The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist

The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist

The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist

The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist

Synopsis

Eighteenth-century Europe, preoccupied with both the origins and the defense of reason, was naturally concerned with what might be the root of all error. A topic any systematic account of knowledge must grapple with, error became a frequent point of debate in new scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical investigations. Taking John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding as his point of departure, Sng examines a number of such debates, focusing on literary and philosophical accounts of the relationship between language and thought. Rather than approaching its topic conceptually or historically, he takes on canonical texts of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and engages with their rhetorical strategies. In so doing, Sng elucidates how people wrote about error and how texts claimed to produce reliable and error-free modes of knowledge. The range of authors addressed- Leibniz, Adam Smith, Coleridge, Kant, and Goethe- demonstrates the diversity and heterogeneity underlying the textual production of the age.

Excerpt

The entry on error in the Encyclopédie, Diderot and D’Alembert’s great compendium of Enlightenment knowledge, presents the reader with a stern warning: it is futile to try to defeat error by taking on its numerous and diverse forms. Even if such a Herculean feat could be accomplished, new errors would never cease to emerge, for the mind (l’esprit) is wont to exchange one error for another, just as a sick man who recovers from one illness is often prone to contract a new one. the only way to eradicate error once and for all is to “retrace it to its source and to stem it at its point of origination [remonter à leur source même et la tarir].” What the entry claims to find as the first cause at this site of origination is the following:

In tracing our errors to the origin that I have just indicated, we enclose
them within a single cause. If our passions give us cause to err [occasionnent
des erreurs
], it is because they misuse a vague principle, a metaphorical ex
pression, or an equivocal term, applying them to allow ourselves to deduce
an opinion that is flattering to ourselves. Therefore, if we fool ourselves,
then these vague principles, metaphors, and equivocations are causes that
are anterior to our passions. Consequently, renouncing this empty language
[ce vain langage] would suffice to dissipate all the artifice of error.

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