Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Seeing in the Dark: Hazlitt's Immanent Idealism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Seeing in the Dark: Hazlitt's Immanent Idealism

Article excerpt

Introduction

THE GRADUAL RENEWAL OF INTEREST IN HAZLITT STUDIES OVER THE PAST few decades has recently intensified, and in doing so has taken a striking turn. Thanks to the earlier work of students such as W. P. Albrecht, Roy Park, John Mahoney, John Kinnaird and David Bromwich, Hazlitt's intellectual reputation has long since emerged from the shadow of Coleridge, to the extent that it is now unsustainable to characterize him simply as the latter's wayward disciple.(1) As this picture has faded, so too has the image of Hazlitt as the gifted but "impressionistic" critic and prose stylist who might safely be studied with only cursory reference to his works in metaphysics and moral philosophy.(2) Lately, however, Hazlitt has drawn the attention of a number of commentators who have identified in his work a philosophical and theoretical outlook which is not just unique, but internally coherent and (some have claimed) quite ahead of its time.(3) Rather in the manner in which Coleridge's standing as a serious and consistent thinker was assembled over the years despite the dispersed and fragmentary nature of his writings, the fact that much of Hazlitt's philosophical thought is scattered throughout a wide range of essays and reviews has not prevented scholars from measuring the telling regularity with which he deploys certain arguments concerning such questions as identity and moral agency, the limits of knowledge, or the nature of creative genius.

Yet this increased attention has also thrown into sharper relief some of the deeper paradoxes in Hazlitt's work; paradoxes which, despite the attempts of at least one critic to identify in them the journalistic writer's attempts to articulate subtle and difficult issues through single, arresting expressions, remain troubling to those who would take him seriously as a theoretician.(4) Foremost among these is his difficult relation to empiricism. Doubt has been cast over the standard view of Hazlitt as a "romantic empiricist," whose work provides a bridge between the ideals of his contemporaries and the philosophies of the previous era which they ostensibly rejected. Certainly, given that Hazlitt's outward opposition to empiricism was more or less constant throughout his career, it may seem remarkable that such a view has persisted. In his 1809 Prospectus of a History of English Philosophy, for example, one of the touchstones for his criticism of Locke is his conviction that "reason is a distinct source of knowledge or inlet of truth, over and above experience."(5) However, it should be noted that even this assertion harbors an equivocation. Hazlitt's description of reason as another inlet of truth, itself suggests a concession to inductivism. In fact, despite his hostility to Locke, what makes Hazlitt noteworthy among theorists of the period is his reluctance to jettison the language of empiricism outright, preferring instead to amend or reform it according to new paradigms. One of those paradigms was the concept of creation, which, when given an epistemic function, drove his oft-repeated conviction that "[t]he mind alone is formative," and that "[i]deas ... are the offspring of the understanding, not of the senses."(6)

The question remained, however, as to just how susceptible the language of empiricism was to such radical reform. Hazlitt's statements to the effect that the mind alone is spontaneously formative often acknowledge Kant as their source or authority, but, unlike Coleridge, Hazlitt's access to the German philosopher was confined to Willich's questionable translation,(7) Consequently, he was unable to draw upon Kant's work in his struggle with the problem which continually worries at the root of his thought. This is fundamentally an epistemological problem, viz., what are the grounds of the truth (or falsity) of the mind's creations? It was Hazlitt's unwillingness to break with empiricism completely by accepting at least the possibility that such created truth might be a priori in nature which leads to his chief difficulties and inconsistencies--and yet, by opening up a powerful struggle of ideas within his work, lends it much of its drama and energy. …

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