Samuel Johnson's "General Nature": Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse

Samuel Johnson's "General Nature": Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse

Samuel Johnson's "General Nature": Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse

Samuel Johnson's "General Nature": Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse

Synopsis

"No student of eighteenth-century literature can overlook either the prominence or the ambiguity of the term "nature". This study examines the problematic indispensability of "nature" in the eighteenth century from the perspective of its employment by Samuel Johnson." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

When Samuel Johnson commended Shakespeare’s dramas on the basis of their “juṣt representations of general nature,” he invoked in the term “nature” a philosophical concept whose traditional authority was increasingly being questioned. Despite its wide use in eighteenth-century discourse, “nature” was not uncommonly criticized even by those who employed the concept most effectively. Johnson himself, although he uses the term frequently, had in the Dictionary remarked on its vagueness. Similarly, David Hume and Bishop Butler both mention the ambiguity of “nature” but also employ the term prominently in important arguments. For the interpreter of eighteenth-century discourse, the puzzling relation of the ambiguity of “nature” to its apparent indispensability is an intriguing problem, one the interest of which derives not least from the centrality of “nature” in every important eighteenth-century intellectual dispute.

To understand the problematic importance of eighteenth-century “nature,” it is less useful to begin by examining its ambiguous meaning than by understanding its unitary purpose. For Johnson, Hume, Butler, and their age, “nature” named the definitive philosophical context within which human experience was to be interpreted. Contrasting with this agreement on the importance of “nature” was its diversity of reference, manifested in its application to a variety of philosophical positions whose competition largely defined the course of eighteenth-century intellectual progress. Powerful if not dominant in this progress was a trend toward reduction of the traditional, metaphysical concept of nature to one consistent with philosophical naturalism, a trend prominent in deism and most strikingly represented in the work of Hume. Opposed to this reductionistic tendency there was mounted a defense of metaphysically defined nature, the proponents of which are exemplified by Butler, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Reid. Notable for its breadth and profundity among the defenses of traditional nature was that presented in the works of Samuel Johnson.

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