Ends of Enlightenment

Ends of Enlightenment

Ends of Enlightenment

Ends of Enlightenment

Synopsis

Ends of Enlightenment explores three realms of eighteenth-century European innovation that remain active in the twenty-first century: the realist novel, philosophical thought, and the physical sciences, especially human anatomy. The European Enlightenment was a state of being, a personal stance, and an orientation to the world. Ways of probing experience and knowledge in the novel and in the visual arts were interleaved with methods of experimentation in science and philosophy. This book's fresh perspective considers the novel as an art but also as a force in thinking. The critical distance afforded by a view back across the centuries allows Bender to redefine such novelists as Defoe, Fielding, Goldsmith, Godwin, and Laclos by placing them along philosophers and scientists like Newton, Locke, and Hume but also alongside engravings by Hogarth and by anatomist William Hunter. His book probes the kinship among realism, hypothesis, and scientific fact, defining in the process the rhetorical basis of public communication during the Enlightenment.

Excerpt

I begin with Émile Zola’s manifesto “Le roman expérimental” of 1880, although my own essay is concerned with the novel of the first half of the eighteenth century, and specifically with the place of the new novel of that time in the Scientific Revolution. Inspired by the writings of the physician Claude Bernard about contemporary medical research, Zola set forth a program for the novel, emphasizing its power to define the workings of the human machine in society. “What constitutes the experimental novel,” Zola says, is “to possess a knowledge of the mechanism of the phenomena inherent in man, to show the machinery of his intellectual and sensory manifestations, under the influences of heredity and environment, such as physiology shall give them to us, and then finally to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation.” Paraphrasing Bernard, Zola declares that “experiment is but provoked observation.” He goes on to insist that “all experimental reasoning is based on doubt, for the experimentalist should have no preconceived idea, in the face of nature, and should always retain his liberty of thought. He simply accepts the phenomena that are produced, when they are proved.” Zola’s novelist was heir to Sir Francis Bacon’s skeptical natural philosopher.

It is something of a reach from Zola back to a Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, or Samuel Richardson. But the line of skeptical, experimental inquiry bridges across time from the earlier period to its later and exaggerated form in the positivist program of naturalist fiction—a program underpinned by Zola’s insistence upon empirical observation governed by doubt. The long strand of invasive, fact-obsessed, even indecent realism . . .

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