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Title: Maxims and the Mind: Sententiousness from Seventeenth-Century Science to the Eighteenth-Century Novel
Authors: Swartz, Kelly Michelle
Advisors: Johnson, Claudia L.
Gee, Sophie
Contributors: English Department
Keywords: aphorism
Subjects: English literature
Issue Date: 2017
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: In eighteenth-century Britain the maxim was pressed into two completely different kinds of service. Maxims in indexes and anthologies were a legitimate source of knowledge, while fictional maxim-mongers such as Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver and Jane Austen’s Mary Bennet were distrusted and mocked. Maxims and the Mind argues that the coexistence of these conflicting views throughout the eighteenth century was a result of the maxim’s equivocal role within early British empiricism. Opposing the scholarly narrative that finds the eighteenth-century maxim a blunt didactic instrument at odds with rational autonomy and individual freedom (and thus understandably rejected in the Enlightenment novel), I argue that the maxim’s epistemological uncertainty in the eighteenth century made it a particularly useful tool for imaginative writers evaluating new philosophical ideas in the realm of fiction. All of the writers in my study—Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, and Jane Austen—championed reason but were consumed by its perceived absence from individual minds. Through maxims, these writers gave literary form to this divide. This insight carries us to one of the project’s most surprising conclusions: that maxims are at the heart of the “realistic” depiction of inner life in fictions by Swift, Richardson, and Austen. Maxims and the Mind begins by crediting Francis Bacon for developing the mode of sententiousness that would spur psychological investigation in early novels. Bacon first repurposed sententiousness to solve a philosophical problem: the paradoxical need to teach people how to learn from experience. Bacon believed that a series of disconnected aphorisms could prompt a reader to turn to the outside world in search of meaning. Chapter One explains this in detail. My second chapter on Jonathan Swift explores how Baconian aphorizing became a foundation for narrative invention in early fictional satire. Chapter Three analyzes the relationship between Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and the index of its maxims—the Collection of Moral and Instructive Sentiments—arguing that the discontinuous maxims of Richardson’s Collection challenge the novel form’s epistemological presumptions as those presumptions come into being. My coda locates the climax and end of the subversive maxim in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
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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