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Mary Wollstonecraft and the "Reserve of Reason" (Critical Essay)

Studies in Romanticism 2006, Spring, 45, 1

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I. Reason and Sensation in the 1790s IN A RECENT STUDY OF THE "DISCOURSE ON ENTHUSIASM," JOHN MEE HAS described Wordsworth's Prelude as "an extended attempt to demonstrate that a continuity of subjectivity could survive and benefit from the transports of enthusiasm and remain grounded in the world without dissolving into it." (1) Current British studies of the intellectual culture of the 1790s, and of Romanticism and beyond now abound with attempts to rediscover a lost relation between affect and reason, to examine the rational self's embodiment in the world and to suggest that the self remains "grounded" by resisting visionary transports through regulating emotion. The classic feminist endeavor to "include affect under the sign of cognition," as Isobel Armstrong recently put it, (2) has been supplemented by the view of poetry, in Mee's useful formulation, as a kind of "regulatory discourse" that determines the circumstances under which the rational self may be "transported" with enthusiasm without losing its contours in the "wild" enthusiasm of the crowd or of the religious visionary. Such revisions have in turn challenged a pat view of the archetypal male rationalist of the late Eighteenth Century. The view of William Godwin as a kind of "cold fish" inhabiting the "frozen zone" of the radical Enlightenment that Wordsworth supposedly set forth in The Prelude has been significantly revised, (3) while the stock view of Immanuel Kant as a dry formalist in the metaphysics of morals has been challenged by recent studies of the "anthropological applications" of his thought, and his alleged "embodiment of reason." (4) Many of these studies serve to historicize affect, to look at specific and significant moments of transaction between sensation and thought, rather than to describe a decontextualized sensation either as under the tyrannical sway of reason, or as escaping it in the anarchic and unregulated impulses of popular politics and dissenting extremism. (5) And far from figuring a transcendental authority that is inattentive to the differential life of embodied experience, this increasingly historicized power of reason shows itself, both for Godwin and for Kant, to foster its own dangerously excessive species of enthusiasm in its combined activity with an ambivalent and untrustworthy power of imagination. The worrying capacity to "rave with reason" that Kant encountered in a number of his contemporaries (notably J. G. Herder) required that reason itself be regulated or, as I will suggest below, that it be oriented with reference to sensibility.

Mary Wollstonecraft and the "Reserve of Reason" (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 22 March 2006
  • Publisher: Boston University
  • Print Length: 40 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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