The Concept of Fluidity in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century Science and Literature

  • Manina Boedeker

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis studies the significance of ‘fluidity theory’ as an eighteenth century ‘theory of everything’. It examines aspects of the natural world as represented in eighteenthcentury scientific and literary texts. It argues that phenomena such as electricity, light, fire and magnetism were all understood at the time as fluids. In particular, it was supposed that there was a common, divine, all-pervading fluid (an ‘Ur-fluid’) that subsisted through all things. The fundamental fluid supposed to exist was termed ‘ether’. It argues further that, just as Bishop George Berkeley hoped to demonstrate the existence of God by arguing that esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived), so eighteenth-century writers aimed to show that these phenomena – electricity, light, fire, and magnetism – were observable or perceptible effects of the divine fluid and the agency of the Creator. This thesis argues that in shaping and forming this understanding, particular figures exerted a powerful influence over eighteenth-century thought. Adapting Harold Bloom’s theory of ‘the anxiety of influence’, this thesis argues that William Gilbert, René Descartes, John Milton and Sir Isaac Newton were all ‘strong precursors’ for a series of subsequent writers, natural philosophers and experimenters who followed in their wake. For most of these ‘latecomer’ researchers, the influence of these ‘precursors’ was largely overwhelming. Yet there were key moments in the history of science, and reflected in the literature, that brought about the demise of belief in an ‘Ur-fluid’, in ‘ether’ and in the supposition that an original divine fluid was suffused throughout all creation. The thesis has been prepared for resubmission. It has been very substantially revised and all the recommendations made by the examiners have been followed up and responded to in as full a way as the Covid-19 pandemic could allow. I believe the argument has been strengthened by extensive re-writing and research.
Date of Award27 Sep 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SupervisorLouise Lee (Director of Studies) & Ian Haywood (Co-Supervisor)

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