In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 333-339 Critical Study Adam Potkay's The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume M. A. BOX ADAM POTKAY. The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. xiv + 253. Cloth: USA $36.95 USA, £30.95 UK. The author discusses the new historicism at enough length in his introduction to indicate its importance to this book as a hermeneutic approach, though he dissociates himself from its psycho-social agenda (18-20). A supposition of this sort of postmodern approach is that any more or less coherent set of beliefs held by a group is ultimately ideological in the Marxist sense of being a collective delusion. Superimposed onto this model is a Freudian orientation in which these ideologies are seen as subconscious rationalizations , sometimes related in startling ways to sex. Texts—literary, philosophical , whatever—evince these submerged ideologies in ways of which authors usually will be only dimly aware. What authors intend to say becomes less important than the putative ideology shaping their intentions. A Humean analogy is to focus on the psychic factors determining our conscious decisions at the expense of the practical reasoning resulting in our intentions. A difference , however, is that this sort of postmodernism has an activist and psychoanalytic thrust that treats the underlying factors as something like pathology. Potkay is not blind to the exegetical dangers. The advantages of attempting a sympathetic reading of authors' intentions are declined in favor of a critical perspective on the larger trends that the authors supposedly M. A. Box is at the Department of English, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, PO Box 755720, Fairbanks AK 99709-5720 USA 334 Book Reviews exemplify. To the extent that authors do not well exemplify the putative trends, they are vulnerable to distortion. Collective psyche-reading of people living centuries ago is risky, and a rigorist might feel that the gross earthy mixture of the vulgar is an ingredient which postmodernists commonly stand much in need of and which would serve to temper those fiery particles of which they are composed. Officially, proponents of this approach concede that their own anti-ideological activism is not itself free of ideological motives, and they are supposed to address the problem by being aware of and declaring their own ideologies openly. Often, in an exercise in tough love, competing postmodernist schools altruistically help each other out by disabusing each other of collective illusions. It can be an awful sight. Reassuringly, Potkay enters caveats about aprioristic interpretation (22). Generally he practices a sort of mitigated new historicism, exercising a sense of moderation. More important virtues inform his book, however. He is very widely read: his range of reference runs from Demosthenes to de Man. His own writing is graceful and elegant. A talented close reader of poetry, he gives sensitive accounts of the phrase-by-phrase experience of reading Alexander Pope. He is very good about attending to chronology, conscientiously observing the evolution of a text's meanings over the years in which it was revised and relating that evolution to concurrent political and biographical events. He practices the old historicism well when it is not overruled by new historical priorities. It will be evident by now that I do not value the book precisely for the things that Potkay might have expected. I am most grateful for what he has to say about Hume's intentions for the essay "Of Eloquence," though Potkay might regard this as a preliminary step to more important matters. He has noticed the importance in Hume's day of two aesthetic qualities, eloquence and elegance, and intriguingly has treated them as in competition for the hearts and minds of Hume and his readers. His examination of the ideological aspects of eloquence in the eighteenth century strikes me as successful. The ideological aspects of calls for eloquence genuinely existed due to the context of party politics in which much talk of eloquence emerged in the second quarter of the century. Potkay deserves credit for recognizing the applicability of this context, especially since the text of the essay does not draw attention to that context. However, when he...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 333-339
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.