John Horne Tooke and the Grammar of Political Experience

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In his History of the Royal Society, attempting to outline the conditions under which the empirical sciences can flourish, Thomas Sprat offers a by no means unfamiliar dictum on communication. The members of the Royal Society, he reports, have "been most solicitous [about] ... the manner of their Discourse; which, unless they had been very watchful to keep in due temper, the whole spirit and vigor of their Design, had soon been eaten out, by the luxury and redundancy of Speech."(1) "[A] bare knowledge of things," he explains--the radical and humble goal of this society--calls for a language "without any ornament of Eloquence,"(2) and so the Royal Society has made "a constant Resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things, almost in an equal number of words."(3) Locke will make similar claims in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. If his discussion of rhetoric cautiously avoids political overtones, he is more explicit when discussing more generally the destructive power of words. Disputes arise out of names, not Ideas, and "Men, when they come to examine them, find their simple Ideas all generally to agree, though in discourse with one another, they perhaps confound one another with different Names." In what is accessible to the senses, all must agree, although "they may perplex themselves with words, according to the way of speaking of the several Schools, or Sects, they have been bred up in.(4) The political implications of language was not lost on Sprat in the 1660's. A well balanced verbal economy, without excesses or obfuscations, seems to play no small role in maintaining the balanced political economy that must underlie a program of empirical study: "Eloquence," he insists, "ought to be banish'd out of all civil societies, as a thing fatal to Peace."(5)

More than a hundred years later, under circumstances and with intentions as different as can be imagined, John Horne Tooke brings together in his Diversions of Purley a similar configuration of language, experience, and society.(6) In order to conduct his etymological studies he is obliged, like Sprat, to "disregard whatever additions or alterations have been made for the sake of beauty, or ornament";(7) for the work of etymology, seeking "the meaning of the word and the cause of its imposition,"(8) like the inquiry into more properly empirical causes, loses its focus on cause and origin in the frivolousness of eloquence, which, distracting us from the true causes of words, likewise obscures their civic corollaries. More than Sprat or Locke, however, and more than any of his own contemporaries, Tooke--a political refugee from the 1760s, the days of "Wilkes and liberty"--brought the two spheres of language and politics together, finding in linguistic representation a foundation for political representation. While this political current running through the Diversions-politely overlooked, if noted at all, by his contemporaries--has received some critical attention, in particular with respect to the class issues at stake, I would like to examine an intellectual and cultural thread that has not been addressed in Tooke, namely his attempt, in the course of a political critique, to define a political body.(9) Such attempts tends to be two-fold: on the one hand, it concerns the mitigation of the individual in favor of a more general communal identity; and on the other, the enlistment of history, of the past, in the legitimation, or delegitimation, of the present. These two political programs, often interwoven, are obliged to account for the relationship, whether mimetic or oppositional, between the work of community and the "natural" order: an order which, for much of the eighteenth century, tends to appear as the order of human nature. For Hume this means a negotiation of the passions; for Burke, a modeling on experience; for Herder, an understanding of language. …