The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution

Paul Trolander

From Alfred Cobban Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth Century ( 1929) to Foucault The Order of Things ( 1966), the political outcome of the French Revolution has rarely figured as a contributory factor in changes in discursive practice after 1790, but rather as a symptom of epistemological or ideological shifts that were already under way. 1 From this perspective, the reaction to the French Revolution can be seen as a reaction to the discursive practices or philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the political outcomes of the Revolution, both in France and England, must be represented as latent in those contemporary texts that championed shifts in epistemic and discursive practice, for instance Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790) or Malthus' Principles of Population ( 1798). Indeed, Foucault's study of epistemic change does not factor in the Revolution at all--in The Order of Things, discursive practices develop and mutate according to their own inherent principles. The lesson is apparent by mere exclusion--grand political events such as the Revolution may be defined by epistemic change, but they cannot be a cause of it. Even J.G.A. Pocock's historical account of English political discourse at the end of the eighteenth century discounts the force that the political events of the Revolution may have had on discursive practices. In his article "The Varieties of Whiggism" in Virtue, Commerce, and History, he takes the view that entrenched institutional and political structures limited the effects that the Revolution could have in England and by themselves allowed for the inherent conservatism of English political ideology to further develop and flourish against the backdrop of a relatively weak native radical tradition. 2 Ideology and discursive tradition defined and limited the nature of political change.

The argument of this brief essay is at odds with these more traditional views of this intellectual history. The direction that discursive/epistemic change took from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, often represented as a move away from the empiricism and rationalism of the Enlightenment to the

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