. 4
( 8)


version of the native epistemology was inadequate to the task at hand,
Hazlitt, unwilling and unable to follow Coleridge on the high road to
transcendentalism, proceeds in his later work to question the jurisdic-
tion of ˜knowledge™ itself, and moves to replace it with a principle of pure
power. Yet the principal tension in Hazlitt™s theory “ traceable through-
out his writing “ is the product of his reluctance completely to implement
such a move. Revoking the epistemological perspective, yet tied by habit
and tradition to empiricism™s demand for a criterion of (factual) truth,
Hazlitt™s thought oscillates between the need for a foundation, and the
attraction of a theory of human psychological activity based upon the
paradigm of intellectual energy as a ¬eld of power.
Like the other writers examined here, Hazlitt™s writing inhabits a twi-
light world which is neither ˜in™ knowledge nor entirely beyond it; often
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
indifferent to matters of truth, but not so insouciant as its ontological
rhetoric would suggest. Hazlitt™s notion of ˜power™ has been discussed
extensively over the years. Its epistemological import, however, remains
ambiguous. In Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense, Uttara Natarajan argues that
the traditional view of Hazlitt as an empiricist needs to be replaced by
an account which does greater justice to his essentially idealist theo-
ries of power. In this, the ˜continuity between the metaphysician and the
essayist™ consists in ˜an understanding of power as epistemological: power
is the mind™s formative ability™. Natarajan has no doubt that power is
deployed in the service of knowledge and truth-apprehension, even if,
for Hazlitt, this can only be effected through powerful poetry, such as
that of Milton, which ˜shows the truth that rises above the material or
matter-of-fact™.±° The proposition that all truth amounts to matter of
fact certainly troubles Hazlitt, no less than the other Romantics. Yet like
Wordsworth, he found it impossible to shake. In ˜On the Prose-Style of
Poets™, indeed, he elevates the prose-writer™s dedication to ˜dry matters
of fact and close reasoning™ over the poet™s immersion in sensual ap-
pearances, citing Burke as an example of a writer guided by ˜truth, not
beauty “ not pleasure, but power™.±± Power™s ambivalence between the
ideal truth of poetry and the empirical truth of prose represents Hazlitt™s
own attempt to reunite the realms of fact and value. It is the impossibility
of this (within an empirical method of veri¬cation: the only one avail-
able to Hazlitt) which provokes in Hazlitt a fundamental reassessment
of the location of knowledge itself in human life, and a corresponding
reaction against epistemology which already lurks in his weary aside to-
wards the end of the Essay that ˜Metaphysics themselves are but a dry
romance™.± At this point, power emerges as an anti-epistemic principle
which, through the agency of the ˜exaggerating and exclusive faculty™
of imagination, threatens to replace knowing as the primary mode of
human engagement with the world.± In Hazlitt™s writing, then, power is
two-faced, on one side grounding an epistemology of ˜ideal™ truth, and
on the other challenging epistemology™s very conception of knowledge
as something grounded in truth “ and thereby ˜knowledge™ itself.
The roots of this ambivalence lie with Hazlitt™s original philosophi-
cal interests in questions of personal identity and practical reason. He
regarded with impatience the attempts of certain strands of contempo-
rary moral philosophy, in¬‚uenced by Hobbes, Hume and Priestley, to
explain human action as fundamentally egoistic, self-interested, or de-
termined by association and habit “ or indeed, as in some way reducible
to a combination of these principles. To Hazlitt, each of these theories
(no matter how humanistic in spirit) explained the fundamental springs
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
of human action at the cost of excluding the possibility of moral, that
is, disinterested deliberation. The reason for this, he came to decide, was
that they took as their starting-point empirical psychology™s causal and
mechanistic explanation of perception: if the mind was to be free to make
genuinely moral choices in its practical deliberations, then its knowledge
of those opportunities could not be determined by passively received
sensory input. In other words, it must be capable of some kind of inde-
pendent epistemic construction: it must have a creative function. In the
act of moral imagination, as Hazlitt puts it in the Essay on the Principles
of Human Action, the agent ˜creates the object, he pushes his ideas beyond
the bounds of his memory and senses [. . .]™.±
After the Essay, the notion of the ˜formative™ mind, and with it the
concept of epistemic creation, or the thesis that truth is made and not
found, became increasingly important to his thought on a more general
level. Like many Romantic writers, however, Hazlitt was confronted with
the problem of how to communicate this creativity. As a prose writer, he
was intensely aware of how, just as logic represses rhetoric to the point of
betraying its own metaphors, so self-conscious ¬guration can betray the
desire for truth in its repression of argument. Thus, while Wordsworth
attempted to reconcile these forces through a poetic para-philosophy of
dialectical consciousness, in Hazlitt™s work the middle way between a
value- or fact-driven approach to life lies in the tension between the way
in which his prose ¬gures itself as factual (a medium of molten metal or
liquid marble±µ ) and its logocentric pursuit of philosophical argument.
Of the latter, one of the most important instances is what might be
called his argument from abstraction. This is a good example of how
Hazlitt remained epistemologically empiricist while appearing to be
metaphysically idealist (hence his consistent opposition to materialism:
the life of the mind, Hazlitt declared, was just as much a constitutive part
of reality as matter itself ). More importantly, the constraints of empiricism
meant that Hazlitt™s idealism was never to escape the Lockean identi¬-
cation of justi¬cation with causation. Consequently, epistemic creation
remained a problem and a paradox for Hazlitt because he thought of it
as an event which occurred between things rather than within a concep-
tual space. The result was a kind of immanent idealism, an intensi¬cation
of Hume™s notion of the projective power of the mind which nonetheless
struggled to ˜ground™ itself. His conviction that knowledge was at least
in part creative was thus stymied by his own attempts to contain crea-
tion through epistemic theories of common sense, association, and the
self-verifying faculty of reasoning imagination. His argument, against
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
Coleridge, that knowledge of the absolute was impossible was not, as
some have suggested, a proto-Kantian position, but the product of an
ambivalence within his own theory of knowledge.
This in turn led to a watershed in his thinking about knowledge. Hazlitt
came to the conclusion that if empirical epistemology could not sanction
the creative activities of the moral imagination, then there was something
incomplete in epistemology itself. The conventional notion of knowledge
was to be changed for one of power: it was power which, at the most
fundamental level, guided our moral existence, and wrought the highest
achievements of art and poetry. It is, then, the rebellious dependency
upon empiricism of Hazlitt™s immanent idealism which conditions much
of his writing, and it is the resort to power and ambivalent retreat from
˜knowledge™ as such which distinguishes Hazlitt™s theory most markedly
from the absolute idealism of Coleridge. In ˜On Novelty and Familiarity™,
he maintains that ˜[k]nowledge is power™, and that ˜[w]e are happy not
in the total amount of our knowledge, but in the [. . .] removal of some
obstacle [. . .]™.± In this way, Hazlitt continues the Romantic negotiation
of Hume™s fact/value dichotomy, cultivating an indifference to knowl-
edge which betrays a compulsive attachment to truth, as when he urges,
in ˜The Spirit of Philosophy™, that ˜common sense™ be taken as ˜the foun-
dation of truest philosophy™.±·

 ©®  ® ¤  ©  ®
By endeavouring to establish the autonomy of the creative mind while
negotiating the boundaries of empiricism. Hazlitt tends to steer between
two answers: one cognitive and epistemological, concerned with validat-
ing the mind™s productions according to a given standard of knowledge,
and the other, what I have chosen to term non-cognitive or ˜indifferent,™
resting upon an assertion of the priority of power. These often overlap
and merge with each other, but it is important to bear in mind that they
are very different responses to the problem. The ¬rst tack of argument
can be traced to Hazlitt™s response to the debate which had circulated
between Locke, Berkeley and Hume about the nature of general or ab-
stract ideas. This sprang from a perplexing question: namely, how does
one form an idea of something for which there does not seem to be a
corresponding particular object?
The origins of this dif¬culty lay in the corpuscularianism of Locke. If, as
he claimed, the objective world consisted in an arrangement of atoms, or
particles, our perception of that reality must also be particular. Yet we are
±±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
undeniably in possession of certain concepts “ being, man, triangularity,
and the like “ which seem to resist reduction to such atomistic principles.
Locke™s explanation of this in the Essay is that an abstract idea is one
˜wherein some parts of several different and inconsistent Ideas are put
together™. The result of this, however, is that we are required to entertain
the notion of a resulting idea which is both particular and general; one
which retains the qualities of the members of the class it represents ˜but
all and none of these at once™. Thus, Locke concludes that we have a
stock of abstract ideas which exceed what is actually ˜out there™ in the
world: ˜general Ideas™, he admits, ˜are Fictions and Contrivances of the
Mind™, which, though of some practical use as a kind of representational
shorthand, ˜are marks of our Imperfection™.±
To Berkeley, as well as to Hume after him, Locke™s discomfort with
the question of abstraction was symptomatic of a deeper inconsistency
in his thought regarding human knowledge, and in particular his failure
to take corpuscularianism to its logical conclusion: namely, that all our
knowledge is con¬ned to particulars. Abstract ideas, then, are not the
result of words being made the signs of general ideas (since there are no
such things as irreducibly general ideas). Instead, ˜an idea, which consid-
ered in itself is particular, becomes general, by being made to represent
or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort™.± Abstraction is
an entirely nominal affair. For Berkeley, it is impossible to conceive of
something without the sensation of it: therefore, as all our sensations are
representations, it is also quite impossible for us to frame a coherent no-
tion of ˜things-as-they-are™ as distinct from ˜things-as-appearances™. From
this it follows, not that we are disconnected from the real world, as in
Locke, but that the ˜real world™ just is a world of appearances. Objects are
entirely phenomenal: ˜Their esse is percepi, nor is it possible they should
have any existence, out of the minds of thinking beings which perceive
them.™° For Berkeley, then, the impossibility of abstracting single, gen-
eral qualities from a qualitatively mixed objective world demonstrates
the error of supposing that that world has a material foundation, and
shows the dichotomy between Locke™s so-called primary (inherent) and
secondary (mind-dependent) qualities in objects to be a false one.
Berkeley™s argument is underwritten by a providential epistemology
whereby the veracity of perception is ultimately guaranteed by God, a
˜spirit in¬nitely wise, good and powerful™.± This, however, was insuf¬cient
for Hume, for whom the rejection of Lockean abstraction meant the
forfeiture of important concepts such as those of identity, substance, and
causation. In particular, this last idea, in the scienti¬c form of ˜necessary
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
connexion™, is undermined by the principle “ to which both Hume and
Berkeley subscribe “ ˜that all ideas are copy™d from impressions™. There is no
impression conveyed by the senses which can give rise to such an idea:

It must, therefore, be deriv™d from some internal impression, or impression
of re¬‚exion [. . .]. This therefore is the essence of necessity. Upon the whole,
necessity is something, that exists in the mind, not in objects; nor is it possible
for us ever to form the most distant idea of it, consider™d as a quality in bodies.
Either we have no idea of necessity, or necessity is nothing but that determination
of the thought to pass from causes to effects and from effects to causes, according
to their experienc™d union.

For Hume, if all knowledge is con¬ned to impressions, and the con-
nection of these is a contingent affair of association, then the concept of
necessity itself must be a creation of the imagination: the human mind,
somehow, projects these qualities onto the object. As he notes soon after:
˜ ™Tis a common observation, that the mind has a great propensity to
spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal
impressions, which they occasion™, adding that ˜the same propensity is
the reason, why we suppose necessity and power to lie in the objects
we consider, not in our mind, that considers them [. . .]™. As a result,
moreover, the concept of necessary obligation or absolute moral law,
cognizable by reason, all but vanishes. Moral judgements are funda-
mentally judgements of utility, and moral approval or disapproval, just
like aesthetic response, is an internal movement of sympathetic pleasure
or displeasure based upon this principle. Even justice is ˜a moral virtue,
merely because it has that tendency to the good of mankind [. . .]™.µ
It was against this background that the issue of abstraction came to
Hazlitt™s attention as informing some of the principal problems in moral
philosophy, as well as epistemology. But while Berkeley and Hume had
agreed, contra Locke, that this was a nominal matter, Hazlitt, in what he
considered to be his great discovery, took another tack: all ideas were
abstract. They had to be, he claimed, given that nature was in¬nitely di-
visible, and the mind was a ¬nite entity. He accepted the corpuscularian
view of nature, but denied that it applied to perception: all our percep-
tions were general or abstract by virtue of the fact that the particular
object, as such, was forever beyond our reach. At this point, Hume™s
view of the cognitive function of imagination takes on an immense im-
portance for Hazlitt. As this story goes, the mind projects completion, or
generality, onto a world of which it can never receive a full represen-
tation. But while this led Hume to make sceptical inferences about our
±± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
scienti¬c and practical reasoning, to Hazlitt it betokened the mind™s power
to create a valid set of standards for knowledge and moral conduct.·
Hazlitt™s argument, as laid out in the lecture ˜On Abstract Ideas™ (which
appeared as part of the series of Lectures on English Philosophy delivered in
the spring of ±±) proceeds on the following lines: since ˜all our notions
from ¬rst to last, are strictly speaking, general and abstract™, and abstrac-
tion itself is ˜a consequence of the limitation of the comprehensive faculty™
when confronted with the world™s in¬nite plurality of qualities, then no-
tions themselves are radically incomplete. As Hazlitt puts it, ˜[e]very
idea of an object is, therefore, in a strict sense an imperfect and general
notion of an aggregate [. . .]™. All knowledge, therefore, necessarily has
a vagueness or haziness about it, resulting from this indeterminacy: ˜the
real foundation of all our knowledge™, Hazlitt continues, is ˜a mere con-
fused impression or effect of feeling produced by a number of things
[. . .]™. The undermining of epistemic foundations will later lead to a
reappraisal of the centrality of knowledge as such. At this stage, however,
Hazlitt retains a con¬dence in the project of epistemology. For the epis-
temic de¬cit which he describes, though never recovered, itself testi¬es to
the hidden activity of the mind in shaping knowledge as a whole. Every
idea of a sensible quality ˜implies the same power of generalisation™.°
It is for this reason that Hazlitt, in the Preface to his abridgement of
Tucker™s Light of Nature Pursued, describes the species of philosophy which
˜endeavours to discover what the mind is, by looking into the mind itself ™,
as ˜the only philosophy that is ¬t for men of sense™. He designates this
as the ˜intellectual™, as opposed to the ˜material™ philosophy.± His de¬-
nition is not precise. Thus, the interests of the intellectual philosophy lie
with what is attributable to feeling, rather than the mere understanding:
it concerns itself with consciousness, not experiment. What encourages
Hazlitt in this loose characterization is the fact that the psychological pro-
cesses surrounding feeling, sympathy and consciousness itself, are vague
and imprecise in a way similar to how he envisages that of abstraction.
It therefore might seem to be a very short step from this to assert that
man™s emotional nature; his feelings and his sympathies, are implicated
in the acquisition and veri¬cation of knowledge. Moreover, Hazlitt™s use
of consciousness to merge the separate questions of truth and reality tends
to promote a form of immanent idealism which de¬nes itself against
a metaphysical adversary (materialism), rather than an epistemological
one (empiricism), and which characterizes the mind in terms of power,
rather than receptivity. This last point will be examined later.
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
Hazlitt™s theory of abstraction is a revealing example of Romantic
epistemological ambivalence. Viewed from a modern perspective, his
critique of Locke and Hume™s picture of a mind always passive to the
˜givenness™ of the raw particularity of sense-experience is quite consonant
with more recent attacks mounted by Sellars and Davidson, among oth-
ers, upon the empiricist™s dualism of sense-data and conceptual scheme.
By arguing that all ideas are general or abstract, he refuses empiricism™s
idea of knowledge as resting upon a foundation, that is, a correspondence
between ideas in the mind and ˜given™ reality; or to put it in more modern
terms, between conceptual scheme and bare, uninterpreted sense-
content. Like Wordsworth™s poetic truth, then, Hazlitt™s abstract knowing
is an attempt to cross Hume™s Fork. By designating all knowledge as ab-
stract, he erases ˜fact™ as foundational. In this manner he moves towards
a position not unlike Sellars™ argument against the sense-datum theorist™s
scheme of raw sensation existing antecedently to rationalization or in-
terpretation. For Sellars, ˜in characterizing an episode or a state as that
of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or
state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and
being able to justify what one says™. Accordingly, his contention that
˜the idea that epistemic facts can be analyzed without remainder “ even
“in principle” “ into non-epistemic facts [ . . . is] a radical mistake [. . .].™ is
comparable in its general outlook to Hazlitt™s claim for the irreducibility
of abstract knowledge to particular sensations.
Indeed, in his New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue (±°),
Hazlitt appears to go further still by severing linguistic categories from
the world of things. Tooke, he maintains, failed to see that the corollary
of his own observation that words do not univerally correspond to things
was not his further argument that words, rather than ideas, were the signs
of impressions.µ This merely reverses the priority between language and
psyche. Rather, Hazlitt, maintains, Tooke™s original observation betokens
the complete elision of word and object: ˜the grammatical distinctions
of words do not relate to the nature of the things or ideas spoken of, but
to our manner of speaking of them, i.e. to the particular point of view
in which we have occasion to consider them [. . .]™. Severing the causal
relationship between signi¬er and signi¬ed allows Hazlitt to postulate
that signi¬cation is not something ˜given™, but testi¬es to the mind™s
complex activity in the creation of meaning. As Natarajan observes, for
Hazlitt ˜[s]yntactical structure [. . .] is a holistic expression of the mind;
thus, it is also the index of its formative ability™.
±± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Crucially, however, the division between word and object, linguistic
scheme and content, remained a problem, albeit one which the thesis of the
˜formative mind™ was designed to answer. Natarajan describes how ˜[i]n
the best case [. . .] the dualism of factual and imaginative reality contains
not a dichotomy, but a transformation, of sensory into imaginative per-
ception; the former limited and passive, the latter empowered and consti-
tutive™. But this remains only a ˜best case™, an exception, for only in poetry
is ˜the power of the speaking subject [. . .] so magni¬ed that it bridges
the gulf between word and thing, and so wipes out the arbitrariness
of connection between signi¬er and signi¬ed™.· Viewed from this angle,
Hazlitt™s anti-foundational turn appears less radical, and his proximity to
Locke more prominent. For Sellars and Davidson, rejection of the con-
cept/content distinction fatally undermined the representational view
of perception itself, and ¬nally brought to an end the empiricist™s story
of knowledge as ˜confrontation™ of mind with a theory-neutral reality.
Confrontationalism was what Davidson termed, extending Quine™s la-
belling of veri¬cationism and the analytic/synthetic divide, as ˜the third
dogma™ of empiricism, adding: ˜The third, and perhaps the last, for
if we give it up it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to
call empiricism.™ Once the image of justi¬ed belief as scheme/reality
correspondence was removed, the very notion of ˜scheme™ becomes in-
distinguishable from language itself. Consequently, Sellars and Davidson
are agreed that, in Sellars™ words, ˜all awareness of abstract entities [. . .]
is a linguistic affair™. Beyond this there seems no need for empiricism,
or indeed, for ˜epistemology™ as such.
Hazlitt, on the other hand, remains true to empiricism™s notion of
correspondence in a way which comes to defeat the radical force of his
theory of abstraction. Crucially, he retained from Locke a rei¬ed view of
knowing as consisting in a relation between persons and objects rather
than between persons and sentences. Consequently, like most eighteenth-
century empiricists, he construed ˜knowledge of ™ as prior to ˜knowledge
that™, or to put it in Bertrand Russell™s terms, ˜knowledge by acquain-
tance™ as prior to ˜knowledge by description™. Direct acquaintance with
objects forms the foundation of thought for Hazlitt, and no less so be-
cause, just as with Locke and Hume, these objects “ ˜ideas™ “ are psychical
rather than physical entities. Hazlitt™s abstract idea, though always
already evaluative, is not irreducibly linguistic. We consider ideas via lan-
guage, he maintains, because language remains a medium for knowledge: it
is not knowledge itself. Accordingly, he digs at Tooke for his wasted labour
deconstructing abstract ideas according to their etymological roots, given
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
that ˜he has brought ,°°° instances of the meaning of words to demon-
strate that we have no abstract ideas, not one of which ,°°° meanings
is any thing else but an abstract idea™. ˜Logic and metaphysics™, Hazlitt
concludes, ˜are the weak sides of his reasoning.™° Explanations of how
knowledge is justi¬ed remain for Hazlitt equivalent to explanations of
how knowledge is caused. It comes as no surprise, then, that so long as
this dualism remains in place, its inversion, entailing the reversal of the em-
pirical account of the causal process of perception through the Kantian
notion of the ˜formative mind™, increasingly appears as the solution to
its ills of scepticism and determinism.
Even here, however, the Kantian turn can be deceptive. Framing the
˜Copernican revolution™ with its transcendental idealism of noumenal
and phenomenal realms in the Critique of Pure Reason is a transcendental
argument which for the ¬rst time proposes that knowledge is grounded
not in things, but in propositions; namely, those propositions which Kant
sees as expressing the principles of the possibility of experience itself.
There is, however, no such purely conceptual meta-framework in Hazlitt.
His idealism remains immanent within empiricism™s dualism of subject
and object, and his potentially subversive theory of creative abstraction
stymied by a foundationalism of fact over value. This facet of Hazlitt™s
thinking, an eighteenth-century inheritance which he shares with
Wordsworth, cannot be stressed too much, for it is what precipitates the
later estrangement of knowledge.
More immediately for Hazlitt, however, the motivation for pursuing
the theory of abstraction lies in his determination to secure a viable
theory of moral disinterestedness, one which, as Paulin notes, had its
roots in a nonconformist upbringing. ˜The whole weight of Unitarian
culture™, Paulin claims, ˜as well as Francis Hutcheson™s philosophy [. . .]
shapes this rejection of Hobbesian sel¬shness™.± Hazlitt, however, is not
concerned to prove that human beings have an innate sense of morality:
merely that, the possibility of self-interested action being admitted, that
of disinterested action must follow. His argument in the Essay to the effect
that the self-interested impulse shares a common psychological basis with
that of disinterestedness “ that being, the creation of the idea (respect-
ively, of a future state, or the well being of another) whose origination is
irreducible to either memory or the mechanism of empirical perception “
depends upon the notion of a projective, sympathetic imagination.
Hazlitt has accepted Hume™s argument that empiricism alone cannot
sustain the notion of moral obligation, but turns this into a question of
the adequacy of empiricism itself: as empirical cognitive processes are
±± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
insuf¬cient for moral action (indeed, action in general), then ipso facto
there must be some other process to account for it:

For there is no faculty in the mind by which future impressions can excite in it
a presentiment of themselves in the same way that past impressions act upon it
by means of memory. When we say that future objects act upon the mind by
means of the imagination, it is not meant that such objects exercise a real power
over the imagination, but merely that it is by means of this faculty that we can
forsee the probable or necessary consequences of things, and are interested in

The philosopher A. C. Grayling suggests that the Essay presents a tran-
scendental argument, that is, one which demonstrates the conditions for
something to be possible. In effect, Grayling claims, Hazlitt™s argument
stipulates that in all practical reasoning any self-interested justi¬cation
for action presupposes the equal validity of a disinterested justi¬cation,
in that ˜the capacity to think about one™s future self requires that one
be able to think about other selves in general™. This logical equivalence
means that a key premise of Hazlitt™s argument must be (as Grayling
believes it is) ˜that one™s future self, is, literally as well as logically speak-
ing, another self™. Grayling thus characterizes the main thrust of the
Essay as an analytic (or more speci¬cally, a transcendental) demonstra-
tion of the incoherence of a system of practical reason which bases itself
exclusively upon a principle of self-love. Just as Kant was to argue that
scepticism was unsustainable on its own terms, so Hazlitt identi¬es within
egoism a principle of selfhood which presumes the possibility of an in-
terest in the happinesss of others.
But is it the case that Hazlitt supposes that the future self is another
self? At certain times he suggests as much, as when he af¬rms that ˜I can
only abstract myself from my present being and take an interest in my
future being in the same sense and manner, in which I can go out of
myself entirely and enter into the minds and feelings of others [. . .].™
At such moments it can indeed be tempting to try to square Hazlitt™s
vocabulary with the post-Kantian grid of analytic philosophy. But for
Hazlitt, Hume™s sceptical evaporation of identity into a vapour of sense-
impressions was not about to be contained by an a priori net of conceptual
conditions. Indeed, the ˜self™ was already inherently unstable, an aggre-
gate of impressions uni¬ed only by the necessary ¬ction of abstraction,
without which ˜I am not the same thing, but many different things.™µ
From this perspective, it is simply futile to talk of past, present, or future
selves which ultimately recede into an in¬nitesimal particularity.
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
What made such a discourse inevitable according to Hazlitt was not a
conceptual consideration, but the power behind abstraction, namely the
faculty of imagination. Working behind the Essay™s philosophical argu-
ment for disinterested action is an epistemologically indifferent rhetoric
of power. As Hazlitt maintains: ˜The direct primary motive, or impulse
which determines the mind to the volition of any thing must therefore in
all cases depend on the idea of that thing as conceived of by the imagina-
tion, and on the idea solely. For the thing itself is a non-entity.™ Hazlitt™s
concealed quarrel, ostensibly with the philosophical egoist, is with philo-
sophical argument itself, whose discourse of ˜knowledge ¬rst™ the power
of imagination impeaches. Yet that this process stops for the moment
at arraignment rather than conviction is due to the fact that Hazlitt felt
unable to challenge the dualisms (word/object; idea/thing; value/fact)
upon which epistemological enquiry, and empiricism in particular, had
traditionally rested. Consequently, the cause of scepticism, namely the
foundationalist concern with the relation of the mind™s representations
of the world to the world itself, is not viewed as a worn-out metaphor, but
remains a problem, a puzzle, as he admits in ˜Remarks on the Systems
of Hartley and Helvetius™:
I never could make much of the subject of real relations in nature [. . .] they
cannot exist in nature after the same manner that they exist in the human
mind. The forms of things in nature are manifold; they only become one by
being united in the same common principle of thought. The relations of the
things themselves as they exist separately and by themselves must therefore be
very different from their relations as perceived by the mind where they have an
immediate communication with each other.
Hazlitt™s position is neither that of the analytic or transcendental
philosopher, con¬dent that scepticism (and its ethical cousin, egoism)
can be eliminated conceptually, nor that of the naturalist or deconstruc-
tionist, both of whom remain sceptical about scepticism™s own founda-
tionalist presumptions. At one point in the Essay, indeed, he dismisses
Humean-naturalistic accounts of the ˜habit™ of moral reasoning with a
telling appeal to grounds, claiming that ˜[w]hatever the force of habit may
be, however subtle and universal its in¬‚uence, it is not every thing, not
even the principal thing. Before we plant, it is proper to know the nature
of the soil [. . .]™.· Instead, Hazlitt™s theory of abstraction and his account
of practical reason adumbrated in the Essay resort to the notion of an
imagination which itself comes to test the very status of the argument
in which it ¬gures, as epistemic (and by implication, moral) justi¬cation is
pressurized by power. At the same time, the antifoundationalist potential
±± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
of this strategy undermined by Hazlitt™s concurrent need to keep knowl-
edge as correspondence, that is, as a relationship (even an inscrutable
one) between ˜real relations in nature™ and ˜relations as perceived by the
mind™, a centred concern. Unable to put ˜truth™ to rest once and for all,
the question which remained, and was to worry Hazlitt in the future,
was: given that we create the object, or the idea of the object, is power
the only ground whereby we are entitled to af¬rm this object as true, or,
with regard to moral judgement, as binding for all human subjects?
From an early stage Hazlitt™s experience as a painter gave him a very
individual perspective on this dilemma. Indeed, it has been argued that
it is this which forms the immediate background for the theory of ab-
straction itself. It is certainly clear that any examination of Hazlitt™s
attempt to make a philosophical example of painting should be alive to
how it functions in his effort to steer his theory of abstraction between
an epistemologically uneasy projectivism and an ontology of power in-
different to the claims of knowledge and truth. As will be seen below, in
his more ˜cognitive™ moments Hazlitt often attempts to escape from this
dilemma by experimenting with concepts such as moral or ˜imaginative™
truth, but many of his observations on painting themselves seem to sug-
gest an alternative way of approaching the problem of how the mind™s
projections might be ˜true™ as well as powerful.
Among the most provoking of these is a comment made in the course
of the continuing article of his review of ˜Madame de Sta¨ l™s Account of
German Philosophy and Literature™ for The Morning Chronicle in ±±. In
this, he repeats his central claim that as ˜[a]ll particular things consist of,
and even lead to, an in¬nite number of other things [. . .]. Abstraction
is therefore a necessary consequence of the limitation of the compre-
hensive faculty [. . .].™ To support this claim, however, he then suggests
a practical example: in effect, he argues that the bare fact that very
few people are capable of rendering the likeness of a close friend in the
form of a drawing or a painting does not mean that they do not know
what that person looks like; merely that their knowledge of his or her
appearance is necessarily con¬ned to generalities, and not particular
Let any one, who is not an artist, or let any one who is, attempt to give an outline
from memory of the features of his most intimate friend, and he will feel the
truth of this remark. Yet though he does not know the exact turn of any one
feature, he will instantly, and without fail, recognise the person the moment he
meets him in the street, and that often, merely from catching a glimpse of some
part of his dress, or from peculiarity of motion, though he may be quite at a
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
loss to de¬ne in what this peculiarity consists, or to account for its impression
on him.µ°

Even the successful sculptor or painter, Hazlitt believes, will never retain
the perfect set of particulars which combine to form their subject “ and
this, indeed, is the direct consequence of the fact that, qua objects of
perception, ˜[a]ll particulars are nothing but generals [. . .]™.µ±
In this analogy Hazlitt appears to be making a point about knowledge
in general, along the lines that to have a full or complete representation
of the appearance of an object is not a necessary condition of having
knowledge of the appearance of that object. This is, in turn, quite in step
with Hazlitt™s general theory of abstraction. However, it also contains an
equivocation, represented by the following positions: (a) that as a matter
of psychological fact, all our knowledge is circumscribed by a process of
abstraction, though it is quite conceivable that, in another world, or in
elevated beings (such as artists, who are able to render likenesses) such
limitation might not obtain; (b) that our very concept or understanding
of what knowledge is, presupposes as its condition a limitation and gen-
erality of this very kind, and that without it, speculation about possible
objects of ˜knowledge™ is meaningless. Hazlitt appears to discount the
¬rst possibility, inasmuch as he makes it clear that even painters and
sculptors are not immune to the condition of abstraction. But to end the
matter here would be to allow the metaphor to lead the argument too
far: the equivocation still remains; an equivocation which lies between
making a statement about ˜all our knowledge™ and one about the concept
of ˜knowledge™. The ¬rst is an empirical, the second, a transcendental
This is an important matter: at its heart lies the question, does it make
sense to talk of having a full, empirically given representation of an object?
To Kant, for example, the inconceivability of this meant that an element
of the structure of the object itself must be a product of our consciousness.
But Hazlitt does not disallow in principle that the human mind might
receive a complete empirical representation of the object. Indeed, upon
closer inspection his argument looks more like an empirical one. This is
already suggested by his painting analogy: as a matter of fact, most of
us cannot paint realistic or representational portraits “ but this remains
a matter of fact, as some of us can paint realistically. Consequently, the
impossibility of an absolute representation is just a factual impossibility.
Unlike Kant, Hazlitt does not consider it to be a necesary condition of
the very possibility of knowledge that it be considered as bounded by
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
the conditions of abstraction: he merely thinks that abstraction forms
the centre and circumference of our knowledge, which is different. The
grounds of knowledge remain factual, not conceptual.
Consequently, when he sits down at his desk to write about knowledge,
Hazlitt is prone to think as a representationalist and an empiricist, be-
cause he approaches the problem in terms of how the mind can receive the
object; not of how objects might be suited to the mind, as Kant did, or
of how power or language structure thought, as much modern thought
does. If, as a matter of fact, the mind cannot receive the object as a unity,
then (he infers) it must have a role in forming that knowledge itself. But
the legislative process moves ˜inwards™, not ˜outwards™. The mind has no
epistemic authority in this: its role is that of forming the necessary ¬ctions
of abstraction. If one were ¬nally to ask, where is reality located, in its
simplest form?, Hazlitt, doubtless with some resistance, would have to
answer: ˜out there™; that is, in the object. The analogy from painting
indeed demonstrates the fact of our cognitive reliance upon abstraction,
but does not relieve Hazlitt™s ongoing problem of how the mind can be
said legitimately to ˜ground™ itself. This is fundamental to the tension in
Hazlitt™s thought: the object must be mastered, but there is no a priori basis
for the veracity of the mind™s projection. Unable exhaustively to dissolve
the object/subject duality, the mind™s power, even as it is exercised, is
curtailed, and knowledge is marked as incomplete, vague, phenomenal:
bordered not by the veil of logically possible sense-experience, but that
of psychologically possible sense-experience.

 ® ©®§ ©§© ®© ®  ® ¤ °  ¤ µ ©  µ® ¤   ®¤ © ®§
In the absence of an alternative to empiricism™s principle of truth, Hazlitt
often postulates the existence of a faculty, the function of which is to act
as a site of restitution. Such a faculty, it is imagined, will simultaneously
satisfy the Unitarian in Hazlitt by carrying out the productive synthesis
which makes moral reasoning and disinterested action possible, as well
as the harrassed epistemologist in him who still retains a concern that
such creativity might never be lawful; that the mind cannot be trusted
to give the rule to itself in terms of either its knowledge or its practical
decisions. It is notable that Hazlitt™s opinions on the functions of the fac-
ulties, though not particularly stable to begin with, undergo a discernible
change between his earlier, epistemologically preoccupied work, and his
later, more indifferent positions. This alteration, moreover, roughly cor-
responds to the closure of the more ambitious philosophical projects of
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
his twenties, and the professional criticism and art theory of subsequent
Indeed, the only constant elements of Hazlitt™s views on this subject
are that reason is never purely logical in its operations, and imagination
is never simply productive. Understanding is the most unstable of the
faculties in this respect, and ¬gures prominently in his early attempts to
strike a balance between creation, or productive synthesis, and factual
truth. Accordingly, as he becomes less concerned with this problem later
(though it never leaves him), the understanding gradually drops from
view to be replaced by a dichotomy of imagination and reason. Yet it
was by twinning these very faculties that Hazlitt had set about resolv-
ing the problem in the Essay, in which he advises the reader that ˜I do
not use the word imagination as contradistinguished from or opposed to
reason, or the faculty by which we re¬‚ect upon and compare our ideas,
but as opposed to sensation, or memory.™ It is thus the ˜reasoning imag-
ination™ which is ˜the immediate spring and guide of action™.µ In other
words, it is the harmony of imagination and reason, which, at this stage,
guarantees the lawfulness of the mind™s spontaneity in action. This, of
course, explains everything rather too neatly; a fact which Hazlitt him-
self comes to realize. By placing imagination at such an extreme remove
from sensation, and so close to reason, he makes the question of the
mind™s receptivity problematic.
Accordingly, in the ±° ˜Prospectus of a History of English Philos-
ophy,™ and in the Lectures on English Philosophy three years later, under-
standing assumes a greater importance, replacing the rather clumsily
assembled ˜reasoning imagination.™ It is at once productive, in that
˜[i]deas are the offspring of the understanding™,µ and regulative; a
˜superintending faculty, which alone perceives the relations of things™.µ
The simultaneously synthetic and re¬‚exive nature of understanding is
the foundation upon which Hazlitt bases his declaration that the ˜mind
alone is formative™ “ a phrase which he attributes to Kant, probably with
the encouragement of A. F. M. Willich™s rather ropy exposition of the
Critique of Pure Reason in his Elements of the Critical Philosophy.µµ This propo-
sition, which Hazlitt ¬rst used in his Preface to Tucker, in turn becomes
one of his favourite philosophical catchphrases, and a model premise
for his attempts to articulate the mind™s activity.µ Reason, meanwhile,
had increasingly become identi¬ed with judgement and pure logic. In
the lecture on Locke, it is given as the ˜property of the understanding,
by which certain judgements naturally follow certain perceptions,™ or
˜nothing but the understanding acting by rule or necessity™.µ· However,
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
these accounts do not sit easily together. If all our ideas are abstract be-
cause of the self-af¬rming productivity of the understanding, then what
is the origin of the putative ˜rules™ of reason “ and most saliently, their
˜necessity™? Is it the case that understanding guarantees knowledge by
legislating for itself (which is the cornerstone of the theory of abstrac-
tion), or is understanding itself answerable to a set of supersensible laws
cognizable only by reason? The fourth proposition of the Prospectus is
˜[t]hat reason is a distinct source of knowledge or inlet of truth, over
and above experience.™µ The implication of these remarks is that reason
is receiving its validation from something other than itself.
Of course, Hazlitt did not intend to overturn empiricism simply to
install a hegemony of reason in its place: it is rather that in struggling
to free himself from the language of empiricism, he experimented with
faculties which might not be directly answerable to sense-experience.
From the perspective of his underlying correspondence theory of per-
ception, however, such notions threatened to deprive knowledge of its
foundations. As he began to relinquish the entire project of a foundational
epistemology, and the vision of a reconciliation between a republican un-
derstanding and an aristocratic imagination receded, Hazlitt developed
a more equanimous attitude to the possibility that there might actually
be no solution to the problem of knowledge: that the unfortunate fact
might be just that, as human beings, we were split between two natures;
one driven by truth, the other by power. It is in this spirit that he was to
write in The Examiner in ±±µ, in an article entitled ˜Mind and Motive™,
that ˜[w]e are the creatures of imagination, passion and self-will, more
than of reason or even of self-interest™.µ It also forms the grounds for his
criticism of Coleridge in the Edinburgh Review two years later:

Reason and imagination are both excellent things; but perhaps their provinces
ought to be kept more distinct than they have lately been. ˜Poets have such
seething brains,™ that they are disposed to meddle with every thing, and mar all.
Mr C., with great talents, has, by an ambition to be every thing, become nothing.
His metaphysics have been a dead weight on the wings of his imagination “ while
his imagination has run away with his reason and common sense.°

Roy Park argues that this anti-rational turn represents Hazlitt™s
˜experiential™ solution to a dif¬cult contemporary epistemological prob-
lem.± However, though this aptly characterizes an aspect of Hazlitt™s
thought which becomes increasingly central in his later work, there is
evidence that he was never entirely comfortable with this settlement.
A deep tension between knowledge and indifference remained in his
work to the end of his career. This is particularly notable in the way he
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
approaches the perennial question of the proper function and status of
reason. In the ±° article on ˜Prejudice™ for The Atlas, for instance, he
is prepared to take a naturalistic, non-cognitive line, holding that there
is not the gulf between reason and prejudice that has commonly been
supposed, and that ˜custom, passion, imagination, insinuate themselves
into and in¬‚uence almost every judgement we pass or sentiment we in-
dulge, and are a necessary help (as well as a hindrance) to the human
understanding [. . .].™ In the ± essay ˜On Reason and Imagination™,
however, while maintaining as usual that ˜[p]assion [. . .] is the essence,
the chief ingredient in moral truth,™ he insists that ˜logical reason and
practical truth are disparates [. . .]™. Then again, in ±±, in ˜On Genius
and Common Sense™, he had achieved something approaching a com-
promise, granting reason a limited but non-legislative jurisdiction over
experience, or ˜common sense™, rather like a digni¬ed but disempowered
upper chamber: for though ˜[b]y ingrafting reason on feeling, we “make
assurance double sure”,™ he argues, ˜reason, not employed to interpret
nature, and to improve and perfect common sense and experience, is,
for the most part, a building without a foundation [. . .]™. What one wit-
nesses in all this intensive negotiation between the faculties is Hazlitt™s
attempt to shore up the very hierarchies and epistemologically reassur-
ing dualisms presupposed by an empirical philosophy which his own
radical theory of abstraction, by challenging the boundaries between
particularity and generalization, imagination and reason, undermines.
Before his doubt about the epistemological enterprise had deepened,
Hazlitt™s main objective had been to demonstrate how the key to truth
lay in the intimacy of the faculties, and their subordination to one ˜elastic
power™. ˜The mind™, he declared, ˜is not so loosely constructed, as that
the different parts can disengage themselves at will from the rest of the
system, and follow their own separate impulses. It is governed by many
different springs united together, and acting in subordination to the same
conscious power.™µ Yet his hope of elucidating this faded as it became
evident that his ambitions in this respect outstripped, not so much his
abilities as a thinker, but the capabilities of the philosophical instruments
which were at his disposal. Nonetheless, one of these tools “ the appeal to
common sense “ he used frequently enough to merit further attention.

°°©® ®¤ ® ®
In many ways, Hazlitt™s defence of commonsensism might seem some-
thing of a paradox. Reid had indeed argued that the mind played an
active role in knowledge, but it was for him a necessary condition of it
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
doing so that our knowledge of objects was immediate, given partly by
an affective power in the object, and partly by corresponding ˜simple
and original, and therefore inexplicable acts of the mind™, which were
in turn governed by unalterable dispositions in human nature. He ac-
cordingly dismisses ˜the ideal system™ as it runs from Descartes to Hume,
for misguidedly assuming from the outset that all our knowledge is con-
¬ned to representations of reality, or ideas. This premise has an ˜original
defect; that [. . .] scepticism is inlaid in it [. . .].™· With this in mind, it
seems plain that the meaning which Hazlitt attaches to ˜common sense™
is not that of Reid. Indeed, though his aims are broadly similar “ in
particular, the defeat of scepticism “ the route he takes in pursuit of their
ful¬lment, through the theory of abstract ideas, could not be more
divergent from Reid™s. While for Reid the postulation of a ˜common™
sense negates the necessity (and therefore the existence) of ideas, Hazlitt
founds all knowledge upon ideas of the most general kind.
Given this, the question arises as to what conception of common
sense Hazlitt does entertain, and how he imagines it might reinforce
the argument from abstraction. A relatively early indicator is provided
by the Preface to Tucker. Here, common sense signi¬es the inarticulate
feeling for that ¬eld of objects; the range of ˜minute differences and per-
plexing irregularities™, which lies beyond abstraction and the ˜moulds
of the understanding™. A failure to treat knowledge as circumscribed
by this ˜defect of comprehension™ “ that is, by accepting abstraction as
the limit of reality itself, rather than just of knowledge “ is, then, to be
lacking in common sense. It is to be ˜like a person who should deprive
himself of the use of his eye-sight, in order that he might be able to
grope his way better in the dark!™ This defence of common sense, how-
ever, harbours a familiar ambiguity, namely, between a psychological and
a transcendental mode of argument. Hazlitt™s epistemological problem
is to account for those noumenal ˜minute differences™ within a purely
descriptive psychological method in which such the drawing of such a
boundary might seem an unwarranted a priori hypothesis. Kant noto-
riously ran into similar problems by running a psychological argument
concerning the nature of the faculties into a transcendental argument
about the conceptual conditions of experience, thereby translating an
account of what is conceivable into one of what kind of things exist.
This in turn provoked Jacobi™s celebrated attack on the ¬rst edition of
the Critique of Pure Reason™s postulation of noumenal entities. Hazlitt™s
position, however, is at once more invidious and more advanced. For the
very absence of any prospect of a transcendental third way in his thought
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
draws him towards the more radical discourse of a kind of knowing not-
knowing comparable to Jacobian faith, which somehow communicates
with the dark presence of being. As ineffable, common sense provides
a feeling for that which is beyond the reach of sense; but as a ˜sense™, it
has, it is suggested, at least a quasi-cognitive status. However, Hazlitt™s
simile “ whereby the operation of common sense and over-abstraction
are compared, respectively, to that of normal human sight and blindness
when under identical conditions of utter darkness “ is an ambivalent
one. For though the blind man is certainly lacking something, it is still true
that he has no less knowledge of what is around him than the man who
has sight. It is this ˜something™ towards which Hazlitt gestures, but for
which he does not account.
It is noticeable that in this later work the creative processes which
Hazlitt had previously identi¬ed as responsible for abstraction seem to
have slipped from the picture. Instead, abstraction in this instance is
chained to reason, and not the idea-producing understanding of the ±°·
˜Prospectus™. Indeed, its current function seems more one of limitation
than projection, and while there is nothing inconsistent in this, strictly
speaking (for Hazlitt™s projectivism implies epistemic boundaries), the
shift of emphasis is striking. There are important reasons for this modi-
¬cation, and the emergence of the concept of common sense, as used by
Hazlitt, can be seen to be a product of underlying points of stress in his
position. In Hazlitt™s early account, it will be recalled, abstraction is the
mind™s projection of ¬nitude upon an in¬nite, plural world. There could,
he argued, be no knowledge without this mental activity. From this, he
inferred that because the resulting knowledge was necessarily general,
or vague, it must be connected with, or even determined by feeling. The
particular, meanwhile, was not cognizable. But because particular things
existed in the same world which formed the object of our perceptions,
there was nothing about the nature of experience per se which rendered
them imperceptible: it was just a matter of fact that, as limited human
beings, they were beyond our grasp. Thus, there is always the suggestion
in Hazlitt™s work that common sense might compensate the abstract-
ing mind for its loss of knowledge: it comes to represent, in a sense, the
direct voice of Jacobian ˜feeling™ which grounds abstraction itself. This in
turn opens up opportunities for accounting for the operations of artistic
The roots of Hazlitt™s recourse to common sense lie in the bluntness of
his theory of abstraction, a theory, it has been noted, which leads him to
reject the notion of perception as a relation between conceptual scheme
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
and ˜given™ raw data. Its comprehensiveness is such that Hazlitt does
not feel it necessary to make qualitative distinctions within knowledge
itself; most signi¬cantly, between what is projected, and what is ˜given™, or
(as Kant would have put it) between concepts and sensations. The result
of this is that the object itself seems to vanish, as the boundaries between
what is projected and what is received are blurred. To this extent, Hazlitt
rejects the foundationalist version of ˜knowledge™ as he had inherited it
from British eighteenth-century epistemology. In this light, indeed, the
mind seems in principle to have no limits to what it can create.
However, the epistemologist in Hazlitt remained concerned that ab-
straction fails to justify its own limitation of knowledge on anything other
than factual grounds. Unlike Coleridge, who, thanks to Kant, felt able to
rest knowledge on grounds which were transcendental in nature, Hazlitt,
having challenged the ˜givenness™ of perception, is left with a knowl-
edge that can never rest. Restless, aggressive, always moving out of itself,
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism is naturally impatient of transcendental or
conceptual curbs, and his dilemma is always one of how much of the ter-
ritory it gains he is prepared to count as knowledge, given his underlying
¬delity to the fundamental precept that, regardless of what consciousness
works up for itself, truth sui generis is determined by the correspondence of
(or even the confrontation between) mental phenomena and actual states
of affairs in the world. In this delicate and often precarious balancing
act, common sense increasingly takes on the role of arbiter between the
demands of empirical knowledge and the mind™s sheer power. Common
sense is, as he puts it in his Atlas essay of ±, ˜a kind of mental instinct,
that feels the air of truth and propriety as the ¬ngers feel objects of touch™,
the province of which is ˜that mass of knowledge [. . .] which lies between
the extremes of positive proof or demonstration and downright igno-
rance [. . .]™.·° Even common sense, however, was not always suf¬cient
to prevent Hazlitt™s theory of power from eclipsing his epistemological
concerns. One of the main factors which ensured this was his dif¬cult
relationship with the theory of association.

©©® ®¤ ©® ©®© °°©®
In ˜On Genius and Common Sense™, Hazlitt states that as common
sense underlies genius and taste, ˜all that is meant by feeling or common
sense™ by turn ˜is nothing but the different cases of the association of
ideas [. . .]™. Thus, artistic expression itself ˜is got at solely by feeling, that
is, on the principle of the association of ideas [. . .]™.·± Hazlitt thereby
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
grounds genius in a principle of psychology which allows for a degree
of liberty in its operations without either making it answerable to the
demands of knowledge, or (which he saw as the same thing) reducing it
to abstract rules. However, if Hazlitt appears happy to place association
at the centre of his indifferentist theory of art and genius, he had in his
earlier work been far less comfortable with its implications for his theory
of knowledge. The problem which confronted him, as so often, was one
which he inherited from Hume: if (as Hazlitt claims) all knowledge is
abstract, that is, based upon ideas, and (as Hume claims) the association
of ideas is a fact, then how can one be sure that the connections between
ideas in, for example, judgements about relation and causality, are not
merely arbitrary matters of psychological coincidence? Hume™s problem
is a very immediate one for Hazlitt, for it has already been seen that
his own theory of abstraction prevents him from taking Reid™s common
sense route around it.
Consequently, Hazlitt™s early epistemological position on association
is one of ¬rm opposition. In the ˜Prospectus™, he asserts that ˜the princi-
ple of association does not account for all our ideas, feelings, and actions
[. . .]™.· However, though he attacks associationism, more often than not
the target of his arguments is Hartley. This is signi¬cant, as Hartley™s the-
ory, though the most extreme, was only one among a number of versions
of associationism in circulation at the time. Crucially, Hartley™s theory is
epistemological, and not merely psychological. In other words, it argues
that association is logically prior, and not subsequent to, perception itself.
This position is in turn best read as a modi¬cation of Hume, who had
declared in the Treatise that the ˜uniting principle among ideas is not to
be consider™d as an inseparable connexion™; but only as ˜a gentle force,
which commonly prevails™ among ideas, adding that ˜the qualities, from
which this association arises, and by which the mind is after this man-
ner convey™d from one idea to another, are three, viz. R    ¬® ,
C® ©§µ©  in time or place, and Cµ   and E¦ ¦   ™.· Hartley,
however, claims that the principle of contiguity is primary, distinguish-
ing within this quality two further categories: namely, synchronous, and
successive association.· By making the principle of association primar-
ily a temporal one, Hartley both negates any notion of the mind™s own
activity being integral to knowledge, and increases the element of ran-
domness in association itself. Additionally, he hitches his theory to a
thoroughgoing materialism which, despite his protests, renders it even
more deterministic than it might have been otherwise. Given this, when
examining Hazlitt™s assaults upon Hartleian associationism, it should
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
be borne in mind that the theory of association in its broadest form is
not necessarily sceptical, materialistic, or deterministic. Nonetheless, it
is these very attributes to which Hazlitt objects the most.
Hazlitt has ¬ve main criticisms of this kind of associationism. In the
¬rst place, association is contingent, or arbitrary: as he puts it in the
˜Remarks™, a matter of ˜mere accident™·µ which cannot account for
the strength which some ideas have over others. Consequently, Hartley™s
associationism seems to lead either to scepticism about the validity of the
connection of ideas, or assumes some other, non-temporal principle of
connection. This leads to the second objection; namely, that association
is self-defeating, for it is ˜an express contradiction to suppose that associ-
ation is either the only mode of operation of the human mind, or that it is
the primary and most general principle of thought and action [. . .]™. The
reason for this is that the very act of association of two individual ideas
for Hazlitt already presupposes ˜some common principle of thought, the
same comparing power being exerted upon both [. . .]™.· Moreover, he
argues in the Essay that it does not even explain those psychological phe-
nomena which it is supposed to cover, such as the effects of habit. On
the contrary, it is ˜a gross mistake to consider all habit as necessarily
depending on association of ideas [. . .]™.·· The result of these limitations
form Hazlitt™s fourth charge: that association is completely inadequate
to explain the nature of consciousness or relation; a task which only the
˜intellectual philosophy™ is equal to. He alleges in the ˜Remarks™, that
the dictum ˜to feel is to think, “sentir est penser” ™ “ an axiom with which he
agrees “ is unsustainable on an associationist scheme: ˜the aggregate of
many actual sensations is [. . .] a totally different thing, from the collective
idea, comprehension, or consciousness of those sensations as many things,
or of any of their relations to each other [. . .]™.· Finally, and in an im-
portant respect most damningly, Hazlitt sees Hartley as disempowering
the mind at the expense of the object:

[Upon reading Hartley] I am somehow wedged in between different rows of
material objects, overpowering me by their throng, and from which I have
no power to escape, but of which I neither know nor understand any thing.
I constantly see objects multiplied upon me, not powers at work, I know no
reason why one thing follows another [. . .] he always reasons from the concrete
object, not from the abstract or essential properties of things [. . .].·

Importantly, Hazlitt continues to see knowledge as a struggle or
confrontation between two entities called subject and object. Particularly
noticeable in this passage is the emphasis upon the materiality of
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
Hartley™s notion of the object: Hazlitt had complained earlier that he
˜is always the physiologist rather than the metaphysician™.° Yet Hartley™s
real concession to the object is epistemological: it lies not in his undoubted
materialism, but in his commitment to empiricism, and it is against this
that Hazlitt is really reacting.
It was Tucker, however, who seemed to Hazlitt to hold out the possi-
bility of redemption for the associative imagination. In The Light of Nature
Pursued, Tucker had in¬‚ated the function of the imagination in order to
support his thesis that it plays a role equal with understanding in the
formation of knowledge; that the two ˜go hand in hand co-operating
in the same work™.± A ˜receptacle of images™, the imagination is the
˜medium by whose ministry [ . . . the will] obtains what it wants™, and
is thus operative in the active, re¬‚ective process in which association
consists: ˜[w]hatever knowledge we receive from sensation, or fall upon
by experience, or grow into by habit and custom, may be counted the
produce of imagination [. . .]™. Most signi¬cantly, however, Tucker ex-
tended Hartley™s notion of the coalescence of ideas in association. Though
Hartley had designated this as ˜the highest Kind of Induction™, and as
amounting to a perfect coincidence of ideas, he had claimed that it ˜takes
place only in Mathematics™. Tucker extended the idea to denote the
production of new ideas in perception generally, whereby ˜a compound
may have properties resulting from the composition [of ideas] which do
not belong to the parts singly whereof it consists™.µ This regulation of as-
sociation encouraged Hazlitt to declare, in the essay ˜On Reason and the
Imagination™, that because ˜[t]he imagination is an associating principle
[ . . . it] has an instinctive perception when a thing belongs to a system,
or is only an exception to it™. However, it is in this same essay that
Hazlitt draws a very rigid distinction between ˜logical reason and practi-
cal truth™.· Thus, while Tucker™s commitment to imagination as a legit-
imate power in knowledge compels him to resort, rather apologetically,
to the same and ˜so much used distinction between absolute and moral
certainty™ in his examination of judgement, Hazlitt™s championing of
˜moral truth™ is much more aggressive. ˜What does not touch the heart,
or come home to the feelings™, he asserts, ˜goes comparatively for little
or nothing.™
Though at this point, the notion of the ˜instinctive perception™ of imag-
ination seemed to Hazlitt to be an effective way of retaining the epistemic
credibility of associative imagination, it harbours the same ambivalence
as his notion of common sense. Even in non-epistemological theories
of association such as Tucker™s, the pull of idea-empiricism remains the
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
same: once you advance from the bare representation by association or
any other agency of the subject, you move away from the object as it
is in itself. Yet the central tenet of contemporary epistemology was that
it was only through correspondence to an empirical object that an idea
has any truth-status. In this light, both Tucker™s reluctant, and Hazlitt™s
more enthusiastic resort to the notion of ˜moral™ certainty still signal a
concession to the empiricist.
There are indeed times when Hazlitt seems on the verge of relinquish-
ing entirely the epistemological endeavour to determine a demonstra-
ble foundation for truth which neither collapsed into empiricism, nor
rested upon the rather vague notions of feeling, common sense, or the
instinctive perception of association. Instead, the indeterminacy built
into these ideas became a virtue, as he came to see them as indicative
of a dimension of human existence which was itself beyond knowing.
This brings us to Hazlitt™s later use of association to articulate his non-
cognitive notion of artistic originality, in the ±° Atlas essay ˜Origi-
nality™, as ˜little more than the fertility of a teeming brain “ that is,
than the number and quantity of associations present to his mind [. . .].™°
As his attention turned towards this ¬eld, questions of epistemology
came to be marginalized by those concerning the production and
criticism of art.

© ® ®  ©    ® ¤    ° ·   °  © ®  © ° ¬ 
Up to now, most of the discussion has concentrated upon the theory of
abstraction and its adjuncts in Hazlitt™s work “ such as common sense
and associationism “ as the means by which he strove to solve the riddle
of ¬nding an alternative to empiricism™s principle of truth compatible
with his vision of the mind™s creativity and human capacity for moral
disinterestedness. Moreover, it has been noted how his advocacy of a
new, immanent idealism whereby the mind was assumed to make its own
truth gradually caused Hazlitt™s speculations to take on an increasingly
ontological turn, with increasing emphasis on the idea of unconditioned
power. The function of this notion in Hazlitt™s thought requires further
examination. Hazlitt™s ambivalence over whether power might prove to
be of bene¬t to a theory of knowledge, or whether it should be installed at
the core of an epistemically decentred metaphysics of the human mind,
is a product of his struggle to escape empiricism when epistemologically he
had nowhere else to go. In more general terms, then, Hazlitt™s dilemma
translates as the question: is the concept of power ¬‚exible enough to
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
ground knowledge without eclipsing it entirely, or must power remain
as a distinct but dominant force which was needed to counteract the
dessicating effects of excessive analysis? Could it even present a new way
of approaching reality which might actually replace philosophy™s notion
of ˜knowledge™?
Hazlitt often seems to be a positivist about the ¬rst question, appar-
ently persuaded that through the notion of power he can achieve a number
of epistemological objectives. The ¬rst of these is to free the mind from
the determination of sensation and (thereby, he infers) matter. It has al-
ready been seen how one of his main objections to Hartley was that
he disempowered the mind itself in favour of the object; or, to be precise,
the empirical object, which Hazlitt classi¬es as ˜material™. As a conse-
quence of this, he concludes that the most effective way of opposing
Hartley is through some kind of anti-materialist position. Metaphysical
idealism and epistemological argument thus become allies: in the
˜Prospectus™, he argues that ˜[t]he mind has laws, powers, and princi-
ples of its own, and is not the mere puppet of matter™. Elsewhere, a
separate argument of Hazlitt™s is that it is the power of the understanding
that produces ideas; that forms the moulds for knowledge. Again, in the
˜Prospectus™, abstraction itself is seen as a ˜power™, by virtue of the fact that
˜[i]deas are the offspring of the understanding, not of the senses [. . .].™±
It is this same ˜power of mind™ by which, in the Essay, it had been pro-
posed that the moral agent may engage sympathetically with the pain
or pleasure of another.
The question as to the sense in which imagination or understanding
was to be considered as a kind of projecting power which is innate with
the mind was one of which Hazlitt was acutely aware. He was very
sensitive to the possible suspicion that by questioning empiricism, he
was merely looking back wistfully to philosophy before Locke. Thus,
in his lecture on Locke™s Essay, though he complains that Locke™s ˜bad
simile™ of the mind as being like a blank sheet of paper distorts the true
nature of understanding, he is careful to add nonetheless that it is ˜true
as far as relates to innate ideas [. . .]™. The point, he argues, is that,
though clearly not a reservoir of innate ideas, the understanding is an
innate power of mind for producing ideas:
the supposing the understanding to be a distinct faculty of the mind no more
proves our ideas to be innate, than the allowing perception to be a distinct origi-
nal faculty of the mind, which everybody does, proves that there must be innate
sensations. These two positions have, however, been sometimes considered as
convertible by the partisans on both sides of the question [. . .].
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Hazlitt is on ¬rmer ground here. Later, he criticizes Locke for failing
to distinguish adequately ˜between two things which I cannot very well
express otherwise than by a turn of words, namely, an innate knowl-
edge of principles, and innate principles of knowledge. His arguments
seem to me conclusive against the one, but not against the other [. . .].™
He even appeals to the authority of Leibniz in this, assuming that the
German philosopher™s doctrine of ˜pre-established harmony between its
innate faculties and its acquired ideas, implied in the essence of the mind
itself ™ supports his own thesis.µ As a point scored against Locke, this
is fair enough, but Hazlitt has yet to demonstrate how, without innate
knowledge, we can know just what these principles are. Without such an
account, we are returned to the position of the common sense man in
the dark from the Preface to Tucker: in possession of perfect eyesight,
he is yet no more able to avoid ˜groping™ around in the dark than his
(physically) blind companion. Similarly, if Hazlitt is followed, we may
suppose that we have sound principles of knowledge, but we are at a loss
to discern their precise character. Ours is an unknowing knowing.
Hazlitt™s various attempts to overcome this impasse “ which include the
use of a variant of common sense theory “ have already been discussed.
The tenth proposition of the ˜Prospectus™, however, makes a simpler sug-
gestion: that we have an immediate perception of power, merely through
the exercising of it: ˜[w]e do not get this idea [of power] from the outward
changes which take place in matter, but from the exertion of it in our-
selves. Whoever has stretched out his hand to an object must have had
the feeling of power [. . .]™. Hazlitt™s framing of the notion of intuitive
or unmediated knowledge of power by making it neither wholly medi-
ate nor immediate, and attributing it instead to ˜feeling™, goes beyond
foundationalism and opens up the possibility of a relationship of person
and world which is not grounded in ˜knowing™.· At the same time, it
threatens to undermine the very theory of abstraction which power is
supposed to ground, and which con¬nes all knowledge to ideas. Hazlitt,
however, thought that he could square this circle by appealing to Kant.
Hazlitt™s view of the German philosopher was prone to change. In the
Preface to Tucker, though with a little hesitation, he approves of Kant™s
position (as he sees it) in that it ˜takes for granted the common notions
prevalent among mankind, and then endeavours to explain them; or to
shew their foundation in nature, and the universal relations of things™,
and thereby reverses the mechanical and sceptical trend initiated by
Locke. This rather loose characterization encourages him to miscast
Tucker himself as a ˜truant™ from Lockeanism and a fellow-traveller with
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
Kant, insofar as ˜he believed with professor Kant in the unity of con-
sciousness, or “that the mind alone is formative”, that fundamental article
of the transcendental creed; in the immateriality of the soul, etc.™ Later,
in the ±± Morning Chronicle article on Madame de Sta¨ l, he claims that
Kant™s system is built upon ˜ “the sublime restriction (as Madame de Sta¨ l e
expresses it) added by Leibnitz to the well-known axiom nihil in intellectu
quod non prius in sensu “ ®©  © ©®  ¬¬  µ © °  .” ™ With this understand-
ing of Kant, and with Willich apparently by his elbow, it is not surprising
that he ¬nds ˜Kant™s notions a priori™ a little puzzling, and ˜little better
than the innate ideas of the schools™. Moreover, he seems baf¬‚ed by the
German™s method: ˜Kant does not appear to trouble himself about the
evidence of any particular proposition™, with the result that ˜logical proof
is wanting™ in his argument.±°°
In this light, one does not need to debate the dubious provenance of
the notorious Edinburgh Review savaging of Kant™s system, a few years
subsequently, as ˜the most wilful and monstrous absurdity that ever was
invented™ to see that Hazlitt™s sympathy for the critical philosophy did
not stretch much further than his understanding of it.±°± The point,
however, is not that Hazlitt failed to grasp the originality and signi¬cance
of transcendental method “ it is doubtful whether anyone in Britain at
the time did, including Coleridge “ but that by mistaking Kant variously
as a kindred spirit with Tucker, a neo-Leibnizian, and ¬nally an innatist,
it is evident that his idealistic posture is that of a rebellious empiricist.
The most important objection to Kant in the Morning Chronicle article,
it should be recalled, is that he does not allow that ˜ideas are the result
of the action of objects on such and such faculties of the mind [. . .]™.±°
To Hazlitt, Kant™s suggestion that the foundations of knowledge were a
priori and conceptual in character sounds too much like old-fashioned
innatism. Human creation aside, knowledge is still bound by empirical
laws, insofar as truth remains a function of the extent to which the mind™s
representations correspond to a given object.±°

   ® ¤  © §© ®¬ ©  
As the contest between knowledge and indifference shapes Hazlitt™s
moral theory, so it lies behind the ambivalence of his writings on art
and aesthetics. Here, however, Hazlitt, like Wordsworth and Coleridge,
is more con¬dent about challenging the jurisdiction of knowledge with
art.±° At the centre of this issue, as so often, is the relation between per-
son and world implied by the English Romantic construction of human
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
creativity. As Roy Park observes, the state of philosophy in England at
the time meant that ˜[f]ew were prepared to speculate at any length in
epistemological terms on a theory of the creative nature of the human
mind™.±°µ The preceding discussions have offered an insight as to why
this particular kind of indifference took root in England. It wasn™t merely
that in the absence of an emphatic and convincing refutation of Hume,
philosophy had settled for a less ambitious naturalism. Instead, Romantic
creation theory self-consciously resisted philosophical articulation. It
did not make itself available to understanding. In fact, it stood for the
curtailing, perhaps even the ending of a way of looking at the world
as ¬rst and foremost something which needed to be ˜understood™, an
object of knowledge “ an outlook which had only produced scepticism.
Creativity in art, and at the extreme, artistic genius, represented the pos-
sibility of an engagement with reality not in thrall to notions of ˜truth™
and representation. In effect, while for eighteenth-century Scots such as
Alexander Gerard and William Duff original genius was simply another
subject towards which empirical philosophy might turn its attention,
to Hazlitt, creativity and genius questioned the need for ˜philosophy™
as such.
In signi¬cant respects, Hazlitt™s notion of creative genius is already
contained in the theory of practical reason outlined in the Essay: that is,
in the idea of a projective power innate in all human beings which tran-
scends empirical determination and empowers the agent to furnish the
rule for his or her own conduct. Indeed, generally speaking Hazlitt does
not accept that the artistic genius is an entirely different creature from
most other people: merely that he possesses certain common character-
istics to an unusual or exaggerated degree. There are exceptions to this,
such as Shakespeare, but such instances represent a level of autonomy
and elevated achievement so rare as almost to be beyond the account
of theory entirely. As Natarajan argues, the anomaly of Shakespeare™s
self-negating, ˜protean™ genius within Hazlitt™s broader theory of genius
as the exertion of a powerful ego disappears if the latter is seen as ˜the
glorious exception to that theory, not its rule™.±°
For Hazlitt, Genius™s close af¬nity with common sense means that it
has the kind of quasi-cognitive status which he also attributed to the
moral imagination. In ˜On Genius and Common Sense™, having based
common sense upon association, Hazlitt declares that both genius and
taste ˜depend upon much the same principle exercised on loftier ground
and in more unusual combinations [. . .]™.±°· But whereas with the moral
autonomy of mind outlined in the Essay Hazlitt had found it extremely
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
dif¬cult to legitimize the mind™s power, in aesthetics he is happy to charac-
terize the products of artistic genius as manifestations of a preponderance
of power over reason; a worthy bias of mind, which, expressing nature™s
own power, projects itself by force of passion upon the object it per-
ceives. Typical of this attitude is his criticism of Pope in an ±± Edinburgh
Magazine essay. Pope was certainly not a great poet, Hazlitt maintains,
in that he was too objective: the bent of his mind lay ˜in representing
things as they appear to the indifferent observer, stripped of prejudice
and passion [. . .]™.±° Thus construed, genius is free from conscious de-
liberation: a few years later, in ˜The Indian Jugglers™ Hazlitt distinguishes
talent from genius ˜as voluntary differs from involuntary power™.±°
Yet there remained the persistent foundationalist worry: how is it pos-
sible for genius legitimately to set its own rules; that is, create the very
values by which it is to be judged? Without this, genius appears either
as a talent for achieving predetermined ends, or an ability to carry out
any complex and dif¬cult task without conscious effort “ a facility which
might be true of the expert egg-and-spoon racer as well as the juggler
and the artist. Hazlitt, sensitive to this, is careful not to make gusto a
suf¬cient condition of genius or artistic value. Genius does, indeed, have
a privileged access to reality, but only inasmuch as it has its foundation
in the same feeling or common sense as the process of abstraction. Thus,
though art depends upon feeling, and is divorced from reason, it is no
less valid in its own right: indeed, it has a more immediate connection
to the power of nature which determines rational truth. ˜Shall we say™,
he asks in ˜On Genius and Common Sense™, ˜that these impressions
(the immediate stamp of nature) do not operate in a given manner till
they are classi¬ed and reduced to rules, or is not the rule itself grounded
upon the truth and certainty of that natural operation?™ Answering this,
he claims that ˜[r]eason is the interpreter and critic of nature and genius,
not their lawgiver and judge™.±±° Hazlitt™s theory of genius goes beyond
Kant™s, then, in that he sees it as the innate faculty whereby nature gives
the rule not only to art, but also to reason. By doing this, Hazlitt effects
the characteristic English Romantic strategy of overcoming foundation-
alism by making creation itself foundational. In this he hopes to get
the best of both worlds: epistemic security is preserved, but at the same
time knowledge itself is tamed, becoming a secondary sphere in human
This pattern repeats itself in Hazlitt™s treatment of originality. Hazlitt is
emphatic that this does not signify the creation out of nothing: ˜Genius or
originality is, for the most part, some strong quality in the mind, answering to and
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
bringing out some new and striking quality in nature [. . .].™ It is the transference
of deep feeling between associations according to a principle of ˜sympa-
thy, and not by rule [. . .]™.±±± As he puts it in the later essay ˜Originality™,
upon being presented with the endless variety of nature, ˜it is in seizing
on this unexplored variety, and giving some one of these new but easily
recognised features, in its characteristic essence, and according to the
peculiar bent and force of the artist™s genius, that true originality con-
sists.™±± Originality is therefore opposed to abstraction: where the latter
aggregates, the former particularizes and intensi¬es. But this kind of ge-
nius (as distinct from the more universal, protean genius of Shakespeare)
is receptive, and depends upon the input of nature:

All that we meet with in the master-pieces of taste and genius is to be found
in the previous capacity of nature; and man, instead of adding to the store, or
creating any thing either as to matter or manner, can only draw out a feeble
and imperfect transcript, bit by bit [. . .]. The mind resembles a prism, which
untwists the various rays of truth, and displays them by different modes and in
several parcels.±±

The claims made on behalf of original genius here are notably mod-
erate: the mind may only draw out a ˜feeble and imperfect transcript™
of nature. Yet this is tempered by the simile comparing the mind to
a prism, which suddenly presents the possibility that the mind might
refract what it receives, without distorting it. This picture follows simi-
lar lines to Hazlitt™s account of the cognitive properties of poetry in the
±± Lectures on the English Poets, in which he denies that poetry is ˜a mere
frivolous accomplishment™, claiming, like Wordsworth, that it is ˜graver™
than history: ˜its materials lie deeper, and are spread wider [. . .]™. Admit-
ting that poetry imitates nature, he adds that ˜the imagination and the
passions are a part of man™s nature™: thus, the language of poetry ˜is not
the less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much
the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object
under the in¬‚uence of passion makes on the mind™.±±
The phrase ˜not less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact™ is
crucial. It indicates that Hazlitt™s argument, in this lecture at least, is that
there is more to truth than either sense-experience or ˜distinctions of the
understanding™; that ˜the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or
ordinary impression of any object or feeling™ constitutes, in itself, a third
form of knowledge.±±µ Hazlitt is attacking Hume™s fact/value division, but
in doing so is walking a tightrope, as elsewhere he seeks to distance art
and poetry from epistemic concerns. In this light, Hazlitt™s uncertainty
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
over the cognitive status of the productions of genius is another instance
of his dilemma of where to locate ˜knowledge™ with respect to ˜power™.
Elsewhere “ for instance, in The Examiner article ˜Mind and Motive™
of ±±µ “ he dismisses reason and self-interest altogether as principles
of human nature, subordinating them to the love of power, or ˜strong
excitement, both in thought and action.™±±
Thus, the value of poetry for Hazlitt lies somewhere between knowl-
edge and the exertion of power; and that of genius, somewhere between
answering faithfully to nature and commanding it. Certainly, he does
not claim to see any real difference between the two positions in either
of these two cases, as he does not profess that, at bottom, there is any
distinction to be drawn between knowledge and power. Indeed, as he
claims in the lecture ˜On Poetry in General™, fundamentally, ˜knowledge
is conscious power [. . .]™.±±· The difference between the function of rea-
son and the processes of imagination or poetic genius is merely one of
direction: while reason (or understanding) abstracts, projecting the gen-
eral upon the particular, genius distils the world into its particulars, and
˜invents™ by discovering new truths in the course of imitating the in¬nity
of nature. As Hazlitt expresses it in A View of the English Stage in ±±, ˜[i]t
is the business of poetry, and indeed of all works of imagination, to exhibit
the species through the individual™.±± But because it deals with the ¬‚uid and
the limitless, genius cannot provide objects for knowledge. Nor can it
give an account of itself or its operations; it emphatically is not ˜conscious
of its own powers™ “ yet it is precisely this ineffability which guarantees
its sovereignty. Writing of the genius of acting in The Examiner in ±±µ,
Hazlitt opines that ˜the excellences of genius are not communicable
[. . .] for the power with which great talent works, can only be regulated
by its own suggestions and the force of nature™.±±
In much of this Hazlitt was concerned to avoid what he saw as one
of the main failings of Coleridge™s work: namely, the domination of art
by philosophy. In this respect, Hazlitt™s is the more resolute assertion of
a central Romantic theme: that of aesthetic autonomy. The freedom of
the aesthetic was not something which could be reduced to any other
discourse. This did not mean that one could not theorize about art:
merely that one could not explain art™s products or processes exhaustively.
Its very nature was bound up with its ineffability. Nonetheless, Hazlitt has
his own problems, and on two fronts. On one side, his immanent idealism
had led him to a worship of undifferentiated power which undermined,
not just empiricism, but the very notion of knowledge in general as
something veri¬able. Concepts such as ˜common sense™ and ˜feeling™,
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
seen in this context, are not deployed by Hazlitt as cognitive processes, but
as ciphers for the kind of supernatural faculties which might ratify such
exertions of power. On the other hand, however, the attempts he does
make to plug an epistemological thesis into this are frustrated by the fact
that the thesis in whose terms he is prone to think “ empiricism “ demands
that mental events correspond to something. Power, however, is singular:
it does not ˜correspond™ to anything but itself. With respect to Hazlitt™s
metaphor, it is more like a black hole than a prism; drawing everything,
light included, into itself. It cannot be bounded by any epistemological
principle, because such principles are themselves functions or aspects of
Consequently, Hazlitt struggles to express what kind of truth-value
might be peculiar to poetry, and often indicates that it is rather one of
compensation for loss of knowledge. Of tragic poetry, for instance, he
writes in ˜On Poetry in General™ that its pleasure is grounded in the
˜common love of strong excitement™, or power. In this, given an object of
terror, we ˜grapple with it in thought, in action, to sharpen our intellect™ “
the energy therein depends upon the abyss between understanding and
truth; upon an absence of one-to-one correspondence between mind
and object. Poetry ˜is the perfect coincidence of the image and the words
with the feeling [of struggle] we have, and of which we cannot get rid in
any other way, that gives an instant “satisfaction to the thought” ™. The
mind is thus permitted the liberty to be pleased with its own projections
and ¬ctions: ˜We do not wish the thing to be so; but we wish it to appear
such as it is.™±°
Hand in hand with this went a deeply ingrained ambivalence about
originality. In ˜Originality™, he describes how, as the original mind
˜advances in the knowledge of nature, the horizon of art enlarges and
the air re¬nes. Then, in addition to an in¬nite variety of details [. . .]
there is the [. . .] I know not what [. . .].™ Imagination is as blind in this,
however, as power necessarily is: its invention when in the re¬ned air of
the outer boundaries of knowledge is ˜little more than the fertility of a
teeming brain™. All the mind has to accompany it into the terra incognita
is a power (if it can be called a power) of association. Yet these are the
conditions of the originality ˜which constitutes either the charm of works
of ¬ction or the improvement to be derived from those of progressive
information™.±± Back in ±±, however, in the lecture on poetry, Hazlitt
had been less persuaded as to the neatness of ¬t between originality and
knowledge, for ˜the progress of knowledge and re¬nement has a tendency
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
to circumscribe the limits of the imagination, and to clip the wings of
Most revealing of all, however, is Hazlitt™s changing attitude to the
idea of creation. Generally, Hazlitt™s view seems compatible with what
has been characterized as the Platonic or ˜discovery™ model of creation.
Most importantly, the paradigm requires the existence of some object
which is, as it were, waiting out there to be discovered and recombined
in some way. Such a picture can be accommodated by epistemological
foundationalism. Yet it is also clear that there are times when this model
appears insuf¬cient for Hazlitt™s conception of imagination, as when,
for example, he describes the process of creation in the essay ˜On the
Pleasure of Painting™:
One is never tired of painting, because you have to set down not what you knew
already, but what you have just discovered. In the former case, you translate
feeings into words; in the latter, names into things. There is a continual creation
out of nothing going on. With every stroke of the brush, a new ¬eld of inquiry is
laid open; new dif¬culties arise, and new triumphs are prepared over them.±

Despite his use of the term, Hazlitt suggests a process which is more
than just the ˜discovery™ of an inert, passive reality, but a pragmatic,
committed relationship with the world. In painting, what one discovers
is itself a product of previous strokes of the brush, leading to new ¬elds of
inquiry which are not ready-made or ˜given™ to consciousness, but which
are themselves part of the activity. Insofar as they have no existence
separate from the activity of painting, then, such ¬elds are, in a sense,
created ˜out of nothing™. Similarly, in ˜On Genius and Common Sense™,
though Hazlitt insists that the ˜test and triumph of originality, [is] not to
shew us what has never been [. . .] but to point out to us what is before
our eyes and under our feet, though we have had no suspicion of its
existence™, he nevertheless considers Wordsworth as ˜the greatest, that
is, the most original poet of the present day™ on the grounds that ˜like
Rembrandt, [he] has a faculty of making something out of nothing, that
is, out of himself [. . .]™.±
The ambivalence of these remarks reveals that in his aesthetic as well as
in his philosophical writing, Hazlitt remained divided about the relation
between knowledge and power, or an indifference to knowing. Just as he
was nervous about abstraction, in art he only allows the mind to create ex
nihilo (or at least, as if from nothing) on the grounds that its products are
not possible objects for knowledge, representing only nascent knowledge,
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
or power which has yet to become conscious to itself. Pursued elsewhere
by Nietzsche and Bloom, this line of thought would have damaging impli-
cations for epistemology.±µ But rather than fully embrace this challenge
to ˜knowledge™, Hazlitt™s concern that art and genius might thereby be
alienated from truth draws him back to a more domesticated, epistemi-
cally secure Platonic or ˜discovery™ paradigm for creation. In the course
of this, power is in its turn subdued by knowledge.

 ®  ¬µ  ©  ® : ° ·    ® ¤ °    µ ¤ ©  
The story of Hazlitt™s early philosophical writing is one of power brought
into the service of empirical knowledge through idealism, only to usurp
it. The more convinced he became that reason is not translatable into
˜moral™ truth, the less he was persuaded that there was any need for moral
truth to justify itself to reason; indeed, even to designate itself as a kind
of ˜truth™ at all. Thus, Hazlitt withdrew altogether from a positivist or
cognitivist position, asserting that to act morally or to experience the
world as at once diverse and uni¬ed is to exercise a certain sympathetic
power of mind, and nothing else. This goes beyond the proposition that
moral truth is grounded in sympathy, or common sense, or feeling, and
assumes that such considerations represent an aspect of human existence
which is fundamental to our being. One way Hazlitt has of expressing
this is in terms of the priority of ˜prejudice™. In the Atlas article of the
same name of ±°, he declares that in the balance between reason and
prejudice, ˜we are constantly [. . .] treading on the brink of a precipice;
that custom, passion, imagination, insinuate themselves into and in¬‚u-
ence almost every judgement we pass or sentiment we indulge [. . .]™.±
In ˜Paragraphs on Prejudice™, published in The Monthly Magazine a few
months later, he extends this to logical reasoning in general, arguing
that even the greatest philosopher cannot ˜proceed a single step without
taking something for granted™.±·
Even here, however, Hazlitt is loath to abandon knowledge entirely:
prejudice, he claims, is just a necessary fact of life imposed by ˜all that
mass of knowledge and perception which falls under the head of common
sense and natural feeling, which is made up of the strong and urgent, but un-
de¬ned impressions of things upon us, and lies between the two extremes
of absolute proof and the grossest ignorance™.± This characterization
of common sense is by now familiar, but why Hazlitt feels the need to go
further and apply the word ˜prejudice™ to it is puzzling, unless it is to be
taken that he does not mean it to constitute a kind of knowledge at all, but
Hazlitt™s immanent idealism
rather a state of being. Yet as he inherited it from Burke, the term does
indeed appear to have a cognitive import insofar as it signi¬es the mass
of common wisdom which has built up over ages but which reason may
not scrutinize.± ˜Prejudice™ appears in this light as yet another attempt
to de¬ne an extra-empirical standard of truth in conformity with the
notion of power. Yet this is merely to point out what has been a central
theme of this chapter “ that in Hazlitt™s work indifference and episte-
mology simultaneously remain at odds and symbiotically co-dependent.
In Hazlitt, this tension becomes self-conscious when he, like Keats and
Lamb, simply vacates the ¬eld of speculation altogether. This rhetori-
cal manoeuvre can be detected throughout Hazlitt™s writing, from his
acknowledgement in the ˜Remarks™ that his argument against Hartley
is pursued ˜without ¬rst ascertaining (if that were possible) the manner
in which our ideas are produced, and the nature of consciousness, both
of which I am utterly unable to comprehend™±° to the supposition in
the lecture ˜On Abstract Ideas™ that such facts of the mind are somehow
˜equally evident and unaccountable™.±±
I have mentioned that the apparent inconsistencies and puzzling am-
biguities in Hazlitt™s work are largely the product of his relationship to
empiricism; a relationship which was neither one of conformity nor out-
right rejection, but ambivalence. Much as he tried to escape from it, the
British empirical tradition was the mould which formed the cast for his
attitudes towards the basic problems of knowledge. The most important
aspect of this training was the ingrained presumption in contemporary
empirical thought that truth was a measure of the extent to which the
basic elements of our mental furniture corresponded to an object which
was ˜given™ in perception. Hazlitt came to question this, however, as it
became clear that both his theories of moral reasoning and abstraction
exceeded such conditions. The central premise of the ±°µ Essay that the
mind has an active and legitimate legislative role to play in con¬guring
possible candidates for moral knowledge, presumes a creative capacity
in the mind which violates the conditions of empirical knowledge.
The problem Hazlitt faces, then, arises from the discrepancy between
his positions on morality and art and the epistemological language he
uses as a matter of habit. Initially, Hazlitt™s efforts focused upon making
empiricism more congenial to the outlook of his moral and aesthetic the-
ories. The principal instrument of this endeavour is the argument from
abstraction, but, as this comes to demand further reinforcement from a
heavily revised notion of common sense, the ˜instinctive perception™ of
coalescent association, analogies of perception taken from painting, and
± Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
increasingly exotic hypotheses about the nature of the faculties, it became
clear that it challenged something more fundamental than empiricism,
namely foundationalism. The consequences of the theory of abstraction
are either an epistemic de¬cit which must be conceded to the sceptic
and accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, or a profound questioning
of philosophy™s construction and elevation of ˜knowledge™.
Through his theory of abstraction, Hazlitt is progressively inclined
to a position less concerned with knowing as such, and more with the
nature of being, or power. The opacity of power, and the absence of any
calibration of knowledge, mean that it is always dif¬cult to see where
truth ends and power begins. The obscurity of the concept of common
sense “ part-knowledge, part feeling, part power “ epitomizes this side
of Hazlitt™s thought. His ideas of abstraction and originality, though in
one sense opposed as bilateral functions of power “ one being the power
of delimitation, and the other that of particularity “ inevitably fold into
each other. Hazlitt gives no account of how to differentiate between
the generalizing power of mind he outlines in ˜On Abstract Ideas™, and the
particularizing power he identi¬es in ˜Originality™. To his mind, in the ¬nal
analysis there can be no such distinction, for this would be to subordinate
the principle of power to another which ˜transcends™ it.
Once again, however, the Hydra of truth raises its head at the point
where it is crushed. Hazlitt™s notion of common sense, from the perspec-
tive of epistemology, raises questions rather than dismissing them. Thus,
when Hazlitt™s perceiving subject believes he knows something to be the
case by common sense, he is like the sighted man in perfect darkness:
he feels that he can see in the dark, though what it is that he sees which
his blind companion cannot, remains a mystery. And this represents the
predicament of Hazlitt™s epistemology in general: there is nothing to de-
termine what degree of power counts as knowledge other than power
To someone who had completely divested himself of epistemological
foundationalism, this would merely be grist to the mill. For Hazlitt, how-
ever, it leads to some uneasy moments, as the ¬‚uidity of the knowledge“
power equation returns to haunt him. In particular, he hesitates over the


. 4
( 8)