Thomas W. Howard

I am an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bilkent University, where I teach in the Program in Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas. I earned my PhD in English & American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis in May 2023. I specialize in nineteenth-century American and transatlantic literature, literature and science, and the environmental humanities.

My research focuses on how a stream of speculative modes of inquiry emerged alongside the professional sciences in the nineteenth century. By using creative metaphors, poetic language, and functional ambiguityfeatures more typically associated with literaturethese more speculative science writers encouraged their readers to continue the experimental process. I am particulary interested in writers who appear on the periphery of scientific disciplines, especially ecology and psychology—two fields developing out of the “natural philosophy” of the nineteenth century. 

In my current book project, Aphoristic Science: Ecology, Psychology, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature, I center this speculative science writing in the aphorism, a transatlantic style of writing with origins in the scientific texts of Hippocrates and Francis Bacon. Integrating scholarship in literature, philosophy, and science, I identify a particularly American stream of aphoristic thought permeating scientific prose in the nineteenth century. I focus on an interconnected group of American Transcendentalists and Pragmatists—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William James, and W. E. B. Du Bois—who use the aphorism to engage readers in an unending process of interpretation. This centrifugal style encourages readers to continue a process of inquiry that spirals outward in new and creative directions. In defining the aphorism, I turn to the German-language tradition of Aphorismus (as distinct from Sentenz: the “sentences” or maxims, especially of the French moralists) to identify in the form an inherent evasiveness and ambiguity. Along the way, I draw on the extensive history of the aphorism to situate the form among science studies, affect theory, and a wide range of transnational theories of the aphorism.

Recent Writing

Thoreau’s ‘Radicle’ Empiricism,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, advance online publication available here.

“Introduction to Emerson and AI,’” The Transparent Eyeball (Emerson Society blog), January 2024. Online here.

Upcoming Events

May 23–26, 2024 (Chicago, IL): I will be presenting the paper “William James’s Anesthetic Reading: Open-ended Interpretation on Nitrous Oxide” at the American Literature Association. This will be part of the “Weird James” panel organized by the Henry James Society. 

I will also be chairing two panels: Emerson and William James(co-sponsored by the William James Society and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society) and Thoreau and Capital” (organized by the Henry David Thoreau Society). More information is here.


See abstracts from my recent conference presentations here.