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William Hazlitt and the Uses of Knowledge



William Hazlitt and the Uses of Knowledge


Patricia Anne Pelfrey

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Steven Goldsmith, Chair

While Romantic literature provides ample evidence of the pleasures of knowledge, it also reveals strong counter-examples of knowledge as overwhelming, enervating, and potentially impoverishing. What inspired this reaction, and how was it channeled through Romantic writings?

William Hazlitt is a particularly representative figure in the search for an answer to the question of why knowledge became a problem for Romantic writers because of his highly articulate awareness of the distinction between knowledge as an engine of social progress and its potentially negative role in the development of individuals. Using a range of Hazlitt's essays--from his early metaphysical treatise on identity to The Spirit of the Age--as well as the writings of Thomas Love Peacock, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Thomas De Quincey, this dissertation analyzes the conflicted Romantic response to knowledge and its result, a variety of efforts to define the norms and values that should govern its organization, diffusion, and control. It makes two principal arguments.

The first is that Romantic ambivalence derived from a complex of ideas and anxieties about the potentially damaging effects of certain kinds of education and learning on the brain, damage that could diminish cognitive vigor and distort the inner experience of identity. The collision between this image of the individual disempowered by knowledge and Enlightenment faith in its role as the engine of collective progress was intensified by the sheer quantity of ideas, information, opinions, theories, and discoveries that daily inundated the British reading public and critics alike. Discussions about education and learning became entangled in assumptions about the nature of the self and attitudes toward social and intellectual progress, all in the context of the need to bring order into a universe of knowledge that seemed to be expanding at a breakneck pace.

The dissertation's second argument is that Romantic ambivalence is valuable in giving us a perspective from a time when acceptance of the uncontrollable character of knowledge was not yet complete. The Romantic idea that there could be something inevitable, perhaps disturbingly inevitable, about the growth of knowledge has fallen out of consciousness in most discussions of knowledge today. Its unceasing proliferation is widely celebrated, perhaps especially the evolving media and communication advances that have made learning a global enterprise. Useful knowledge has become the paradigm of all knowledge, rendering it immune from questions about what could or should be done about its less than beneficial outcomes. The contrast between Samuel Taylor Coleridge's On the Constitution of Church and State (1829) and Clark Kerr's The Uses of the University (1963), discussed in the final chapter, sheds light on the distance between Romantic attitudes and our own.

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