Literary Taste as Counter-Enlightenment in Hume's History of England

Article excerpt

David Hume's six-volume History of England (1754-62) links culture to the engines of history in what we would now recognize as a characteristically "liberal" configuration. As Hume puts it, the "arts and commerce [are] the necessary attendants of liberty and equality" as history progresses. (1) Such a three-part harmony of cultural, economic, and political advancement has been frequently postulated, not only in Hume's time but also by eminent contemporary historians, to explain Britain's distinctive achievements in the eighteenth century. In The Pleasures of the Imagination, John Brewer quotes one of Hume's characteristic statements of the view and affirms that "recent historical research bears [it] out": "Liberty and the rule of law," Brewer concludes, "which protected property, were the handmaidens of commerce which, in turn, helped the liberal and fine arts flourish." (2) This principle defines for Hume the enlightenment of his own age as it constitutes the logic of history's development toward it--a logic never neglected through the History, even while it attends to the surface ironies, anachronistic details, the anticipations and regressions punctuating England's progress from the pre-Christian era to 1688. Beyond its account of English history's distinctive telos, then, Hume's work offers a signal instance of the master narrative, the grand recit, the "Enlightenment history" that has remained a target of poststructuralist critique and historicist literary critics such as Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher. (3)

The History's progressive scheme is consistently complicated, however, by the role played in it by cultural advancement--by the "refinement" of what Hume variously calls "the arts and sciences," "polite learning," or "taste and judgment." Taste factors an anomaly into Hume's History that renders its very status as a comprehensive, enlightened narrative problematic. Unlike the progress of liberty or commerce, polite learning's refinement leads Hume to reflect on the complexity of his own position as both a refined writer and a refined product of history.

This self-reflexive irony has a number of important implications for contemporary debates about the nature of the Enlightenment's historical view of itself and the relationship between literature and history in general. Often poststructuralist critics have portrayed the Enlightenment as a battle between certain privileged terms--reason, theoretical understanding, universality, abstraction--and their opposites: contingency, recalcitrant particularity, "the touch of the real" (in Greenblatt and Gallagher's phrase) just beyond our theoretical grasp. (4) Enlightenment history accordingly narrates the triumph in the course of events of the dichotomy's preferred half over its underprivileged one, or at least demonstrates the historian's own conceptual mastery over a welter of instances that would otherwise seem chaotic or random. It has seemed almost inevitable that contemporary critics, however sophisticated, maintain the dichotomy themselves. Critiquing the Enlightenment, they often simply invert its values, arguing that all significant challenges to Enlightenment theory must historically emerge from the "dense, swarming territory beyond its own mental enclave which threatens to fall utterly outside its sway," in Terry Eagleton's words. (5) If we seek the limits or shortcomings of Enlightenment history and thought in general, surely they will be found in an inability to deal with this "other" terrain.

The typical understanding of the historical role of literature and aesthetics in such conceptual schemes reflects this polarity. Either aesthetic discourse aids the Enlightenment project of rationalization, using, e.g., literature's considerable subtlety and responsiveness to particularity to help reason conquer the "dense, swarming territory," or it finds itself aligned with otherness, making fugitive gestures that expose the limitations and blindness of all myths of progress and theoretical comprehension. …