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417 14 Good or Commodity? Modern Knowledge and the Loss of Eudaimonia The strain of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and philosophical narrative briefly indexed here reveals a metaphysical deficit intrinsic to modern liberalism—a deficit certainly unacknowledged, if not outright repressed, and hence steadily more pressing and crippling for the modern individual. The writings in question show the Enlightenment unable to grasp the challenge posed by freedom to its self-satisfied, rationalist trade in non-negotiable and non-contingent “rights” and its reductive understanding of free will as multiple choice and subjective preference. In scrutinizing these structural problems, nineteenth-century literary and philosophical narrative appears wary of liberalism’s founding paradigm of agency; the hypothesis of institutionally embedded and ostensibly self-possessed individuals carrying out the work of reason behaviorally, rather than by way of imaginative , transformative, and risk-fraught action, no longer seems inspiring, let alone credible in the way it had been for Locke, Adam Smith, and Kant. Yet the emergent critique of Enlightenment liberalism comes with presuppositions of its own. Thus Schopenhauer’s contemptuous view of the modern rational and self-possessed­ individual—a critique whose political dimensions Edmund Burke’s Reflections had Portions of this and the following chapter have appeared in an earlier version in MLN and are here being reproduced with the kind permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. 418 retrieving the human anticipated with cantankerous lucidity—can only reject modern autonomy by viewing the primacy of character, temperament, and sensibility as continuous with ancient Greek notions of “necessity” (anankē) and “fate” (tuchē). Against modern liberalism ’s axiomatic view of a world composed of so many autonomous monads that take themselves to be free to join various social, political, religious, and economic communities and associations, Schopenhauer’s dystopic account (presaging similar narratives in Stendhal, Flaubert, Wagner, and Dostoevsky) insists that it is only at the level of action that the status of the modern individual is decided. As Schopenhauer goes on to argue, the course of action that the modern self “chooses” is the only one she or he could ever have chosen (mere “wishing” being an entirely different matter); and in now embarking on it the individual can only give rise to the (tragic) selfawareness of an implacable and irretrievable determinacy. If liberalism’s public face is to be seen in the literary genre of utopia, its unacknowledged Blakean “contrary” is tragedy; and it is no accident that tragedy should have furnished the generic template for the canonical narratives oeuvre of Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Fontane, Hardy, Zola, or Thomas Mann. For Blake, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Stendhal, Flaubert, Arnold, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, among others, freedom is a challenge to our capacities for imaginative vision rather than a formal possession or claim right. Yet it is a challenge that their characters rarely tend to meet successfully—some happy exceptions such as Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin and Pjotr Bezuhov or Eliot’s Daniel Deronda notwithstanding. Instead , the vast majority of nineteenth-century narratives exhibit a marked disillusionment with modern liberalism’s stubborn contrivance of various descriptive and disciplinary procedures, techniques, and systems (e.g., statistics, behaviorism, utilitarianism , quantitative sociology, historicism) aimed at remedying the deleterious effects of the hedonistic, radically singular self that was the epistemological legacy of Hobbesian voluntarism and Lockean nominalism. A great deal of nineteenth-­ century narrative thus scrutinizes the autonomous individual’s repeated failure to achieve a concept or vision of the whole and, especially, of the human other as a “Thou.” Behind this failure lurks a story that, so we are given to understand, should never have unfolded in the first place. The basic blueprint in question—encountered in the fiction of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Hardy, Fontane, Mann, and numerous others besides—thus reoccupies, however unwittingly, the ancient motif of a world whose material realization inevitably betrays the idea that had given rise to it. Implicitly, then, even as the dystopic arc of modern narrative traces the local failings of specific characters, it also amounts to a symptom of modernity’s fateful cultivation of theoretical reason at the expense of practical reason, of affirming singularity over relation, prioritizing self-assertion over obligation, will over meaning , and generally sacrificing vision and participation in what is given to the idol of knowledge as power (potestas) and commodity (dominium). Hans Blumenberg puts the matter as follows: Good or Commodity? 419 The fundamental Platonic equivocation, that the world of appearance is indeed the reproduced image of Ideas but cannot...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780268158200
Related ISBN
9780268038403
MARC Record
OCLC
860943773
Pages
728
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-21
Language
English
Open Access
No
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