Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose

Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose

Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose

Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose


This ambitious study sheds new light on the way the English Romantics dealt with the basic problems of knowledge. Kant complained that the failure of philosophy in the eighteenth-century to respond to empirical scepticism had produced a culture of "indifferentism." Tim Milnes explores the tension between this epistemic indifference and a perpetual compulsion to know. The tension is most clearly evident in the prose writing of the period, in works such as Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Hazlitt's Essay on the Principles of Human Action, and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria.


Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.

Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?

The principal argument of this book is that English Romantic writing has a deep investment in the problem of knowledge, even as it attempts to conceal that involvement, and that it represents the first major attempt in Britain to retrieve philosophical thought from its confinement, first by Hume, then by Reid and the Scottish philosophers of common sense, to the margins of experience. The manner in which this retrieval is carried through, moreover, establishes a pattern for the treatment of knowledge which has been broadly followed by English-language philosophy to the present day. Paradoxically, part of that pattern is a denial of interest in epistemological questions, a cultivated indifference which is itself parasitic upon an urgent engagement with the twin questions of what, and how one knows.

Kant complained in his Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 that, caught between a despotic rationalism and an anarchic scepticism, the predominant attitude of late eighteenth-century thought towards the problem of knowledge had become what he called, using an English term, one of ‘indifferentism’. English Romanticism internalizes and continues this indifference to knowing. Lamb admitted in a 1810 letter to Thomas Manning that ‘[n]othing puzzles me more than time and space, and yet nothing puzzles me less, for I never think about them’. Yet the ambivalence of the English Romantics to the question of knowledge is attested to by the very term ‘Romantic philosophy’ – or, more precisely, ‘Romantic epistemology’ – which can sound at one moment like an oxymoron, and the next a tautology. On one hand, it is generally acknowledged that within the loose assemblage of family . . .

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