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ELH 70.1 (2003) 151-169
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Walking on Flowers:
the Kantian Aesthetics Of Hard Times
The opening pages of Charles Dickens's Hard Times make a distinction between two forms of knowledge: rationally knowing and subjectively sensing—long-standing twin sentinels for the epistemological project of modernity—appear as enemies from the very outset of this novel. In the schoolroom of M'Choakcumchild and Gradgrind, the overseer "with a rule and pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket," the possibility of measuring the world is dramatically staged as the opposite to knowing it sensually. 1 On the one hand, there is the soulless student Bitzer, protégé of his utilitarian pedagogues and author of the bloodless definition of a horse as a "graminivorous quadruped" with "forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive"; and on the other, there is the circus child, Sissy Jupe, whose emotional involvement with the world of horses and horseriding proves useless in meeting this educational system's demand for facts about horses (44). Facts, to use Dickens's term, cleave away from fancy; the intuitive world of subjective experience contradicts the forms of reckoning which set human beings to work instrumentally and inhumanly against themselves.
The idea that a nonrational way of knowing might challenge the results of quantitative reason is of course not original to Dickens. For at least as long as reason itself has been held up as an ideal, the nonrational has presented an alternative measure of truth. We need only to think of the modes of feeling represented in eighteenth-century literature—of Laurence Sterne's Uncle Toby, so sensitive to the world that he is unable to raise his hand against a fly, of Tobias Smollet's "man without a skin," or of Henry MacKenzie's man of feeling—to find counterparts to the rational history-writing of Edward Gibbon, the economic calculations of Adam Smith, or the rhyming couplets of Alexander Pope. 2 Set against the complexity of this doubling, the Sissy-Bitzer debate seems little more than a poor attempt to separate two ways of seeing which have long constituted each other's field of meaning. The simplicity of this sketch is, [End Page 151] however, itself a telling site of contrast to the complex early and mid-eighteenth century attempts to account for the relationship between fact and feeling. Until late in the century, subjective feeling served in various capacities as the hub of moral and political discourse, as a unit in a system of social organization rather than its counterpoint. While David Hume privileges "taste" or Smith "sentiment," in both cases the terms serve as proof of the individual being suited to social agreement. The arguments of Hume, Smith, and their predecessors in the discourse of individual taste and feeling, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, all present the cultivated possibility of subjective judgment as the means of establishing and sustaining common ground for social existence and prosperity.
It was only with Imannuel Kant's three-part Critique, finished in 1790, that the possibility of subjective judgment became explicitly associated with an ostensible lack of social purpose. Here for the first time the reason-feeling dichotomy became a potential site of contradiction. 3 Although in Kant's own system it is crucial that the subject-driven terms of aesthetic judgment actually do coincide with reason per se, it is significant for the dialectical theories of subject and object which follow that this Kantian subjectivity does not depend for its validity on this coincidence of reason and feeling. Kant's discussion of beauty makes it clear that there are two distinct ways of knowing. While "the mental attunement that sustains itself and has subjective, universal validity may serve as a basis for that other way of thinking that can be sustained only by laborious resolve," his metaphysics relies on these forms of experience being by definition irreducible to one another. 4 In the Kantian subject, the capacity to experience the world nonconceptually and nonpurposively comes to the fore as an...