XVI, 130.

82.  Ibid., XIV, 25, note.

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83.  Ibid., VI, 72.

84.  Ibid., XIV, 198-199.

85.  “The simple character of those inductions by which he had disentangled the mystery never having been explained even to the Prefect, or to any other individual than myself, of course it is not surprising that the affair was regarded as little less than miraculous, or that the Chevalier’s analytical abilities acquired for him the credit of intuition.” Ibid., V, 3.

86.  Ibid., VI, 183. See also IV, 203.

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87.  Ibid., XVI, 228.

88.  Ibid., V, 39.

89.  Perhaps he obtained this thought from Laplace, whose theory of probabilities he accepted. A note in the Boston Quarterly Review for January, 1839, may have called Poe’s attention to this subject: “. . .we are so far from knowing all the agents of nature, and their various modes of action, that it would be unphilosophical to deny the existence of phenomena merely because they are inexplicable in the present state of our knowledge. We ought only to examine them with so much the more attention, as it seems more difficult to admit them; and thus, the analysis of probabilities becomes indispensable, in order to determine how far it is necessary to multiply our observations and experiments, to obtain in favor of the agents, they seem to indicate, a probability superior to the reasons we may have to reject their existence. — (Thétorie Analytique du Calcul des Probabilities, page 358, in 4to.)” — “Animal Magnetism,” II, 69. Poe might have had the idea called to his attention again in 1845 in a book he reviewed, William Newnham’s Human Magnetism. There appears what apparently is a different translation of the same passage from Laplace (p. 21).

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90.  Works, VI, 209. See also IX, 269, and IV, 203.

91.  “‘The material world,’ continued Dupin, ‘abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description.” — Ibid. VI, 46-47.

92.  Ibid., XV, 132.

93.  Ibid., XIV, 191-192. See also XVI, 292-293.

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94.  Ibid., XIV, 275. Essentially the same statement is made in XIV, 198.

95.  Ibid., XVI, 208.

96.  See, for instance, ibid., XVI, 236.

97.  Ibid., V, 124.

98.  Ibid., V, 147.

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99.  Ibid., XVI, 253. See also p. 202. Here his thinking is similar to that of William Whewell, who wrote that “we necessarily assume a First Cause of the whole series” of causes and effects which constitutes the universe. — The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (London, 1840), I, xxxvi. See also William Newnham, Human Magnetism (London, 1845), pp. 30-31 for a discussion which Poe read. But he and Whewell are stepping across the borderline between science and theology in such speculations, which were common in the thinking of the day.

100.  Ibid., XIV, 251. See also XVI, 215,

101  Whewell, op. cit.., II, 242.

102.  Works, V, 33 and VI, 146. His fullest discussion of classification is in an uncollected review of Roswell Park’s Pantology, Graham’s Magazine, XX (March, 1842), 191. This review is judged to be Poe’s because it agrees with his style and thought and because it contains a Poe-like reference to the “Conchologies” of DeBlainville and Lamarck.

103.  Works, XVI, 196

104.  Ibid., V, 32-33.

105.  Ibid., XIV, 241.

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106.  For a statement of the opinion that Poe has been generally highly overrated as a logical thinker, see Charles Child Walcutt, “The Logic of Poe,” College English, II (Feb., 1941), 438-444.



[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 02)