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John P. Sisk DOCTOR JOHNSON KICKS A STONE Readers OF Boswell's Life ofJohnson will remember the great Doctor's refutation of Bishop Berkeley's idealism. He and Boswell had just come out of a church in Harwich and were discussing the Bishop's "ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter." Boswell observed "that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it." To mis Johnson responded, "striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, T refute it thus.'" For Boswell diis was an argument from first principles diat are as fundamental to metaphysics as axioms are to mathematics. To use Johnson's own phrase, it is an argument based on "the experience of mankind" — the ground upon which he confidendy stood when he expressed his disapproval of such other phUosophical contemporaries as Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau (the latter "a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society"). Or as WalterJackson Bate puts it in TheAchievement ofSamuelJohnson, the first principle ofhis thinking was "To go back to the living and concrete nature of experience."1 Boswell thought Johnson a philosopher, though he admits in a famous passage that his table manners might have suggested otherwise. Apparently G. K. Chesterton thought he had some claim to the term, for he called Johnson's novel Rasselas "a sort of philosophical satire on philosophy." Most likelyJohnson thought ofhimselfas among many other things a philosopher: the humanities had not yet setded snugly into dieir modern compartments. Now, of course, any undergraduate student of philosophy is willing to believe that Johnson's argument against Berkeley isn't worth much (he may be no less willing to believe that the Bishop's argument isn't worth much eitiier). He may also know that in the perspective of die modern physicist Johnson's stone was not as solid as Johnson thought it was — though it is likely he would have thought diis information 65 66Philosophy and Literature no more relevant to die argument dian Thaïes' belief diat all diings are made of water or Pydiagoras' diat all diings are numbers. The important thing was whether a drinker violated die experience of mankind. When the Scotchman Lord Hunderland praised the ancient philosophers for the candor and good humor widi which they disputed with one anotherJohnson would have none of it: "They disputed with good humour upon dieir fanciful dieories," he said, "because diey were not interested in the truth of them." It is not hard to imagine the Doctor's reaction to our own fanciful theories in philosophy, linguistics, and literary criticism. Suppose him at the Mitre Tavern for an evening's defense of die experience of mankind against die ingenious sophistries of a company made up ofJacques Derrida , Geoffrey H. Hartman, Stanley Fish, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, and Jacques Lacan — the lot of them variously committed to the belief diat the proper job of philosophy is not the pursuit of the truth but the pursuit of die trudi about die pursuit of die truth. Johnson eyes die group warily, expecting the worst. There are too many Frenchmen present , and as he made clear at supper one July evening in the Turk's Head coffee house, French writers are superficial "because they are not scholars, and so proceed upon the mere power of dieir own minds." Nevertheless, the assembled gendemen present their positions: we are all prisoners ofthe total epistemological environment of our age, our episteme; locked linguistically into interpretive communities, we cannot know die text in itself; die proper function of the critic is creative free play, the text being merely a convenient occasion; language, being self-referential, cannot reveal a subject; human agency is a flattering but deceptive myth; transcendent systems of thought are impossible; if literature touches reality anywhere we cannot know it. MeanwhileJohnson, than whom no man ever had "a more ardent love of literature, or a higher respect for it," is in high dudgeon, kicking figurative stones right and left, no real ones being available inside the Mitre. His adversaries observe him with indulgent good humor, amused but not impressed with this crude bourgeois display, having...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 65-75
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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