Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power

Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power

Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power

Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power

Synopsis

The `only pretension, of which I am tenacious,' declares William Hazlitt in The Plain Speaker, `is that of being a metaphysician' yet up till now his metaphysics, and particularly what is here identified as his `power principle', have not been examined in detail. This book identifies the metaphysical Hazlitt within the other and better-known Hazlitt, long acknowledged as a master of `the familiar style' and more recently celebrated for the fierceness and intensity of his political prose. Studying his development of the power principle as a counter to the pleasure principle of the Utilitarians, it examines the revelation of power in his philosophy of discourse, his account of imaginative structure, his theory of genius, and his moral theory, and asserts the tenacity of this principle throughout his work. Disseminated through the range of his writings, Hazlitt's metaphysics becomes a metaphysics of power in more senses than one: it is both argument and example, itself manifesting that force of human intellect that it seeks to explicate.

Excerpt

I have focused so far on Hazlitt's construct of the self-affirming tendency of the mind, of which the fullest and most powerful manifestation is termed 'genius'. I want now to raise the question of the moral implications of that construct. Hazlitt's concerns are insistently moral, and it is a strong moral emphasis that adds to the polemical thrust of his epistemology. in this chapter, I will return once more to Hazlitt's philosophy, this time specifically as moral philosophy. Like his epistemology and indeed, inseparable from it, Hazlitt's theory of morals is all pervasive, reaching far beyond the immediate context of the philosophical lectures and essays into the fundamentals of his literary and social criticism.

Alterity and the Moral Question

The example of the authorial presence in artistic composition confirms that 'sympathy', the mode of relation of self to other, is associative, and refers to the mind's 'stamping' of external objects with the image of itself. For Hazlitt, this stamping--the assimilation of objects by the mind--constitutes imaginative exercise: 'though the things themselves as they really exist cannot go out of themselves into other things, or compromise their natures, there is no reason why the mind which is merely representative should be confined to any one of them more than to any other' (Remarks on the Systems of Hartley and Helvetius; i. 73). On the other hand, although sympathy, by which the mind establishes 'relation' is self-affirming, by the argument of the Essay on the Principles of Human Action, it may not be reduced to self- love. So to reduce it would be to deny moral action altogether. the Essay insists that the concept of 'other' is meaningful in the . . .

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