Thursday, August 6, 2020

Witcraft in 1801 and 1851, starring William Hazlitt and Marian Evans - she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest

The 1801 and 1851 chapters of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English are both built around writers I do not normally think of as philosophers, William Hazlitt in 1801 and Marian Evans in 1851.  Hazlitt, in 1801, is trying to become a painter, but his first book, The Principles of Human Action, will appear in 1805, read by almost no one except, eventually, John Keats.  Evans in 1851 was the author of one philosophical work, a translation of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846 for the translation), with a translation of Feuerbach in the near future.  So, at this point, philosophers, and more importantly they were reading every important book and meeting a high proportion of the important people.  And their own stories are interesting.

Who else is in the 1801 chapter?  English philosophy has up to this point, and well past it, been hard to separate from religion, and many of the 1801 stars are dissident Protestant clergymen working on religious problems, usually some kind of idealized “rational” Christianity, with philosophical tools.  Hazlitt’s father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, is one of them, along with the genially oblivious Joseph Priestly, one of the great pedagogical hacks:

Liberal Education [which argued that education should be useful and for ordinary people] was published by Johnson in 1765, and Priestly became the mainstay of his business, supplying him with almost 100 works over the next thirty years, ranging from textbooks for use in schools, and elaborate chronological wall charts (a hugely successful innovation), to original works of natural science, politics and theology.  But whatever the topic, Priestly kept returning to [David] Hartley’s themes of necessity, association of ideas and progress toward perfection.  (219)

Yes, this is the same Priestly who discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water, and so on.  These are amazing people.  William Burke, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge introduces the era’s hot foreign craze, “’the most unintelligible Emanuel Kant’” (264, Coleridge’s words).  A number of translations of selections from Kant, along with attempts to explicate them, began to appear beginning in 1793.

Hazlitt would soon enough become one of the greatest English essayists and literary critics, but Witcraft skips all that.

The use of Marian Evans in the 1851 chapter is similar, except Rée cannot resist a joke.  The chapters are getting long – 88 pages for 1851 – and the name “George Eliot” does not appear until the last page.  I guess Rée assumes you know?  I mean, I knew.  Anyway, you do not need to know.  The novels, like Hazlitt’s essays, are all later.

In 1851, Evans for the first time published an essay, on history, progress, and religion, in the prestigious Westminster Review, and much of the chapter is about the functioning of the magazine, first as it was run by John Stuart Mill and then by others, including, for a couple of years, by George Eliot – sorry, Marian Evans, who was the “secret editor.”

Mill leads to Thomas Carlyle – “Mill was baffled too: ‘Carlylism’ was a ‘vice of style’, he said, and he ‘made little of it’” (290) – and Sartor Resartus leads to the continuing and expanding reception of Immanuel Kant, from the goldsmith Thomas Wirgman’s summary of Kant in a “map” (292, see left) to Thomas De Quincey’s frequent mockery of Kant and Kantians.  “De Quincey would never forgive the ‘disenchanter’ who infected him with cynicism when he was not yet twenty years old” (294).

Who else is here?  Tocqueville, Emerson – it is nice to read about writers who I have read myself – oh no, Herbert Spencer.  Evans, to use an anachronism, dated Spencer for a while, and it is a testament to her character that she became sick of him.  “After several more excursions, however… she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest” (357).

Tomorrow, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrap up Witcraft.

In a much earlier (1987), much shorter book, Philosophical Tales: An Essay on Philosophy and Literature, Rée writes “It would perhaps be possible to present the history of thought as a succession of integral histories, of the stories which intellectuals have told about their place in history,” an “integral history” being what I call “Whig history,” the story of how everything leads up to right now this minute, with every side path dismissed as unimportant.  Rée’s method in Witcraft, the use of figures like Hazlitt and Evans and the arbitrary fifty-year frame, is that each chapter becomes to the extent possible its own “now,” the story, told again and again, of how the past’s philosophers were fools and lunatics but now we’re finally getting it right.  He’s been carrying this idea around for thirty years.


  1. Phillip Jose Farmer wrote a history of Tarzan in which he stated that a large comet fell in central England in the year 1800 and sprayed the countryside with gene altering radiation that created a generation of geniuses. i never knew whether he was a tongue in cheek author, or just an inventive one...
    i've enjoyed quite a few of Hazlitt's essays even tho he was pretty opinionated... i tried Kant once but my head was too thick...

  2. A comet! That is a good conceit. Just in Germany - Goethe, Gauss - wild and unlikely that geniuses like this are alive at the same time.

    Kant is too hard for me, too. Hazlitt, though, some of it is dense, but he also wrote a superb piece on a boxing match that is arguably the beginning of sports writing. Super writer.

  3. [having trouble getting my comment to post — apologies if this shows up like three times in a row.]

    This was my favorite chapter! Among other reasons, because it started me on the trajectory of discovering a very different Hazlitt than the dilettante essayist I thought I knew. Now I have his biography of Napoleon on my shelf and am interested in the whole arc of his career and thinking.

    I find "integral history" uniquely helpful in trying to grasp the inner coherence of the past. I think I'm always in search of something like integral history, which is why, when I really want to illuminate some gray landscape of time that I know from zoomed out historical monographs, nothing helps to give it color and a sense of reality or immanence like a good biography. Maybe integral history is just biography?

    I think I disagree that integral history is necessarily a succession of whig histories — it's only whig history when the point of view being inhabited sees itself as a culmination of what came before it. Some people don't; even some writers and thinkers don't. Of course major philosophers are not generally among that humble segment of the population, so in Ree's book integral history does indeed end up looking a lot like a succession of whig histories...

  4. I'm so touched by your kindness, Tom, and also Robert Minto; and you're quite right about 'integral histories' which I must admit had completely slipped my mind.

    good wishes from darkest Brexitania

    Jonathan Rée

  5. Okay, that last piece is up. Thanks for the good wishes, and thanks for writing the book. It gave me a lot to think about. I hope this week of posts has not been unbearably shallow.

    Robert, I was not familiar with the term "integral history," but Rée's use of it in Philosophical Tales is pretty Whiggish. They are stories that "all lead[] up to the present... with a little flag stuck in saying 'we are here'". He gives the Aeneid as an example, "or the genealogies which trace a family's descent from King David, the Norman Conquest, or the Pilgrim Fathers" (all from p. 31)

    I think you are using "integral history" in some other way, maybe a history that "integrates" many disparate pieces. Witcraft is a superb example of that.

    You would enjoy Philosophical Tales, if you have not read it. Philosophy as literature, Hegel and so on as fiction. And lots of nice touches in Rée's prose.