This special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies, "New Feminist Work in Epistemology and Aesthetics," commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Women's Caucus of the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies. Thirty years ago, in their pioneering collection, The New Eighteenth Century, Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown observed that the major critical journals in eighteenth-century studies were dominated by "appreciative formalist readings that [sought] to describe a stable core of meaning in the text...or a positive historicism, unreflective about its theoretical grounds or its political implications."1 This state of affairs largely stifled scholarly work on sex and gender and prompted the formation of the ASECS Women's Caucus. Since then, the members of that collective body have developed far more pointedly theoretical modes of inquiry and a heightened critical self-consciousness. Feminist scholarship of the last thirty years has arguably transformed western literary criticism, history, and philosophy more than any other single methodology, and its effects on eighteenth-century studies have been no less profound. The ASECS Women's Caucus has been the place where the incredible mutual invigoration of feminist scholarship and eighteenth-century studies has been nurtured. The Caucus has supported, not just feminist scholarship, but the feminists who do that scholarship as well. The members of [End Page 289] the Women's Caucus celebrate these many-faceted achievements, and the caucus' contribution towards them, in this special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies.
We chose the topic "New Feminist Work on Epistemology and Aesthetics" as a way of returning to key questions that were shared by the Enlightenment and early feminist scholarship. The categories of epistemology and aesthetics, and the relations between them, were central to critical debate during the Enlightenment, and the terms of that debate still structure much contemporary scholarly practice. Epistemology and aesthetics also served as foundational discourses for early feminist critique of Enlightenment modes of knowing and valuing.
Aesthetics and empiricist epistemology bear a strange relationship to each other: emerging at around the same time, they were almost immediately at odds: aesthetics becoming the realm of the humanities and empiricism the domain of science. Like identical twins separated at birth, their divergent paths can be analyzed, in retrospect, for insights into their different histories, as well as the histories—of the body, of modernity, of patriarchy, and of academic critique itself—in which they have played a crucial role. Modern empiricism comes into its own at the end of the seventeenth century, and aesthetics soon follows as an attempt scientifically to understand the experience of art. As such, aesthetics points out one of empiricism's inherent limitations: understanding the physical experience of material things does not go very far towards accounting for taste, for pleasure, for morality, or for ideology. Early writing on aesthetics used empiricist methods to establish universal standards of taste. But long before the eighteenth century nears its end, aesthetics becomes a litmus test for the boundaries of empiricism. Immanuel Kant (and Joseph Addison before him) articulated and celebrated the idea of a disinterested aesthetic gaze; this theory has been a point of contention for much feminist scholarship, which views such a subject/object distinction as just one more prop for patriarchal domination. But Kant also privileged aesthetic experience as a mode of understanding our inability to grasp the material world, and this skeptical position on the noumenal world is an important foundation of Kant's philosophy of human morality. The example of Kant demonstrates how vexed—and thus how fertile—a relationship feminism would have with Enlightenment epistemology and aesthetics.
Out of Enlightenment philosophy, and especially out of epistemology and aesthetics, came modern ideas about the motive, method, and philosophy of critique broadly defined. This is why the idea of disciplinary study—including literary critique, modern historiography, art history, and aesthetic theory, as well as all the scientific disciplines—is one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment. This is also why a critique of disciplinarity and also a "critique of critique" were key components of feminist theory of the past thirty years. During that time, feminist scholars, both within eighteenth-century studies and beyond, participated in the...