Abstract

This article aims to recover a lost chapter in the history of reading, writing and print: the centrality of the concept of motion to Enlightenment theories about rhetoric and belles lettres. From the time of Aristotle until well into the eighteenth century, motion was a comprehensive concept, one that explained not merely physical movement, but all kinds of change, from firing a cannon to conquering writer's block. I contend that even after the popularization of Newtonianism, eighteenth-century Britons defined motion as both spatial change and—in keeping with the ancient, Aristotelian framework—moral change. Because they explained both physical movement and moral improvement, theories about motion were central not only to physics, but also to what we now call literary criticism. Writers from Emphraim Chambers to Samuel Johnson turned to motion in order to explain the moral and emotional changes associated with the written word. This essay unearths important proto-disciplinary connections between two Enlightenment fields: pneumatology—the study of the motions of the mind/soul—and rhetoric, which theorized how a writer moved his or her readers. I argue that we must recover these protodisciplinary links in order to fully understand the shared history of what we now assume to be three separate fields: literary studies, psychology and physics.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 281-308
Launched on MUSE
2012-08-13
Open Access
No
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