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  • De Quincey, Dictionaries, and Casuistry
  • J. Mark Smith

“There is nothing old under the sun.”

—Thomas De Quincey, “James’s History of Charlemagne”1

In what follows, I explore Thomas De Quincey’s fascination with lexicography, glancing at several of his essays on dictionaries and on such linguistic matters as standards of pronunciation and the extemporaneous quality of conversation. All of these essays circle around the question of current usage and its sovereignty in determining what is right and wrong in speech and writing, but also around the fact that norms of usage change over the decades in ways that are mostly imperceptible to speakers of a language. De Quincey, in addition to being obsessed by perishability and ruin—by the way that the things and actions of men date themselves—was also a champion of the power of reflective judgment to recognize and savor the singular entity or phenomenon over against the infinitely complex and intricate universe of natural and human-made things. The practice of such judgment he calls casuistry; the first part of my argument wrestles with De Quincey’s idiosyncratic use of this term.

De Quincey’s journalistic career over four decades coincided with, and was unquestionably touched by, the great age of European philology, a time of ever more sophisticated research into historical context. In that vein, the middle part of this essay explores the “evolution-theory” contemporaneous with De Quincey’s lexicographical essays—not in order to declare him a spirit of the age, but to show how his casuistical principles cause him to diverge from the triumphant paradigm of mutability in the crown of linguistics: from that procedure for reconstructing the branching trees of linguistic derivation that we call, after the nineteenth-century philologists, etymology.2 To better understand De Quincey’s rejection of etymology, in its eighteenth- as well as nineteenth-century forms, I glance at the dictionary of the day—Charles Richardson’s A New Dictionary of the English Language—that for all its strengths was fatally weakened by [End Page 689] the idea that usage is derivative in every instance from the primal sense of a word. De Quincey, despite his personal eccentricity and unruliness, was a principled and consistent casuist (in his sense of that word); when this prose stylist and involution-theorist ran up against the lexicography and linguistics of the day, the result was some of the most suggestive thinking in the modern era about that dimension of language known as usage.

i. casuistry

The word casuistry to this day carries a pejorative sense—roughly equivalent to sophistry—but can be used in a range of ways, on a spectrum (as James Chandler has put it) from “the high generality of the grammatical case form” to the historical specificity of the Catholic tradition of “ethical discipline and discourse.”3 Chandler, in England in 1819, employs casuistry as “a general term for doctrines and disciplines of decision-making that are designed to handle ‘cases’”: his interest is in the historical case of one’s own time versus the case(s) of another time.4 Chandler points to “the [word’s] root sense of ‘befallings,’ configurations of circumstances identified as such in relation to some normative domain[.]”5 He quotes a sentence from De Quincey’s “The Casuistry of Duelling” to show the relation between a grammatical and an ethical case: “[A]s a case, in the declension of a noun, means a falling away, or a deflection from the upright nominative (rectus), so a case in ethics implies some falling off, or deflection from the high road of catholic morality.”6 (An example in the field of moral judgment: De Quincey’s discussion in “Casuistry” of such mitigating circumstances as might be considered in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte’s slaughter of 4,000 Turkish prisoners-of-war at Jaffa in 1799.)

David Clark, in a recent article on De Quincey, Immanuel Kant, and addiction, makes a penetrating tangential remark about the philosophical power of casuistry if it is taken seriously as a discipline of decision-making. Clark calls the “casuistical question” Kant asks himself in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals concerning opium-users and the...


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