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Reviewed by:
  • The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I. A. Richards, and: Fallen Languages: Crises of Representation in Newtonian England, 1660–1740
  • Timothy J. Reiss
Jules David Law. The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I. A. Richards. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xiv + 258. $36.50.
Robert Markley. Fallen Languages: Crises of Representation in Newtonian England, 1660–1740. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. x + 268. $37.50.

Scholars have long disputed arguments that some abrupt change occurred between the European Renaissance and modernity. Familiar ideas of the passage to modernity have been diversely questioned. Depending on the field at issue, such ideas and arguments have been undermined by varied counterclaims. In the philosophy of mind and psychology, people have asserted that a “modern” idea of the self existed in the High Middle Ages. In epistemology and the history of science, they have held that the beginnings of “scientific” reasoning were blurred and variously caught up in more than just remnants of medieval debate. In ethics and political philosophy, intellectual historians have maintained that concepts of the individualist state did not prevail before the late eighteenth century. These counterclaims have often emphasized language and discourse. Received views of changes in linguistic and discursive concepts and practices between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concerning relations supposed among word, idea, and world, between language and the divine, as well as about matters of ordering and distinguishing such “levels,” have been questioned and debated. The works reviewed share these concerns and this “revisionism.”

Markley shows familiarly that the “new” science was not just a way to clarify figuration of unproblematic reality nor a progressive outcome of conflict between right knowledge and “residual forms of nonscientific belief” (7), but one among other possibilities to put rule in a dialogical discursive affray that had long been felt as fundamentally disruptive, not just of orders of knowledge, but of civil society itself. Boyle, Charleton, Newton, Ray, and Whiston wanted a “physico-theology” giving “a single system of representation that articulates its equally strong commitment to experimental philosophy and to theology” (7). Markley suggests this contradicts notions of science as figuring the truth of reality or as gradually resolving a conflict between reason and unreason, in that it urges that science knows itself (a) to be “constructing” reality, and (b) to be denying all simple opposites. I see no contradiction.” Notions of objectivity, teleology, and progress” taken from theology to mediate crises of representation and, precisely, the “erasure of these traces of appropriation” that enabled the rise of science (8—an idea repeated about Newton: 137) were just what made it possible for a new scientific practice and concept to become reality’s legitimate representation. Such “occultation” (as I have called it) enabled consolidation of a “dominant” discourse. To argue thus does not mark “the persistence of a narrative model of ‘revolutionary’ progress” (21), but efforts to see how discursive strife at moments of fairly short sociocultural crisis issue in singular dominance.

Law also shows how British empiricism, by the late nineteenth century taken to presume a rather straightforward “commonsensical” relation between perceptual knowledge [End Page 337] and reality, was, from Locke to Hazlitt (via Berkeley, Hume, and Burke), confined and depended on claims about language, rhetoric, and theories of reflection. Like Markley, in other words, he emphasizes that ideas of knowledge and reality throughout the Enlightenment were always caught in a strongly articulated sense of their dependence on the very concepts and the language that alone could “speak” them. Tropes of “surface,” “depth,” and “reflection” linked inextricably conceptions of the sensory and the linguistic (244), yielding a “dynamic, dialectical account of the relationship between language and visual perception” (x). Analyzing “Molyneux’s question” (recorded by Locke) about how a person born blind would record visual sensations if suddenly able to see, Law shows that the question in its form and issues stayed central in empiricist discussion, that it embodied various theories of reflection, and that it emphasized less what might be seen than what could be said of it. Empiricism was a troubled search for epistemological order, in mind as unsure of the...

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