The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century

By Jonathan Hoeber Lamb | Go to book overview

4
Hume and the Unfolding of Tautologies

The events we are witnesses of, in the course of the longest life, appear to us very often original, unprepared, single, and un-relative, if I may use such an expression for want of a better in English . . . they appear such very often, are called accidents, and looked on as the effects of chance. . . . We get over the present difficulty, we improve the momentary advantage, as well as we can, and we look no further. Experience can carry us no further; for experience can go a very little way back in discovering causes: and effects are not the objects of experience till they happen.

( Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Letters on the Study and Use of History)

Niklas Luhmann outlines the method of unblocking a mind clogged with primary truths as follows: the observational competence required to defend self-evident propositions must first be halted with the shock of an opposite possibility; this interruption is followed by a readying of the mind as it prepares to exchange tautologies for paradoxes; and the transitional alertness allows a mixture of both to supervene: paradox as an unfolded tautology, such as the criterion of taste being located in the practice of taste. Practice becomes the measure of the language that speaks of it, and of the principles according to which it is judged. Luhmann finds the eighteenth century most fruitful in unfolded tautologies, since so many of its discourses depend upon experience alone for the supply of axioms which make experience intelligible. In the first part of this study the interruptions of tautologies were shown to unfold as the remaking of making, the copy of the artefact, writing upon writing, and so on. The unfolding occurs in the wake of a contest between self-evident justification and improbable complaint which is graphically represented in, and frequently copied from, the book of Job.

I mean to show in this necessarily sprawling second part that the midcentury is a period when the opportunities for the interruption and unfolding of tautologies begin to multiply, and that this unfolding attends the collapse of the public and private spheres into each other. The public sphere is menaced by the increasing instability of principle --

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