Criteria Of Certainty

Criteria Of Certainty: Truth and Judgment in the English Enlightenment

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Criteria Of Certainty
    Book Description:

    British writers of the Restoration and eighteenth century initiated a critique of human knowledge unrivaled in both its scope and its enthusiasm. Author Kevin L. Cope now attempts to provide a coherent, evocative account of explanatory rhetoric in early modern Britain.

    Critics and historians, Cope argues, have done an admirable job of describing the details of the intellectual movements of this period but they have failed to examine the intellectual, social, and psychological implications of explanation itself.Criteria of Certaintymakes up for this shortcoming by treating explanation as a composite literary and philosophical mode, as a kind of "master genre" governing the development of a variety of genres, from pithy maxims and lyric poems to lengthy treatises and epics of explanation.

    Cope's probing and inventive analyses of seven writers -- Rochester, Halifax, Dryden, Locke, Swift, Pope, and Smith -- shed new light on many major issues in both eighteenth-century studies and critical theory. Discussing the gradual enlargement of the claims of explanatory discourse, Cope explores the problematic psychological relation between "philosophizing" authors and their expansionist, systematizing discourse.

    By applying the methods of recent literary criticism to philosophical texts, Cope reexamines the possibility of a philosophical reading of literary texts, opens the possibility of "characterizing" an age, and sets a variety of genres on a common intellectual foundation. Drawing on both "canonical" and overlooked authors, he also shows how the writers of the Restoration and eighteenth century may help us to understand the immensity, vitality, and irresistibility of explanatory rhetoric in our own age.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6172-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    Literary critics often tell the truth, but they seldom take truth as their subject. Who would want to do a job that Lord Bacon (and his unlikely witness Pilate) turned down? Who would dare to define the world’s most perplexing noun? The idea of a “literary” criticism, after all, seems to distinguish literature from ordinary experience and to protect it from crude attempts at verification. Bacon’s successor in the art of taxonomy, Northrop Frye, has set the tempo for our age by insisting, however paradoxically, that the science of criticism must restrict itself to the purportedly literary attributes of texts....

    • CHAPTER ONE ROCHESTER: Confrontational Systems
      (pp. 21-42)

      The Earl of Rochester, alias John Wilmot, alias Dr. Bendo, alias everyman: like truth, ever elusive, but like certainty, ever pursued. The poems of Rochester open as wide an entry as possible into the subject of a verifying literature, a literature that transforms irregular experience into the foundations of coherent belief. Like experience itself, Rochester’s poems never fail to draw a full range of responses; like the topic of certainty, his writings have been easy to trivialize or dismiss. As late as 1953, censors of Vivian de Sola Pinto’s edition could only see the pornographic jester, not the philosophizing poet....

    • CHAPTER TWO HALIFAX: Deviational Systems
      (pp. 43-65)

      “Only a very rich literature could have afforded to neglect so distinguished a writer,” laments Walter Raleigh, the Marquis of Halifax’s first and until 1990 only editor.¹ If Rochester can be described as a philosophizing poet, Halifax must count as a prosifying philosopher. Poststructuralist criticism has taught us to regard with suspicion any attempt to distinguish between texts intended as “literary” or “nonliterary” works. The restoration of Halifax to the literary canon is therefore especially important in our era, for Halifax both maximizes and, to use one of his favorite words, “overturns” this generous approach to literary criticism. Stubbornly literary,...

    • CHAPTER THREE DRYDEN: Incomprehensible Systems
      (pp. 66-90)

      The biggest obstacle to the understanding of John Dryden has always been the understanding of John Dryden. Writers at the very center of Restoration culture, I have argued, have been more inclined to use than to endorse theories and explanations. Rochester and Halifax, for example, never argue toward conclusions. Instead, they encircle their favorite topics with a cordon of hypothetical explanations. Throwing out postulate after postulate, balancing error against error, they define literary and philosophical centrality from an epistemological periphery. The study of Dryden, however, continues to be plagued by a desire to pin down what Dryden “is”—Catholic, Anglican,...

    • CHAPTER FOUR LOCKE: Analogies of Conflict
      (pp. 93-114)

      The writings of Rochester, Halifax, and Dryden offer complexity rather than conclusions. Relishing the act of explanation, these writers confront, complicate, and circumnavigate truth. Through song, satire, treatise, and maxim, they “philosophize”; they examine points of view but conclude by concluding nothing. Rochester, Halifax, and Dryden advance a rhetoric of comprehension, a discourse in which “human creatures”—laws, conventions, theories—can displace, encompass, and substitute for “truth.” Theirs is a discourse which redirects destabilizing forces, a discourse in which, for example, a fiery dispute can fuel the mediating engine of the church.

      The cost for so expansive a program is,...

    • CHAPTER FIVE SWIFT: Residual Conflicts and Casual Systems
      (pp. 115-139)

      Locke’s role in the development of the human world could be summed up in one phrase: “coherence and consistency.” For Locke, the crowning achievement of empiricism is the development of a language that is internally coherent but that permits its users to think, act, and believe in a way consistent with “common” notions about the world. Lockean “empiricism” wages a truly civil war, a war in which a social explanation of experience bloodlessly overthrows the ever-violent world of “objects” and “things.” Given Locke’s desire to set epistemology on a moral basis, it is odd that Jonathan Swift should be caricatured...

    • CHAPTER SIX POPE: Confronted Systems
      (pp. 140-167)

      Swift finds himself in the sometimes unenviable position of writing about a grudgingly intelligible world. Like it or not, Swift, his characters, and his readers must translate their thoughts and experiences into a stubbornly common, aggressively straightforward language. Their every move is subject to evaluation by an omnipresent but ever-elusive common sense. However outrageous his opinions, Swift’s persona is an identifiable character whom his readers can understand, categorize, and appreciate. Yet Swift’s purportedly “common sense” is a highly wrought commodity. For all his talk about horse sense, Swift finds more truth in distortion and abbreviation than in raw experience. Improving...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN SMITH: Systematic Reclamation of the Self
      (pp. 168-194)

      The story of Alexander Pope’s career is the story of Pope’s confrontation with his own explanatory powers. From his early pastorals to his late satires, Pope portrays a world in which experience seems to invite explanation, a world where immediate perceptions and reflective theories appearensemble. Whether describing Windsor’s visionary forests or theDunciad’s urban wasteland, Pope regards “neutral” experience as an impossibility. By refusing to distinguish judgment from description, Pope creates a relentlessly explanatory universe—a relational world in which everything is a theory, whether about itself or about its place in the cosmos. Pope’s poetry engages the reader,...

    (pp. 195-200)

    Adam Smith’s writings show that a history of explanation should terminate not by terminating but by asserting the value of a continuing process of explanation. I would therefore like to close my study by making a few assertions concerning worthwhile directions for the future study of past literary periods. I suspect that my comments bear some relation to what I have said in this book, but I offer them in an occasional manner, as an antidote for an excessive dose of systematicity. I leave them for more able (and, I hope, not wholly invisible) hands to manipulate.

    The story that...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 201-218)
  9. Index
    (pp. 219-224)