‘A fearful sense’: Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy and the non-human world

landscape painting with mountains in the background

Day 1: Thursday 22 June, taking place at Rothermere American Institute, Oxford. Free and Open to all, but please book with the Rothermere.

Day 2: Friday 23 June, taking place at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Free to all, but advance booking required

When John Ruskin met Ralph Waldo Emerson in Oxford in May 1873, he thought the American a puzzle, writing that he ‘had a fearful sense of the whole being of him as a gentle cloud – intangible’. Envisaging Emerson as non-human, Ruskin reversed what he elsewhere cautioned poets against. In an 1856 essay in Modern Painters III, Ruskin warned against assigning human qualities to the non-human world. In framing a critique of what he called ‘the pathetic fallacy’, Ruskin was striving to preserve for humans a domain of their own. He was also arguably attempting to guarantee that the non-human world should receive the equal portion of good that is its due.

Ruskin’s decree has new force in the context of recent theories of the Anthropocene, object-oriented ontology and humanity’s impact on the non-human world. It also speaks to a rising interest in literary and art historical scholarly traditions of ‘reading’ and ‘description’. How can we best describe the non-human world? We know that it is not us, but the way we observe and account for it is so clearly human. Do we need to retain the distinction between and non-human in order to do justice to both sides? Or is the distinction itself the main problem? This two-day colloquium contemplates Ruskin’s significance for the transatlantic visual arts and literature, the arts of reading and description, and the fates of the human and non-human worlds.

The colloquium will take place on two consecutive dates at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford and The Courtauld Institute of Art, 22 and 23 June 2017.

Thursday 22 June at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford.

10.00 – 12.30: PANEL
Chair: Laura Marcus (Oxford)


Branka Arsic (Columbia) – Materialist Vitalism or Pathetic Fallacy: The Case of Ruskin and Poe

Lloyd Pratt (Oxford) – Fallacious Equalities in Emerson, Marx and Ruskin

David Russell (Oxford) – Ruskin Wrongfooted

Respondent: Helen Small (Oxford)

12.30 – 14.00: LUNCH

14.00 – 16.30: SEMINAR
Chair: David Russell (Oxford)


John Ruskin, Praeterita Chapter 4 “Fontainbleau”, paragraph 75

Adrian Stokes, “Some Connections and Differences Between Visionary and Aesthetic Experience” in Three Essays on the Painting of Our Time (London: Tavistock, 1961)

E.H. Gombrich, “Meditations on a Hobby Horse” in Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon, 1963)

Marion Milner, “The Concentration of the Body” in The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men: Forty-Four years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London: Tavistock, 1987)

See further details of the programme on their website. Admission is free, but separate booking required.

Friday 23 June at The Courtauld Institute of Art

09.30 – 10.00 : Registration and TEA/COFFEE served in the Front Hall

10.00 – 12.30: PANEL

Chair: David Peters Corbett (Courtauld Institute)


Stephen Best (UC Berkeley) – On Thinking Like a Work of Art

John Plotz (Brandeis) – World Without Us: The Non-Human as a Pre-Raphaelite Problem

Elisa Tamarkin (UC Berkeley) – Fallacies of Hope

Respondent: Sarah Monks (UEA)

12.30 – 14.00 : BREAK FOR LUNCH (lunch provided for the speakers/chairs only, in Seminar Room 2)

14.00 – 16.30: SEMINAR

Chair: Thomas Hughes (Courtauld)


George P. Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1971, esp. 379–386.

Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MS and London, 1982, 33, 42–50.

Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: John Ruskin’s Ecology of Design, Bloomsbury, London, 2016.  xix–xxiv, 1–51, 53–105, 207–255.


This event has passed.

22 Jun - 23 Jun 2017

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London