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Richard Eldridge WORDSWORTH AND "A NEW CONDITION OF PHILOSOPHY" IT will seem odd to both philosophers and literary critics to claim a central relation—both for the practice of philosophy and for understanding Wordsworth—between Wordsworth and philosophy. It will seem odd to philosophers on the one hand because it is trivial, in that holding some very general assumptions about humanity is inevitable for anyone, so why not for Wordsworth, and, on the other hand, because Wordsworth is so obviously literary: his having held such assumptions is obviously not what matters about him; he tells stories and purveys images, philosophers may note, rather than producing reasoned arguments for his claims. It will seem odd to many or most literary critics nowadays because, in the wakes of existentialism, New Criticism with its attentions to paradoxes of expression, poststructuralism, and New Historicism, it appears that there is no such thing as the practice of philosophy into which anyone could enter: there's only willful selfassertion , or ideology, or pervasive irony, or paradox, or thought undoing itself, or shifts in cultural épistèmes; reason is impotent either to validate or to condemn deep views about human nature,justice, or the good, views which instead come to individuals only as a result of their contingent individual psychologies or cultural circumstances. But a central relation between Wordsworth and philosophy is nonetheless what I wish to claim. This claim is not a matter simply of tracing influences from philosophy in Wordsworth's writing as such. There are many ways to be influenced by canonical philosophical writings that are not themselves distinctively philosophical, such as borrowing images and general conceptions of human life (as in Yeats's references to Plato). Such Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 50-71 Richard Eldridge51 borrowings do not constitute entering into the enterprise of philosophy , do not embody the dialectical movement of thought in conversation with its traditions, seeking deep necessities ofreason. Wordsworth's writings, however, do importantly embody this dialectical movement, I claim, in ways that transfigure and deepen our sense of the possibilities ofpractice ofboth philosophy and poetry. Surveying his achievement is hence something more than a chapter in the history ofliterary ideas. It makes available to us awareness of forces, modes of expression, and results that already implicitly figure in and are expressed by all writing about human value. It shows us what our reflective engagements with questions of human value have been implicitly and can be selfconsciously . In doing this, Wordsworth's writing transfigures our understanding ofreason and its relations to images, plots, and sociohistorical circumstances. Wordsworth did not centrally or typically produce philosophical theories. He is not read by philosophers as a philosopher, as one whose abstract, systematic views of human life or nature or God matter apart from their contexts of production. He writes centrally about his own life, about his reactions to certain scenes and incidents, and about the reactions and experiences of imagined particular others. When he tries to be explicitly theoretical and systematic, he is often at his didactic and obscurantist worst.1 The provisional views about human life at which he arrives cannot be understood or assessed without attending to his particular experiences and his actions. The subject and the object ofhis reflections—humanity and its triumphs and reversals as they have appeared in him—are identical. In all these senses, Wordsworth is, in his central preoccupations, what we would be inclined to call literary. It follows that the claim that there is a central relation between Wordsworth and philosophy implies and argues for the further claims that there is a central interrelation between philosophy and literature, at least when certain values in human life are in question, and that philosophy, when these values are in question, cannot profitably bypass the consideration of culture and cultural figures in order to achieve its results more directly. So how does Wordsworth, in his literariness, do this thing, enter innovatively into the practice of philosophy? What might following out Wordsworth's practice tell us about the possibilities and prospects of philosophy and literature in a postfoundationalist, postsystèmatic age? What might it teach us about Wordsworth's own peculiar ambitions, egotism, and spiritual formation? What...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 50-71
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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