Oh Helen...;-p and some Hume and Locke
Posted by Erin on January 14, 1998 at 01:09:29:
In response to What an excellent post!!!!!, written by Helen on January 13, 1998 at 14:49:14
Here we get into the debate about the function of criticism. To some extent, criticism is always going to be reductive of the art it analyzes, and an analysis of the parts is always going to omit something of the magic of the whole. [snip]
Today I came across a letter-to-the-editor in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly. Apparently, the reader had some objections to an article on literary criticism that over-stressed the role that "gender-race-issues" (that's what they called it) play in literary interpretation. The author (of the letter), a recent college graduate claimed that too many of his lit. professors were bogged down with these influences, so much so that any analysis was perceived as dubious. (Stop the ugly forces of relativism and Derrida!) The man went on to say that, like youself, academic interpretations of literature are always going to be a 'reductive' activity, but this fact should not undermine attempts to describe/interpret a very personal experience. That's to say that even though we bring our own contexts to what we read, it should not prevent attempts to objectify (insofar as to make intelligible) our interpretations.
That said, I thought I should post some philosophy, which undoubtedly influenced Austen's worldview. The first passage is from David Hume (who's the 'real' Kant, THE father of modern epistemological thought). Here he discusses the limits of human understanding and experience. Although the Enlightenment era is defined by a certain optimism: the conceit that man's rational capacities could apprehend the nature of all things. However, implicit in such belief is the idea that limits exist; and that they are some things (phenomena, experiences) that we cannot know/understand/make rational:
Nothing, at first, may seem more unbounded than the thought of man, which not only escapes all human power and authority, but is not even restrained within the limits of nature and reality...And while the body is confined to one planet...thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions if the universe; or even beyond the universe, into the unbounded chaos, where nature is supposed to lie in total confusion...But though our thought seems to possess liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience.(Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
I've spent a few days re-reading some Enlightenment philosophers (including Hume and Locke) and I can't help but be struck by the similarities between their assertions and 20thc. existential thought, in particular the notion of finitude and the inevitability of boundaries to human experience and knowledge. It's similar to Nietzsche's theory of the Eternal Recurrence. Experiences seem to play themselves over and over again because there are a finite number of ways to perceive and interpret them, e.g., we will always understand reality in three dimensions --that's limiting enough!
Locke is a little more straightforward in his declarations:
I suspected we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and sure possession of truths that most concerned us, while we let loose our thoughts into the vast ocean of Being; as if all that boundless extent were the natural and undoubted possession of our understandings, wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions, or that escaped its comprehension...whereas, were the capacities of our understandings well considered, the extent of our knowledge once discovered, and the horizon found which sets the bounds between the enlightened and dark parts of things -- between what is and what is not comprehensible by us --men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avowed ignorance of the one, and employ their thoughts and discourse with the more advantage and satisfaction in the other(Essay Concerning Human Understanding)
Locke sounds like the late Wittengstein (hmmmmm...philosophy is only a study of history now).
Helen --you said that Wordsworth has much to answer for....
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