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Nominalism, Romanticism, Negative Dialectics


This dissertation recovers a neglected dialectical tradition within British empiricism and its Romantic afterlife. Beginning with John Locke, I demonstrate how a dialectical tradition developed as a self-critical response to the political, philosophical, and aesthetic problem of nominalism, which holds that universals do not exist and that everything is particular. As contemporaries like Dugald Stewart and S.T. Coleridge observed, British empiricists had revived the medieval nominalist-realist debates and sided with the nominalists. I show that nominalism – what Karl Marx called the “first form” of materialism – was taken up and critiqued by Romantic poets as an impediment to the task of representing abstract social and historical forces. Romantic poets as distinct as Coleridge, William Blake, and Charlotte Smith suggest that, in questioning the validity of social abstractions, the nominalist bent of empiricism tended to disable critical interrogations of larger social structures that otherwise remain inaccessible to the senses. In diagnosing the abstracting force of historical conditions like the commodification of the literary marketplace, however, the texts I examine also respond by affirming particularity. That is, even as these Romantic texts articulate the need to transcend particulars, they also resist universalizing tendencies by affirming, in Blake’s terms, “minute particularity.” These responses to the problem of nominalism are best understood, I argue, as a series of negative dialectics at odds both with the transcendent, affirmative dialectic of high Romanticism and with the subsequent Romantic particularisms and localisms that accompanied deconstruction and new historicism. Against the deeply engrained view that the Anglo-American tradition is anti-dialectical, the texts I study thus maintain a critical relation to social abstractions while at the same time including them in a more capacious materialism not reducible to matter. In making the case for a negative dialectics that emerges out of a self-critical relation to nominalism and empiricism, this dissertation pushes against the fundamental opposition between dialectics and empiricism asserted by both dialectical and postcritical discourses. In doing so, it presents a tradition in which empiricism and critique are inextricably entwined rather than strictly opposed.

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