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Title: Sociable Uncertainties: Literature and the Ethics of Indeterminacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Authors: Walker, Daniel
Advisors: Schor, Esther
Contributors: English Department
Keywords: Austen
Subjects: British and Irish literature
Issue Date: 2015
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This study seeks to establish a positive role for uncertainty in eighteenth-century British social thought. For too long scholars have viewed uncertainty as a bug in the eighteenth-century social program; I propose we redescribe it as an integral feature. I begin by taking Thomas Hobbes, rather than John Locke, as the initiator of a robust and dire British Empiricism, and hence the driving force behind the liberal moral traditions of eighteenth-century literature. Hobbes imagines a world literally governed by uncertainty, in which doubt skillfully harnessed can create sure political order: his shockingly pluralistic and contingent account of prepolitical subjects informs his theory of a sovereign whose principal attribute is unpredictability. My first chapter describes Hobbes’s covert legacy in early eighteenth-century literature. In their replies to Hobbes, moral writers across forms and genres replace his absolutism, premised on pluralism, with liberalism premised on conformity. Exploring the naïve sentimentalism of Shaftesbury and Richardson, the heuristic sentimentalism of Hume and Adam Smith, and the meliorist optimism of James Thomson and other poets, I uncover Hobbesian strategies for managing the psychology of social subjects. To the extent that these liberal traditions resist uncertainty, they limit sociability along with it. In three subsequent chapters, I track the repurposing of uncertainty, in works by Laurence Sterne, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Jane Austen, for social ethics compatible with elements of political liberalism but also deeply committed to subjective pluralism. In the breakdown of Lockean language theory and heuristics of sentimental propriety, Sterne sees a messy yet powerful mode of sympathy and reciprocity. Barbauld’s counterfactual views of science in youth lead her to a politics of principled abstention; to see the fallout of meliorist political projects with the worried eye of a speculative ecologist. Austen’s infamous irony undermines the assuring wisdom of both societal convention and liberal individualism, clearing the way for a solicitude based in endless inquiry rather than constructions of stable character. If uncertainty was the problem that drove moral and social thought in the eighteenth century, it was also the material from which solutions might be fashioned.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:English

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