- British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason by Timothy Michael
Timothy Michael's study understands a canonical group of Romantic political writers—from Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley—as engaged in a common inquiry into, or rather critique of, the power of reason after the Terror. Michael's innovation upon earlier approaches is to place debate about reason in the context of a discourse of "political epistemology," which he defines, in its broadest sense, as "a discourse concerned with the relationship between knowledge and freedom" (p. 7). The meaning of "political epistemology," or more familiarly, "political knowledge" (a phrase which, Michael tells us, appears in over a thousand published texts over the course of the eighteenth century) is shown to be ambiguous ever since its Baconian origins, but increasingly in the 1790s it comes to denote a hyperbolic ambition to understand all human social, religious, and political institutions. Ultimately Michael claims it as the source of modern political science. So the "political reason" of the book's title is the name for a series of efforts, in the light of events in France, to bring politics and knowledge together.
The method of political reason, then, is critique or trial. This claim leads Michael to emphasize Wordsworth's generous over his more scathing assessment of his earlier attachment to Godwinian rationalism, as recounted in the Prelude. "The dream / Was flattering to the young ingenuous mind," as Michael quotes Wordsworth (p. 3), but it wasn't a dream that, by Michael's account, ever really went away. Where Wordsworth, a few lines on from this passage in Book 10, remembers himself embroiled in a hermeneutics of suspicion, dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith like culprits to the bar (this passage will itself be quoted in a subsequent chapter on Kant), probing and dissecting the living body of society, Michael claims that the trial of political reason he finds in the later books of the Prelude is to be understood as "an imaginative extension of the trial of pure reason staged in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason" (p. 25). What the two authors share, we might infer, is an attachment to ways of knowing that are defined as political rather than to a knowledge of politics, with the former [End Page 173] grounded in an understanding of critique or trial as an activity that reason imposes on itself. Here, in his first chapter, Michael is consonant with recent Kant scholarship by Onora O'Neill, Susan Meld Shell, and others, though none of this scholarship is cited. It's also perhaps because of this understanding of actively reflective reason that another surprisingly prominent, venerable identification of Romanticism with an "inward turn" (Isaiah Berlin is cited several times throughout this study) is read sympathetically here as a search for a kind of inner peace that is needed in order for political knowledge to happen.
After an opening chapter grounding this neo-Kantian reading of Romantic political thought, Michael analyzes Burke's "critique of metaphysics" and its reliance on rhetoric, especially paradox (though nothing is said here of Burke's own Ciceronian reading of Stoic paradox in the Reflections); the turn to an inward and yet active mind in Wollstonecraft and Godwin; and Coleridge's mapping of the faculty of understanding onto social relations. The book subsequently covers Wordsworth's political prose, where Michael sees a "poetics of human nature" (p. 164) that understands knowledge and freedom together; the pleasure of tranquillity or repose in the Preface, Home at Grasmere, and The Excursion; and P. B. Shelley's "sceptical idealism," which for Michael is the period's most ambitious attempt to match the structures of human thought with political and social institutions.
While this book makes clear its affiliations to the disciplines of intellectual history and philosophy for its reading of Romanticism's epistemological claims, some readers may be put off by the long preliminaries to any sustained reading of...