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The Romance of the Impossible: William Godwin in the Empty Place of Reason

From: ELH
Volume 70, Number 3, Fall 2003
pp. 847-874 | 10.1353/elh.2003.0025

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ELH 70.3 (2003) 847-874

In the treatise outlining his version of philosophical anarchism, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, first published in 1793 and revised twice thereafter, William Godwin attacks every possible interference with the individual's private judgment of what best serves the universal good. Every positive law attempts to substitute a contingent and fallible version of justice for its absolute form: "Legislation. . . is not an affair of human competence. Immutable reason is the true legislator, and her decrees it behoves us to investigate. The functions of society extend, not to the making, but the interpreting of law." Because reason is prior to its historical articulation, the latter is illegitimate. To substitute mere laws for immutable reason is to be confined by potentially false interpretations; it is, in short, to create an imposture, a fiction of justice rather than the real thing. Accordingly, Godwin carries out a systematic critique of every kind of institution, arguing that people should live under the immediate authority of reason itself, carrying out an almost total violence against the complex fabric of social life. Because people would justify their behavior according to reason alone, and because property and sexual relations would be reconfigured to allow for such separate judgment, every form of collective enterprise or identity would disappear. No institution would mediate between people and reason, or between people and each other. This philosophy challenges far more than the rule of law or of government, for it also repudiates rhetorical power, prejudice, custom, contracts, promises, cooperative action, gratitude, codes of manners, marriage, the subordination of child to parent, employment of one person by another, and internalized forms of external constraint, as well as the coercion involved in any revolutionary or collective attempt to overturn institutions. Philosophical anarchy is in fact a kind of ratiocracy, a mode of governance even more severe than theocracy, for in this case the immutable principle would never mediate itself in any familiar social form. The same activity—coming to know and enact the judgments of reason—would define every life and every interpersonal relation.

Godwin's philosophy amounts to a uniquely violent conceptual experiment, an attempt to hurl humanity into a space beyond any historical determination. Where Enlightenment thought typically appeals to ahistorical norms such as reason or nature, Godwin tries to make society identical with such a norm. But as a result, his work uniquely reveals the necessary impasses of such an enterprise. The aggression implicit in absolute reason dominates in the relatively unself-conscious Enquiry, but the novels Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799) expose the costs of such conceptual violence in acute, implicitly self-critical, and progressively more sweeping terms. Total conceptual revolution modulates into a searching critique of the irrational component of rational absolutism. While Godwin's anarchist positions made him vulnerable to anti-Jacobin satire in the late 1790s, in fact he became his own most searching and perceptive critic. As the ending of Caleb Williams first demonstrates, when immutable reason is opposed to established society, it eventually regards the latter as a closed system impermeable to change; only when the total criticism of society recognizes its resemblance to what it opposes, accepting the possibility that it is also shaped by selfish and partial motives, can it break out of the impasse of total accusation. St Leon dramatizes this critique even more explicitly, showing that the gift of absolute abundance leads not to universal happiness but to disaster and that, as a result, genuine social transformation must arise incrementally from within society, rather than being imposed upon it from the outside. Society would no longer realize itself by transforming into its negation, disappearing into the light of immutable reason, but rather, as G. W. F. Hegel might say, through the negation of the negation, through its perpetual invocation of a perfect justice it will never realize. From the original premise of a purely asocial truth, Godwin evolves a theory of modern society which makes its structural logic unusually explicit, carrying out an internal or sympathetic, rather than counterrevolutionary, reassessment of pure reason, sketching in his own way the lineaments...

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