Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Wit, Judgment, and the Misprisions of Similitude

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Wit, Judgment, and the Misprisions of Similitude

Article excerpt

While the writers of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were convinced that they were living in an age of wit, they seemed far less certain as to what this might mean. Achieving a clear definition of wit was made more difficult by the fact that "wit" was used rather indiscriminately to describe both a faculty of mind and properties of discourse, in Dryden's terms "wit writing" versus "wit written."1 Critics and philosophers had always been willing to ascribe some form of cognitive agency to wit, or at least to assume that "Wit was the first and principal part of the Soul, wherein the Mind, the Understanding, and the Memory are contained."2 C.S. Lewis argues that the Anglo-Saxon gewit originally signified "mind, reason, intelligence. Rational creatures are those to whom God has given wit. " Over time wit also came to mean "something which can distinguish [man], which is characteristic of him; his mental makeup."3 At one time or another wit would variously be associated with perceiving, knowing, remembering, and judging. Indeed, by the end of the seventeenth century "wit was identified with so many of the mental faculties as to seem hopelessly entangled."4

Perhaps most important, notions of wit as a cognitive faculty came inevitably to be conflated with the functions of imagination. Indeed as Henry Barker asserts in The Polite Gentleman (1700), "Imagination counterfeits Wit so dexterously, that one may very easily be mistaken; and if you go no further than the Out-side, you would think it the same thing call'd by two different Names."5 One result of this conflation is that in order to defend or at least define the agencies of wit, it also became necessary for the Augustan critic to defend the imagination as well. That proved to be no small task. James G. Buickerood has argued, quite persuasively, that for Newton and Locke imagination actually played a more active role in the acquisition of knowledge than has generally been allowed.6 Certainly Hume is willing to entertain the possibility that imagination functions as a "kind of magical faculty in the soul, which, mo' it be always most perfect in the greatest geniuses, and is properly what we call a genius, is however inexplicable by the utmost efforts of human understanding."7

For the majority of critics, however, it was not the magic inherent in imagination that they found most compelling but rather its ambiguous agency. Henry Barker, for example, damns imagination with the faintest of praise:

'Tis not then a Defect, absolutely speaking, to have a strong, quick, and fine Imagination; since it is of so great a help to Reason. But 'tis a very great Fault to pervert the Order of Nature, to make Reason wait upon Imagination, to prefer and delight only in this, and, by a shameful Injustice, carry it as it were in Triumph, and place it in the Seat of Reason, which we almost intirely darken and eclipse. (53)

Even in this endorsement of imagination one detects the outlines of the argument which began with Aristotle, that imagination was an inferior faculty, "not least because, through its link to the senses and memory, it was present as a latent subversion, if not an actual defiance, of a reason-dominated hierarchy."8 Certainly the eighteenth century had inherited a view of the imagination as a passive faculty, in Bacon's terms a messenger between reason and sense, having the power only to recombine images provided by the senses.9 For writers like Samuel Johnson the imagination was also a "vagrant faculty," with links to the passions which led all too frequently to enthusiasm or to madness. One corollary to this argument was that left unchecked, wit and imagination would soon become agents of moral misprision. In the words of Nicholas Malebranche (1699), "That which in the Language of the World is call'd Wit" is an invitation to depravity. "For the better the Imagination is furnish'd, the more dangerous it is; great qualities in the Eyes of Men, are the most prolifick and the most general causes of the blindness of the Mind and the corruption of the Heart. …

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