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Reviewed by:
  • Romanticism, Hermeneutics and the Crisis in the Human Sciences
  • Regina Hewitt (bio)
Scott Masson . Romanticism, Hermeneutics and the Crisis in the Human SciencesAshgate. x, 242. US $94.95

It should be said at the outset of this review that the author of the book writes from a 'commitment to a Christian perspective' that the reviewer does not share. But it is a strength of Scott Masson's scholarship that his history of hermeneutics and analysis of a 'crisis' in literary and cultural studies can appeal even to readers who seek a different resolution. One need not favor a theological turn to concur that interpretive studies have lost authority and to learn from this argument how Romantic universalizing contributes to this condition.

Two chapters on interpretive philosophies from Kant, Schleiermacher, and Dilthey to Heidegger, Gadamer, and Arendt chart the gradual replacement of a 'two-world' way of thinking by a single, universal model. The two-world model authorizes human being, creativity, and communication by analogy with divine precedents revealed through scripture. Doubting the relation between the divine and human, the one-world model explains human activity with reference to organic processes, and lacking a 'real' basis for comparison, it projects an infinite number of imaginary worlds through which the human can be rendered relatively meaningful. Masson objects to the one-world model because it grounds humanity in biology and thus has no authority beyond itself to which to refer, no way to separate 'truth' from 'meaning.'

Highlights of the history of this transition include attention to how the 'sensus communis,' which Arendt associates with the Greek polis and which Gadamer describes as operative in the non-Kantian 'moral sense' tradition, functions as a kind of two-world model, providing 'legitimate prejudices' by which human judgments can be governed. According to Masson, Romantic writers mistakenly substitute 'intimacy' or sympathy for the collective standards eroded by their universalizing. Masson's treatment of the sensus communis should make his work of particular interest to the many scholars now attempting to reconnect ethics and aesthetics. His presentation of the concept might be balanced with that by Karin Schutjer (whom he does not cite), whose Narrating Community after Kant (Wayne State University Press 2001) rehabilitates the sensus communis in Kant and explores adaptations of it in German literature.

Masson's last three chapters turn to English literature to illustrate how Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats develop the one-world model while Coleridge reaffirms a two-world view. Masson is at his best in analysing [End Page 288] Coleridge as a religious thinker. His identification of theological differences as the basis for Coleridge's attack in Biographia Literaria on Wordsworth's claims about poetic language in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is cogent. Logocentrism likewise provides the focus for Masson's treatment of Shelley's Mont Blanc and Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn. The chapters centring on these poems and predominant interpretations of them point out how the poets and most of their critics stray from a linguistic 'orthodoxy' that would recognize the mountain and the urn as expressions of a creator to various 'heresies' that privilege human thinking about those objects. Mont Blanc, for example, reworks the theological 'argument by design' so as to make the thinking poet himself the designer. The Ode on a Grecian Urn presents the 'aporia' experienced when an advocate of ongoing processes of creation confronts the finished product of a creator. Masson's readings of Shelley and Keats are keen, impassioned, and polemically engaged with the reception history of their works, though the contextualization of the Urn with respect to its appearance in The Annals of the Fine Arts neglects the Elgin Marbles debates and Paul Magnuson's definitive explication of them in Reading Public Romanticism (Princeton University Press 1998 ).

On the whole, Masson's work should provoke much interest and many responses both from scholars who share his wish to revive logocentric authority and from those who have more confidence in humanistic alternatives. [End Page 289]

Regina Hewitt

Regina Hewitt, Department of English, University of South Florida



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