. 2
( 8)


cent of the Greek writer™s account of the sublime. Moved to examine
the concept further, it was natural that he should do so in terms of the
philosophies of Hobbes and Locke. The result was an empirical and
psychological theory of the poetic passions.
Dennis™s early work bears this out. ˜Poetical Genius™, he argues in the
± Remarks on a Book Entituled, Prince Arthur, ˜is it self a Passion. A Poet
then is oblig™d always to speak to the Heart. And it is for this reason, that
Point and Conceit, and all that they call Wit, is to be for ever banish™d
from true Poetry; because he who uses it, speaks to the Head alone.™
In The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (±·°±) he re¬nes this
into a de¬nition which further distinguishes poetic enthusiasm from the
more vulgar passions, and links it to the sublime:

But one Thing we have omitted, That as Thoughts produce the Spirit, the
Spirit produces and makes the Expression; which is known by Experience to all
who are Poets: for never any one, while he was rapt with Enthusiasm, wanted
either Words or Harmony [. . .] So from what we have said, we may venture to
lay down this De¬nition of Poetical Genius: Poetical Genius, in a Poem, is the
true Expression of Ordinary or Enthusiastick Passions proceeding from Ideas
to which it naturally belongs; and Poetical Genius, in a Poet, is the Power of
expressing such Passion worthily: And the Sublime is a great Thought, express™d
with the Enthusiasm that belongs to it [. . .].·
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Here, the language of inspiration is articulated by the new philosophy
of ideas. While Dennis retains some of the old sense of the infallibility of
the ˜inspired™ poetic genius, in his hands it is translated into an idea of
the harmonious relationship between the enthusiastic passions and the
ideas to which they ˜naturally™ belong. The sublime, in turn, becomes
the loftiest utterance of poetic genius.
Dennis™s emphasis on genius, enthusiasm and the emotions of the
sublime may seem to foreshadow Romanticism; not least when later in
the same essay he claims that, of the ˜Three Things which contribute to
the Perfection of Poetry™, ˜The First is Nature, which is the Foundation
and Basis of all. For Nature is the same Thing with Genius, and Genius
and Passion are all one.™ But this is not the whole picture, as the other two
elements, no less essential, are ˜Art, by which I mean, those Rules, and
that Method, which capacitate us to manage every thing with the utmost
Dexterity, that may contribute to the Raising of Passion™, and third, ˜The
Instrument by which the Poet makes his Imitation, or the Language
in which he writes.™ Though he would have had no truck with the
concept of the artist as creator ex nihilo, the tensions in Dennis™s theory
are comparable to Puttenham™s: the tendency of any assertion of free
artistic genius is towards some kind of conception of aesthetic autonomy;
of a writer or a painter or a musician who spontaneously generates new
but nonetheless exemplary rules of composition. But the philosophical
apparatus capable of sustaining such a conception was still a long way
from being assembled. It is, perhaps, a paradoxical consequence of the
advanced nature of Dennis™s version of genius as both a sensitivity to,
and an ability to express passionate thoughts, that more than critics
like Addison, he felt the need for a secure foothold for poetry in the
rules of art. There seems little reason, then, to dissent from Hooker™s
opinion that Dennis should be viewed more as ˜a sensitive and intelligent
classicist™ than a precursor of Romanticism.° He was not the ¬rst to face
dif¬culty in attempting to encompass an increasingly liberal theory of
creative genius with an empiricist epistemology, and he was not to be
the last.
By the time Burke came to add the ˜Introduction on taste™ to the
second edition of his Philosophical Enquiry, however, the implications of
an empirical point of view for aesthetic discussion were much more
clearly de¬ned. For instance, Burke notes that though ˜the mind of man
possesses a sort of creative power of its own™, this consists ˜either in
representing at pleasure the images of [. . .] the senses, or in combining
those images in a new manner, and according to a different order™.
The eighteenth century
Creativity of the ex nihilo order is impossible, as ˜it must be observed,
that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing
absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it
has received from the senses™.± Burke™s ambivalent attitude to epistemic
creation is not unusual of the mid-eighteenth century, but his persistent
and unyielding commitment to empirical method, and his refusal to
concede any territory whatsoever to the operation of formal or ¬nal
causes, certainly is. As a result, the Enquiry becomes of immense interest,
in that it effectively takes the empiricist defence of Neoclassical aesthetics
to its limits; to the point indeed where the tension between the two,
particularly regarding the complex emotions of the sublime, and the
nature of poetic imitation, becomes so pronounced as to question many
of the assumptions of Neoclassicism itself.
Burke™s dogged genetic and sensationist approach to his subject leads
him quickly to the conclusion, not only that the sublime originates from
objects ˜¬tted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain™, and that these
˜ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the
part of pleasure™, but further, that ˜at certain distances, and with certain
modi¬cations, they may be, and they are delightful [. . .]™. This disrupts
the traditional correlation of taste and pleasure by describing an aesthetic
experience which is not so easily quanti¬able due to the in¬nity connoted
by its objects and the inscrutibility of its emotional content. There is,
then, in the Enquiry™s discussion of the sublime, the suggestion of an
aesthetic of freedom.
The sublime is not alone in its association with the in¬nite. Burke™s
sensationism draws his investigation to a certain feature of language:
˜words [. . .] seem to me to affect us in a manner very different from that
in which we are affected by natural objects, or by painting or architecture
[. . .]™.µ The reason for this, he surmises, is that the most general effect
of words ˜does not arise from their forming pictures of the several things
they would represent in the imagination [. . .]™. If it is possible, as Burke
believes, for words to affect us before a clear idea or meaning can be
assigned to them, the implications for poetry are radical: ˜we may observe
that poetry, taken in its most general sense, cannot with strict propriety
be called an art of imitation™.· And yet the fact that words can operate
in the absence of clear ideas (and therefore knowledge), lends poetry a
peculiar af¬nity with the sublime in the context what might be called
Burke™s aesthetics of privation. Just as the feeling of a lack of power is a
condition of the sublime, so the want of a clear image of a thing is a feature
of poetry. This privation, however, is effectively a release from the burden
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
of verisimilitude. It gives poetry scope not only to give expression to those
elements of existence which are beyond pictorial representation, such as
human sympathy and passion, but also to explore or even create new
elements. In Burke™s own words, ˜by words we have it in our power to
make such combinations as we cannot possibly do otherwise™, and thereby
˜to give a new life and force to the simple object™.
Yet despite the innovation behind Burke™s theory of poetic creativity,
it remained in tension with his epistemology. To that extent he is very
much a product of his age. The Lockean epistemology, though modi¬ed,
is still in place, together with its insistence upon the necessity of an
empirical principle for verifying truth, and for a corresponding clarity,
exactness, and even austerity in language. Notions of poetic inspiration
or expressions of feelings of sublimity could not be woven into this “ at
least, not seamlessly. Poetry might be tolerated for a number of reasons “
it might even, as with Addison, Dennis and Burke, be granted a certain
creative licence “ but it was not to be permitted to impeach knowledge.
Inspiration in particular, in its classical form at least, had a bleak future
in this context, as not only was it impossible to explain empirically, but,
unlike the notions of the sublime and genius, it had only a slight relation
to the issues of subjectivity which would grow out of the discourse of late
eighteenth-century psychology in Britain.
The problem for theories of artistic creation after Locke was funda-
mentally bound up with their epistemological implications: unsettling
˜knowledge™ yet seeming all the while to be complicit with knowing. In
other words, the question was one of how to allow the products of genius
and the experience of the sublime a non-trivial, cognitive role in human
life without reducing them to any other mode of knowledge; of how
simultaneously to maintain poetry™s seriousness and distinctness from
science in the face of the erosion of a Neoclassical con¬dence in poetry™s
access to reason. It was empiricism that was responsible for this ero-
sion, but empiricism was slow, painfully slow, at producing an alternative
theory of literary value which satis¬ed both the requirements of aesthetic
freedom and epistemology. In fact, empiricism was itself the stumbling
block. Such a theory, as Francis Ferguson has indicated, would require a
profound overhaul of Burke™s empirical approach to the structure of the
object, and particularly ˜the Burkean inability or refusal to distinguish be-
tween our experience of objects and our experience of representations of
objects™. As it turned out, one form this would take was Kant™s aesthetic
merging of subject of object, which on one hand seemed merely to offer
the subject sublime compensations for epistemic loss, but at the same
The eighteenth century
time had the potential to obviate the dualisms so beloved of empiricism
which sustained epistemology itself.

°  ¦ °©©©

Crossing Hume™s fork: the problem of value
Both inspirationism and the discourse of the sublime dissented from
a philosophical culture which, by the ¬rst decades of the eighteenth
century, was confronting and processing the principles laid out in John
Locke™s ± An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The notion of
mental creation itself leads a marginal half-life throughout the age of
Pope and Johnson, potentially subversive and in a constant state of ten-
sion with many of the leading philosophical ideas of the period. The
¬rst of these “ the theory of representative realism “ lies at the heart
of Locke™s epistemology. Put simply, the claims made by this thesis are:
¬rst, the realist one that there is a world the existence of which does not
depend upon experience; second, the argument that our perception of
that world is dependent upon it affecting us (in a causal way); and third,
the representational theory that we only have indirect apprehension of that
world; that is, that we have no knowledge of reality which is unmediated
by ideas.µ° Representative realism leaves its mark on practically all em-
piricist thought in the eighteenth century (Berkeley and Hume included),
and even manages to survive (though in a modi¬ed form) Thomas Reid™s
sustained campaign against it.
More importantly, however, it is this doctrine which proves to be most
vulnerable to the epistemic implications of a robust theory of artistic
creation, effectively placing the mind in a relation of dependency to an
object of perception to which it has only indirect access. In particular,
Locke is quite categorical on the causality of perception: ideas of sen-
sation, he asserts, ˜are the Impressions that are made on our Senses by
Outward Objects, that are extrinsical to the Mind [. . .]™.µ± Sensation and
re¬‚ection, then, are ˜the only Originals, from whence all our Ideas take
their beginnings™.µ The most important corollary of this principle is that
in perception, ˜the Understanding is meerly passive™ and unable to produce
new, simple ideas:
These simple Ideas, when offered to the mind, the Understanding can no more refuse
to have, or alter, when they are imprinted, nor blot them out, and make new
ones in it self, than a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate the Images or Ideas,
which, the Objects set before it, do therein produce.µ
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Locke, of course, recognizes that certain operations of the human mind
prove the limitations of the ˜blank sheet of paper™ simile. ˜Memory™,
for instance, ˜signi¬es no more but this, that the Mind has a Power,
in many cases, to revive Perceptions, which it has once had, with this
additional Perception annexed to them, that it has had them before™.µ It
is important, however, to distinguish this (limited) psychological activity
from an epistemic activity, in the sense that truth itself is something
made. This is discounted by Locke in his consistent adherence to the
principle that knowledge must correspond to objects as the effect to the
cause. Locke equates his sense of psychological activity with ˜Wit™, which
˜lying most in the assemblage of Ideas, and putting them together with
quickness and variety™, is distinguished from ˜Judgement™, which ˜lies quite
on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, Ideas [. . .]
thereby to avoid being misled by Similitude [. . .]™. Wit, though it ˜strikes
so lively on the Fancy™, is not to be trusted, as ˜there is required no
labour of thought, to examine what Truth or Reason there is in it. The
Mind without looking any farther, rests satis¬ed with the agreeableness
of the Picture [. . .].™µµ Here we reach the nub of the problem: while
Locke™s empiricism is comfortable with, and even requires, a synthetic
capability of the mind, it cannot permit that such syntheses might be
independently true, much less produce truth. Consequently, Locke often
struggles to articulate in just what the power of judgement consists.
By stressing the role of judgement Locke is trying to avoid a route
notoriously taken by Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes argued that, as sense-
experience was nothing but the effect of material encounters between
the sense-organs and the outside world, which set off a train of thoughts
in the mind and became, when the stimulus was removed, ˜decaying sense™
or imagination, then mental discourse or understanding itself could be
nothing other than a kind of imagination, and reason the same trans-
ferred into verbal form.µ Truth, in other words, is merely nominal: a
matter of words.µ· To Hobbes, Locke™s concern about association would
have made no sense, as ˜[n]atural sense and imagination are not subject
to absurdity. Nature itself cannot err™ “ only language leads us astray.µ
If Hobbes provides a clearer illustration than Locke of the implications
of nakedly causal theories of perception, he does so too with regard
to representationalism. The ¬rst lines of the ¬rst chapter of Leviathan
declare that, singly, the thoughts of man ˜are every one a representation
or appearance, of some quality or other accident, of a body without us
[. . .]™.µ The epistemological consequences of this for Hobbes are clear.
With characteristic terseness, Hobbes maps out the fork that Hume was
The eighteenth century
later to wield with such devastating effect. There can only be two kinds
of knowledge, he claims; empirical ˜knowledge of fact™, or of ˜sense and
memory™; and ˜knowledge of the consequence of one af¬rmation to another™, or
˜science™, such as geometrical truth.° Knowingly or not, in the Essay,
Locke follows Hobbes in accepting that ˜We can have Knowledge no farther
than we have Ideas™,± but cannot accept that truth itself is merely nominal.
The ˜conformity between our [simple] Ideas and the reality of Things™,
he claims, is guaranteed providentially, or ˜by the Wisdom and Will of
our Maker™. Ultimately, truth is the gift of God.
At the same time, Locke gave powerful impetus to the discourse
of creation in the eighteenth century. By dispensing with all talk of
˜substances™ and equating identity with consciousness, his own brand
of idea- empiricism paved the way for the development of philosophical
subjectivism. However, it is equally certain that in attempting to rescue
some notion of universal truth from the wreck of innatism by emphasiz-
ing the distinction between the mere ˜play™ of wit or imagination, and the
authority of judgement, he contributed to a general climate of hostility
towards imagination. Yet again, by its tendency to give the testimony of
sense more weight than that of judgement and reason, idea-empiricism
(or representative realism) seemed to undermine certain concepts “ prin-
cipally that of the operation of necessary laws within the natural world,
but also those of identity, and objectivity in judgements of morals and
taste. This is precisely the observation made by Hume, who (particularly
if one considers his in¬‚uence upon Kant) becomes a pivotal ¬gure for
any consideration of the agon of knowledge and creation as it evolved
through an ailing empirical tradition and into Romanticism.
In a sense, Hume takes representative realism to its logical conclusion.
In A Treatise of Human Nature (±·“°), he sets out from the proposition
˜[t]hat all our simple ideas in their ¬rst appearance are deriv™d from simple impressions,
which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent™.µ Consequently,
there can be no difference in kind between sensation and ideas: instead,
˜[t]he difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and live-
liness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into
our thought or consciousness™“ sensation generally being ˜livelier™ than
its ideas. This distinction is extended within the realm of ideas itself,
where Hume observes that ˜the ideas of the memory are much more
lively and strong than those of the imagination™, where ˜the perception
is faint and languid [. . .]™. However, the imagination has at least one
redeeming feature: it is ˜not restrain˜d to the same order and form with
the original impressions; while the memory is in a manner ty™d down in
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
that respect [. . .]™.· Upon this observation, Hume builds his theory of
association: the principles by which ideas are connected cannot, he rea-
sons, be radically different to those by which sensations are connected.

This uniting principle among ideas is not to be consider™d as an inseparable
connexion; for that has been already excluded from the imagination [. . .] we
are only to regard it as a gentle force, which commonly prevails [. . .]. The
qualities, from which this association arises, and by which the mind is after this
manner convey™d from one idea to another, are [. . .] Resemblance, Contiguity
in time or place, and Cµ  and E¦¦  . 

That which to Locke was a kind of madness becomes, in Hume™s
hands, the basis of reason itself: as he later puts it, ˜all probable reasoning
is nothing but a species of sensation™. It follows from this that Locke™s
carefully drawn distinction between judgement and wit is collapsed: ˜™Tis
not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment,
but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinc™d of any principle, ™tis only
an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me.™ This comes at a price,
however. Hume concludes that ˜[o]bjects have no discoverable connexion
together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon
the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance
of one to the existence of another.™ In other words, ˜[f ]rom the mere
repetition of any past impression, even to in¬nity, there will never arise any
new original idea, such as that of a necessary connexion [. . .].™ In his
sustained pursuit of the logical implications of representative realism,
Hume has ¬nally arrived at a point where concepts of natural law seem
to be little more than beguiling ¬ctions “ necessary ¬ctions perhaps,
but ¬ctions nonetheless. Nor does Hume leave off there. If the law-like
operation of the world as described by reason is illusory, then it follows
that other notions licensed by reason are every bit as ¬ctional. Once
Locke™s idea of judgement has been eroded by sensation-empiricism, for
example, the integrity of consciousness appears to crumble, and identity
itself is impeached. Hume concludes that man is incapable of knowing
himself as a uni¬ed being. He is, indeed, the sum of ˜nothing but a bundle
or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an
inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual ¬‚ux and movement™.·°
In this way, Hume™s division, noted earlier, of all knowable phenomena
into ˜Matters of Fact™ and ˜Relations of Ideas™ can now be seen to stem
from his theory that every idea is derived either from a corresponding
impression or from a composition of simpler ideas which are themselves
The eighteenth century
derived from corresponding impressions. Hume discusses this dualism
in the opening passage of Section Four of the Enquiry Concerning Human
All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two
kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the ¬rst kind are the
sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every af¬rmation
which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. [. . .] Propositions of this
kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence
on what is anywhere existent in the universe. [. . .] Matters of fact, which are
the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner;
nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the
foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can
never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility
and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality.·±

Consequently, for Hume all that is knowable must fall on one side or
the other of the fork of non-existential and self-evident or demonstrable
propositions (expressing the relations of ideas) and existential proposi-
tions which are neither self-evident nor demonstrable (expressing matters
of fact). There is no crossing this fork. Any statement purporting to ex-
press a self-evident existential proposition, for instance, is for Hume quite
groundless. The ¬rst sphere to fall foul of Hume™s fork, then, is that of
value judgements, and in particular the moral imperative disguised as
statement of fact “ or as Hume puts it, the ˜ought™ statement lurking
among ˜is™ statements “ which is often to be found in works of moral
philosophy, and whose veracity, Hume argues in the Treatise, ought to be
For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or af¬rmation, ™tis
necessary that it shou™d be observ™d and explain™d; and at the same time that a
reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new
relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.·

Hume, of course, has his own answer to this puzzle, which is that
˜when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean
nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling
or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it™.· We shall return to
this answer in a moment. As far as knowledge is concerned, however, the
domain of value lies beyond reach. At the same time, the fork of ˜fact™
and ˜relations of ideas™ is an unequal one. Rationalist philosophy had
traditionally attempted to resolve the former into the latter. Hume was
aware, however, that philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz, despite
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
their claims to deductive thoroughness, ultimately grounded their deduc-
tions on self-evident propositions, or axioms, the truth of which could not
be demonstrated merely in terms of the logical relations of the ideas in-
volved, but which, if accepted as merely factual, could no longer function
as the foundations of the system of necessary knowledge these philoso-
phers envisaged. One such premise, and perhaps the most important, is
what Leibniz calls the principle of suf¬cient reason, or the proposition
that there is a reason or explanation for every event which occurs.· This
is the kind of purportedly existential but necessary proposition that Kant
was later to identify as synthetic a priori and in need of transcendental,
rather than logical, deduction. To Hume, however, the related claim that
˜every event has a cause™ was either factual and therefore contingent or,
by striving for necessity, fell between the fork of knowledge. Either way,
any edi¬ce of reasoning built upon it was doomed to collapse. In this
way, he was able to maintain that since ˜all our ideas are copy™d from our
impressions™, by extension all reasoning is itself ¬nally based on the induc-
tive and factual.·µ With this, Hume linked the fates of epistemic and moral
certainty by casting both as dubiously ˜value-added™ to experience. By so
doing, he not only proscribed traditional metaphysics, but effectively
alienated his own philosophy from the unre¬‚ective thought of ordinary
life which implicitly traded upon synthetic a priori propositions as stable
Hume himself was acutely aware of this, but there is continued dis-
agreement in the immense literature on Hume as to what he chose to
do about it. One of the twentieth century™s most in¬‚uential views was
that of Norman Kemp Smith, who argued that Hume™s intention in the
Treatise was always to obviate epistemological scepticism concerning the
possibility of justi¬cation of belief with a naturalistic description of human
belief, according to which ˜we retain a degree of belief, which is suf¬cient for
our purpose, either in philosophy or common life™ “ a line of thought extended
by Reid.· More recent commentators, however, working in the wake
of Quine™s attack on the analytic/synthetic dichotomy (a modernized
version of Hume™s fork), have questioned whether scepticism can be so
easily tamed without abnegating epistemology, perhaps even philosophy,
altogether. Robert Fogelin, for example, argues that Hume™s scepticism
is so comprehensive that naturalism coheres with it only by postulating
that philosophizing, and by extension philosophical scepticism, are them-
selves ˜natural™ human conditions. However, this means the suspension
of epistemology as much as naturalism, and the holding of both in an un-
easy alliance: ˜The mitigated skepticism that Hume recommends is the
The eighteenth century
causal product of two competing in¬‚uences: Pyrrhonian doubt on one
side, natural instinct on the other. We do not argue for mitigated skep-
ticism; we ¬nd ourselves in it.™·· H. O. Mounce, meanwhile, agrees,
claiming that Kemp Smith con¬‚ates two kinds of incompatible natu-
ralism: one, that of Hume and eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy,
which subordinated knowledge to belief, and another, that of scienti¬c
positivism, which presumes the possibility of a rational explanation of the
world. In other words, he ˜confuses epistemological naturalism, the view that
our knowledge depends on what is given us by nature, with metaphysical
naturalism, the view that there is no reality apart from the natural world™.
Consequently, there is no positivist route around scepticism for Hume,
just groundless belief, precipitating the passages of self-dramatizing
despair and irony which always threaten to run out of contol and sink
the author ˜in the scepticism from which he seeks to deliver us™.·
Certainly one of Hume™s responses to ¬nding empiricism unequal to
the task of sustaining knowledge was to divorce philosophical inquiry
from ordinary lived experience “ from dinner, backgammon and the
company of friends. From the perspective of the ˜common affairs of
life™, he observed, such speculations ˜appear so cold, and strain™d, and
ridiculous, that I cannot ¬nd in my heart to enter into them any farther™.·
It is precisely this voice of the quotidian, of ˜life™, which the Romantics
attempt to recover for a philosophical mode of thought which Hume
wished to con¬ne to the study or the academy. The pressing questions
after Hume are: how might certainty be made a part of the totality
of lived experience?; and can this reconciliation of fact and value be
effected within philosophy, or must philosophy itself take its place within
a more holistic context of knowing and being? English Romanticism
comes to de¬ne itself by its sense of its own equivocal response to this
problem of knowing, oscillating not between scepticism and naturalism,
but between knowledge and an indifference to knowing which might
encompass other (possibly supernatural) modes of being or ˜life™. In this
manner it seeks both to argue with and transcend the stark injunction,
with which Hume closes the Enquiry and I opened this chapter, to commit
˜to the ¬‚ames™ any volume containing neither factual nor logical truths.
Hume™s challenge still exercises philosophers today. For example, one
way of reading the recent debate between coherentists such as Quine,
Rorty and Davidson on one hand, and epistemological foundationalists
like Roderick Chisholm and Ernest Sosa on the other is as between dif-
ferent ways of overcoming the alienation of fact and value created by
Hume. The coherentist is apt to reject the division outright, arguing that
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
the traditional notion that the justi¬cation of belief rests upon a neutral
non-epistemic ground which is somehow ˜given™ is a mistake. On the
contrary, knowledge is, in an epistemic sense, always already evaluative,
which is simply to say that there is no clear distinction between eval-
uative and non-evaluative propositions in the ¬rst place: for Davidson,
meaning itself is ˜contaminated by theory, by what is held to be true™.°
Moreover, any philosophy which is indifferent to this distinction may well
be led to call into question the need for an epistemology which purports
to seek the ˜ground™ of knowledge. Knowing becomes a matter of what
Rorty terms ˜conversation™ within a space of reasons rather than one
of ˜confrontation™ with a value-neutral reality.± Foundationalists, mean-
while, continue to preserve Hume™s distinction, and thus the traditional
questions of epistemology as subsequently evolved by Kant, by insisting
that the coherentist account ignores the irreducibly normative nature of
justi¬cation. For these thinkers, the avoidance of a more vicious division
within the value/fact dichotomy means accepting that in knowledge, just
as in morals and aesthetics, value is grounded in fact by virtue of what
Chisholm calls ˜the supervenient character of epistemic justi¬cation™. As
Ernest Sosa puts it: ˜All epistemic justi¬cation [. . .] derive[s] from what
is not epistemically evaluative.™
The con¬‚ict between these outlooks is already present in English
Romantic prose. But what has broadened and hardened as a debate
(or even a refusal of debate) between writers and between camps of
philosophers is played out as a localized tension within the work of indi-
vidual Romantic writers. Moreover, because one of the leading Romantic
strategies for evading Hume™s bifurcation is one of indifference to know-
ing, denying the value of certainty per se, close reading will have to be
sensitive to how this peculiar gambit merely reproduces the same prob-
lem on new and different levels, as foundational ˜knowledge™ is repressed,
only to reappear (to adapt an image of de Man™s) like the Hydra™s head,
once more.
In the meantime, it testi¬es either to the con¬dence or the anxiety
of Hume™s age and that of later eighteenth-century thought that many
writers chose either to ignore Hume™s ¬ndings or adopt and incorporate
aspects of his language without acknowledging their implications. One
quarter where this was not the case, however, was that of Hume™s own
country, Scotland, where Thomas Reid took his conclusions seriously
enough to attempt to eradicate scepticism by destroying its roots, namely
the ˜idea™ philosophy, or representative realism of Descartes and Locke,
and installing naturalism in its stead. Before proceeding to a discussion
The eighteenth century
of the common sense school, however, one must step back for a mo-
ment to register the earlier work of Hutcheson, and the in¬‚uence upon
eighteenth-century thought, and ultimately the Romantics, exercised by
his theory of ˜inner sense™.

Inner sense: Hutcheson
Hutcheson™s An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue has
long since secured its place in intellectual history as the ¬rst attempt
by a British writer to develop, as an independent intellectual exercise, a
systematic theory of beauty. In it, Hutcheson seeks to modify Locke™s epis-
temology by adapting his theory of secondary qualities to Shaftesbury™s
notion of aesthetic intuition. Where Locke and Hume see secondary
qualities as epistemologically risky (depending upon a contingent rela-
tion between the perceiver and the perceived, rather than a property
inhering in the object itself ), Hutcheson, pursuing a line of argument
which was to be followed by Reid, strengthens the veridicality of our
perception of secondary qualities by explaining them in terms of our
natural disposition to be determined in certain law-like ways “ which are
themselves intimately linked with our pleasure-responses. Observing ini-
tially that ˜[t]here is scarcely any Object which our Minds are employ™d
about, which is not thus constituted the necessary Occasion of some Plea-
sure or Pain™,µ Hutcheson proposes that if those ˜Determinations to be
pleas™d with any Forms, or Ideas which occur to our Observation™ are
what constitute sense in general, then the ˜Power of perceiving the Beauty
of Regularity, Order, Harmony™ and so on, is ˜I®  ®¬ S ®  ™. In all of
this, he expresses con¬dence ˜[t]hat there is some Sense of Beauty natural
to Men™. Unlike Locke™s version, internal sense (of secondary qualities)
is an immediate and veridical intuition, no less authentic than external
sense, though quite distinct from it. It is this distinctness, moreover, which
underlies Hutcheson™s contrast of absolute or original beauty, as opposed
to comparative or relative beauty:
Only let it be observ™d, that by Absolute or Original Beauty, is not understood
any Quality suppos™d to be in the Object, which should of itself be beautiful,
without any relation to any Mind which perceives it: For Beauty, like other
Names of sensible Ideas, properly denotes the Perception of some Mind; so Cold,
Hot, Sweet, Bitter, denote the Sensations in our Minds, to which perhaps there
is no Resemblance in the Objects, which excite these Ideas in us, however we
generally imagine otherwise [. . .]. We therefore by Absolute Beauty understand
only that Beauty, which we perceive in Objects without Comparison to any thing
external, of which the Object is suppos™d an Imitation, or Picture [. . .].·
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Again, like Shaftesbury, Hutcheson is at pains to deny that he is at-
tempting to smuggle in a rehabilitated innatist theory by the back door:
˜an internal Sense no more presupposes an innate Idea, or Principle of
Knowledge, than the external™. Unlike his mentor, however, he does
not con¬‚ate the inner sense for beauty with moral sense, though he
does see them as linked: ˜T© moral Sense™, he writes, ˜has this in common
with our other Senses, that however our Desire of Virtue may be coun-
terbalanc™d by Interest, our Sentiment or Perception of its Beauty cannot
[. . .].™° This takes on some signi¬cance in the course of his later dis-
cussion of poetry. In poetry, he claims, ˜the most moving Beautys bear
a Relation to our moral Sense, and affect us more vehemently, than the
Representations of natural Objects in the liveliest Descriptions™. ±
Ingenious as it was, Hutcheson™s optimistic appropriation and re-
fashioning of Locke™s secondary qualities along the lines of Shaftes-
bury™s inner sense was unsustainable if left without any other support
than that of empiricist epistemology. In the absence of some gratuitous
non-empirical principle of veri¬cation, secondary qualities would always
appear compromised by their inherently subjective component. Worse,
when unwound into a general epistemology, as in Hume, they seemed
to give rise to an unacceptable scepticism. As a result, though of con-
siderable in¬‚uence, inner sense has an uneasy passage through later
British philosophy, accepted by some, such as Kames and Blair (though
with modi¬cations), but rejected by associationists such as Gerard and
Jeffrey. As a weapon against scepticism, moreover, it was to be super-
seded by Thomas Reid™s commonsensism.

Common sense: Reid
Before Kant had been roused from his ˜dogmatic slumbers™, Reid had
marshalled an anti-sceptical response to Hume in his ±· An Inquiry into
the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense, which was to be followed
two decades later by the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (±·µ) and
the Essays on the Active Powers of Man (±·). In the Inquiry™s dedication
(to the Chancellor of the ˜University of Old Aberdeen™, where Reid had
been a lecturer since ±·µ±) he claims ˜that I never thought of calling in
question the principles commonly received with regard to the human
understanding, until the Treatise of human nature was published, in the
year ±·™. What follows is an attempted rebuttal, not just of Hume, but
of the presumption in general that philosophical argument must always
override the testimony of common sense, regardless of how powerful or
compelling that may be. Reid mounts a naturalistic attack on the theory
The eighteenth century
of ideas and representative accounts of perception as they appear in
thinkers from Descartes to Hume, and “ signi¬cantly for the purpose
here “ in the course of so doing attempts to replace it with an account
of the mind™s active role in perception.
The phrase ˜common sense™ was far from being novel in ±·.
Shaftesbury had advised that ˜with respect to Morals; Honesty is like to
gain little by Philosophy, or deep Speculations of any kind. In the main,
™tis best to stick to Common Sense, and go no further.™ In the eighteenth
century, no less than today, the term carried more than a suggestion of
impatience with speculative or philosophical thought. Reid™s invocation
of the notion, however, was no more a mere vulgar appeal to consensual
opinion than Shaftesbury™s. What was offensive about recent philosophy
to Reid was that it was inherently self-destructive, undermining notions
which were the very cornerstones of knowledge; in such a way, as Hume
had found, as to question the premises and procedure of that philosophy
itself. The ¬rst principle of commonsensism, then, was one which re-
versed the burden of proof, and stipulated that philosophical explana-
tions must be adequate to everyday knowledge, or a reasonable network
of beliefs. For something to count as ˜everyday knowledge™, Reid laid
down certain criteria, the foremost of which were that it should receive
universal assent; that it could not be open to contradiction without
absurdity; that it should be morally or practically indispensable; and
(something which he continually af¬rmed throughout his writing) that
it must be embedded in ordinary language. As he puts it in Essays on
the Intellectual Powers of Man, ˜whatever we ¬nd common to all languages,
must have a common cause; must be owing to some common notion or
sentiment of the human mind™.µ
Most tellingly, Reid™s critique of recent philosophy takes the form of
an assault on theories of perception as representation. In the Dedication
of the Inquiry, he claims that he was led by Hume™s conclusion to question
its basic premises, and above all the ˜ancient™ one ˜[t]hat we do not really
perceive things that are external, but only certain images and pictures of
them imprinted upon the mind, which are called impressions and ideas™, but
from which ˜I cannot [. . .] infer the existence of any thing else™. For this,
ultimately damaging assumption, ˜I could ¬nd no solid proof.™ In the
Essays, he proposes instead that when ˜in common language, we speak
of having an idea of any thing, we mean no more by that expression, but
thinking of it™.·
To this negative argument, however, Reid hitches a positive thesis
about the nature of perception. Having denied that we gain our knowl-
edge of such things as identity from comparing ideas passively received
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
from without, he suggests that knowledge is derived rather from ˜judge-
ments of nature™; which are ˜immediately inspired by our constitution™,
and merely prompted or suggested by sensation. He illustrates this
point with an example of smelling a rose:

[T]he smell of a rose signi¬es two things. First, A sensation, which can have no
existence but when it is perceived, and can only be in a sentient being or mind.
Secondly, It signi¬es some power, quality, or virtue, in the rose [. . .] which hath a
permanent existence, independent of the mind [. . .] By the original constitution
of our nature, we are both led to believe, that there is a permanent cause of the
sensation [. . .] and experience determines us to place it in the rose.

In this matter, he continues, the Aristotelians ˜came nearer to the truth,
in holding the mind to be in sensation partly passive and partly active,
than the moderns, in af¬rming it to be purely passive™.±°° Basic concep-
tions of things, then, arise from original faculties, or innate powers of the
mind, in response to external stimulus. However, the most important
aspect of this for Reid is that intentional acts such as perceiving a rose
are about something; in other words, they imply the existence of something
other than the perceiver. He af¬rms this in the Essays (as usual, resting
his case on language): ˜The operations of our minds are denoted, in all
languages, by active transitive verbs, which, from their constitution in
grammar, require [. . .] an object of the operation.™ Consequently, when
divorced from the impressions of sensation, ˜we may conceive or imagine
what has no existence [. . .]. Every man knows that it is as easy to conceive
a winged horse or a centaur, as it is to conceive a horse or a man.™±°± By
asserting the activity of the mind in perception itself, Reid is clearing a
way for Kant.
However, it was one thing to replace a worn-out epistemology of ideas
with a naturalistic account of belief and common sense, but quite another
to challenge philosophy™s dualism of subject and object. Reid™s account
of the power of the mind to perceive objects without the mediation of
ideas or representations should not be read as implying that knowledge is
inherently subjective in the Kantian sense, viz. that for perception itself to
be possible, objects must conform to our experience, rather than vice versa.
Still less should it be seen as questioning the boundaries of subjectivity
and objectivity. Indeed, Reid remains highly suspicious of imagination™s
capacity to interfere with the raw materials of knowledge. For example,
he is opposed to all forms of reasoning by hypothesis, dismissing them as
˜the reveries of vain and fanciful men, whose pride makes them conceive
themselves able to unfold the mysteries of nature by the force of their
The eighteenth century
genius™, adding that only what ˜can fairly be deduced from facts duly
observed, or suf¬ciently attested, is genuine and pure; it is the voice of
God, and no ¬ction of human imagination™.±° Yet even this pales beside
the attack upon the creative imagination launched in the Introduction
to the Inquiry:
It is genius, and not the want of it, that adulterates philosophy, and ¬lls it with
error and false theory. A creative imagination disdains the mean of¬ces of digging
for a foundation [. . .] it plans a design, and raises a fabric. Invention supplies
materials where they are wanting, and fancy adds colouring, and every be¬tting
ornament. The work pleases the eye, and wants nothing but solidity and a good
foundation. It seems even to vie with the works of nature, till some succeeding
architect blows it into rubbish, and builds as goodly a fabric of his own in its
place. Happily for the present age, the castle-builders employ themselves more
in romance than in philosophy.±°
What Reid demonstrates, above all, is that the profound uneasiness of
eighteenth-century thought with the concept creativity associated with
original genius “ an idea which, more than any other era, it fostered and
encouraged “ was not solely attributable to the legacy of Locke™s peculiar
idea-empiricism, or representative realism, but to a self-undermining
loop of logic within the empiricist discourse of genius in general. What
this amounted to was that, while from Hobbes onwards philosophy in
Britain fostered the development of faculty psychology, and thereby the
notion of the active, synthetic roles of the imagination and understanding
in building up the raw material of experience, it could not countenance
the idea that the products of these faculties (and imagination, above all)
might themselves return into the epistemic cycle, to be absorbed into the
data of what was ˜true™. Consequently, as the language of the passage
above con¬rms, even a relatively radical, anti-epistemological theory of
the mental powers such as Reid™s “ which attacks the representationalism
of the philosophy of ideas “ leaves empiricism™s foundationalism untouched.
Imagination may raise its buildings, and the poetic genius may be the
most imaginative (and therefore creative) of people, but, unrati¬ed by
experience, his constructions are follies which want ˜solidity and a good
Thus far three major facets of late seventeenth and eighteenth-century
philosophy have been discussed: representative realism, inner sense
theory, and naturalism or commonsensism. Though, for the sake of
concision, the analysis of these trends has tended to focus upon their
originators or chief exponents, it would not do to suggest that they were
always articulated so distinctly; or that they were not altered, developed
µ° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
or overlayed by these and subsequent theorists “ for evidence of which one
need only examine the work of an eclectic writer like Kames. Nor would
it be accurate to imply that they enjoyed equally successful careers “
and this despite the fact that each of the paradigms is still seen as suf¬-
ciently viable in some form or other by the end of the century for them
to in¬‚uence the Romantics. Inner sense theory, for instance, persists
in an ennervated form in later eighteenth-century philosophy, before
being transformed by Coleridge.±° Reid, meanwhile, shares with the
Romantics a post-Humean ambivalence regarding foundational philo-
sophy™s conception of ˜knowledge™, and in many ways strives towards
the same goal of recovering the ˜ordinary voice™ for philosophy; of re-
habilitating a by now thoroughly counter-intuitive empiricism with the
accepted certainties of everyday experience. But his unwillingness to test
the dualism of subject and object means that that philosophy, in the
form of an uneasy naturalism, largely retains its appointed role as the
master-discourse of the later Enlightenment. While Reid™s own ideas
certainly have a huge impact upon philosophy, particularly in Scotland,
the austerity of his naturalistic method, his objectivism, and his rejection
of all talk of ˜ideas™ was hardly designed to impress the Romantics. The
unacceptable price of naturalism for the Romantics, as Elridge observes,
is that we are forced to ˜abandon our sense of ourselves as free subjec-
tivities™.±°µ Consequently, Locke™s representative realism survives Reid™s
attack, ironically because it preserves a role for creative imagination
(albeit a subordinate one) where commonsensism represses creativity.
Nonetheless, though Reid™s translation of that experience as common
sense seems very distant from Coleridge™s highly complex construction of
˜feeling™, there remains a story to be told about how, thanks to Coleridge,
important lines of common sense philosophy ¬nd their way back into
English thought having ¬rst been ˜Germanized™ through Kant™s read-
ing of Reid and his followers. But that is not a story which concerns
us here.

Association: Hartley
National prejudice aside, the failure of Reid™s commonsensism to gain
any purchase on English Romantic thought is in part due to the impact
upon Romanticism of associationism “ or, more correctly, theories of the
association of ideas; since, as Martin Kallich has indicated, there were
many variants of this in circulation at the time. The present discussion
of associationism has been delayed for two reasons: ¬rst, because of
chronology (as Kallich notes, it was only in the wake of Hume that the
The eighteenth century
idea began to acquire legitimacy);±° and second, and more importantly,
because it is part of the present purpose to contest the notion, which
has become something of a commonplace in intellectual history, that
there was something natural or inevitable about how associationism both
emerged from empirical thought and fed into Romanticism. In fact,
associationism was a contentious issue in the mid and late eighteenth
century, and in certain forms clashed with many other signi¬cant ideas
such as inner sense or common sense.
As it is primarily concerned with the post-Humean fate of associa-
tionism, this study has little to add to Kallich™s thorough analysis of the
development of the idea prior to the seventeen forties. Following its initial,
rather ambivalent treatment at the hands of Hobbes and Locke, associ-
ationism takes on a shadowy role in the ¬rst decades of the eighteenth
century.±°· While quietly informing many of the period™s key assump-
tions, it remains an uncomfortable notion which is rarely named or
acknowledged directly. However, Hume™s argument in the Treatise con-
cerning the qualities resulting from his principle of association “ namely,
resemblance, contiguity and causality “ seemed to many to suggest the
possibility that association might be a natural and regular cognitive
process. This was despite the fact that Hume had made it clear that
his principle was itself the merely the product of observation, and that
separately or jointly, the qualities of association were ˜not to be con-
sider™d as an inseparable connexion™, but rather as ˜a gentle force, which
commonly prevails™.±°
Nonetheless, the question as to whether association was a regular or
random phenomenon was to divide thinkers after Hume. Most com-
mentators found the second proposition too much to swallow, and opted
for a hybrid theory of randomness sustained by an underlying regularity.
Those who interpreted associationism as a theory of arbitrary connec-
tion alone “ identi¬ed with Hume™s principle of association according to
contiguity in time “ often did so in order to oppose it more effectively.
Cutting across this debate is a second question, though it is seldom ac-
knowledged as a distinct one by the parties concerned: is association a
fundamental principle of knowledge, a condition (or even the condition)
of reasoning, or is it a psychological activity which is simply liable to
affect our knowledge, given certain conditions?±° As a rule, ˜random™
associationists, such as Hartley, tend to adopt the stronger, epistemolog-
ical thesis, while ˜regularists™ like Hutcheson and Kames, are generally
psychological associationists only.
Despite the fact that, in terms of the spread of associationism in
Scotland, Hume™s impact is considerably greater than that of Hartley, the
µ Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
latter deserves special consideration, not only because of his well-known
in¬‚uence upon the early development of Coleridge™s thought, but be-
cause his version of the doctrine is one of the most uncompromising of
the epistemological forms of associationism. His purpose in Observations
on Man was, as Theodore Huguelet notes in his introduction to his fac-
simile edition, ˜to yoke Newton™s theory of vibrations and of the aether
to the principle of association of ideas as adumbrated by Locke and the
Reverend John Gay [. . .]™.±±° Hartley, like Locke, is a representationalist:
he believes that ideas are representations of the causally effective objects
of sensation.±±± However, whereas Locke sidesteps the issue of materiality,
Hartley attempts to confront it. To bridge the mind-body gap, he posits
the existence of a ˜subtle elastic Fluid™ through which in¬nitely small
vibrations are communicated between the material organs of sense and
the sensitive soul itself.±± In this way, he hopes to avoid the charge
that he is proposing a reductively materialist account of sensation.±±
Nonetheless, the early physiology of the Observations illustrates Hartley™s
If we suppose an in¬nitesimal elementary Body to be intermediate between the
Soul and gross Body, which appears to be no improbable Supposition, then
the Changes in our Sensations, Ideas, and Motions, may correspond to the
Changes made in the medullary Substance, only as far as these correspond to
the Changes made in the elementary Body.±±

What distinguishes Hartleian associationism from Hume™s own ac-
count, however, is not simply the former™s concern with the physiology
of sensation, but his reduction of all association to one of Hume™s prin-
ciples: that of contiguity.±±µ Within this category, Hartley describes two
sub-groups: the synchronous, and the successive: ˜Thus the Sight of Part
of a large Building suggests the Idea of the rest instantaneously; and the
Sound of the Words which begin a familiar Sentence, brings the remain-
ing Part to our Memories in Order, the Association of the Parts being
synchronous in the ¬rst Case, and successive in the last.™±± It is impor-
tant to Hartley that association should depend upon contiguity, and not
any identi¬able qualities in ideas, as it is central to his argument that
association is itself prior to the formation of ideas. It is this implication
of association in the very process of perception which marks his form of
associationism as epistemological, rather than merely psychological:
Ideas, and miniature Vibrations, must ¬rst be generated [. . .] before they can
be associated [. . .]. But then [. . .] this Power of forming Ideas, and their corre-
sponding miniature Vibrations, does equally presuppose the Power of Association. For
The eighteenth century
since all Sensations and Vibrations are in¬nitely divisible, in respect of Time
and Place, they could not leave any Traces or Images of themselves, i.e. any
Ideas, or miniature Vibrations, unless their in¬nitesimal Parts did cohere
together through joint Impression; i.e. Association.±±·

With these premises combined, Hartley is committed to a theory of
human perception which is at once deterministic and radically associ-
ationist.±± Human knowledge and experience can amount to nothing
more than the associations of contiguous vibrations of the aether. For ex-
ample, in his explanation of the nature of the ˜Passions™, he remarks that
˜our Passions or Affections can be no more than Aggregates of simple
Ideas united by Association [. . .]™.±± Moreover, since ˜all Desire and
Aversion, are factitious, and generated by Association; i.e. mechanically;
it follows that the Will is mechanical also™.±° This has serious repercus-
sions for his moral theory, and causes him some discomfort when treating
the subject of freedom. Like Hobbes, Hartley opposes the philosophical
notion of free will with a theory of freedom as consisting in free action.
This ˜popular and practical Sense™, he claims, ˜is not only consistent
with the Doctrine of Mechanism, but even ¬‚ows from it™; namely, ˜if
Free-will be de¬ned the Power of doing what a Person desires or wills to
do [. . .]™.±±
With this unfortunate ability to appear both deterministic and ran-
domizing, few philosophers were willing to embrace Hartley™s theory that
association was a condition of the formation of simple ideas, preferring
instead to accept it as a more regular psychological phenomenon which
affected perception. Locke himself had suggested something along these
lines when he noted in the Essay ˜how the Mind, by degrees, improves in
these [simple ideas], and advances to the Exercise of those other faculties
of Enlarging, Compounding, and Abstracting its Ideas [. . .]™.± Less regular
forms of association, meanwhile, were cited as instances or causes of
error. Hutcheson, for instance, deploys the notion to explain away the
apparent vagaries of taste in the Inquiry: given that the laws by which
simple ideas are raised in people by objects are the same, he argues that
˜in the same Person, when his Fancy at one time differs from what it
was at another [. . .] we shall generally ¬nd that there is some accidental
Conjunction of a disagreeable Idea, which always recurs with the Object
[. . .]™.±
The march of associationism, then, was far from being a steady one.±
Nonetheless, Hume™s in¬‚uence in the later eighteenth century was such
that, despite the dissenting voice of Reid, practically every theorist felt
compelled to acknowledge the process, particularly with respect to how it
µ Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
seemed to explain the synthetic, constructive capacity of the mind, and
thereby the progress of knowledge. Some, such as Alexander Gerard,
attempted to turn the doctrine into a full-blown account of original
genius. Gerard was also the ¬rst to adapt Hume™s connection of the
emotions and the associative imagination to a theory of artistic creation;
a connection which was to be extended by Archibald Alison to explain
the nature of taste. By the time it enters into the discourse of English
Romanticism, then, associationism is connoted both with physiological
necessity and the implicit creativity of contingent connection.

   ©®     §©®  :    ©    ¦  © § © ® ¬ §  ®© µ
In a sketchy way, I have attempted to outline the manner in which seven-
teenth and eighteenth-century empiricism encouraged a view of the
mind™s creative power which itself came to threaten that philosophy™s no-
tion of truth as representation (or, in Reid™s case, as direct apprehension).
At the same time, its af¬nity with the older doctrine of poetic inspiration,
as well as with a more voguish notion of the sublime, meant that the dis-
course of mental creation persisted, albeit in the margins of eighteenth-
century philosophical thought. The point at which this notion most
closely approaches the centre, however, remains to be considered, and
that is through the cult of original genius. Here, once again, one ¬nds that
in Britain the earliest encouragement for this idea came from modi¬ca-
tions to the notion of artistic imitation which were themselves wrought
by increasingly empirical modes of thinking.

Imitation ancient and natural
In many ways empiricism encouraged a more libertarian view of the
artist™s craft. The traditional positive sense of ˜imitation™ as the emulation
of ancient writers had never been entirely secure within the British liter-
ary tradition. In his ±µ° preface to Gondibert, Davenant had complained
that ˜[s]uch limits to the progress of every thing . . . doth Imitation give;
for whilst we imitate others, we can no more excel them, then he that
sailes by others Mapps can make a new discovery [. . .]™.±µ Moreover,
inevitably any normative theory of classical imitation had always sooner
or later to confront the problem of Shakespeare™s excellence. In a letter
to John Dennis, Dryden wrote that
The eighteenth century
I cannot but conclude with Mr. Rym “ that our English Comedy is far beyond
any thing of the Ancients. And notwithstanding our irregularities, so is our
Tragedy. Shakespear had a Genius for it; and we know, in spite of Mr R “ that
Genius alone is a greater Virtue (if I may so call it) than all other Quali¬cations
put together.±
By the middle of the eighteenth century, empiricism had all but erased
the vestiges of the notion that classical precedent represented an objec-
tive standard of literary value, and that the vocation of the poet was to
mimic the ancients or ancient rules. Gradually, this kind of activity began
to be designated as ˜copying™, rather than imitation proper. Burke™s con-
tribution to this trend with regard to the language of poetry has already
been registered. But even a relatively conservative voice such as that of
Kames fulminates in the Elements of Criticism against the ˜slavish™ imitation
of the ˜arbitrary™ dictates of the ancients, challenging the French critic
Bossuet to explain ˜if in writing they [the ancients] followed no rule, why
should they be imitated?™±· Adam Smith, meanwhile, has no hesitation
in dismissing pure copy as valueless, noting that ˜though a production
of art seldom derives any merit from its resemblance to another object
of the same kind, it frequently derives a great deal from its resemblance
to an object of a different kind [. . .]™.± Of course the doctrine retained
some adherents, the most notable of whom, famously, was Sir Joshua
Reynolds. As late as ±·· Reynolds is lecturing to the Royal Academy
˜that a painter must not only be of necessity an imitator of the works
of nature [. . .] but he must as necessarily be an imitator of the works
of other painters™ “ adding, ˜I will go further; even genius, at least what
generally is so called, is the child of imitation.™±
Moreover, the ancients aside, the presumption that the arts must con-
form to some kind of canon of rules was rather more dif¬cult to dislodge.
Thomas Rymer™s criticism of Shakespeare on Aristotelian grounds is
often portrayed as being something of a blind alley in the history of
English criticism, but though by the turn of the century few would agree
with his claim about ˜how unhappy the greatest English Poets have been
through their ignorance or negligence of these fundamental Rules and
Laws of Aristotle™,±° his conviction that poetry should be subject to prin-
cipled judgement, and therefore reducible to rules based on common
sense or reason, retained a powerful hold upon theorists. It has already
been shown that Dennis, for one, shared his concern that some kind of
benchmark for poetic ˜truth™ was necessary. But as the authority of classic
example receded, to be replaced by the testimony of experience, so the
µ Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
theory of imitation shifted from being one which encouraged the artist
to follow the ancients, to one which prescribed the imitation of nature.
Dennis himself savaged Pope in A True Character of Mr. Pope, and His Writings
(±·±) for being ˜emphatically a Monkey, in his awkward servile Imitations.
For in all his Productions, he has been an Imitator, from his Imitation of
©§©¬ Bucolocks, to his present Imitation of .™ And yet he is
quite consistent throughout his career in maintaining that poetry is the
imitation of nature.±±
In line with this is Addison™s analysis of genius in Spectator No. ±°.
Addison admires such ˜great Genius™s [. . .] who by the meer Strength of
natural Parts, and without any Assistance of Art or Learning, have pro-
duced Works that were the Delight of their own Times and the Wonder
of Posterity™. Citing classical authors as examples, he adds that there is
˜something nobly wild and extravagant in these great natural Genius™s™
which excels in beauty the accomplishment of merely learned writers
(such as that of the moderns).± Nevertheless, even Addison hesitates to
subordinate this second class of genius, or ˜those that have formed them-
selves by Rules, and submitted the Greatness of their natural Talents to
the Corrections and Restraints of Art™, to the ¬rst. It is only when he
comes to the question of imitation that his true allegiance emerges, for
as he sees it, ˜[t]he great Danger in these latter kind of Genius™s, is, lest
they cramp their own Abilities too much by Imitation™, insofar as ˜[a]n
Imitation of the best Authors, is not to compare with a good Original
[. . .]™.±
Addison and Dennis™s writings on genius suggest a new paradigm of
imitation which had nothing to do with aping ancient writers, and which
can be seen as laying the groundwork for Edward Young™s treatment of
the matter in his Conjectures on Original Composition of ±·µ (a signi¬cant
year, which also saw the publication of Gerard™s Essay on Taste, Adam
Smith™s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the second edition of Burke™s
Inquiry). To Young, ˜Imitations are of two kinds; one of Nature, one of
Authors: The ¬rst we call Originals, and con¬ne the term Imitation to
the second.™± There are three major defects in the spirit of imitation:
it denies art the possibility of progression and improvement; it thwarts
Nature herself, who ˜brings us into the world all Originals™; and, ¬nally,
it ˜makes us think little, and write much™.±µ Where Young departs from
Dennis, however, is in his rejection of rule-following per se. ˜There is™, he
asserts, ˜something in Poetry beyond Prose-reason; there are Mysteries
in it not to be explained, but admired [. . .].™ Moreover, ˜Genius can set us
right in Composition, without the Rules of the Learned; as Conscience
The eighteenth century
sets us right in Life, without the Laws of the Land [. . .].™± By being re-
de¬ned as the emulation or representation of nature, imitation has come
to be identi¬ed with originality as the chief characteristic of genius.±·
There is some friction, however, between Young™s ¬delity to an imita-
tive theory of art, and his description of true imitation (i.e. of nature) as
that which has ˜a vegetable nature™ and ˜rises spontaneously from the vital
root of Genius [. . .]™. He is concerned that the representational demands
made by even this sense of imitation imply a check to the activity of the
artist. Yet without regulation of some kind, ˜[i]n the Fairyland of Fancy,
Genius may wander wild; there it has a creative power, and may reign
arbitrarily over its own empire of Chimeras™. As he struggles to articulate
a notion of truth in imitative art without compromising the integrity of
genius, he ¬nds it dif¬cult to resist the pull of innatism, for if ˜[l]earning
is borrowed knowledge; Genius is knowledge innate, and quite our own
[. . .]™.± Young was not alone in this respect: there was a general feeling
at the time that if the products of Genius truly were instances of epistemic
originality, and transcended empirical truth, then they must entail some
kind of innatist principle which would bind such a power to truth. This
was a problem which was to preoccupy theory until at least the end of
the century.

Innatism: Sharpe vs Young
After Locke, the remaining advocates of innatist theories of knowledge
were forced onto the defensive. Henry More™s argument that the mind
was ˜not unfurnish™d of Innate Truth™ no longer seemed tenable.± Even
opponents of empiricism such as Shaftesbury shied away from its dog-
matical implications. Yet as the concept of genius developed and assumed
new and more powerful qualities, the notion of an ˜empirical genius™
seemed ever more incongruous. It had for a long time been thought that
if transcendent genius was truly unique and irreducible, then it could
not simply be an acquired facility or quality derived from learning and
experience; that it must be, at least in part, inborn, or innate. This
in turn became entangled with a theory of language “ systematized in
the eighteenth century by Vico, but already familiar to writers of the Re-
naissance “ which rendered primitive language as more natural (though
less complex) than that of modern societies, because more spontaneous,
and less affected by art or the sophistication of learning. The innate and
˜primitive genius™ thus came to embody ideas about the germination
of language and intelligence which were crucial to the age™s view of
µ Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
itself, and of its artistic and scienti¬c culture, as progressive. The prob-
lem in Britain, however, was that such a ¬gure did not ¬t easily into the
model which empirical science was constructing of human intellectual
One of the more curious products of this paradox is William Sharpe™s
A Dissertation upon Genius. Sharpe attempts to remove the innatist overtones
from the idea of genius by rede¬ning it according to Lockean paradigms.
His purpose is ˜to prove, that Genius, or Taste, is not the result of simple
nature, not the effect of any cause exclusive of human assistance, and the
vicissitudes of life; but the effect of acquisition in general™. He rests his case
upon the authority of Locke™s Essay, and above all upon the principle that
our knowledge is grounded on ideas of sensation and re¬‚ection alone: if
this principle is to be allowed, he argues, together with the assumption
that prior to these operations the mind is a tabula rasa, then it follows that
˜Genius can neither act, nor exhibit itself, till these powers have been at
work [. . .].™±° Sharpe does, however, advance a positive theory of genius:

[Genius is] an aptness to receive the accession of some ideas, and to exclude
that of others; or [. . .] an active power of revolving, examining, and conferring
together the ideas thus severally and distinctly received; or [. . .] an activity,
promptitude, or aptness to unite the ideas arising from this comparison, set
them, as it were, in juxta-position, view them in their mutual habitudes and
relations, and thus investigate their consequences and conclusions.±±

Each of these qualities of genius corresponds more or less precisely to
Locke™s account of the principal acts of the mind in perception: namely,
and respectively; sensation, re¬‚ection, and the operation of ˜wit™ under
the supervision of judgement. Moreover, ˜[s]imple apprehension, or the
reception of our primary ideas™ is a business in which ˜the mind itself is
purely passive™. Again, as in Locke, any more radical notion of the mind™s
power, such as the creation of simple ideas, is precluded, as ˜this power
is no more a property of man than the power of working miracles™: ˜All
that the intellect can do, is to sort its materials, not add new ones, nor es-
sentially alter its originals [. . .].™ In this, it is similar to a ˜camera obscura™± “
an analogy which Locke had used to illustrate the operation of the
understanding in the Essay.± In Sharpe, we have a graphic and practi-
cal illustration of the limitations of Lockean empiricism when extended
into a theory of original genius.
Innatism was never going to be an adequate response either to em-
piricism™s challenge to genius to account for the ˜truth™ of its products,
The eighteenth century
or to genius™s intimation that truth itself is something made, not found.
Since Descartes, the innatist doctine of ideas had enjoyed a limited life in
Britain as an expedient con¬‚ation of two different theses; one psycholog-
ical, the other epistemological. Accordingly, an explanation of the origin
of ideas or concepts was run together with an argument regarding the
grounds by which certain propositions were to be counted as necessarily
true. Not only was this out of step with the prevailing philosophy of the
early eighteenth century, then, but it was unequal to the task of coping
with the deconstructive implications the idea of creative genius carried
with regard to truth and knowledge. Theorists sympathetic to genius
(and by the late eighteenth century there were many) were accordingly
forced to make arguments mainly by metaphor and analogy, the most
ingenious and in¬‚uential of which was the paradigm of organic growth
as a model for mental development and activity. Even a conservative like
George Campbell, for example, adopts Young™s language of vegetable
growth in The Philosophy of Rhetoric when he argues that ˜[i]mprovements
[in art], unless in extraordinary instances of genius and sagacity, are not
to be expected from those who have acquired all their dexterity from
imitation and habit™, and that ˜[i]t is from the seed [i.e. rules] only you
can expect, with the aid of proper culture, to produce new varieties, and
even to make improvements on the species™.±
Despite this, the debate as to whether genius was an innate capacity
or an acquired ability ground on. In Scotland, some, such as Adam
Ferguson, still clung to the notion that genius was a birthright, and
that ˜the person, who is born to this elevation, ¬nds himself placed at
once on the height to which so few can aspire™.±µ Others, like Dugald
Stewart, sought to show ˜to how great a degree invention depends on
cultivation and habit, even in those sciences in which it is generally
supposed, that every thing depends on natural genius™.± Most, however,
tried to compromise between the two. For example, in his Dissertations
Moral and Critical, James Beattie initially observes that ˜to be a great
poet [. . .] one must have not only that capacity which is common to
all men of sense, but also a particular and distinguishing Genius, which
learning may improve, but cannot bestow™, but then adds of the nature
of genius itself that ˜it is owing partly to constitution, and partly to habit
[. . .]™.±· Indeed, as the century draws to a close, Isaac D™Israeli is noting
ruefully in his An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character that
˜philosophers have not yet agreed of the nature of genius, for while some
conceive it to be a gift; others think it an acquisition™.±
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose

So long as that argument was couched in terms of a contest between
Young™s conception of genius and that of Sharpe; that is, between an
innatist and an empiricist version of genius, agreement was an impossi-
bility. In the meantime, a compromise had to be reached between the
aesthetics of creation and the strictures of foundational empiricism. In
the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the idea of artistic cre-
ativity had safely been contained by the concept of invention, used in the
sense of the discovery of something new and hitherto unknown, or the
design of a new whole out of elements previously supplied. This is
the ˜discovery™ theory of creation, discussed at the beginning of this
chapter, which owes something to Plato™s notion of the Demiurge. It
does not challenge empirical principles, though it tests them by produc-
ing new candidates for veri¬cation. Bacon, for example, has this sense in
mind in The Advancement when he claims that ˜[t]he invention of speech or
argument is not properly an invention: for to invent is to discover that we
know not, and not to recover or resummon that which we already know
[. . .]™.± Similarly, Hobbes argues in Leviathan that ˜the discourse of the
mind, when it is governed by design, is nothing but seeking, or the faculty
of invention [. . .]™.±µ° Locke™s own de¬nition of invention as a liveliness
of memory is rather more conservative, but comparable to these.±µ±
This in turn encouraged in theorists and critics a certain licence. In the
preface to his ±µ translation of Fresnoy™s De Arte Graphica, Dryden writes
of painting and poetry that ˜[i]nvention is the ¬rst part, and absolutely
necessary to them both: yet no Rule ever was or ever can be given how to
compass it™. Moreover, ˜[w]ithout Invention a Painter is but a Copier, and
a Poet but a Plagiary of others™.±µ Even Rymer ¬nds it a fault in Ariosto
that he ˜produces nothing of his own invention™.±µ There are limitations
to this freedom, however. Dryden denies that genius or invention entails,
for example, the ability to evolve ˜new Rules™ in drama, while Temple
insists that ˜[b]esides the heat of Invention and liveliness of Wit, there
must be the coldness of good Sense and soundness of Judgement™, without
which poetry is apt to be ˜wild and extravagant™.±µ
Locke™s own in¬‚uence on the development of the concept of invention,
however, exceeds that of his own de¬nition of the term. His demand
for science to use a plain and exact language suited to its investigative
purpose produced con¬‚icting demands upon poetry: on the one hand,
to conform to this standard, and, on the other, to de¬ne a space for itself
The eighteenth century
outside scienti¬c discourse. All the while, empiricism quietly undermined
Neoclassical rules. As a consequence, the notion of ˜invention™ is forced
to bear increasing weight in literary theory. In The Spectator No. ·,
Addison™s discussion of Paradise Lost uses the term in a way which signals
a further departure:
Milton™s Characters, most of them, lie out of Nature, and were to be formed
purely by his own Invention. It shews a greater Genius in Shakespear to have
drawn his Calyban, than his Hotspur or Julius Caesar: The one was to be supplied
out of his own Imagination, whereas the other might have been formed upon
Tradition, History, and Observation [. . .]. The Loves of Dido and Æneas are
only Copies of what has passed between other Persons. Adam and Eve, before
the Fall, are a different Species from that of Mankind [. . .] and none but a Poet
of the most unbounded Invention, and the most exquisite Judgement, cou™d
have ¬lled their Conversation and Behaviour with so many apt Circumstances
during their State of Innocence.±µµ

To an extent, what this passage signi¬es is a shift in tone and emphasis.
In general, Addison is far less concerned than Rymer had been with con-
cepts such as ˜decorum™, ˜propriety™, and ˜correctness™, and his reference
to ˜exquisite Judgement™ here has the look of an afterthought: it might
easily have been placed in parentheses. The greatest innovation, how-
ever, is in the idea that invention might create what lies ˜out of Nature™,
or what exceeds the sum total or aggregate of the poet™s accumulated
experience of the world via ˜Tradition, History, and Observation™. This,
more radical notion of invention is echoed by the anonymous author
of the Two Dissertions concerning Sense and the Imagination, with an Essay on
Consciousness (±·) when he writes that
Imagination, when under the Conduct and Direction of Reason, is the Instrument
of that noble Faculty of the Mind, called Invention. For tho™ we often give the
name or title of Invention to a new Discovery, or the ¬nding out something that
was not known before [. . .] yet, I think, in strictness the Term Invention is most
properly applicable to some rational Work or Performance, which is different
from any thing we have perceived by our Senses.±µ

The reference to the ˜Conduct and direction of Reason™ is revealing,
for the author is a rationalist who, in the main, is in reaction against
Locke. Consequently, he is rather more generous in his estimate of the
territory of reason than Addison. By contrast, it is as a consequence of
the absence of any alternative principle of veri¬cation that the earlier
writer™s account of invention effectively stretches empiricism to breaking
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
point. This strain persists in the work of later advocates of original genius,
such as Joseph Warton. In his An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope,
Warton enthuses over ˜the genuine poet, of a lively plastic imagination,
the true  « or   ™, who is ˜so uncommon a prodigy™,±µ· and
numbers among the ˜few transcendent geniuses™.±µ But so indebted is he
to the Lockean account of perception, that he can give no grounds for
distinguishing the poetical truth produced by genius from historical fact,
other in that it provides a ˜minute and particular enumeration of cir-
cumstances judiciously selected™, and thereby approaches ˜a more close
and faithful representation of nature than the latter™.±µ
It was with good reason, then, that Samuel Johnson was so suspicious
of the kind of imagination presented by contemporary psychology. As
he wrote in The Rambler no. ±µ, it was ˜a licentious and vagrant faculty,
unsusceptible of limitations, and impatient of restraint™, which frustrated
the logician by producing ˜some innovation, which, when invented and
approved, subverts the rules which the practice of foregoing authors
had established™.±° This disapproving tone might sound jarring if viewed
against his later declarations in Lives of the English Poets that ˜[t]he highest
praise of genius is original invention™ and ˜[t]he essence of poetry is
invention™,±± but Johnson is scrupulous to con¬ne his own sense of imag-
ination to empirical duties of recovering and rearranging the mind™s em-
pirically given furniture.± As he puts it in The Idler, in a now-familiar
formula, ˜[i]magination selects ideas from the treasures of remembrance,
and produces novelty only by varied combinations™.± By denying imagi-
nation even the modest epistemic role of discovery, he presents an ac-
count that is in its essentials more conservative than that of Addison
or earlier critics. Accordingly, when he praises Pope for having ˜all the
qualities that constitute genius™, invention, being one of these, is given as
that activity ˜by which new trains of events are formed and new scenes
of imagery displayed [. . .]™.± Johnson™s ambivalence reveals how two
imaginations were struggling for priority in the eighteenth century: one
foundational, the synthetic under-labourer to epistemology; the other
aesthetic, ¬gurative, and indifferent to the claims of knowledge. This is
not to say that the two were divided as cleanly as this distinction suggests:
that theirs was as much a relationship of complicity as antagonism was, of
course, precisely what worried Johnson. That said, his censorious inton-
ings hardly represent the cutting edge of eighteenth-century theories of
imagination. Instead, the major advances were taking place north of the
border, and particularly in the work of Alexander Gerard and William
The eighteenth century

The Scottish ˜Genius™
The most signi¬cant contribution of the Scottish school to the theory of
genius is in its naturalistic (i.e. non-sceptical) appropriation of Hume™s
discussion of the epistemic function of association and its linking of
this to the new sense of invention, encouraged by models of scienti¬c
progress, as a process of discovery. The genius was thus a person of un-
usual quickness, clarity, comprehensiveness, and plasticity of imaginative
association, who, by the regular operations of this faculty, explored new
regions for knowledge and ˜invented™ new truths.
Gerard had already moved some distance along these lines in his prize-
winning An Essay on Taste (±·µ), when he had written that ˜[t]he ¬rst and
leading quality of genius is invention, which consists in a great extent and
comprehensiveness of imagination, in a readiness of associating the re-
motest ideas that are any way related™.±µ In the ±·· An Essay on Genius he
expands these thoughts into a comprehensive theory which in its rigour
and analysis is considerably in advance of Duff™s earlier (though in many
respects, similar) An Essay on Original Genius (±··). For both writers, the
role of association is fundamental. To Gerard, invention ˜can be accom-
plished only by assembling ideas in various positions and arrangements,
that we may obtain uncommon views of them™,± while Duff refers to
the imagination™s ˜plastic power of inventing new associations of ideas,
and of combining them with in¬nite variety™, by which genius ˜is enabled
to present a creation of its own, and to exhibit scenes and objects which
never existed in nature™.±· Similarly, both are at pains to assert that this
process is a regular one, though in this, as in so many other cases, it is
Gerard who is the more penetrating. ˜Genius™, he writes, ˜requires a pe-
culiar vigour of association. In order to produce it, the imagination must
be comprehensive, regular, and active.™ It is the regularity of imagination
which ˜enables the associating principles, not only to introduce proper
ideas, but also to connect the design of the whole with every idea that is
introduced™.± Moreover, Gerard goes beyond Duff by introducing the
model of ordered vegetative growth to illustrate the power imagination
has to unite conception and association:
This faculty bears a greater resemblance to nature in its operations, than to the
less perfect energies of art. When a vegetable draws in moisture from the earth,
nature, by the same action by which it draws it in, and at the same time, converts
it to the nourishment of the plant: it at once circulates through its vessels, and is
assimilated to its several parts. In like manner, genius arranges its ideas by the
same operation, and almost at the same time, that it collects them.±
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
It might seem curious, given this model of possible organic unity, that
Gerard is no more inclined to assert the epistemic autonomy of imagi-
nation than Duff. However, useful as it was, the vegetable principle was
still an argument from analogy. It made up for some of the de¬ciencies
of associationist psychology, but it did not have the required suitability of
¬t to combine with it completely: there was something intractably mech-
anistic about the eighteenth-century empirical view of the human mind.
As it was, though Duff and Gerard af¬rm the priority of imagination, they
both deny that it is a suf¬cient condition for genius. As Gerard himself
puts it, though ˜genius be properly a comprehensive, regular, and active
imagination, yet it can never attain perfection [. . .] except it be united
with a sound and piercing judgement™.±·°
Gerard, it must be noted, is not entirely consistent in giving imagina-
tion the lead in the activity of genius. There are times when judgement
seems to be the ruling principle, as when he claims that it ˜assists the
imagination, by putting it in the track of invention, as well as by control-
ing and regulating its operations™. Nonetheless, it is, he suggests, through
this combination of an active imagination with a vigilant judgement
that genius is able to anticipate the very principles by which its pro-
ductions are to be assessed, for ˜critics discovered the rules which they
prescribe, only by remarking those laws by which true genius, though
uninstructed, had actually governed itself ™. At moments such as this in
the Essay on Genius, as well as when he claims that imagination has a
˜creative power™ whereby it ˜confers something original™±·± upon even
simple ideas, he appears to be very close to Kant™s de¬nition of genius
as that human talent through which nature gives the rule to art. There
is at least one important difference, however, between Gerard™s view of
genius and that of Kant. This amounts to the difference between holding
genius™s transgression of the rules to be permissible on the grounds of its
inventiveness, and believing that genius is itself the source, or creator of
the very rules by which it is to be judged, or (in Kant™s terms) that it is
exemplary in its actions. Though both accounts of genius base themselves
on foundationalist theories of knowledge, Gerard™s implicit empiricism
will not allow him to see imagination as transforming our real relations
with nature.±·
In other words, it is clear that Gerard, like Duff, holds a view of in-
vention as discovery, rather than as rule-creation. Duff writes that original
geniuses have an ability ˜to conceive and present to their own minds,
in one distinct view, all the numerous and most distant relations of the
objects on which they employ it; by which means they are quali¬ed to
The eighteenth century
make great improvements and discoveries in the arts and sciences™.±·
Likewise, Gerard de¬nes genius as ˜the faculty of invention; by means of
which a man is quali¬ed for making new discoveries in science, or for
producing original works of art™. And it is because of the fact that ˜in
all the arts, invention has always been regarded as the only criterion of
Genius™, that ˜we allow the artist who excels in it, the privilege of trans-
gressing established rules [. . .]™.±· Moreover, though the discovery thesis
offers writers a means of articulating human creativity while retaining a
certain ¬delity to empiricism, it will not permit them to exceed certain
key principles, such as the representational view of perception. Thus,
even Gerard concedes that the ˜brightest imagination can suggest no
idea which is not originally derived from sense and memory™. Indeed,
˜[g]ive it a stock of simple ideas, and it will produce an endless variety of
complex notions: but as we can create no new substance, so neither can
we, except perhaps in a few very peculiar instances, imagine the idea
of a simple quality which we have never had access to observe™.±·µ In
this respect, Gerard has not yet broken free from Locke™s orbit: creation
remains bound to foundations.
The closing decade of the eighteenth century saw a few innovations in
Scottish theory which signalled further development in the concept of in-
vention. Two factors contributed to this: the gradual (though not always
consistent) absorption of Reid™s commonsensism, and the widespread
adoption of Burke™s position that the language of poetry is non-imitative.
In his ±· Principles, for instance, Adam Ferguson supplements the
Burkean stance with a metaphysical argument. For though he considers
the self-assumed role of the writer to be a creator ex nihilo to be merely a
poetic affectation, he does see language generally as ˜the ¬rst and most
wonderful production of human genius [. . .]™. In this, he continues, ˜the
created mind is itself a creator. Worlds [sic] in the language of Plato, have
sprung from the ideas of Eternal Mind; and language is the emanation of
idea in the mind of man.™ Ferguson, however, fails to pursue this thought
in the direction which it was to take Coleridge, and falls back on the
old idea of the poet as a discoverer and ˜maker™. Poetry, then, represents
˜the attempt [. . .] rather to new model the forms of nature to our own
purpose or taste, than to preserve them such as they actually are™.±·
Dugald Stewart, meanwhile, being at one with Reid on the issue of
abstraction, feels able to agree with Burke that the purpose of poetry
is not simply to ˜ “raise ideas in the mind” ™. Stewart™s most provoking
comment in the Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, however, is
made during his discussion of invention itself, which, he claims, must
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
be distinguished from the notion of discovery: ˜The object of the former
[. . .] is to produce something which had no existence before; that
of the latter, to bring to light something which did exist, but which
was concealed from common observation.™±·· Invention is that activ-
ity whereby improvements are effected in the arts, and discovery that
whereby we advance in knowledge. By de¬ning artistic inventiveness in
such a way, Stewart effectively blocks any cognitive theory of poetic value,
thereby joining Ferguson in effectively con¬ning the ¬ne arts (poetry
included) to the status of ornaments.±· In effect, Reid™s opposition to
representationism has been extended by Stewart into a deep suspicion
of any action of imagination upon the foundational data of perception. If
perception provides a direct apprehension of the object, Stewart argues,
then imagination™s function must be ˜to make a selection of qualities and
of circumstances, from a variety of different objects, and by combin-
ing and disposing these to form a new creation of its own™. The poet™s
province, accordingly, ˜is limited to combine and modify things which
really exist, so as to produce new wholes of his own [. . .]™. However, that
command which the inventor has over his ideas, he claims, is entirely
the result of acquired habit and learned general rules. Consequently,
Stewart is severely critical of the tradition which encouraged ˜that blind
admiration of original genius™,±· and concludes that, insofar as they
are led by the associative imagination in the absence of judgement and
taste, ˜it is in the accuracy of their minute details, that men of warm
Imaginations are chie¬‚y to be distrusted [. . .]™.±°
From another perspective, however, Stewart™s insight is that the cre-
ative imagination will not brook the curbs of knowledge. It is not like
creative advance in science, he suggests, because it does not involve the
¬nal squaring of the ¬gurative cycle with the linear grid of validation.
Ernest Tuveson thus overstates matters, to say the least, when he identi-
¬es Stewart as a ˜spokesman for the faith of early romanticism™.±± While
Stewart™s divorce of the epistemic and aesthetic ¬nally frees poetry from
the burden of verifying itself empirically, his foundationalism means that
this results in the marginalization of creative activity from the ˜trusted™
grounds of knowledge. With this development we arrive at the full cul-
mination of the legacy of Hume™s division of fact and value: philosophy™s
¬nal divorce of the aesthetic and the epistemic. It is this dichotomy which
forms Romanticism™s point of departure, not its ˜faith™.
In the meantime, much of the debate within epistemology at the
close of the eighteenth century centres on the friction between two dif-
ferent legacies: namely, Reid™s commonsensism, and Hume™s theory of
The eighteenth century
association. Two years before Stewart wrote against imagination in the
¬rst volume of his Elements, Archibald Alison had proposed a positive
associationist theory of taste and the sublime in his Essays on the Nature and
Principles of Taste. This advanced on Gerard™s theory by making emotion
an irreducible part of the imaginative act. For Alison, feelings of beauty
or sublimity are complex, not simple, and the effect of association: ˜The
simple perception of the object, we frequently ¬nd, is insuf¬cient to ex-
cite these emotions, unless [. . .] our imagination is seized, and our fancy
busied in the pursuit of all those trains of thought, which are allied to this
character or expression.™ Consequently, judgements of taste are func-
tions of imagination. In consequence, emotion becomes, in a manner of
speaking, the glue which holds the aesthetic experience (seen by Stewart
as dangerously unstable) together: not only are the ideas which make up
the ˜train of thought™ produced by sublimity or beauty themselves ˜Ideas
of Emotion™, but the unifying or ˜general principle of connexion™ of such
trains is also an emotional one.±
From here it is a relatively easy step for Alison to take to deny that
even the painter™s business is wholly imitative: ˜the language he employs
is found not only to speak to the eye, but to affect the imagination and
the heart™. It is through the emotional activity of the imagination that
genius manifests itself:
It is not the art, but the genius of the Painter, which now gives value to his
compositions [. . .] It is not now a simple copy which we see, nor is our Emotion
limited to the cold pleasure which arises from the perception of accurate Imi-
tation. It is a creation of Fancy with which the artist presents us, in which only
the greater expressions of Nature are retained [. . .].

Nevertheless, the power of painting is ˜limited™ when compared to
poetry: ˜The Painter can represent no other qualities of Nature, but those
which we discern by the sense of sight. The Poet can blend with those,
all the qualities which we perceive by means of our other senses.™ The
radicalism of Alison™s work lies in the manner in which he adapts Hume™s
observation that in value-judgements reason is a slave to the passions,
turning it into a positive associationist theory of beauty and sublimity. In
doing so, he suggests a process by which reason™s damning verdict upon
emotion might be reprieved within the parameters of aesthetic experi-
ence. However, Alison is a passive associationist, more interested in the
nature of the mind™s response to certain objects, than its creation of them.
Nor does he go so far as to extend his theory into emotional cognitivism,
through which feelings of beauty or the sublime might be permitted some
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
limited constituency or function within human knowledge. With regard
to genius, he is, moreover, something of a traditionalist; declaring, for ex-
ample, that ˜[h]ad the taste of S«° been equal to his genius,
or had his knowledge of the laws of the Drama corresponded to his
knowledge of the human heart, the effect of his compositions would [. . .]
have been greater than it now is [. . .]™.± Alison™s ¬nal verdict on genius
should come as no more of a surprise than that of Stewart or Ferguson:
together, they are the natural verdicts of late eighteenth-century empiri-
cism upon the theory of artistic creation as invention or discovery.

®  ¬µ © ®
Throughout the eighteenth century, the dominant Lockean epistemol-
ogy in Britain struggled to contain a creationist aesthetic to which its own
synthetic foundations gave rise, an aesthetic which was further fostered by
an ancient tradition of ˜inspired™ composition, as well as the more recent
vogue of the sublime and of the primitive origins of ˜natural™ language and
genius. Increasingly, poetry came to bear the responsibility for aspects
of experience that philosophy now refused to carry, such as the sense of
nature as a totality from which the individual could not be abstracted,
and the feeling that experience was not merely something ˜given™ to con-
sciousness as a pure commodity, but was the product of our minds, and
even of our emotions. The signi¬cance of Hume™s Treatise in this is that
it confronts what is at risk in the empirical/representationalist point of
view; namely, a division of labour between the discipline of philosophical
thinking and ordinary life experience outside the study, in the world of
backgammon and friends. Above all, it marks out epistemic certainty
as something which is not already present in pure thought or ˜fact™, but
which is normative or ˜value-added™, only through our lived intercourse
with the world. In the face of this, attempts to regain certainty for philos-
ophy through notions of inner sense or common sense, though enjoying
some success, could too easily appear like arbitrarily sinking founda-
tions for knowledge where Hume had shown (by a method, moreover,
which was empirical through and through) that there could be none. In
the meantime, such strategies would also have to vie with the increas-
ingly in¬‚uential philosophy of associationism, which from most angles
seemed only to con¬rm Hume™s ¬ndings. This is the stress-fracture within
eighteenth-century foundationalism which Romanticism seeks to heal,
but at the same time accentuates, for an essential part of its modus vivendi
is the recovery of creation from the epistemic margins.
The eighteenth century
This recovery had another dimension. Throughout the later eight-
eenth century, the largely utilitarian Scottish presentation of genius was
of a power which contributed to the public good. Subordinating artistic
to scienti¬c invention to an extent helped to mitigate the feeling that
the age was witnessing a degeneration in the arts.± Ferguson notes that
˜[t]he progress of ¬ne arts has generally made a part in the history of
prosperous nations [. . .]™.±µ Beattie, meanwhile, links his idea of genius
as a discovering and inventive power with the idea of progress: ˜let us
learn™, he urges, ˜to set a proper value on industry and manufacture. The
meanest arti¬cer in society, if honest and diligent, is worthy of honour™ “
worthy, that is, insofar as he represents one aspect of the ˜boundless
variety™ of genius.±
In England, however, to many (the Romantics included) the taming
of creative imagination into productive artisan represented an unaccept-
able Caledonian triumph of fact over value. The utilization of the creative
meant that cultural production became vexed with the fear of commod-
i¬cation. Young adopts the language of the marketplace to complain of
imitations that they ˜are often a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those
Mechanics, Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own™.
˜Thoughts™, he continues, ˜when become too common, should lose their
Currency; and we should send new metal to the Mint [. . .].™±· This
anxiety extended to the proliferation of reading matter. Isaac D™Israeli
registered regretfully in ±·µ the manner in which ˜since, with incessant
industry, volumes have been multiplied, and their prices rendered them
accessible to the lowest artisans, the Literary Character has gradually
fallen into disrepute™.± In all of this the feeling that knowledge itself has suf-


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