- Theory and Practice in the Eighteenth Century: Writing between Philosophy and Literature
Alexander Dick and Christina Lupton have brought us a most welcome collection of astute essays on the intersections of philosophy and literature in the eighteenth century. As they tell us in their introduction - and this is a point that bears much repeating - it 'is not simply that philosophy and literature were on friendly terms during the eighteenth century but rather that the questions posed by each were the condition of possibility for the other.' With the aim of presenting us with a concrete reminder of how crucial those 'conditions of possibility' are, not simply for both (ill-defined) disciplines in the eighteenth century, but also to the current state of the field, Lupton and Dick collect a series of thirteen important essays, twelve new and one reprinted. The essays are organized under three heads: 'Writing Philosophy,' 'Reading Hume,' and 'Thinking Literature.' Though occasionally the articles seem a bit oddly assorted - 'Thinking Literature' moves from Maureen Harkin's 'The Primitive in Adam Smith's History' to Adam Potkay on music and conscience in Wordsworth - the essays themselves meet a very high standard. All deserve attentive reading, and I was happy to be reminded of one deserving attentive rereading as well. The editors' brief introduction very ably introduces both the major issues in this area of study and the individual papers at hand. More care might have been taken to ensure clarity here, and careful proofreading might have prevented a couple of awkward errors, but these are minor quibbles.
Many of the contributors to this volume need no introduction. Essays by John Richetti, Adam Potkay, Nicholas Hudson, Maureen Harkin, Mark Blackwell, Nancy Yousef, Eva Dadlez, and Jonathan Kramnick are very fine. These scholars are joined by a group of newer scholars to whose work I want to draw more particular attention. Joseph Chaves, in an essay on Shaftesbury's Characteristics (1711), argues intelligently for the dependency of Shaftesbury's notion of the self on the formal, rhetorical structures associated alternately with philosophical and belletristic writing. While Shaftesbury's philosophical mode maintains the necessity of an impenetrable, bounded self built on innate ideas, his irrepressible sociability, marked by the checks and balances of witty literary society, theorizes a permeable, socially constructed self. Jonathan Sadow's essay, 'The Epistemology of Genre,' links Locke's 'mixed modes' with a new generic indeterminacy that characterized both the novel and philosophy. Brian Michael Norton has contributed an exceptionally clever and convincing essay on philosophies of happiness in the [End Page 345] eighteenth century. He argues, first, that happiness becomes a subjective psychological phenomenon in the late seventeenth century and that the resulting potential separation between morality and happiness is a source of serious anxiety. He then proposes that the novel's pragmatic and subjectivist concerns provide something like a new methodology of happiness. Finally, and this is the real money shot, he concludes with a lovely reading of Rasselas (1759), arguing that Johnson's fable self-consciously takes up and overturns theories of happiness, demonstrating the experiential nature of happiness and its fundamental unavailability to theorization. Adam Budd traces Hume's 'self-conscious theory of reading' in passages on aesthetics inserted into the Treatise (1739) and others excised from the Enquiry (1748). He concludes that Hume rejects the fictional in favour of the social. Alex Dick, as well as editing the volume, contributes an essay on Thomas Reid and technologies of seeing, reading, and writing. Dick argues that, despite his 'common sense' resistance to the human-machine analogy, Reid's philosophy depends on his conceptualization of language as a machine.
All in all, this collection tells us that one abiding concern of eighteenth-century studies, the mutually defining relationship of philosophy and literature in the period, is still attracting research that continues to imagine new and fascinating ways for the disciplines to speak to each other.
Rebecca Tierney-Hynes, Department of English, University of Waterloo