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Lecture 2a: Scottish Enlightenment

February 4, 2014

a. Cultural step back

Up to this point, we have focused primarily on thinkers, such as Locke. Yet the sorts of changes that we have seen until now are not limited to intellectual confines, for, in 17th and 18th century Britain, we see widespread societal changes. After all, society does not change because philosophers say that it should. Certainly, philosophers and thinkers can be influential in getting individuals to consider a given phenomenon in a new light and thereby effect change, but the sorts of wholesale changes that we see at work in society are already underway, with or without the intervention of a given thinker. The fact remains that philosophers or thinkers can articulate certain intuitions or claims, which were previously unrecognized or unspoken. Let’s step back a moment and examine certain of these so as to get a better idea of the sorts of intuitions to which philosophers and thinkers were giving voice and more definite form.

In Chapter 17 of Sources of the Self, Taylor identifies four such areas: commercial activity, the rise of the novel, the understanding of marriage and family and the newfound importance of feeling and emotion. We will bracket the fourth and focus on the first three for now.

1.) As concerns commercial activity, we see this field grow out of the confrontation of two ethical outlooks. The first, the aristocratic honor ethic, typically promotes glory won in military pursuits before all else. For the aristocrat, one went to war and fought duels in order to secure and protect one’s honor. (Stories of individual kings come to mind here.) Yet there was also a somewhat more civilized strain of this, in the form of the honor won by a citizen through participation in his or her community, either as a politician of particular fame or renown or as a private citizen contributing through other means to that community.

The second is what we would now call the bourgeois ethic, which emphasizes the various goods of production, an ordered and orderly life, peace and civil order. There is no need for fame or renown here insofar as economic and commercial activity come to the fore. Indeed, it is only at this time that economics proper comes to exist. Previously, economics qua oikos (management of a household) was more limited in scope. Only at this time does it first begin to emerge as a separate category and science in which we might make use of our instrumental reason and technical progress to further its ends (3.) and 4.)). (Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations marking the culmination of this emergence as science.) In general, we can say that it is only at this time that it first takes on the shape that it has for us today as a self-regulating system, a notion central to our lesson today (1.)). It also bears mentioning that the development of this science follows also from the stress placed on ordinary human existence in the wake of the English Reformation.

2.) The rise of the novel is perhaps best reflected in the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. We can single out three aspects in particular:

a. We see a leveling of the subject matter in that the topic of choice is no longer that of the epic or the tragedy or the myth. Rather, we see a shift in focus to the middle class, with its entrepreneurial virtues and the qualities proper to love and marriage. Gone is the emphasis on the heroic dimension of life. Instead, characters of whatever social status are portrayed with the same serious quality.

b. Likewise, there is a shift in the material making up the novel as focus moves away from general, archetypal stories and figures, such as is seen in the embodiment of archetypal figures in myth. Emphasis is now on the particular and concrete, including all the details of everyday life in all its mundanity. This comes out in several ways. The characters have ordinary proper names and no longer stand in as allegories of a certain broader kind. This is not to say that there is not symbolism through appeal to myth or the universal. Rather, we access this aspect through the particular details of the individual.

c. A kind of time consciousness develops in reading wherein we represent the characters as particular people linked to concrete, historical periods. As Taylor points out, we have a strong sense of anachronism nowadays, one apparently absent from those artists producing and onlookers viewing depictions of the Virgin Mary in 13th century Tuscan garb rather than the garments more fitting of her 1st century Jewish origins. One need only think on how these depictions would be received today: a Jesus in street clothes or obnoxious anachronism in “Mad Men”. This stems in part from the increased emphasis on ordinary life in relation to the particular individual existing as a particular time. It is harder to adapt archetypal myths so as to clothe them in contemporary settings in that we expect the author’s presentation of a full and authentic report of human experience in its time. 

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