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©¤§ µ¤© ©® ®©© µµ

This ambitious study sheds new light on the way in which the
English Romantics dealt with the basic problems of knowledge,
particularly as they inherited them from the philosopher David
Hume. Kant complained that the failure of philosophy in the
eighteenth century to answer empirical scepticism had produced
a culture of ˜indifferentism™. Tim Milnes explores the way in which
Romantic writers extended this epistemic indifference through their
resistance to argumentation, and ¬nds that it exists in a perpet-
ual state of tension with a compulsion to know. This tension is
most clearly evident in the prose writing of the period, in works
such as Wordsworth™s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Hazlitt™s Essay on the
Principles of Human Action and Coleridge™s Biographia Literaria. Milnes
argues that it is in their oscillation between knowledge and indiffer-
ence that the Romantics pre¬gure the ambivalent negotiations of
modern post-analytic philosophy.

© ©¬®  is Lecturer in English at the University of Edinburgh.
He has published articles in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Compar-
ative Literature, Studies in Romanticism and European Romantic Review.
©¤§ µ¤© ©® ®©©
General editors
Professor Marilyn Butler Professor James Chandler
University of Oxford University of Chicago

Editorial board
John Barrell, University of York
Paul Hamilton, University of London
Mary Jacobus, University of Cambridge
Kenneth Johnston, Indiana University
Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara
Jerome McGann, University of Virginia
David Simpson, University of California, Davis

This series aims to foster the best new work in one of the most challenging
¬elds within English literary studies. From the early ±·°s to the early ±°s
a formidable array of talented men and women took to literary composition,
not just in poetry, which some of them famously transformed, but in many
modes of writing. The expansion of publishing created new opportunities for
writers, and the political stakes of what they wrote were raised again by what
Wordsworth called those ˜great national events™ that were ˜almost daily taking
place™: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic and American wars, urbaniza-
tion, industrialization, religious revival, an expanded empire abroad and the
reform movement at home. This was an enormous ambition, even when it
pretended otherwise. The relations between science, philosophy, religion and
literature were reworked in texts such as Frankenstein and Biographia Literaria;
gender relations in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Don Fuan; journalism
by Cobbett and Hazlitt; poetic form, content and style by the Lake School and
the Cockney School. Outside Shakespeare studies, probably no body of writing
has produced such a wealth of response or done so much to shape the responses
of modern criticism. This indeed is the period that saw the emergence of those
notions of ˜literature™ and of literary history, especially national literary history,
on which modern scholarship in English has been founded.
The categories produced by Romanticism have also been challenged by
recent historicist arguments. The task of the series is to engage both with a chal-
lenging corpus of Romantic writings and with the changing ¬eld of criticism
they have helped to shape. As with other literary series published by Cambridge,
this one will represent the work of both younger and more established scholars,
on either side of the Atlantic and elsewhere.
For a complete list of titles published see end of book.

University of Edinburgh
©¤§ µ®©© °
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge  µ, United Kingdom
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521810982

© Tim Milnes 2003

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 2003

©®-± 978-0-511-06436-4 eBook (NetLibrary)

©®-±° µ
isbn-10 0-511-06436-5 eBook (NetLibrary)

©®-± 
isbn-13 978-0-521-81098-2 hardback
©®-±° ±
isbn-10 0-521-81098-1 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of
µ¬s for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.
For my parents, Les and Audrey Milnes

Acknowledgements page viii

Introduction: Romanticism™s knowing ways
± From artistic to epistemic creation: the eighteenth
 The charm of logic: Wordsworth™s prose ·±
 The dry romance: Hazlitt™s immanent idealism ±°µ
 Coleridge and the new foundationalism ±
µ The end of knowledge: Coleridge and theosophy ±·
Conclusion: life without knowledge



Among the many debts incurred in the course of researching this book,
by far the greatest single one is owed to Roy Park, whose invaluable
advice and support during my time as a D.Phil. student at St Hugh™s
College, Oxford, continued even into his retirement. My postgraduate
work also bene¬ted at various times from the input of Robert Young,
Isabel Rivers, Lucy Newlyn and Sir Peter Strawson. Susan Bruce got
the whole thing started long ago through her encouragement and belief
in an uncertain undergraduate, while Paul Hamilton provided valuable
counsel on the initial direction of my postdoctoral work.
Oxford University eased the penurious pains of my ¬nal year as a
D.Phil. student with a grant from its Hardship Fund, while Christ Church
University College, Canterbury, generously arranged a year™s leave of
absence during my Lectureship in order to complete my dissertation.
The appearance of the work as it stands, however, would not have been
possible without the British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship
which I held for three years at University College, Oxford, where I was
given further support by Jon Mee and Helen Cooper. During this time I
also received welcome guidance from John Beer and Elinor Shaffer, as
well as Marilyn Butler and James Chandler, series co-editors of Cambridge
Studies in Romanticism, and Cambridge University Press™s two anonymous
Every bit as important as professional and institutional backing is that
of friends and family. My parents, Les and Audrey Milnes, to whom this
book is dedicated, have been un¬‚agging in their patience and encour-
agement over the years. For support both intellectual and emotional, I
owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sara Lodge, Uttara Natarajan, Lesel
Dawson, Jo Wong and Liz Barry. Special thanks are also due to Ken
Lomax, Michael John Kooy, Murray Satov, Anne Vasey, Dyan Sterling,
Andrew Palmer, Liz Brown, Jules Siedenburg, Criana Connal, Jessica
Schafer and Alison Sale. To this list I cannot resist adding the name of
Plecostomus, the friendliest, cleverest and laziest ¬sh in the tank.
Introduction: Romanticism™s knowing ways

Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.
Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? ±

 ® © © ® ¤© ¦ ¦   ® ©  
The principal argument of this book is that English Romantic writing
has a deep investment in the problem of knowledge, even as it attempts
to conceal that involvement, and that it represents the ¬rst major attempt
in Britain to retrieve philosophical thought from its con¬nement, ¬rst by
Hume, then by Reid and the Scottish philosophers of common sense, to
the margins of experience. The manner in which this retrieval is carried
through, moreover, establishes a pattern for the treatment of knowledge
which has been broadly followed by English-language philosophy to the
present day. Paradoxically, part of that pattern is a denial of interest in
epistemological questions, a cultivated indifference which is itself para-
sitic upon an urgent engagement with the twin questions of what, and
how one knows.
Kant complained in his Preface to the ¬rst edition of the Critique of
Pure Reason in ±·± that, caught between a despotic rationalism and an
anarchic scepticism, the predominant attitude of late eighteenth-century
thought towards the problem of knowledge had become what he called,
using an English term, one of ˜indifferentism™. English Romanticism
internalizes and continues this indifference to knowing. Lamb admitted
in a ±±° letter to Thomas Manning that ˜[n]othing puzzles me more
than time and space, and yet nothing puzzles me less, for I never think
about them™. Yet the ambivalence of the English Romantics to the ques-
tion of knowledge is attested to by the very term ˜Romantic philosophy™ “
or, more precisely, ˜Romantic epistemology™ “ which can sound at one
moment like an oxymoron, and the next a tautology. On one hand, it
is generally acknowledged that within the loose assemblage of family
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
resemblances which characterize English Romantic writing, a preoccu-
pation with knowledge “ or rather, to signal its preference for active over
static paradigms, knowing “ is one of the most widely shared. Indeed,
at least since the publication of M. H. Abrams™ The Mirror and the Lamp
almost half a century ago, it has been a commonplace that the restruc-
turing of knowing constitutes Romanticism™s primary movement. On
the other hand, also recognised (though perhaps not as widely) is the
way in which, at the same time, it places theory of knowledge under
erasure, replacing it with discourses of emotional engagement, the ex-
ertion of power, or the striving of the will. Yet the uncertain manner in
which this transposition is effected raises problems. In particular, one
question which has occupied commentators for the past thirty years is
whether the Romantic refashioning of cognition represents a break with
western foundationalism and logocentrism, or merely a continuance of
it by other means. Paul de Man and Kathleen Wheeler, for instance,
see Romantic irony as inherently subversive and self-deconstructing. For
them, the Romantic consciousness ˜consists of the presence of nothing-
ness [. . .].™µ Alternatively, Tilottama Rajan and Richard Rorty detect,
despite this, a positivist nostalgia for knowing; countering that, in Rajan™s
words, Romantic writers ˜almost never [. . .] reach that zero degree of
self-mysti¬cation envisaged by de Man [. . .]™.
The peculiarity of the problem which Romanticism simultaneously
faces and effaces is that it is one which, having developed within epis-
temology, rebounds upon the discipline itself. At root, it is the direct
consequence of Hume™s separation of truth and value. In A Treatise of
Human Nature, Hume had reduced all statements which were capable of
being true or false to an exhaustive dual grid of logical and empirical
propositions: ˜Truth or falsehood,™ he asserts, ˜consists in an agreement
or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence
and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agree-
ment or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false [. . .].™· This
division of knowledge forms the basis for the Enquiries™ notorious incen-
diary injunction regarding those works of ˜sophistry and illusion™ which
would exceed this grid, as well as for later attempts by logical positivists
to map the conditions of meaning. The important consequence for
Hume, however, was that among those statements which clearly fell out-
side the twofold epistemic cell of matters of fact and the relations of ideas
were those concerning value. Value judgements, he concluded, were non-
epistemic. They expressed attitudes about how the world ˜ought™ to be,
rather than assertions regarding how the world ˜is™, and therefore could

Romanticism™s knowing ways
be neither true nor false. Having being led by his ¬rst dichotomy into
this second, far more worrying one, Hume found himself advocating the
relegation of philosophy, in the form of inquiry into the foundations of
knowledge, from the kind of everyday lived experience which was inher-
ently value-rich. Thus, for Hume and his successors such as Reid and
Beattie, epistemological attempts to justify values gave way to naturalistic
accounts of values. In this light, Hume™s declaration that the threat of
˜total scepticism™ was a ˜super¬‚uous™ question, since ˜Nature, by an abso-
lute and uncontroulable necessity has determin™d us to judge as well as to
breathe and feel [. . .]™ was tantamount to an admission that traditional
philosophy had marginalized itself from the mainstream of human con-
cerns, or ˜common sense™. At the same time, two questions nigglingly
remained: ¬rst, regarding whether human beings were (naturalistically
speaking) necessarily determined to philosophize in a non-naturalistic
way; and second, whether scepticism was, in turn, as inevitable to that
kind of philosophical thinking as breathing and feeling were to everyday
By reacting against Hume™s notion of the divided life and endeavour-
ing to heal the rift between knowledge and value, or between philosophi-
cal doubt and an acceptance of the unre¬‚ective certainties of ordinary
experience, English Romanticism accepts the challenge of the philo-
sophical sceptic. But rather than meeting this challenge on the sceptic™s
own grounds within philosophy, or reverting to a Scottish naturalism
which rejects the attempt to put knowledge (and, by extension, the
subject) ˜¬rst™, Romantic discourse develops an alternating pattern of
engagement with, and abstention from philosophical argument. Michael
Cooke expressed this condition “ which, following Morse Peckham, he
saw as resulting from the ˜explanatory collapse™ of Romanticism “ as its
˜philosophy of inclusion™, whereby argument and consensus are fused in
a process which involves ˜an argument with, using the double force of the
preposition to suggest at once resistance and sharing™.±° My argument,
however, while itself sharing a ¬eld of concern with Cooke™s, stresses the
agonistic nature of Romantic ambivalence. It is the con¬‚ict of its com-
mitment and indifference to justi¬cation which manifests Romanticism™s
rebellious dependency upon the foundations of knowledge, and upon
the Cartesian tradition of the science of knowledge as foundational to all
Since the term ˜foundationalism™ and its corollaries are central to
what proceeds, some initial clari¬cation of usage is called for. Roughly
speaking, there are two senses of the term: a technical one used by
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
modern philosophers working within the Anglophone tradition, and a
more general one, which the same philosophers are apt to deplore. The
¬rst application, which might be called ˜justi¬catory™ foundationalism,
con¬nes itself to giving an ostensibly factual account of the structure of
any individual™s system of justi¬ed beliefs. At its plainest, it claims that all
inferential reasoning ends in a noninferential ground; in other words, that
all mediately justi¬ed beliefs (beliefs justi¬ed by other beliefs) are ultimately
justi¬ed by immediately justi¬ed beliefs (beliefs which require no other be-
liefs for their justi¬cation). What exercises foundationalists of this sort,
and provides much of the force behind their argument, is the twin-spectre
of circularity or in¬nite regress in human reasoning. Without some kind
of foundational structure, it is argued, epistemic deliberation looks like
pointless tail-chasing, a search for an endlessly deferred justi¬cation.
Consequently, the language of foundationalism is coloured by metaphors
of stability, linearity and closure. Terms such as ˜grounds™, ˜ends™, ˜¬rst
principles™ or ˜sense-datum™ are not uncommon.
Beyond the specialized discourse of Anglo-American epistemology,
however, other commentators have noted that such fears and ¬gures
also infect broader traditions within western philosophy, dating back to
Aristotle and Plato. From Descartes until the middle of the twentieth
century the dominant view of philosophy itself has rested upon the epis-
temological search for certainty in self-evident foundations, whether in
the intuitive deduction of the Cartesian cogito, Kant™s transcendental
conditions of experience, or logical positivism™s notion of incorrigible
sense-data. At the heart of this search is the conviction, not just that
justi¬ed belief is foundational in structure, but that true justi¬ed belief
or (leaving aside Gettier-type problems±± ) knowledge itself is founda-
tional. This kind of ˜epistemic™ foundationalism forms the second sense
of the term, one which, despite having been forced onto its back foot for
much of the twentieth century, English-language philosophy has been
rather more reluctant to question. Even foundationalism™s classic op-
ponent, coherentism, which against the ˜bricks-and-mortar™ model pro-
poses a holistic, ˜spider™s web™ structure of mutually supporting beliefs,
is more commonly advocated within a justi¬catory than within an epis-
temic context.± Those who have sought to roll back the in¬‚uence of
foundationalism in other disciplines, meanwhile, have been reluctant
to reject it outright. Kuhn, for instance, having accounted for scienti¬c
progress as a process of immanent paradigm-shift, nonetheless found
the foundationalist presumption that scienti¬c theories are ˜simply
man-made interpretations of given data [. . .] impossible to relinquish
Romanticism™s knowing ways
entirely [. . .]™.± Similarly, in ethics, Bernard Williams™ attack on the foun-
dationalist ˜linear search for reasons™ which can itself only end with ˜an
unrationalized principle™± is limited to ethical theory, and not extended
to the natural sciences, which in his view remain ˜capable of objective
The reasons for this cautiousness are not dif¬cult to understand. For
unlike the ¬rst, the fate of this second, more general kind of foundational-
ism is tightly bound with that of philosophy itself. Without the Cartesian
notion that knowledge can ground itself in the apprehension of a truth
simple and transparent, together with the Kantian ruling that the mode
of this knowledge sets limits on all empiricial deliberation, the priority
of ˜knowledge™ itself in human life is open to challenge. If foundational
metaphors for truth and knowledge come to be seen as optional, then, as
Rorty points out, ˜so is epistemology, and so is philosophy as it has under-
stood itself since the middle of the last century™.± In this way, the reasons
behind why the interrogation of this ˜epistemic™ sense of foundationalism
attracts the hostility of many Anglo-American philosophers are the same
as those which make this sense, rather than the ¬rst, the object of the
present enquiry. For it is often claimed that Hegel is the ¬rst seriously to
challenge Descartes™ elevation of knowledge on an escalating process of
doubt, countering in the Introduction to the Phenomenology that ˜it is hard
to see why we should not turn round and mistrust this very mistrust™.±·
In their own way, however, the Scottish naturalists had already made
a comparable move, while in Germany Jacobi had long maintained his
anti-philosophical conviction that ˜[e]very avenue of demonstration ends
up in fatalism™, albeit not without discomfort, given his own addiction
to argumentation.± I want to argue that in a similar way, by seeking
at once to refute and ignore Hume, oscillating uneasily between ˜fact™
and ˜value™, ˜philosophy™ and ˜life™, the English Romantics, almost with-
out realizing it (and afterwards with some ambivalence), challenged the
boundaries of foundationalism.
English Romanticism thus contains the same knot of concerns which
have unwound into an ongoing ambivalence in Anglophone philosophy
about the value of ˜¬rst philosophy™; an equivocation, however, which re-
mains distinct from the more comprehensive rejection of epistemology
urged by Franco-German thought since Heidegger. Moreover, in its ¬‚uc-
tuating course between seeking and resisting knowledge, Romanticism
formulates the ¬rst but enduring creed for non-foundationalists generally
from Nietzsche to Rorty: the dictum that, in Nietzsche™s phrase, Truth
is not ˜something there™, but something ˜created™.±
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose

°® ®¤ ¬§: ©® . ¦µ®¤©®
At the centre of this issue, and so far somewhat neglected, are two re-
lated developments in England at the end of the eighteenth century.
The ¬rst is the rise of the poet as a philosophical innovator follow-
ing the subduing of conventional epistemology by scepticism. Mid
and late eighteenth-century British philosophy was burdened with a
barely voiced view that there may indeed be no response to Hume,
and thus no answer to the ˜problem™ of knowledge. Monboddo
gravely surmised in ±·· that to agree with Hume was to accept that
˜there can be no science nor knowledge of any kind™.° This was,
in many respects, a tacit acceptance that on his own ground the
sceptic was unanswerable; in Jacobi™s words, ˜that there is no argu-
ing against™ or ˜no defeating the upper or full blown idealist a la Hume
[. . .]™. For Monboddo, the obvious remedy for this, and indeed the only
recourse for theism, was to return to the metaphysical systems of ancient
Greece, yet even he was forced to concede, ruefully, that ˜Metaphysics
[. . .] are, at present, in great disrepute among men of sense [. . .].™
There was no high-road back to Platonic idealism for those who felt that
the weight of the arguments of Bacon and Locke pressed them towards
the uncanny conclusions of Berkeley and Hume.
Yet just as Hume™s in¬‚uence effectively paralysed conventional phil-
osophy of knowledge in the late eighteenth century, it also gave rise to
a philosophically intense Romantic movement in poetry and aesthetics.
Deeply troubled by scepticism, but unable to dissolve it, the Romantics
made a virtue of abstaining from argument altogether. This represented
not a refutation of Hume, but an escape from scepticism by ¬‚eeing phil-
osophy. While Monboddo had felt it was his duty to engage with ˜the
absurdities of his philosophy™, among the Romantics Hume was side-
lined or ignored. Even Coleridge, who virtually alone attacked Hume™s
arguments directly, rarely did so, preferring to demonize the relatively
conservative Locke. Typical of this is his warning in Biographia Literaria
that if one accepts without quali¬cation the Lockean principle, nihil in
intellectu quod non prius in sensu, then ˜what Hume had demonstratively
deduced from this concession concerning cause and effect™, would apply
˜with equal and crushing force™ to all knowledge. The implication, as
so often, is that Locke™s is the original and greater philosophical error.
Certainly Hume had a radical appeal for some. Hazlitt found his
nominalism useful for his own theory of abstraction, and Shelley used
the same for more overtly political ends. Nonetheless, and despite the fact
Romanticism™s knowing ways
that Hume pioneered the notion of the associative imagination a full ten
years before Hartley™s ±· Observations on Man, elsewhere the mood was
dismissive. More typical is Lamb™s complaint to Manning in ±°° of that
˜Damned Philosophical Humeian indifference, so cold & unnatural &
inhuman™,µ and Wordsworth™s sour aside in his ±±µ ˜Essay™ to the effect
that Adam Smith was ˜the worst critic, David Hume not excepted,
that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has pro-
duced™. The anti-Caledonian bent of these remarks, like Lamb™s fulmi-
nations against the systematizing Scottish intellect in his essay ˜Imperfect
Sympathies™, reveals the extent to which, for the English mind in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a speci¬c philosophical posi-
tion, viz. Humean scepticism, became identi¬ed with the general practice
of philosophy, and that, in turn, with the culture of the Scottish universi-
ties. There is, indeed, an ambivalence to these remarks. Lamb™s punning
identi¬cation of the ˜inhuman™ in the ˜Humeian™ obsession with philos-
ophy “ on the grounds of the latter™s ˜indifference™ to life “ is logically,
but not tonally consonant with his own professed indifference to ques-
tions of time and space. His rhetoric of attachment involves a stance of
ironic detachment and indifference to philosophy™s own commitment to
knowledge which Hume, for all his ironizing over his sceptical predica-
ment, would have found ˜cold and unnatural™. The point here is that
despite Lamb™s own posture, his attack on philosophy™s indifference with
an indifference to philosophy is originally targeted not towards ˜Damned
Philosophical Humeian indifference™, but ˜Damned Philosophical Humeian
indifference™ “ in other words, not the activity of philosophizing as such,
but speci¬cally the outcome of that activity in Hume™s hands, namely an
alienating Hobson™s choice of scepticism or naturalism. In the same way,
the motivating force behind Wordsworth™s condemnation of Smith and
Hume is their belief, as Wordsworth puts it, ˜that there are no ¬xed prin-
ciples in human nature [. . .]™.· The anti-philosophical turn in English
Romanticism, then, is itself sustained by a deep epistemological anxiety,
just as its conviction that scepticism is merely a symptom of philosophy
is tainted by the fear that philosophy is not a formal discipline but is itself
a form of life, no more optional as an activity than thinking.
A second, related development determining Romanticism™s outlook
on knowledge is the emergence of a radical theory of creation. Isaiah
Berlin identi¬es this as the Romantic belief ˜that truth is not an objective
structure, independent of those who seek it, the hidden treasure waiting
to be found but is itself in all its guises created by the seeker™. It was a
commonplace of eighteenth-century aesthetics and epistemology that in
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
exceptional cases original genius, like Shaftesbury™s ˜just °   µ  ™,
might create a kind of beauty which excelled that of the faithful imitator
of nature. But only within Romanticism does one ¬nd the idea that
aesthetic creativeness might be paradigmatic for human knowledge, and
only with Romanticism, as Rorty notes, does one encounter the notion
˜that truth is made rather than found™.° The difference between these
views, to use a well-known analogy of the time, is comparable to that
between Greek and Hebraic mythologies of divine creation. On the
Platonic model, knowledge was prior to actual creation. In Plato™s
mythology of creation in Timaeus, the Demiurge proceeded like a crafts-
man, manipulating and combining materials which came to hand in
order to fashion a new whole. But such elements, like the plan to which
he worked, were themselves already discovered or present for him.±
Similarly, neoclassical conceptions of creation in eighteenth-century
Britain generally insisted upon a prior foundation of empirical truth
to which new creations were either subject or (more rarely) miraculous
exceptions. Alexander Gerard™s Essay on Genius, for instance, though out-
wardly an apology for the creative imagination, insists ˜that a man can
scarce be said to have invented till he has exercised his judgement™.
Even Shaftesbury™s non-empirical and potentially subversive notion of
˜Poetical [. . .] Truth™ is mandated by ˜natural Knowledge, fundamental Reason,
and common Sense™. With the Romantics, however, this order is reversed:
knowledge, and epistemic warrant, it was suggested, was itself a creative
enterprise. After the manner of the Christian God of Genesis who cre-
ates ex nihilo, the Romantics viewed creation as healing its own difference
with truth, thereby annihilating the division between act and thought,
means and predetermined end. Predictably, it is in Coleridge™s work that
the linkage between divine and human creation is most pronounced; the
unity of law and spontaneity being expressed by the logos, the original
creative word, or ˜in¬nite I   ™, of which the human mind was an echo.
Elsewhere, however, this new promotion of creation is observable on
many levels in Romantic writing. It can be seen in Hazlitt™s argument in
An Essay on the Principles of Human Action that the agent ˜creates the object™µ
which determines his moral judgement, no less than in Wordsworth™s
assertion that poetic genius is responsible for ˜the introduction of a new
element into the intellectual universe [. . .]™.
That which liberated knowing, however, also made it risky. The
self-ordering and regulative power of the logos is always in peril of being
undermined by its playful, satanic alter-ego: ˜[t]he serpent™, as Geoffrey
Hartman puts it, ˜is the ¬rst deconstructor of the logos™.· Coleridge

Romanticism™s knowing ways
himself was at ¬rst pleased to liken the active process of reading in
Biographia Literaria to ˜the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians
made the emblem of intellectual power [. . .]™. But by the time of
the publication of Aids to Re¬‚ection it had become ˜the Symbol of the
Understanding™, or:
the sophistic Principle, the wily Tempter to Evil by counterfeit Good [. . .] ever
in league with, and always ¬rst applying to, the Desire, as the inferior nature in
Man, the Woman in our Humanity; and through the D ©  prevailing on the
W©¬¬ (the Manhood, Virtus) against the command of the Universal Reason,
and against the Light of Reason in the W© ¬¬ itself.

The danger inherent in a theory which sees knowledge as an ongoing
process of creation is that the price of thus emulating God is to be cast
out of an Eden of certainty. What is gained is a sense of freedom and of
truth as self-created, but also, and consequently, of truth as fallible, inde-
terminate, and groundless. M. H. Abrams has charted the way in which
the Romantic ¬guration of knowledge typically ˜fuses the idea of the
circular return with the idea of linear progress™, yet the relationship was
more one of torsion than of fusion.° Coleridge himself, as will be seen,
deployed various metaphysical strategies to secure the creative spiral to
¬rm foundations. But among contemporaries still working within a cul-
ture of empiricism, commitment was edgy. As Mark Kipperman puts
it, the Romantic mind ˜hovers™ between ˜the word as symbol needing to
be understood and the mind as freedom, asserting itself in creation™.±
Yet what might be better understood is the way in which English
Romanticism comes to de¬ne itself by this oscillation and indecision,
prizing indifference and ˜negative capability™ above argument to the
point where the literal articulation of its ideal is itself superseded by its
metaphoric presentation, its enactment in poetry. Again, essential to such
an understanding is the recognition that in this respect Romanticism
in England is a way of rejecting scepticism which comes to refuse the
activity of philosophizing as such, insofar as that discipline represents
the search for knowledge as a quest for certainty.
Yet by elevating metaphor and poetic ¬guration to a new level of epis-
temic autonomy, Romanticism simultaneously proposes two very dif-
ferent alternatives: ¬rst, that the notion of created truth might rescue
philosophy (and knowledge) from scepticism; and, second, that poetic
creation might obviate the need for epistemic certainty, and thus for
˜philosophy™ altogether. Unlike the American pragmatists a century later,
the English Romantics did not always use the notion of creation to sever
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
ties with empirical foundationalism. Indeed, more frequently they at-
tempted instead to make a foundation of it. James was able to assert with
con¬dence that ˜[i]n our cognitive as well as in our active life we are
creative. We add, both to the subject and to the predicate part of reality.
The world stands really malleable [. . .]. Man engenders truths upon it™.
But this was only because he had adopted the ˜attitude of looking away from
¬rst things, principles, “categories”, supposed necessities; and of looking towards last
things, fruits, consequences, facts™. It is dif¬cult to ¬nd such thoroughgoing
pragmatism in Romantic texts “ leading Dewey to complain that the
Romantics merely glori¬ed the ¬‚ux of creation for its own sake. But
this is only half the story. Dewey™s charge may, for instance, be true of
Keats™s notion of negative capability or Lamb™s avowed preference for
suggestion over comprehension. But when one considers Wordsworth™s
claim in the ±°° Preface that ˜Poetry is the ¬rst and last of all knowl-
edge™, one ¬nds an enduring desire for epistemic security; for stability
or veri¬ability, or for what is ˜¬rst and last™ in knowledge: in short, for
This Romantic ambivalence is characteristically displayed in one of its
most celebrated attacks on knowledge, namely De Quincey™s de¬nition
of literature, which, as Jonathan Bate notes, alternates between the two
distinctive positions represented respectively in his ± Letters to a Young
Man and his ± essay, ˜The Poetry of Pope™. In the ¬rst, literature is
boldly marked as value-rich and non-epistemic, the domain not of fact,
but of power: ˜All that is literature seeks to communicate power™, De
Quincey asserts, ˜all that is not literature, to communicate knowledge™.·
Two and a half decades later, however, De Quincey™s position is more
subtle, which is to say, uneasy:
There is, ¬rst, the literature of knowledge; and, secondly, the literature of power.
The function of the ¬rst is “ to teach; the function of the second is “ to move
[. . .]. The ¬rst speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks
ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always
through affections of pleasure and sympathy.

Literature now internalizes the distinction between epistemic and non-
epistemic which originally de¬ned it, and ˜power™ itself is reinvested with
a ˜higher™ epistemic status, a status which “ supported by a sequence
of qualifying clauses which threatens to regress ever further “ is all the
more insecure for being ˜higher™. But De Quincey™s change of heart is by
no means unusual; indeed, in Romantic prose such ambivalence is the
norm, and similar patterns can be found in the very writers, Coleridge
Romanticism™s knowing ways
and Wordsworth among them, whose ideas De Quincey is developing
here. In this respect, within Wordsworth™s ˜poetic truth™ and Lamb™s
indifferentism as much as De Quincey™s ˜literature™, one can see the
same post-Humean dilemma at work; namely, and respectively, between
making creation (or power, or life) the ground of knowing, or celebrating
the spiral of creative activity regardless of truth; or again, between ¬nding
a secure ˜end™ or terminus for thought, and bringing thought™s linear
pursuit of certainty itself to an end.

¤©  ¦ ©§µ © ®§ § µ  ®
One of the major legacies, then, of Hume™s uncoupling of statements of
value from statements of fact is a dilation of the margin between lan-
guage and the world to which it refers or corresponds. Though Hume
himself did not go so far as to claim that value-statements were mean-
ingless (just incapable of being known to be true or false) his scepticism
led to an intensi¬cation of the question of the relation between truth and
language “ or to put it another way, between literal meaning, referentially
grounded in the world, and ¬gurative meaning, creating its own world.
This intensi¬cation of the question, rather than its resolution, leads to
Romanticism. The Romantics energize the ¬eld of meaning with poetic
value, almost to the extent of collapsing the distinction between refer-
ence and ¬gure, declaring with Shelley that ˜language itself is poetry™.
At such moments, the centrifugal tendency in Romantic writing, its in-
difference to traditional philosophy™s task of binding a rei¬ed language
and world in knowledge is so pronounced that it seems possible, with
Rajan, to read in it ˜a deconstruction that is postorganicist rather than
poststructuralist™.µ° Yet once again, indifference always carries with it
the tincture of commitment, and it is also possible to see the very re-
pression of philosophy™s discourse of knowledge as its perpetuation by
other means. From this perspective, the elevation of ˜life™ over re¬‚ection
is itself carried through in the service of re¬‚ection. Knowledge, in other
words, is rescued from its tired search for ˜truth™ and guided, whether
by poetry or a poetic quasi-philosophy, towards the ineffable ˜Truth™ of
¬guration in which fact and value are once again reunited. Language
itself is poetry, but as Shelley continues, ˜to be a poet is to apprehend the
true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation,
subsisting, ¬rst between existence and perception, and secondly between
perception and expression™.µ± In Hume™s post-lapserian dispensation, the
condition of ¬guration is one of hopeless yet incorrigible nostalgic hunger
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
for knowledge. Even Shelley™s visionary cycles of metaphor do not extend
to deconstructing philosophy™s version of truth as resting on a division
of word and object, expression and existence.
To note this is, in a sense, to rehearse what Stanley Cavell has observed,
namely that the Romantics are engaged in a process of ˜attacking philos-
ophy in the name of redeeming it™, seeking at once to revitalize fact with
poetry and cement poetic value with philosophical knowledge. This in
turn produces the peculiarly ˜Romantic perception of human double-
ness™, a simultaneous craving for the comforts of philosophical limitation
and for an escape from such comforts through poetry, a perception in
turn shared by philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger.µ More
questionable, however, is Cavell™s further claim that this condition can be
rendered primarily as the story of how the Romantics monitor the sta-
bility of the Kantian bargain for knowledge. For the English Romantics
(putting Coleridge to one side for a moment), the most pressing con-
cern was not dissatisfaction with the security of Kant™s pact between
understanding and reason, but the question of whether a certain kind
of empiricism “ a kind that seemed constitutionally prone to slip into
scepticism “ was worth saving from itself, or whether, in the absence of
transcendental safety-nets, the quest for knowledge (for causes, grounds,
¬rst principles) should be abandoned wholesale. From this vantage point,
the shadow of Hume looms larger than that of Kant. Moreover, at this
point the difference between the German and the English responses to
this issue becomes crucial, for though both turn to poetry and ¬gura-
tion as a recuperation of value and life from depleted knowledge, the
latter do so without the post-Kantian assurance that their troping and
irony embody the re¬‚exional relationship between the real and the ideal,
thereby expressing a deep symbiosis between philosophy and poetry
which, Schlegel felt bold enough to predict, ˜ends as idyll with the abso-
lute identity of the two™.µ One important consequence of this is that, far
more than their German counterparts, the faith of the English Romantics
in the redemptive power of the rhetoric of ˜literature™ was severely tested
by demands for literalness and facticity in formal prose composition.
Wordsworth™s rejection of a metrical for an epistemic de¬nition of
poetry in the ±°° Preface is a good example of how much more edgy
are the re¬‚exive or performative investments of English Romantic prose
when compared with either its poetry or the con¬dent ironizing of its
German counterpart. In the Preface, Wordsworth justi¬es his opposi-
tion of poetry to ˜Matter of Fact, or Science™ rather than to prose, on
the grounds that it is ˜more philosophical™.µ It is, of course, entirely in
Romanticism™s knowing ways
keeping with the expectations that arise through having chosen to ex-
press his views in the form of a formal preface, written in prose, that a
writer should prefer a distinction for being ˜more philosophical™. Yet what
makes the preference so interesting is that at the same time Wordsworth
is in the process of developing an alternative voice to philosophy™s; one
which expresses the whole of lived experience, rather than conveying
only what can be veri¬ed in knowledge. Hence Wordsworth™s discom-
fort with, and professed reluctance to write a prose preface to the second
edition of Lyrical Ballads for the reader, lest he be suspected of the ˜foolish
hope of reasoning him into an approbation of these particular Poems™.µµ
Poetry™s voice is not to analyse or dissect, but to renew and enrich ex-
perience. Articulating that purpose is precisely what makes Wordsworth
feel ill at ease, yet he feels compelled to do so.
The ambivalence cuts both ways. In ˜On the Prose-Style of Poets™
(±), Hazlitt, a prose-writer politically suspicious of the hedonism of
the poetic voice, stresses the virtue of well-written prose™s engagement
with ˜dry matters of fact and close reasoning™. In Burke™s writing, for
instance, ˜[t]he principle which guides his pen is truth, not beauty “ not
pleasure, but power™.µ Leaving aside the fact that the epistemic status of
˜power™ was to cause him at least as much trouble as it did De Quincey,
even Hazlitt was not prepared fully to grasp the horn of fact in Hume™s
dichotomy. As Tom Paulin notes, Hazlitt™s apologia for an argumentative
and Whiggish prose to a great extent betrays his own ˜sense of inferiority
as a prose-writer™ living in an age of poets.µ· And indeed, towards the
end of the essay one ¬nds Hazlitt adding that some of the old English
prose writers ˜are the best, and at the same time, the most poetical in
the favourable sense™. In so doing he aligns himself with the various
attempts made by Coleridge, De Quincey, Shelley and Wordsworth to
refashion the poetic as a supra-cognitive sphere “ a sphere, it turned out,
which transcended truth as facticity but in its will to value threatened to
overreach truth itself.µ
It is, then, chie¬‚y in discursive prose, where they attempt to tackle
questions of knowledge, reality, and morality discursively and in abstract
terms, that one ¬nds the pressure-points of the English Romantics™ chal-
lenge to philosophy, and the primary sites of their dilemma between
foundationalist philosophy and ¬gurative subversion. Once again, it is
quite true, as Richard Elridge points out, that Romantic writers attempt
to cope with this tension through the resources of ¬guration. As he puts
it, ˜Romantic texts depict “ often dramatically in their self-revising, self-
questioning swerves in and out of doctrine and commitment “ an effort
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
to live with expressive freedom as both an enduring aspiration and an
insuperable problem.™µ But this Romantic re¬‚exivity, this indifference
to commitment is itself just as much a repression of the dilemma as is
ratiocination or argument. In epic poetic works such as The Prelude and
ironic fragments like ˜Kubla Khan™ alike, Romantic writers sought to
enact an aesthetic reconciliation of created meaning and objective truth
by metaphoric means, resisting the reduction of imaginative possibil-
ity to literal certainty. But in non-¬ctional prose works “ in prefaces,
essays, reviews, criticism, as well as more conventionally theoretical and
philosophical writing “ diminished scope for self-conscious ¬guration
restricted the opportunities for any performative or symbolic display
of the irreducibility of creative practice to (and yet its unity with)
theory. In particular, the demands of polemical prose composition stretch
Romanticism™s resistance to argument to its limit. Consequently, when, as
evidence of his opposition to traditional metaphysics, Kathleen Wheeler
cites the ˜double-texture™ in Coleridge™s prose whereby ˜both theory and
practice are fused in the text™ (that is, through the simultaneous enact-
ment and exposition of his ironic mode) she con¬rms a Romantic ideal
of uni¬ed style and substance and elides the tension between argument
and indifference which produces such a strategy in the ¬rst place.° It is
then, in such writings as Hazlitt™s Essay on the Principles of Human Action,
Wordsworth™s prefaces and Coleridge™s Aids to Re¬‚ection, that the English
Romantic anxiety of knowing reaches its highest pitch.

 ®· ¦ µ® ¤©  ® ¬©  
The phrase ˜¬rst response™ is used advisedly. For there are two major
chapters to this story, and with Coleridge one comes to the second.
Coleridge shares with other English Romantic writers con¬‚icting alle-
giances to indifferentism and foundationalism. Convinced as to the cre-
ative capacities of human intelligence, he still, as he recounts in Biographia
Literaria, ˜laboured at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground
my opinions [. . .]™.± The language of foundationalism is important,
though often overlooked by modern commentators keen to integrate
Coleridge into a western tradition of anti-metaphysical thought. Rather
than, like Nietzsche, making non-logocentric play of the notion of creati-
vity as endless becoming, Coleridge is more likely, like Wordsworth and
Hazlitt, to turn groundlessness itself into a foundational trope, as with
his Schellingian claim in Biographia Literaria that ˜freedom must be as-
sumed as a ground of philosophy, and can never be deduced from it [. . .]™.
Romanticism™s knowing ways
Like Schelling (at this point at least), Coleridge™s strategy is ambivalent,
attacking philosophy™s concept of knowledge as foundational in order
to establish new and rehabilitated philosophical ˜grounds™ through a
discourse of unknowing.
What sets Coleridge apart from his contemporaries in England, how-
ever “ indeed, what makes him unique is not his contact with German
idealism in general, but speci¬cally his embracement of Kant™s new pro-
gramme for philosophy. Where writers like Wordsworth and Hazlitt
developed what might be called strategies against argument, or non-
epistemic paradigms of emotion and power with which to critique an em-
pirical philosophy to which they remained tied, Coleridge initially found
in Kant a reply to Hume on his own terms, a positivist argument which
appeared to allow philosophy, and knowledge, to cure itself. Generally in
English Romantic writing resistance to epistemology fought the compul-
sion to philosophize against the background of the threat of scepticism.
In Coleridge™s work, however, the same con¬‚ict is worked out within a
context which includes the possibility that transcendental argument might
prove effective against Hume, rendering scepticism incoherent and ob-
viating the Scottish scramble for a naturalistic escape-hatch. Thus, while
the general Romantic strategy of attacking philosophy in the name of
redeeming it remains the same, in Coleridge this is the product of his
endeavour to make positivist foundational philosophy of a particularly
Kantian and a priori mould amenable to his own idea of human creative
In this way Coleridge perpetuates the serpentine movement of English
Romantic theoretical prose, which, by perpetually striving to ground the
ungroundable, bites its own tail. In Coleridge™s writing a non-logocentric,
creative ideal (itself encouraged by, but contrary to Kant™s teachings)
undermines synthetic a priori grounds just as it had pressurized empiri-
cal foundations in the work of Wordsworth and Hazlitt. The resulting
oscillation between knowing and creation or ¬guration, though more
explicit, is the same. Thus, after the Biographia™s failed attempt to prepare
˜a total and undivided philosophy™, which incorporated the dynamic
powers of art and religion, Coleridge turned to ever more baroque means
of squaring the circle of creative knowing. Dialectic and voluntarism
replaced the aesthetic/poetic in the struggle with foundational thought in
the Philosophical Lectures and later in Aids to Re¬‚ection, as religious faith and
moral freedom competed for space with grounding epistemology and
˜¬rst principles™. Coleridge was thus drawn into a web of post-Kantian
disputes concerning the fate of philosophy and of knowledge, aspects of
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
which he shared not only with Jacobi, Fichte and Schelling, but also with
Hegel and Schopenhauer.

 « ®· ©® § ®-« ®· © ® §
Andrew Bowie has written compellingly of how ˜major concerns of liter-
ary theory and the contemporary philosophy of language, both analytical
and European [. . .] converge in space ¬rst opened up by Romantic lit-
erary theory [. . .]™. This is a line of argument familiar to students of
Romanticism, and my present study does not dissent from it. But where
Bowie sets out from the observation that ˜the signi¬cance of “literature”
and art for the thought of Kant™s period relates precisely to the aware-
ness that epistemology cannot complete the job it is intended for™, in
this instance ˜epistemology™, is not necessarily construed as something
already Kantian.µ Rather, the purpose here is to explore how, both
before and concurrently with Coleridge™s engagement with German
thought, the English Romantics developed a strategy comparable to
German Romanticism™s creation of the domain of the aesthetic as
˜literary absolute™ “ comparable, that is, in that it is every bit as ambiva-
lent and hesitant as its German cousin in its displacement of apparently
intractable epistemological problems. Subsequent discussion of the work
of Wordsworth (chapter ), Hazlitt (chapter ) and Coleridge (chapters 
and µ) will have more scope to expand on the central claim that in their
ambivalent response to scepticism, the Romantics established a pattern of
behaviour which alternated between abstention from and engagement
with the conventional “ which is to say, Cartesian or foundational “
discourse of philosophy. In particular, I wish to show how in England
this ambivalence grew in a post-Humean, post-empirical climate as
well as in an imported ˜Germano-Coleridgean™ one. Furthermore, given
that much of modern Anglophone philosophy continues to see itself as
inhabiting such a climate, this investigation will involve an examina-
tion of the nature of what Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy characterize as
a ˜repetitive compulsion™ in Romanticism to question knowing which
continues today.
Nor do I exempt my own enquiry from this compulsion. I would
merely add that even as it resists knowledge, it simultaneously involves
the compulsion to af¬rm it. Rorty, closing Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature, proclaims the death of the Cartesian tradition of philosophiz-
ing which based itself on the search for foundational ˜¬rst principles™ of
knowledge, adding that ˜we should not try to have a successor subject
Romanticism™s knowing ways
to epistemology [. . .]™. Instead, ˜cultural anthropology (in a large sense
which includes intellectual history) is all we need™.· On this issue, as on
so many others, he is at one with his pragmatist forebear Dewey, who
sixty years previously had suggested that reconstructing thought would
far more successfully be carried out by telling stories and developing new
narratives about philosophy than by analytical argument. ˜It seems to
me™, he wrote, ˜that this genetic method of approach is a more effective
way of undermining this type of philosophical theorizing than any at-
tempt at logical refutation could be™. Moves over the past two decades
to decentre intellectual history are likely to have satis¬ed Rorty, on the
whole. However, that his decried ˜tradition™ of philosophical theorizing
has proved more durable than he and Dewey hoped, especially within
English-language philosophy, is something that any narrative of intellec-
tual history ignores to the detriment not just of its content, but also its
Indeed, of all the lessons one learns from Romantic prose, one of the
most salient is that the line of knowledge will always tease the circle of
being out of itself, even as that circle prevents the line from touching its
desired ground. To put this more baldly: there is no way back to the pre-
lapsarian innocence of irrationality (or the ˜naive™ or the ˜mirror-stage™)
or what I have here chosen to call indifference. Cavell makes a similar
point when he maintains that, once out of the bag (if indeed it was
ever in the bag), philosophy becomes ˜inescapable™ simply because the
very ˜ambivalence about the relevance or importance of philosophy [. . .]
is also one of philosophy™s characteristic features™. Knowledge and
indifference have a relationship of mutual dependence and antagonism.
Consequently, though Cavell opts for a method of coping with scepticism
rather than attempting to resolve it “ insisting that, rather than being
demonstrated, ˜[t]he world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other
minds is not to be known, but acknowledged™ “ he does not believe
that this obviates philosophical engagement: ˜For the point of forgoing
knowledge is, of course, to know™.·°
The Romantics were wearily familiar with this irresistible but impossi-
ble dichotomy. Perhaps most tellingly, Jacobi repeatedly came up against
it in his career-long attempt to circumvent what he saw as the incipient
nihilism of Kantian rationalism by turning philosophy against itself. In
the ±±µ Preface to David Hume on Faith (which became the Introduction
to his Collected Philosophical Works) he summed up his entire philosophy as
founded ˜upon the ¬rm faith that immediately emerges from a knowing
not-knowing and is in truth identical with it™.·± The dif¬culty Jacobi faced,
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
however, was with articulating and justifying the notion of ˜a knowing
not-knowing™; or rather, with his inability to resist articulating and jus-
tifying it. Jacobi exhibits with quintessential Romantic doubleness the
desire for a justi¬cation of his salto mortale; for the philosophical ground-
ing of a faith which itself precedes justi¬cation. As his translator, George
di Giovanni, observes: ˜Jacobi™s faith is that of a philosopher “ the kind
of faith that Jacobi requires because he has unwittingly been in collusion
all along with the philosophy that he set out to criticize.™· Just as impor-
tantly, Jacobi also pre¬gures the Cavellian ¬gure of an agonistically bound
knowledge and indifference which I am claiming describes both his
condition and mine.
What I wish to avoid, however, is the impression that by acknowl-
edging that continuity or reciprocity I am myself reaching for either the
categorical ground of traditional philosophy or the numinous realm of
indifference sought by much modern hermeneutics. What I mean by
the latter is the kind of condition to which Marjorie Levinson aspires
by refusing what she calls the false dilemma of a subject-or-object cen-
tred critique whereby empathy is pitted against contemplation. In her
method, she claims, ˜[b]y construing our critical acts as the effect of a
Romantic cause which is immanent in that effect and only there “ or
rather, here “ we develop something which is as much difference as it is
identity™. This form of criticism, she continues, ˜restores the doubleness
that Lacan has named the Imaginary. Through such a discourse, we
settle for a moment on the surface of the mirroring past.™ But it is sig-
ni¬cant that pressing the dialectic of a self-re¬‚exive hermeneutic to the
point where it renders its own ˜transformative, subject-site undecidable™,
leads Levinson to a moment of genuine contact with truth, an epiphanic
moment on the surface of the mirror. In other words, by setting out to
reach a state of imaginary ˜doubleness™, of indifference, she arrives at
uncanny knowledge, a knowing not-knowing.·
This is the tendency, as Alan Lui has indicated, of ˜methodologies
[which are] as much against as of knowledge™, namely that they har-
bour the danger of ˜an incipient method or meta-way [. . .] of alternative
knowledge™. The problem, he suggests, is one of how to trace a thought
in culture ˜without being too knowing even in the way of antiknowing™.
Liu™s own preferred method involves reading and writing ˜under the sign
of [. . .] rhetoric™.· Rhetoric, however, is no less guilty of provoking the
¬gure of knowledge which it attempts to repress. Instead, the ¬rst step
towards coping with this problem (rather than resolving it), is simply for
literary criticism to give up its quest for indifference, just as philosophy
Romanticism™s knowing ways
is gradually giving up its quest for certainty. This in turn means, among
other things, relinquishing the obsession with perfect critical hygiene
which presents itself as a self-aware and cheerful celebration of contami-
nation. It also, for that matter, involves abandoning the drive to de-
mysti¬cation which exhausts itself in postmodernism™s sublime ˜horizon™
of particularity.·µ The acceptance of our double-mindedness between
knowledge and indifference requires that the commitment to knowing
itself is acknowledged, not repressed. Interpretation is not, as some have
suggested, a machine of perpetual motion, forever undoing its own end.
It repeatedly comes to rest on some ˜truth™ or other without which it
cannot be sustained. In this way, it is possible to accept Rorty™s claim
that the collapse of foundationalism need not leave only a discourse of
suspicion in its wake (indeed that it must not, if suspicion is itself not
to become a new foundation), and that ˜ “pragmatized thought” might
cease to be blind and become clear-sighted™.· At the same time, any such
acceptance must be tagged with the important proviso that the clarity
at stake is not that of Rorty™s ironist, dividing private belief and public
function, but that of the Romantic, committed to the inevitability of
knowing in the face of its impossibility, because, with Cavell, she realises
that ˜knowing not-knowing™ will always in the end amount to knowing.
This brings us back to Jacobi. By both observing that Jacobi encoun-
tered this very same predicament, and adding that he did so in a slightly
different form, then, I do not see myself as engaged in a dialectic whereby
the indeterminability of cause and effect between historian and historical
˜object™ produces an undecidable subject-site. Nor am I merely indulging
in the activity of which David Simpson has complained that ˜[t]here is
no more depressing tactic of academic rei¬cation™, namely, making ˜the
claim that everything happening now has already happened™.·· Instead,
I am acknowledging (with the emphasis on know) the close relation of past
paradigms of thought to those of the present, and their claims upon it,
in a similar way to how I acknowledge the claims of other persons upon
me: that is, as something which exceeds any possible meta-justi¬cation.
As Cavell puts it, acknowledgement ˜is what a historian has to face in
knowing the past: the epistemology of other minds is the same as the
metaphysics of other times and places™.·

 ©   - ¤  ¦  µ §  
With this in mind, it is possible (rather, it is imperative) to explore con-
sonance and difference between Romantic and modern paradigms of
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
knowledge without that project necessarily being overtaken by an over-
riding concern with the full character of the dialectical determination
of past, present and future. Indeed, one of the themes common to the
Romantics and a more recent thinker like Wittgenstein, for example, is
that of philosophy™s need, in the wake of Hume, to separate itself from
˜life™, and yet its irrelevance without ˜life™. Both translate this into terms of
the extent to which philosophy and knowledge are grounded or groundless,
and both express this condition through the ¬gure of the river or stream.
For Wittgenstein, empirical knowledge, determined by language-games
learnt practically rather than logically or according to rules, is foun-
dationless, and in varying degrees of constant change. In On Certainty,
he likens these degrees to the rocks, sand and water on a river-bed.
Though the most certain propositions, now hardened into rocks, seem
more secure than the sandy bed, and that again more stable than the
¬‚owing water, ˜there is not a sharp division of the one from the other™.
Fluid propositions harden, and hardened ones may break off and be-
come more ¬‚uid, such as the ¬‚at-earth theory or the axioms of Euclidian
geometry. With time then, ˜the river-bed of thoughts may shift™.· What
is crucial to this account is that, for Wittgenstein, certainty is not some-
thing permanent at which one arrives, or even something stable from
which one departs, any more than the river-bed of thoughts can be said
to ˜arrive™ at or ˜depart™ from itself. It is not something which can be
considered separately from human social activity, or treated abstractly
and apart from life, but is itself to be viewed as ˜a form of life™.°
Wittgenstein™s mythology of knowledge provides a ¬tting illustration
of the manner by which Romanticism itself stirs up the river-bed of
thought. Using similar language, Coleridge claimed that Christianity was
˜not a Theory, or a Speculation; but a Life. Not a Philosophy of Life, but
a Life and a living Process™.± By suggesting, against Hume, that philos-
ophy was to be lived and not just thought, so that, as Keats insisted to
Reynolds in ±±, ˜axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are
proved upon our pulses™, Romanticism dislodged the bedrock of founda-
tionalism. Rather than contesting a speci¬c philosophical theory, the
very need for ˜knowledge™, and by extension philosophy itself, was placed
in doubt. Such questioning reshaped the major channels of thought
for the following two centuries. As Romanticism fashioned itself as an
extra-philosophical solution to philosophy™s ills, so modern thought has
internalized the ambivalent Romantic strategy of philosophical indiffer-
ence. And by calling for new discourses to replace foundational epistem-
ology, whether they be linguistic therapy, natural science, or cultural
Romanticism™s knowing ways
anthropology, it re-enacts not only that strategy, but also its inherent
In this light, Wittgenstein™s metaphor compares revealingly with
Coleridge™s own and equally famous ˜emblem of the mind™s self-
experience in the act of thinking™, namely, the ˜small water-insect on
the surface of rivulets, which [. . .] wins its way up against the stream, by
alternate pulses of active and passive motion [. . .]™. Both Wittgenstein
and Coleridge use the stream as a trope for their idea of the pragmatic,
creative element in knowledge, connecting relative stability with playful
indeterminacy. For Wittgenstein, certainty of a limited kind is provided
by the rocks in the banks and bed of the water (whether they remain
in place or not depends on the language-game chosen); for Coleridge,
his foundationalist instincts for the moment in abeyance, by the alter-
nately active and passive motion of imagination. Yet both images agree
inasmuch as they connote the end of a way of seeing knowledge, and
indeed truth, as stable and secured by ˜grounds™ accessible by the kind
of pure thought for which the philosophical attitude alone is adequate.
Again, however, this is only half of the story. Coleridge™s suggestive
simile of the water-insect itself appears uneasy when considered against
the background of Biographia Literaria™s foundationalist search for the
˜absolute principium cognoscendi™. Coleridge returned to the image of
the stream as a metaphor for knowledge in the ˜Essays on the Principles
of Method™ in the ±± Friend. In the ¬gure of ˜that life-ebullient stream
which breaks though every momentary embankment, again, indeed, and
evermore to embank itself, but within no banks to stagnate or be impris-
oned™, before ¬nally returning, renewed, into itself, he sought to express
the symbiotic relationship between the restraining limits of philosophy or
rational knowledge on one hand, and the creative surge of faith or will on
the other.µ The lesson of this passage, however, is crucially different from
that of Wittgenstein™s ˜river-bed™ trope. The moral of the latter™s narrative
was that of the need to dispense once and for all with talk of foundations
and ˜grounds™ of knowledge, despite the fact that, as Elridge observes,
Wittgenstein™s Philosophical Investigations frequently seems Romantic in its
fragmentariness, and its self-dramatizing ˜self-revising, self-questioning
swerves in and out of doctrine and commitment™. For Coleridge, however,
the fact that will created its own certainty, that the stream of life was fated
˜evermore to embank itself ™ represented not the non-existence, but the
incomprehensibility of grounds which were set by the mind, for the mind.
It counselled that ˜every faculty [. . .] owes its whole reality and compre-
hensibility to an existence incomprehensible and groundless, because the
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
ground of all comprehension [. . .]™.· Once again, Coleridge enacts the
characteristic English Romantic strategy of attempting to evade scepti-
cism by making a ground of creation, and by founding knowledge itself
in a rei¬ed foundationlessness.
On a more general level then, while Coleridge was convinced that the
contemplative life needed to be reconciled with the active, he remained
undecided as to whether this demanded the intercession of the creative
powers of poetry or religion, or whether philosophy could redeem itself.
Similarly, English Romanticism™s lasting importance to modern philos-
ophy does not consist in any commitment to ending philosophy, nor even
to limiting its jurisdiction. The feeling that Hume™s fact/value distinc-
tion might be overwritten did not remove the consoling hope for a kind
of knowing which still had an ˜end™; which remained free of the rela-
tivistic cognates of psychological creation. This is why, as will be seen,
Wordsworth™s ˜poetic truth™, alike with Hazlitt™s ˜common sense™ and
Coleridge™s ˜total and undivided philosophy™ pose such problems for the
theoretically trained reader today, as each are simultaneously connoted
with foundational and anti-foundational ¬gures of knowledge. Indeed,
it is in this ambivalence between indifference and a ¬delity to knowl-
edge that Romanticism reveals itself as a process of change; speci¬cally,
the emergence of the very shifts in the ˜river-bed of thought™ which have
made such alternative perspectives possible.
The narrative offered here of English Romanticism as already con-
taining English-language philosophy™s double-mindedness in its painful
nascency is attested to by the ambivalence of post-analytic philosophy
to Romanticism itself. Rorty, for instance, adumbrating a vocabulary
which ˜revolves around notions of metaphor and self-creation rather than
around notions of truth, rationality, and moral obligation™, sees himself as
siding with Romanticism in the ˜quarrel between poetry and philosophy,
the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition
of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by the transcen-
dence of contingency™. Elsewhere however, he unfavourably contrasts
the Romantic view of metaphors as end-driven, or as rei¬ed ˜mysterious
tokens or symbols of some higher reality™ with Donald Davidson™s theory
of language as evolving ˜blindly™. Rorty adds that the tension between
˜poetic™ contingency and philosophic foundationalism has pervaded phil-
osophy since Hegel, yet he might have more accurately argued that the
modern form of this ancient contest is itself a Romantic creation. For the
Hegelian attempt to place poetry in a re¬‚exive relationship with philos-
ophy in absolute knowing is just one side of a contest between the two
which elsewhere remains unresolved, as in Jacobi and Coleridge. In this
Romanticism™s knowing ways
light, Romanticism is not a particular response to a problem. Rather, this
problem is itself a form of Romanticism; the simultaneous cleaving and
healing of founded knowledge and ¬gurative creation.
Viewed thus, Kathleen Wheeler™s claim (to take one example) that
the thrust of Coleridge™s work is ˜compatible in the main with pragmatic
and deconstructionist theories and practices™ misleads in that it reads the
discourse of Romanticism as primarily one of commitment rather than
one of stress. Similarly, Michael Fischer™s otherwise accurate Cavellian
observation that the Romantics move away from knowledge as they
come to believe that ˜the epistemological problem of knowing the world
sidetracks us from the real problem of accepting it [. . .]™ is made at
the expense of overlooking the considerable resistance in Romanticism to
such a move.° Romanticism™s importance to modern theory and post-
analytic philosophy takes the form not of a point of view or a belief, but
a dilemma which, put crudely, becomes the question: must knowledge
come ¬rst? Moreover, it is a dilemma speci¬cally located in the context
of Hume™s challenge to philosophy to justify its aspirations to objectivity
and thus to situate itself appropriately within the complex network of
concerns which make up human existence.
In this way, Lamb™s punning attack on Hume and ˜inhuman™ philos-
ophy has lingered to haunt modern thought, caught as it is between
knowledge and what Elridge calls ˜living a human life™. W. V. Quine, for
instance, inverts the quibble when he urges that, as a matter of ˜doctrine™
or theory of truth, ˜[t]he Humean predicament is the human predica-
ment™. For Quine, the only task left to epistemology is to study the forma-
tion of meaning.± Consequently, the tradition of philosophy as a quest
for epistemological certainty must be set aside in order to make room for
something else (in Quine™s case, as, arguably, in Hume™s, a ˜naturalized™
epistemology of empirical psychology). Many have found even this too
radical, however, and some have questioned whether it is one which
Quine himself has satis¬ed. The temptation to ¬nd a neutral ground for
knowing, an objective base, has persisted, even if it is to be constructed on
non-objective or non-scienti¬c lines. ˜It is so dif¬cult to ¬nd the beginning™,
as Wittgenstein complained: ˜Or, better: it is dif¬cult to begin at the be-
ginning. And not try to go further back™. Avoiding the temptation to
go ˜further back™, whether to empirical or synthetic a priori foundations,
is the very challenge which English Romanticism ¬rst raises, and having
raised attempts, unsuccessfully, to erase.
Dewey, indeed, was sensitive to this thought when he wrote that
˜Nature is characterized by a constant mixture of the precarious and
the stable. This mixture gives poignancy to existence. If existence were
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
either completely necessary or completely contingent, there would be
neither comedy nor tragedy in life, nor need of the will to live™. Just as
Wittgenstein™s story of the shifting river-bed makes no sense without the
(implied) stability of the land through which the river runs, so indiffer-
ence is impossible without knowledge. Replacing power for knowing, as
Hazlitt found, merely results in knowledge rising again as a competitive
function of power, and so in power biting its own tail. Since the Romantics
then, knowledge, construed as epistemic security and certainty, has per-
petually and compulsively recurred, despite attempts to bring it to an
end. Rorty himself notes that a completely ironic culture is ˜probably™
impossible, since ˜no project of self-creation through imposition of one™s
own idiosyncratic metaphoric, can avoid being marginal and parasitic™.
Necessity and contingency, positivism and ironism, knowledge and indif-
ference, foundation and creation may play against each other inde¬nitely,
but in that play there is a relationship of both dependence and incom-
patibility. Coping with this relationship is a challenge, and one which,
struggling between the human and the Humean, the Romantics were
the ¬rst to give a recognizably modern cast. This challenge, moreover, is
confronted on two levels, representing in turn two major forms of foun-
dationalism. As Coleridge negotiated a Kantian foundationalism which
was a priori and propositional in mould, Wordsworth and Hazlitt, among
others, grappled with the causal theory of perception which had formed
the basis of British empirical thought throughout the eighteenth century.

From artistic to epistemic creation: the eighteenth century

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics,
for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning
quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning
matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the ¬‚ames: for it can
contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ±

The roots of Romantic discourse in eighteenth-century philosophy and
psychology have been charted extensively elsewhere, to the extent that
this provenance is now generally accepted in English literary history.
My present claim that there is a divergence between certain tendencies
in Wordsworth and Hazlitt “ some impelling these writers towards a new,
radical theory of creation; others drawing them back to an empirical,
foundationalist conception of ˜knowledge™ “ is quite compatible with
this. Again, I wish neither to essentialize ˜Romanticism™, nor oppose it
in some binary way to a preceding tradition. Yet an appreciation of
inheritance and continuity in literary theory at the turn of the century
should remain alert to ripples in the current, or sudden shifts in the river-
bed; in other words, of simultaneous, more dramatic change. It should
not elide the possibility that incompatible premises and assumptions,
knitted together for a time by consensus and habit, should ¬nally, through
changing literary and social conditions, prove impossible to reconcile,
and that as a result, certain theoretical problems which had hitherto
merely been a source of dif¬culty may suddenly become unbearable.
Such is the English Romantics™ relation to empiricism. Examples of
their outward hostility to empiricism abound. In the ±±°“± fragment
˜The Sublime and the Beautiful™ (later the third Appendix of A Guide
Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England [±µ]), Wordsworth
asserts that ˜[t]he true province of the philosopher is not to grope about in
the external world [ . . .] but to look into his own mind & determine the law
by which he is affected™. Hazlitt™s opposition to traditional empiricism,
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
meanwhile, is more or less constant throughout his career: in his ±°
Prospectus of a History of English Philosophy, one of the touchstones for his
criticism of Locke is his conviction that ˜reason is a distinct source of
knowledge or inlet of truth, over and above experience™. Yet Hazlitt™s
description of reason as another inlet of truth, suggests an equivocation
which is matched by Wordsworth™s view of the mind as passive and
affective. Despite their anti-empiricist leanings, Wordsworth and Hazlitt
are noteworthy among the major Romantic writers for their reluctance to
jettison the language of empiricism outright, preferring instead to amend
or reform it according to new paradigms. One of those paradigms was
the concept of creation. The problem that faced both writers, however,
was that in their own hands this idea had itself undergone a seismic shift
in meaning and signi¬cance, signalling a move away from the notion
of creation-as-discovery to something closer to that of creation ex nihilo,
the assertion of the mind™s ¬nal autonomy and freedom from matter.
Unlike the former, however, this more radical sense was incompatible
with the still-powerful Lockean view, internalized by Wordsworth and
Hazlitt, that knowledge was fundamentally causal and representational
in nature. The articulation of the new concept of creation as an epistemic
feature of human nature, then, particularly as constructed in the ¬gure of
original genius, becomes for Wordsworth and Hazlitt the test case for the
possibility of a reformed empiricism which, in the absence of Coleridgean
transcendental schemes (for the most part), might manage to satisfy their
demand for an adequate account of the mind™s freedom and activity, and
particularly its autonomy in the processes of moral judgement and artistic
With such views, Hazlitt and Wordsworth had every reason to reject
many of the assumptions of eighteenth-century poetics, as well as resist
those which were being sponsored by empiricism in their own time.
Utilitarian theories in particular accorded no special status to poetry
or the poet, quite the reverse. In the same year that Coleridge com-
pleted Biographia Literaria, Bentham was writing of poetry that ˜it can
apply itself to no subject but at the expense of utility and truth. Misrep-
resentation [is] its work, misconception its truth™.µ By ±± the debate
between a largely British utility-based reduction of art and a novel theory
of aesthetic autonomy which had just received its mandate from German
thought had already polarized. By ±° Hume™s severance of fact from
value had cut so deeply that Peacock felt able to proclaim, with some
glee, that the inevitable issue of the advance of knowledge throughout
history was that ˜the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry™. The
The eighteenth century
prose works of Wordsworth and Hazlitt display the hairline cracks which
initiate this rift, leading them to challenge the foundations of representa-
tional ˜knowledge™ with a theory of creation, a challenge to epistemology
which ¬nally loops back to the same desideratum of epistemic certainty
from which it seeks to escape. Nor did this division itself spring from
nowhere. Before examining the complex epistemological and counter-
epistemological manoeuvrings of English Romantic Prose, then, it is im-
portant to understand how a discourse of psychological creation which
was long-lived but previously marginal in British philosophy came, by
the late eighteenth century, to be in a position to shake the foundations,
it seemed, of philosophy itself.

© ® °©  © ® ®¤  µ ¬©  ¦   °µ  ®    µ« 
To give a comprehensive account of the development of the idea of artistic
creation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries falls well beyond
the scope of this chapter. However, it is possible to indicate those currents
of thought which encouraged the idea (in either of its forms), and those
whose natural tendency was to sti¬‚e or deny it. The tradition of thought
which was most congenial to the notion of the artist as a creator sprang
initially (though not exclusively, as will be seen) from two main sources,
both classical. The ¬rst was Neoplatonic, and resulted from a fusion of
an analogy of the artist with Plato™s Demiurge, or divine craftsman, with
an amended version of his account of the poet as one ˜possessed™, such
that inspiration was now held to confer upon the artist a divine grace in
execution and composition which was beyond the normal rules of art.
Promoted by Sidney and Puttenham in the late sixteenth century, this
tradition survived, albeit in a muted form, into the eighteenth, despite the
fact that the Platonic philosophy upon which it rested, though it con-
tinued to ¬nd support with Cudworth, More and Shaftesbury, was by
then anachronistic. The second was a theory of the sublime derived from
Longinus, but transformed in such a way as to place ever greater stress
on the spontaneous imaginative response which characterized the expe-
rience of the sublime object. Two of the most signi¬cant names attached
to this trend “ John Dennis, and later, Edmund Burke “ developed it in
different ways. To Dennis, the emotions associated with the sublime rep-
resented a possible bulwark against the kind of dogmatic Aristotelianism
exempli¬ed by the school of criticism associated with Thomas Rymer. To
Burke, however, the passionate quality of the sublime experience linked
it with the non-representational basis of poetry itself.
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
The complex relationship observed in the Introduction between the
Platonic and Hebraic-Christian paradigms of creation begins to unravel
in the literary theory of the Renaissance. Even here, however, it is still
bound up (and often confused) with other questions: to what extent is
the artist inspired by some other force? how can creation, properly so
called, be explained within a mimetic theory of poetry? how far is it
possible and proper to compare the artist™s creativity to God™s? These
issues lie buried like seeds beneath different theoretical agendas, and are
not always addressed directly. When they are, they are often answered in
a manner which might surprise an observer habituated to the oppositions
of post-Romantic theory.
George Puttenham, for example, seeks in The Arte of English Poesie to
establish the credentials of poetry as an art: that is, an activity based
upon ˜a certaine order of rules prescribed by reason, and gathered by
experience™.· Yet his defence of this position is built upon some peculiar
foundations. Initially noting that the Greek root of English term ˜poet™
signi¬es ˜maker™, he proceeds to interpret this classical paradigm along
Christian lines, rejecting the Platonic model of the demiurge, and em-
bracing the divine analogy of artist as creator ex nihilo. As God, ˜without
any trauell of his diuine imagination, made all the world of nought™, so
˜the very Poet makes and contriues out of his owne braine both the verse
and matter of his poeme, and not by any foreine copie or example, as
doth the translator™. Despite this, it is clear that Puttenham holds the view
that poetry, no less than other forms of art, is imitative. But the manner
by which he links this position, together with what has been written al-
ready (while still on the ¬rst page of the essay) with a further thesis of
inspirationism deserves to be quoted at length, insofar as it demonstrates
the tight and complex knot of ideas which it was to be the task of the
eighteenth century to unravel:
And neuerthelesse without any repugnancie at all, a Poet may in some sort be
said a follower or imitator, because he can expresse the true and liuely [image?]
of euery thing [which?] is set before him [. . .] and so in that respect is both a
maker and a counterfaitor: and Poesie an art not only of making, but also of
imitation. And this science in his perfection, can not grow, but by some diuine
instinct, the Platonicks call it furor [. . .].
From this Puttenham draws a conclusion regarding the absolute au-
tonomy of the poet which (in its opposition to his contention that poetry
is an ˜art™, reducible to empirical rule) forms a thorny paradox which is
the direct ancestor of the problem Wordsworth and Hazlitt faced, and
would seek to overcome with epistemological indifference: namely, how
The eighteenth century
can genius™s freely produced elements be veri¬ed by lawful experience?
The tension between an ego-grounded knowledge and the ¬gurative,
creative subjectivity expressed in poetry is already present. In this light,
moreover, there would seem to be more than coincidence in the similar-
ity between Puttenham™s attempt at a compromise solution (attributing
to imagination (or ˜phantasie™) a special kind of truth which he compares
to the effect of a refracting mirror on light), and Hazlitt™s attempt, over
two hundred years later, to explain originality by comparing the mind to
a prism, untwisting the rays of truth. But this is to anticipate later
Puttenham identi¬es creation with inspiration, but this does not al-
ways happen. Sidney™s An Apologie for Poetrie of ±µµ, despite being more
often cited as a Renaissance manifesto for imaginative artistic freedom,
is in many ways a less ¬ery and more thoughtful attempt to reconcile
Aristotelian and Platonic views of poetry. Though Sidney sees creation
as the God-like part of man ˜which in nothing hee sheweth so much as
in Poetrie: when with the force of a diuine breath, he bringeth things
forth far surpassing her [i.e. Nature™s] dooings™,±° like Puttenham, he
insists that poetry ˜is an arte of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his
word Mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfetting, or ¬guring
foorth: to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture: with this end, to
teach and delight [. . .]™.±± He further follows Aristotle in positioning
poetry between history and philosophy according to its ability both to
philosophize history™s ˜bare Was™,± and aid moral instruction insofar as
it ˜coupleth the generall notion with the particular example™, or ˜yeeldeth
to the powers of the minde, an image of that whereof the Philosopher
bestoweth but a woordish description [. . .]™.±
Sidney is aware that he is in danger of collapsing poetry into rhetoric,
and endeavours to escape this outcome by making creativity the distin-
guishing feature of the poet.± As he puts it: ˜onely the Poet, disdayning
to be tied to any [. . .] subiection, lifted vp with the vigor of his owne in-
uention, dooth growe in effect, another nature, in making things either
better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite newe formes such as neuer
were in Nature [. . .]™.±µ This echoes Puttenham™s theory of radical creatio
ex nihilo, but Sidney attempts to side-step Puttenham™s problem over how
the products of this process can be veri¬ed by adding the further require-
ment of learning. New products are valuable because of the operation of
an extra factor (and thus a standard of truth) regulating individual spon-
taneity “ not, as in Plato, the ˜inspiring of a diuine force, farre aboue
mans wit™, but the tutelage of nature and experience.± He concludes:
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
˜A Poet, no industrie can make, if his owne Genius bee not carried vnto
it [. . .]. Yet confesse I alwayes, that as the ¬rtilest grounde must bee ma-
nured, so must the highest ¬‚ying wit, haue a Dedalus to guide him™; the
˜three wings™ of which are: ˜Arte, Imitation, and Exercise™. These twin
elements of genius±· and skill cannot be separated in poetry, ˜[f ]or, there
being two principal parts, matter to be expressed by wordes, and words
to expresse the matter, in neyther [alone], wee vse Arte, or Imitation,
Sidney™s tempered Platonism and optimism about poetry, however, ran
against the contemporary philosophical current. Bacon also accepted the
common distinction between knowledge acquired by ˜words™ and that
gained from ˜matter™, but was far more censorious about the former.
It was ˜the ¬rst distemper of learning, when men study words and not
matter™.± His main target here is scholasticism, which with verbal distinc-
tions ˜brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the ¬neness
of thread and work, but of no substance or pro¬t [. . .]™.° Nonetheless,
poesy remains open to a similar charge:
P is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but
in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the Imagination;
which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which
nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make
unlawful matches and divorces of things [. . .].±

The key word here is ˜unlawful™. The very creativity which Sidney
found to distinguish and privilege poesy is, to Bacon™s embryonic em-
piricism, deeply suspect. If history is recorded fact and the basis of all
knowledge, then poetry ˜is nothing else but Feigned History, which may
be styled as well in prose as in verse™. His attitude to the argument from
inspiration is, in this context, unsurprising: poetry, he notes, ˜was ever
thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise
and erect the mind, by submitting the shews of things to the desires of the
mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of
Bacon views poetry simultaneously with discomfort and tolerance.
Nonetheless, having attributed the production of poetry to imagination,
he seems to encounter dif¬culties when examining the nature of that
faculty itself later in the Advancement. By establishing imagination as a
connective faculty between the senses (including the will and appetite)
on one hand and reason on the other, he comes to acknowledge that faith
itself presumes a certain amount of imaginative freedom. He infers from
The eighteenth century
this that ˜reason hath over the imagination that commandment which a magistrate
hath over a free citizen; who may come also to rule in his turn. For we see
that in matters of Faith and Religion we raise our imagination above
our Reason [. . .]™. Still, though Bacon seems to be embarrassed enough
by this episode to reiterate his general position that there can be no
science of imagination, together with his relegation of Poesy to ˜a pleasure
or play of imagination™, there is no reason to interpret it as anything
more than an incidental concession to religion which is super¬‚uous to
his general inductive epistemological argument. This in turn remains
fundamentally incompatible with Sidney™s notion of a distinctly ˜poetic™
truth, inspirational or otherwise.
It is not until the early eighteenth century, in the work of Shaftesbury,
that another concerted attempt is made to develop a theory of artistic
creation on Neoplatonic lines “ and here again, this is done against the
tide of the prevailing philosophy, which by this time had moved into
the channel opened up by Locke. Shaftesbury is a writer about whom
it is notoriously dif¬cult to generalize. Above all, he had no interest
in system-building.µ But certain impulses are evident in his thought:
an opposition to Hobbes and to mechanistic or materialist accounts of
human nature, as well as to the Lockean thesis that the mind has no
knowledge other than what it constructs from simple ideas derived from
sense-experience. Shaftesbury™s positive theory of knowledge is linked
with his Platonic theology: as reality is in¬nite and not atomistic, and
spiritual rather than material, the mind which is the ˜Universal-One™ is
that which gives particular existents their being. Consequently, it follows
from the principle that the mind in general is alone formative (where
matter is passive), that the human mind has its own activity:
I consider, That as there is one general Mass, one Body of the Whole; so to this
Body there is an Order, to this Order, a M© ®¤ : That to this general M© ®¤ each
particular-one must have relation; as being of like Substance [. . .] alike active
upon Body [. . .] and more like still, if it co-operates with It to general Good,
and strives to will according to that best of Wills.·

For the present purpose, the real signi¬cance of Shaftesbury™s epis-
temology, however, is in the role it accords to beauty, which, rather
than being a supervenient quality, is seen as operative; as identical with
truth. It resides not in an object, but in the act of creation. ˜Will it not
be found™, Shaftesbury asks rhetorically, ˜[t]hat what is B µ  © ¦ µ¬ is
Harmonious and Proportionable: What is Harmonious and Proportionable,
is Tµ  ; and what is at once both Beautiful and True, is, of consequence,
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Agreeable and G¤ ?™ It follows from this that in Shaftesbury the sense
of beauty has gained unprecedented epistemological importance: ˜Who,
then, can possibly have  T   of this kind, without being beholden to
P© ¬ ° ?™° The postulation of the identity of beauty and truth in
an original, uni¬ed and creative being (whether divine or human) thus
enables Shaftesbury to pass freely between questions of aesthetics, psy-
chology, epistemology and moral philosophy, as when he declares that
˜the most natural Beauty in the World is Honesty, and Moral Truth. For
all Beauty is Tµ  [. . .]. In Poetry, which is all Fable, Truth still is the
From this dynamic, aestheticized Platonism emerges Shaftesbury™s
idea of artistic genius as a power which, in the manner of the God
of which it is itself a re¬‚ection, harmonizes, uni¬es, and creates anew:
But for the Man, who truly and in a just sense deserves the Name of Poet [. . .].
Such a Poet is indeed a second Maker: a just P   µ, under J . Like
that Sovereign Artist or universal Plastick Nature, he forms a Whole, coherent
and proportion™d in it-self, with due Subjection and Subordinacy of constituent

Yet Shaftesbury™s hypostasizing of beauty and truth in the sovereign
form of God does little to solve the riddle of the nature of human creation.
And as far as his own position on the matter is concerned, Shaftesbury is,
in most respects, distinctly Neoclassical. For example, though he distin-
guishes ˜[t]he mere Face-Painter™, who ˜copies what he sees, and minutely
traces every Feature™, from ˜the Men of Invention and Design™, he de-
¬nes the latter only according to their capacity to generalize, and execute
works which conform to ˜those natural Rules of Proportion, and Truth™.
There is no implication that the artist is a creator ex nihilo, or that he might
produce the very rules by which his work is to be judged, and still less, as
yet, to suggest the Romantics™ troubled surmisal that he makes, rather
than ¬nds truth.
The concept of inspiration, moreover, seems to have had its day.
Shaftesbury is highly critical of ˜those ¬rst Poets who began this Pretence
to Inspiration™, and insists that ˜the inspiring D© © ® ©   or Mµ   having
[. . .] submitted her Wit and Sense to the Mechanick Rules of human
arbitrary Composition; she must [. . .] submit herself to human Arbitration
[. . .]™. Nor does he reserve any great esteem for imagination, which is
invariably subordinated to reason. Continuing on the subject of inspi-
ration, he claims that anyone who believes that they can ˜recognize the
Divine Spirit, and receive it in themselves, un-subject (as they imagine)
The eighteenth century
to any Rule [. . .] is building Castles in the Air [. . .] as the exercise of an
aerial Fancy, or heated Imagination™.µ
In a sense, Shaftesbury is acknowledging a point made earlier in this
chapter: that the presumption of divine intervention in classical notions
of poetic ˜inspiration™ sits uneasily with the premise of epistemic freedom
necessary for a more subject-based notion of human creativity. But if,
aside from this, the supernatural and un-Christian implications of the
concept of inspiration made it simply distasteful even to such Platonically
minded thinkers as Sidney and Shaftesbury, another ancient idea “ that
of the sublime “ was to enjoy a far less troubled inception into the theory
of the eighteenth century.
The concept of the sublime was a relative latecomer to English literary
theory. Its germination can be dated to Nicolas Boileau™s ±· translation
of Longinus, but it did not become an established part of the critical lex-
icon until the early mid-eighteenth century. In the work of John Dennis,
the sublime is brought into close contact with a developed theory of
artistic creation and genius. Dennis was already aware of the work of
Longinus when, while crossing the Alps in ±, in a curious precursor
of Wordsworth™s own experience, he felt at ¬rst hand emotions reminis-

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