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Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions

Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud

Cathy Caruth

Publication Year: 1991

In the prevailing account of English empiricism, Locke conceived of self-understanding as a matter of mere observation, bound closely to the laws of physical perception. English Romantic poets and German critical philosophers challenged Locke's conception, arguing that it failed to account adequately for the power of thought to turn upon itself—to detach itself from the laws of the physical world. Cathy Caruth reinterprets questions at the heart of empiricism by treating Locke's text not simply as philosophical doctrine but also as a narrative in which "experience" plays an unexpected and uncanny role. Rediscovering traces and transformations of this narrative in Wordsworth, Kant, and Freud, Caruth argues that these authors must not be read only as rejecting or overcoming empirical doctrine but also as reencountering in their own narratives the complex and difficult relation between language and experience. Beginning her inquiry with the moment of empirical self-reflection in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding—when a mad mother mourns her dead child—Caruth asks what it means that empiricism represents itself as an act of mourning and explores why scenes of mourning reappear in later texts such as Wordsworth's Prelude, Kant's Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science and Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, and Freud's Civilization. From these readings Caruth traces a recurring narrative of radical loss and the continual displacement of the object or the agent of loss. In Locke it is the mother who mourns her dead child, while in Wordsworth it is the child who mourns the dead mother. In Kant the father murders the son, while in Freud the sons murder the father. As she traces this pattern, Caruth shows that the conceptual claims of each text to move beyond empiricism are implicit claims to move beyond reference. Yet the narrative of death in each text, she argues, leaves a referential residue that cannot be reclaimed by empirical or conceptual logic. Caruth thus reveals, in each of these authors, a tension between the abstraction of a conceptual language freed from reference and the compelling referential resistance of particular stories to abstraction.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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pp. vii-viii

The present study proposes to explore the enigma of experience and the significance of the recurring questions of empiricism in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), William Wordsworth's Prelude (1805), Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), and Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). These works, in their variety, ...

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pp. ix

The original project of this book was motivated by the teaching of the late Paul de Man. I am grateful to Geoffrey Hartman for his critical attention and comments on the entire manuscript, and to other teachers and colleagues who have discussed and read all or parts of the manuscript, and who have provided the intellectual stimulation for my work: Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, Andrzej Warminski, Cynthia Chase, Shoshana ...

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1 The Face of Experience

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pp. 1-43

Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding stands in a peculiar relation to the tradition that it founded. On the one hand, the school known as associationism, represented most prominently by David Hartley, depended on Locke's assertion that ideas are derived from experience. ...

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2 Past Recognition: Narrative Origins in Wordsworth and Freud

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pp. 44-57

The word ego has a place in the discourse of Romantic literature, but to speak today of the "Romantic ego," or to read Romantic texts in terms of other psychoanalytic concepts, is necessarily to juxtapose two different discourses: Romantic and psychoanalytic. 1 And this is also to suggest that our self-understanding, as articulated within psychoanalytic ...

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3 The Force of Example: Kant's Symbols

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pp. 58-85

Recent literary theory has raised objections to what appears to be an overexclusivc concern with "language" in poststructuralist literary criticism. While literary texts are linguistic constructs, so critics have argued, language itself must be seen in a historical and social context. Literary criticism must ...

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4 Signs of Love

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pp. 86-131

Sigmund Freud's writings on sexuality can be seen as a persistent attempt to understand the error of experience through its relation to a past. The mind's experience of itself in love, Freud suggests, is always in error; and it is sexuality which displays this error as the blindness, of love, to its own history. ...

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Conclusion: Mourning Experience

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pp. 132-137

The latent project of the present volume has been to open up the possibility of a rethinking of empiricism in order to attempt to understand anew the critical traditions that are defined in terms of it. In the prevailing understanding of these traditions, which is based on the explicit claims of the texts that constitute their corpus, English empiricism (of which Locke is one of the main writers) is often represented as the less ...


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pp. 139-162


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pp. 163-167

E-ISBN-13: 9780801896484
E-ISBN-10: 0801896487
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801892691
Print-ISBN-10: 0801892694

Page Count: 182
Publication Year: 1991