After Skepticism: Hume and the Political Aesthetics of Romanticism Open Access

Schey, Taylor (2015)

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This dissertation reclaims the significance of David Hume's skeptical arguments for the poetics and politics of British Romanticism. Against the prevailing critical tendency to treat skepticism as a crisis-inducing threat, I identify a current of thought in the long Romantic period that responds to epistemic limitations with "sufficient satisfaction," rather than with anxiety, melancholy, and a desire to overcome. When it comes to the central works examined here--Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, William Wordsworth's The Borderers, and Percy Shelley's "Mont Blanc"--skepticism is not the cause of a paralyzing state of despair; nor is it something that demands what Stanley Cavell refers to as "efforts at recovery." On the contrary, I argue, the indeterminacies of Hume's skeptical conclusions are what productively enable the formal and aesthetic means with which the Romantics negotiate the post-1789 political landscape. Charting a political and aesthetic paradigm that neither yearns for apodictic foundations nor fetishizes the crisis of their impossibility, After Skepticism is organized around the conceptual remainders of Hume's analyses--custom, illusion, analogy, ignorance--which my Romantic-era protagonists variously inherit, refashion, and submit to scrutiny. Burke at once defends and subverts the authority of custom through a disillusioned aesthetics of "pleasing illusion" that operates in accordance with the pre-cinematic technology of the late eighteenth century. Wordsworth works the limits of analogy to explore modes of historical and social relation that eschew distinctions between sameness and difference. Shelley articulates a poetics of "vacancy" to consider the production and practice of ignorance as a generative political act. Whereas scholars typically find skepticism to be disabling at best and disastrous at worst, my project finds in the afterlife of Humean skepticism surprising resources with which to address issues of authority, anarchy, historicity, collective action, and climate change denial. After Skepticism thus reimagines Romanticism after Hume while also engaging a variety of recent theoretical projects--from Rita Felski's positive aesthetics to Quentin Meillassoux's speculative realism--to reconfigure how we understand the place of skepticism in the (post)humanities today.

Table of Contents

Introduction: After Skepticism 1

1. Who's Afraid of David Hume? 30

2. "The most important of all revolutions": Custom and Illusion in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France 68

3. Limited Analogies: Reading the World of Wordsworth's The Borderers 117

4. Skeptical Ignorance: The Secret of Shelley's "Mont Blanc" 169

Works Cited 224

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