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

By Uttara Natarajan | Go to book overview

I
The Shapes of Power
Hazlitt's Metaphysics of Discourse

IN his Letter to William Gifford, Hazlitt attributes the fidelity to truth in his literary criticism to his early discovery of metaphysical truth, offering, in explication of that truth, a lengthy summary of the Essay on the Principles of Human Action (ix. 51-8). We are invited, then, to look to the Essay for the origins of Hazlitt's critical position, and of the understanding of poetic language which informs that position. It will be found that the entire metaphysical basis of the Essay on the Principles of Human Action may be summarized as the subordination of the senses to the mind. Every later development of Hazlitt's thought is rooted in that subordination. In the independence of the mind from sensory manipulation, or equivalently, from manipulation by the objects of an external material reality, we may identify his concept of 'power'.

The affirmation of innate power is the subtext of Hazlitt's theory of discourse in general, and of poetic discourse in particular. Ordinary language, in his view, is an index to the mind of the speaking subject, rather than the expression of an external objective reality. In poetry, however, the mind's power is so magnified as to elide that distinction; thus, inspired language inheres with reality. The common ground of poetic and linguistic philosophy is Hazlitt's understanding of the structure of language, in which he finds evidence of the formative power of the mind.


Hazlitt and Horne Tooke: A Philosophy of Grammar

In 1809 Hazlitt New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue was published.1 The project of the book, as proclaimed

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1
The title-page bears the date 1810, although the work actually appeared in late 1809 (see Howe bibliographical note, ii. 2).

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