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Critical Opinions on the Definition of Neoclassicism

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The boundaries defining the neoclassical genre have been tested, questioned, and found wanting by many literary critics. Equally troublesome to many of these critics is the notion that a literary canon can be categorized strictly on the basis of what is a largely accepted, though narrowly focused. In the late 1960s, James William Johnson considered this idea in his work “What Was Neoclassicism.” He was chiefly concerned with what he identified as a vast range of literature widely ignored in favor of a “limited, prejudged selection of Restoration and 18th Century literature.”

Johnson contends that modern writers are also a threat, having no sense of aesthetic or principle akin to that of the neoclassicists, or even the Victorians, for that matter. Although this is an old argument, it continues to resonate today. Even the most respectable literary reference books will prove discerning as to just what differences exist between a classic and a “new” classic. Some literary dictionaries will go as far as to say that the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are interchangeable, leaving the amateur (and perhaps even the seasoned) scholar to shake his or her head.

Donald Greene, in his reply to Johnson’s work, “What Indeed was Neo-Classicism? A Reply to James William Johnson’s ‘What was Neo-Classicism?,’” also responds to what he sees as a somewhat troublesome form. Greene states that unlike other literary periods in history, the neoclassical age comes with “undistinguished credentials,” without, what he calls, some of the big, generalizing terms used to define periods of significant literary importance. Greene feels that a substantial objection to the application of the term Classicism, or any of its variants, is based on the understood basis of classification for such literature. Greene states simply that in the classification of such literature of the period, 1660–1800, it remains that

if it means that people in the eighteenth century read widely in the Latin and Greek classics and were Napoleon at St. Bernard by neoclassicist painter influenced by them, they did so equally, and sometimes more, in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and a good deal of the nineteenth centuries.

The whole idea that there was a sudden “revival” of Classicism is repellent to Greene and others. It has been noted that if there was such a period in English history, a period when Classicism was declared dead, in Greene’s rather humorous words, “this is indeed some important news.” He cites the efforts of one of the greatest writers of the years preceding what has been coined the “classical revival” in the history in England, namely those of Milton. The example is a compelling one because of Milton’s stature in the literary community and in the Western canon as a whole. He is identified by Greene, and, undoubtedly, countless others, as one perhaps more profoundly schooled in the classics than “any other English author.” Milton was also admired for his uses of classical Latin elegiac verse; his last publication mirrored a strict form of Greek tragedy to boot.

Shakespeare also seems to take a sort of nebulous position within the context of neoclassical conventions. Thora Burnley Jones, in her collec- tion, Neo-classical Dramatic Criticism, 1560– 1770, considers the acceptance of Shakespeare by Restoration playwrights such as Pope and Johnson. Jones asserts that such playwrights encouraged a “climate of opinion which ensured the acceptance of Shakespeare as the central figure in the English literary tradition.” However, Shakespeare certainly did not fit within the conventional window of opportunity provided as a reference for describing the English neoclassicists.

Yet Jones takes the author’s style to task, citing, rather pointedly, his neoclassical qualities as a...

(This entire section contains 1328 words.)

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playwright. First, says Jones, Shakespearean plays had a certain degree of verisimilitude to them. He was able, with great depth and accuracy, to explore the human condition in a language that was allinclusive, one that everyone could hear and be touched by. Shakespeare does not subscribe to the neoclassical principles of form, however. Critics often note Shakespeare’s lack of concern for established classical form and for rules of decorum. He often mixed comedy with tragedy and completely ignored the unities. (Jones suggests the possibility that he knew nothing of such convention.) He also often lacked the level of style and elevation that other classicists shared as a common trait in their writings. Jones states that the third criterion defining the neoclassicist hinges on the idea of “art and morality.” It is the task of the neoclassical writer to “indicate the way to a good life.”

Shakespeare is certainly guilty of this tendency, although his moralistic tendencies have been viewed as being somewhat misguided. Shakespeare did have some faults when compared to those neoclassicists who followed him. Such faults seemed to clash against the very virtues that the neoclassicists strove to imitate. But the Augustan Age brought with it a marked interest in Shakespeare. Shakespeare somehow managed to rise above the fray, to continually be both recognized and excused for his deficits. Jones states that critics engage in “excusing his faults by the application of false historicism: he lived in barbarous times, spoke a less refined vernacular, shared the company of coarse players, and so on.”

The convention in Augustan criticism of pitting Shakespeare against Aristotle is said to be a tradition of the age. For whatever reason, this did little, if anything, to ruin his critical reputation among other writers of the period. He is instead continuously excused for ignoring the rules of form precisely because he knew no better. Critics have often forgiven Shakespeare for his weaknesses with plot and structure, looking to his character sketches in order to grant the playwright redemption.

Shakespeare’s critics make a case for the assertions set out by Johnson that critics are often blinded by their own personal interests. This is not to dispute the value of Shakespeare’s contribution to literature; rather, it is only used to demonstrate the seemingly arbitrary assignment of values even those neoclassicists who were contemporaries of the age might assign an author in determining merit. For instance, in Jones’s works, she recalls the preface to Pope’s text on Shakespeare. The preface states that he transcended imitation, going beyond the interpretation of a common human experience (nature), and has “conjured up a golden world.”

But Jones claims that Pope is merely repeating the established view that “Shakespeare’s characterization is good because it is lifelike; it is individualized and it is consistent, drawn from life and not from other writers.” Pope’s work about the playwright is interesting insomuch as he was pandering to an audience who loved Shakespeare. Pope forgives his excesses, attributing them to the types of audiences he answered to. As to his lack of education, Pope pointed to Shakespeare’s level of wit and fancy, claiming that the abilities he had in both areas more than made up for his lack of scholasticism.

The conclusion Jones comes to is that despite the critical techniques of writers like Pope, there still exists an urge to apply neoclassical values to Shakespeare’s work, regardless of the fact that such value judgments are in direct opposition with a felt response to the poetry. The conventions of Neoclassicism, no matter how loosely applied, do not seem to warrant the classification of Shakespeare as a neoclassicist. Again, the critics of neoclassical literature and form are not impervious to their own personal motivations and, as demonstrated by Pope, eschew critical response in an effort to forward their own personal agendas.

So who will redraw the lines of the genre, and what artists should be included? Should they be redrawn at all? To Donald Greene, at least, the matter is simply a matter of vision. Specifically, he warns of the dangers of looking too closely at individual instances where the convention might fit a person or idea, in favor of looking at the cultural landscape that inspires such movements.

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Neoclassicism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

About Wit: Locke, Addison, Prior, and the Order of Things

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For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it, And write about it, Goddess, and about it. —Alexander Pope, Dunciad

Sooner or later in any discussion of neoclassical literature the word wit, if not the spaniel, splashes its way back to the hunter’s side. That major authors of the Restoration and early eighteenth century prized and practiced wit is perhaps the one thing every succeeding generation has agreed on, although with widely differing evaluations of that achievement. Each retrospective estimate of Dryden or Pope seems, interestingly, to approach Dryden’s view of one of his predecessors: “if we are not so great wits as Donne, yet certainly we are better poets.” As Dryden’s usage and the work of many modern scholars remind us, the value and definition of wit have been complex all along. Wit is Nature in ambiguity dressed—and so is Nature.

Despite the broad problems of historical semantics, readers continue to agree that Restoration repartee, The Rape of the Lock, Fielding’s asides and prefaces, most of the poetry of Swift and Prior, and The Beggar’s Opera all are witty. Whatever neoclassical wit is taken to be, it is likelier sought in Gay than Gray. It is not sought everywhere in the period—rarely in Defoe, scarcely in Richardson, for example—but wherever it is found the impression is generally one of hearing a shared language of the age, a shared rhetoric, rather than a clever ideolect. The examples mentioned range greatly but call to mind a familiar mixture of “common” sense, unconventional perspective, quickness, economy, and irreverence, to which no single writer (no Austen or Wilde, for example) has a unique claim in the period. This historical impression might be focused by looking for a moment at what might be called the epitaph of neoclassical wit, the couplet John Gay wrote for his tomb, and at the reaction it provoked in a young writer of a later generation, Samuel Johnson. The lines Gay asked Pope to put on his grave and that duly appeared in Westminster Abbey are these: “Life is a jest; and all things show it, / I thought so once; but now I know it.” Writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1738, Johnson finds this “trifling distich” more proper for the “window of a brothel” than for a monument. All people, he argues, do or do not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. “In one of these classes our poet must be ranked. . . If he was of the latter opinion, he must think life more than a jest, unless he thought eternity a jest too; and if these were his sentiments, he is by this time most certainly undeceived. These lines, therefore, are impious in the mouth of a Christian, and nonsense in that of an aetheist.” Nothing suggests that Gay saw any contradiction between making a good end and making a jest, or that friends such as Pope, Arbuthnot, and Swift found the epitaph trifling. Johnson’s objections have their reason, but not the reason of his predecessors. The encounter is a reminder again of how often neoclassical wit plays upon mortality and how often it laughs at the oppositional logic of either/ or. The common language Gay counted on was quickly disappearing.

While this episode suggests wit’s passage, the more closely this ordering rhetoric is looked for the less explicit it seems to have been. Not only does “wit” itself have an array of meanings, as even the casual reader of An Essay on Criticism soon suspects, but it has its own oppositional story through the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. The best-known version is that of true wit versus false wit in Addison’s series of Spectator essays (nos. 58–63), but Addison builds on Locke’s earlier opposition of wit and judgment. Locke in turn was probably influenced by Malebranche, almost surely by Hobbes, perhaps by Boyle, and possibly by Bacon. Locke is a good place to begin not only because his oppositions seem to have been the most influential but also because a careful reading of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding shows that behind the desire to derogate or dignify wit lie issues far different from coffeehouse decorum. At stake are conflicting notions of intellectual coherence and competing versions of reality. After exploring Locke’s dichotomy and its implications in his theory of knowledge, I shall turn to its subversion, respectively genteel and raucous, by Addison and Prior. Less suspicious of language than Locke, both Addison and Prior are more deeply sceptical of individual aspirations to an unmediated agreement of thinking and things.

Wit and Judgment in Locke

I shall imagine I have done some service to Truth, Peace, and Learning if, by any enlargement on this Subject, I can make Men reflect on their own Use of Language; and give them Reason to suspect, that since it is frequent for others, it may also be possible for them, to have sometimes very good and approved Words in their Mouths, and Writings, with very uncertain, little, or no signification. And therefore it is not unreasonable for them to be wary herein themselves, and not to be unwilling to have them examined by others.

In a later chapter of the same book Locke would attend to wit under the rubric “Of the Abuse of Words,” but he had in fact discussed it at some length before deciding to take language as his province. This earlier passage from book 2 (“Of Ideas”) is the one Addison put into broad circulation the morning of 11 May 1711 by quoting most of it in the fifth of six Spectators on wit:

If in having our Ideas in the Memory ready at hand, consists quickness of parts; in this, of having them unconfused, and being able nicely to distinguish one thing from another, where there is but the least difference, consists, in a great measure, the exactness of Judgment and clearness of Reason, which is to be observed in one Man above another. And hence, perhaps, may be given some Reason of that common Observation, That Men who have a great deal of Wit, and prompt Memories, have not always the clearest Judgment, or deepest Reason. For Wit lying most in the assemblage of Ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant Pictures, and agreeable Visions in the fancy: Judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in repeating carefully, one from another, Ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by Similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to Metaphor and Allusion, wherein, for the most part, lies that entertainment and pleasantry of Wit, which strikes so lively on the Fancy, and therefore [is] so acceptable to all People; because its Beauty appears at first sight, and there is required no labour of thought, to examine what Truth or Reason there is in it. The Mind, without looking further, rests satisfied with the agreeableness of the Picture, and the gayety of the Fancy: And it is a kind of affront to go about to examine it, by the severe Rules of Truth, and good Reason; whereby it appears, that it consists in something, that is not perfectly conformable to them.

This pasage is worth considering more carefully than has been the modern habit. Kenneth MacLean, in what is regrettably still the standard work on Locke and eighteenth-century literature, points to the influence of the dichotomy but refers to it as a “detached bit of psychology” of “obviously little significance” in Locke’s philosophy, a view more recent commentators seem to endorse by passing on in silence. Even literary critics as alert to Locke’s metaphorical valences as is Paul de Man (1979) tend to proceed directly to book 3 and the explicit remarks on language. My view is that this piece of psychologizing is thoroughly attached to the tensions in Locke’s argument throughout the Essay and that understanding those tensions can help in the reading of several neoclassical works of wit in something more of the spirit their authors writ. . .

It is clear that metaphor marks the appetite of wit for similarities, while judgment patiently seeks out differences. The place of allusion may seem less obvious, however, first because it is not necessarily associated with wit in particular (as distinguished, for example, from scholarly writing or sermons), and secondly because Locke gives no plain counterpart to it other than judgment’s “whole way of proceeding.” But it is clear that allusion is still on Locke’s mind when he discusses wit again in book 3. This section is again long, but I quote it whole in the interests of care rather than quickness:

Since Wit and Fancy finds easier entertainment in the World, than dry Truth and real Knowledge, figurative Speeches, and allusion in Language, will hardly be admitted as an imperfection or abuse of it. I confess, in Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight, than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments as are borrowed from them, can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetoric, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat; and therefore however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth or Knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or Person that makes use of them. What, and how various they are, will be superfluous here to take notice; the books of Rhetorick which abound in the world will instruct those who want to be informed: Only I cannot but observe, how little the preservation and improvement of Truth and Knowledge is the Care and Concern of Mankind; since the Arts of Fallacy are endow’d and preferred. ’Tis evident how much Men love to deceive, and be deceived, since Rhetorick, that powerful instrument of Error and Deceit, has its established Professors, is publickly taught, and has always been had in great Reputation: And I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality in me, to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair Sex, has too prevailing Beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And ’tis in vain to find fault with those Arts of Deceiving, wherein Men find pleasure to be Deceived.

The opposition of “truth” and “rhetoric,” it has been argued, has been essential to philosophy’s self-definition since Plato’s attack on the Sophists; philosophy is distinguished by not being rhetoric or poetry. Locke’s particular “plain-style” aversion to the “arts of fallacy” is familiar. This passage emphasizes the values implicit in Locke’s earlier distinction, since the quasi-psychological opposition of wit and judgment now becomes the openly ethical contest of wit and fancy on one side (the syntax of the first sentence merges them) against knowledge and truth on the other. . .

The first sentence of the earlier passage associates wit with “having our ideas in the memory ready at hand” but judgment with “having them unconfused and being able nicely to distinguish one thing from another” (my emphasis). This silent slide from ideas to things is crucial to Locke’s dichotomy and, as I shall try to show, a clue to greater problems within the Essay. The attribution to wit of the “artificial and figurative application of words” and of “allusion” implies, of course, contrary ways of proceeding in the world of judgment, knowledge, and truth. What exactly are these contraries? Presumably the first would be the natural and literal application of words, and the second would be unallusive language.

In short, Locke’s charged opposition of wit and judgment entails three major claims: (1) we can Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey know and speak of things as they are; (2) we can (and should) speak naturally and literally; (3) we can (and should) speak without allusion. The question is whether there is really any space in Locke’s Essay for any of the three assumptions. Put another way, in light of Locke’s rigorous contributions to epistemology, to the study of language, and to ethics, what are we to make of his supposition that we can and should seek an unartificial language free of allusion and illusion? The boundaries between the epistemological and linguistic-ethical claims Locke makes in attacking wit are less clear than my listing of them may suggest, but I shall try to consider them in the order enumerated above. I have already suggested that the general difficulty behind Locke’s claim that judgment distinguishes things or that it guides us in speaking of “things as they are” stems from the commitment of the Essay as a whole to the view that what we know are (only) our ideas. Since able readers of Locke from Thomas Reid to the present have commented on the tension between that commitment and Locke’s equally strong belief that our senses give knowledge of the external world, it is possible to concentrate selectively on a few of the Essay’s moments of attempted reconciliation in order to see the range of Locke’s ideas about ideas. Seeing that range may help in understanding Locke’s occasional vehemence, because it stretches, sometimes awkwardly, from ideas as “mental Draughts” or “Pictures of Things” to ideas as barely legible signs.

In his discussion of “clear and obscure, Distant and Confused Ideas,” Locke launches at once into visual metaphor—“the Perception of the Mind, being most aptly explained by Words relating to the Sight”—in order to argue that “our simple ideas are clear, when they are such as the objects from whence they were taken did or might in a well-ordered sensation or perception, present them” (2.29.2). This painstakingly worded statement seems to offer more certainty than it provides. It sounds as if clear ideas are visual copies (“taken”) of objects viewed in the way a normal person perceives them. But if in place of the words Locke italicizes we attend to as and might, we find that what seemed a generic or causal account of the origin of clear ideas is a conditional description of them based on a simile: Ideas are clear when they are kinds of mental images like those that normal viewers might have registered had they been there.

The fate of simple ideas is noteworthy because while Locke is habitually ready to grant that complex ideas are things we make up to think and talk with (“fictions of the mind”) rather than direct perceptions, he is understandably less willing to sever the mimetic link between simple ideas and the external world. At his most scrupulous, however, he does sever most of it. Not only is “likeness” to things in the world restricted to simple ideas, it is narrowed still further to simple ideas of “primary qualities” of body (solidity, extension, figure, motion, and number as opposed to colors, sounds, tastes, and so on). It would seem that only Newton spent most of his time having ideas “like” the world. Such ideas “are resemblances” of bodies and “these patterns do really exist.” The rest “have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our Ideas existing in the bodies themselves.” It is in this chapter that Locke’s “idea” becomes more like the response to a sign than like a picture. Most simple ideas of sensation are “no more the likeness of something existing without us than the names that stand for them are the likeness of our ideas, which yet upon hearing they are apt to excite in us.”

Our experience, in other words, is closer to reading or listening to speech than to looking at things. We have, with the exception of primary qualities, access not to objects but to signifiers. Had Locke pursued this model of experience consistently, rather than the complex of visual metaphors noted earlier, the Essay would be a very different book. As it is, the linguistic analogy surfaces at several revealing points, often in negative terms, as in the remarks on wit or rhetoric. Before going further it is necessary to underscore the significance of the analogy here by recalling that Locke is perhaps the first major analyst of language to stress that the relation of signifier to signified is not divinely instituted or mimetic but “perfectly arbitrary.” What the linguistic analogy implies, then, is a functional, convenient but wholly ungrounded relation of idea and world.

At this point we can begin to see Locke’s denigration of figurative expressions and allusions in the context of his uneasiness about language in general. There are moments in Locke, as will be seen, where words alone are certain truth, but many more, and more explicit ones, of linguistic skepticism: “For he that shall well consider the Errors and Obscurity, the Mistakes and Confusion, that is spread in the World by an ill use of Words, will find some reason to doubt whether Language, as it has been employ’d, has contributed more to the improvement or hindrance of Knowledge amongst Mankind.” Locke’s suspicion of what he terms the “cover of wit and good language” runs deeper than the currents of plain-style Puritanism or scientific polemic. The tension between Locke’s thinking of ideas as pictures or as interpretations of signs (or correspondingly of objects available to us as things or as signifiers) is played out at large in the Essay as a tension between truth as residing in perceptions or in propositions. The explanation I want to try to illustrate is this: having reached the uncomfortable insight that our experience of “things” is in fact the experience of signifiers, Locke seeks to manage the radical implications of the linguistic analogy by reverting to the model of perceptions and pictures and by stipulating impossibly strict standards for proper language. If experience may just be a language, then language itself had best be kept determinate. It should (against all odds) speak of things as they are.

Locke’s treatment of language in book 3 of the Essay strikes most readers as remarkably free of theories of origin and (and perhaps therefore) surprisingly consistent on the arbitrariness of the relation between signified and signifier. Hans Aarsleff claims more than chronological priority for Locke (1982). To be sure, language is God’s gift to humanity, but the terms remain general: language is defined as the totality of all natural languages and as their use by the totality of speakers. Unlike vast numbers of his contemporaries and many later writers, Locke nowhere in the Essay’ s chapters on language speculates about how Adam and Eve communicated, the Tower of Babel, or, except dismissively, mysterious or mystical connections between names and things named. However pious his intentions at large (the “main end of these inquiries” being “knowledge and veneration” of the “Sovereign Disposer of all things”, for purposes of philosophic discussion there is no linguistic paradise lost. Where an Adamic myth surfaces instead is in Locke’s notion of a language of judgment that names things as they are, without figure and, as only Adam could, without allusion.

Locke’s contradictions on the subject of figurative language in book 3 have been brilliantly illustrated by de Man, and the issue of metaphor in the Essay as a whole can best be considered in connection with the responses to Locke of Addison and Prior. For now at least a partial answer emerges to the question of what allusion has to do with figurative speech in Locke’s opposition of wit and judgment. Like “eloquence” and other “artificial” uses of language, allusions lack original innocence, are in fact the most emphatic figure of this lack, of having fallen into time. Return briefly, then, to the question of how an ideal of an unallusive language fits so uneasily with Locke’s arguments elsewhere in the Essay.

The two arguments that run counter to the unallusive norm are linguistic and epistemological, although again the boundaries are not always distinct. The linguistic is relatively simple. When discussing language directly Locke argues, consistently, that since words have “naturally no signification” the “idea which each stands for must be learned and retained by those who would exchange thoughts and hold intelligible discourse with others.” What such learning and retention of common usage amounts to is a continual series of allusions, namely to the usage of past and present speakers. Most of these allusions are of course unconscious, and any conventional notion of language implies the ability to make them, even the inability to not make them most of the time. But Locke goes further to recommend conscious allusions. If we would seek “propriety of speech” as indeed we should since words are “no man’s private possession by the common measure of commerce and communication,” we will find propriety by studying and imitating the usage of our linguistic predecessors: “The proper signification and best use of Terms is best to be learned from those, who in their Writings and Discourses, appear to have had the clearest Notions, and apply’d to them their Terms with the exactest choice and fitness.”

Let me acknowledge at once that my use of “allusion” may well be broader than Locke intended and that he might have been thinking not of the shared use of words but of distinctive phrases and sentences—something closer to quotation. But it is also clear that in the attacks on wit in books 2 and 3 he is not criticizing the citation of authorities, something he does attack elsewhere but as characteristic of Scholasticism rather than of wit, fancy, or eloquence. It may be that he means something close to what allusion usually means in modern literary discussion, that is, intentional reference to previously used phrases or verbally established contexts for the complication of present meaning. And if it may be added that allusion often complicates by suggesting at least a fleeting parallel, it may be seen why Locke repeats the word in the same breath with “figurative speeches” and “similitude.” But when all of this has been granted, it remains true that Locke’s notion of a wholly direct and unallusive discourse belongs to a less sophisticated theory of language than to the secular one he works out. While we can speak of some writ- ers, for example, as more allusive than others, there is no logical place for a use of language “quite contrary” to allusion. In view of Locke’s account of language as the sum of common conventions, a speech that is the opposite of allusive speech would seem to belong to a world of neither wit nor judgment but desire.

If the allusiveness Locke denigrates is in fact central to his theory of language, is it also central to his theory of knowledge? Much of the Essay can be read as a succession of attempts to answer no to this question, to put the knower and the known in a direct relation, unmediated by community or language. Before considering a few of the efforts to find extralinguistic certainties in book 4, let us turn to a final episode in the discussion of language that seems already an epistemological episode as well. Locke is discussing the names of “mixed Modes,” that is, several ideas of “sorts or Species of Things”, and arrives at the interesting observation that, unlike simple ideas, these complex ideas usually become known to us after we have learned the words for them.

I confess, that in the beginning of Languages, it was necessary to have the Idea, before one gave it the Name: and so it is still, where making a new complex Idea, one also, by giving it a new Name, makes a new Word. But this concerns not Languages made, which have generally pretty well provided for Ideas, which Men have frequent Occasion to have, and communicate: And in such, I ask, whether it be not the ordinary Method, that Children learn the Names of mixed Modes, before they have their Ideas? What one of a thousand ever frames the abstract Idea of Glory and Ambition, before he has heard the Names of them?

With the rare exceptions, then, of new coinages, the large range of ideas that make converse of any complexity possible are learned by a process of allusion. The vocabulary of these ideas exists first as a vocabulary.

I have been arguing that Locke’s criticism of the figures and allusions of wit is part of an uneasiness about language at large and that his criticism was sharpened by the suspicion that knowledge and language are inseparable. Locke would not concede their inseparability. What he says instead, explaining how he came to write book 3, is that he found that knowledge and words had “so near a connexion” that “very little” could be “said clearly or pertinently” about knowledge without first observing the “face and manner of signification” of words. Because knowledge is, in Locke’s suggestive phrase, “conversant about truth,” it has “constantly to do with propositions.” While it ends “in things,” it arrives there “so much by the intervention of words” that they seem “scarce separable” from general knowledge. “At least they interpose themselves so much between our Understandings, and the Truth, which it would contemplate and apprehend that, like the Medium through which visible Objects pass, their Obscurity and Disorder does not seldom cast a mist before our Eyes, and impose upon our Understandings.” The progress of actions attributed to words is striking: words intervene, then interpose, and finally impose.

In a landscape so populated or where, to take a later metaphor, so many have wandered “lost in the great Wood of Words”, mathematics often looks like the safest way out of allusion and illusion. “By abstracting their Thoughts from Names, and accustoming themselves to set before their Minds the Ideas themselves . . . and not sounds instead of them,” mathematicians have escaped most of the “perplexity, puddering, and confusion” of other fields (ibid.). If we would “but separate the Idea under consideration from the Sign that stands for it” moral knowledge would be “as capable of real Certainty, as Mathematics.” I shall return to Lockes admiration for mathematical method in discussing Prior’s response to the Essay, but the general point is simply that the main appeal of mathematics for Locke seems to be that it offers not a world of symmetry unencumbered by matter, or (as one might expect), more direct access to primary qualities, but an escape from words.

Locke’s desire for extralinguistic certainty shows forth even when he argues more fully the point that truth resides in propositions. The chapter in which he does so, “Of Truth in General”, is one of the most curious in the Essay, primarily because of Locke’s insistence on a distinction between mental and verbal propositions, “truth of thought” and “truth of words.” For it turns out that when he begins by defining truth as “nothing but the joining or separating of Signs, as the Things signified by them, do agree or disagree one with another,” Locke is not at all making the same definitional move that Hobbes had made in declaring that “true and false are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood. . . Truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations.” For Locke, on the contrary, the “signs” joined or separated to make propositions can be either words or ideas: “So that Truth properly belongs only to Proposi- tions: whereof there are two sorts, viz. Mental and Verbal; as there are two sorts of Signs commonly made use of, viz. Ideas and Words.” This is a most unusual definition of “idea,” I believe unprecedented in the Essay to this point. (Although I have argued that some of Locke’s descriptions of ideas imply that they are like our responses to signs, the synonyms he himself normally uses are phantasms, notions, perceptions, pictures, and so on.) This odd twist allows Locke, however, to go on to assert the necessity of considering truth of thought and truth of words “distinctly one from another.”

Necessary as it may be, two difficulties are conceded. The first is that as soon as we begin to describe mental propositions in words they become verbal propositions (a problem analogous to trying to observe oneself without being self-conscious, say, which does not usually lessen the belief that one has periods of unselfconsciousness). The second, much greater difficulty Locke poses to his own distinction appears to undo it entirely: “And that which makes it harder to treat of mental and verbal Propositions separately, is That most Men, if not all [my emphasis], in their Thinking and Reasonings within themselves, make use of Words instead of Ideas, at least when the subject of their meditation contains in it complex Ideas.” Having opened the possibility that all propositions of much complexity are verbal rather than purely mental, Locke vacillates in the rest of this brief chapter between extremes, wishing at one point that those who speak on subjects like religion, power, or melancholy (all of them remarkably complex ideas) would “think only of the Things themselves” rather than their words, and at another point restricting his definition of truth further to only verbal propositions: “Truth is the marking down in Words, the agreement or disagreement of Ideas as it is.”

Every one’s Experience will satisfie him, that the Mind, either by perceiving or supposing the Agreement or Disagreement of its Ideas, does tacitly within it self put them into a kind of Proposition affirmative or negative, which I have endeavoured to express by the terms Putting together and Separating. But this Action of the Mind, which is so familiar to every thinking and reasoning Man, is easier to be conceived by reflecting on what passes in us, when we affirm or deny, than to be explained by Words.

Locke’s meaning seems to be that our habit of making nonverbal propositions can be better imagined nonverbally than explained verbally. In other words, the proposition that we habitually make tacit propositions is most clear as a tacit proposition.

Addison, Prior, and Locke’s Dichotomy If Locke’s opposition of wit and judgment involves as many problems as the previous section claims (and a few more will be suggested here), it is material to ask why it ever attracted Joseph Addison. That we cannot know Addison’s motivation as he sat to the pages that would become Spectator 62 does not preclude some guesses. There is the general prestige of the Essay, and there is Addison’s particular interest in bringing philosophy from the closet to the coffeehouse. Moreover, Locke’s opposition has the appeal of familiar wisdom (so-and-so is “clever” but not thoughtful, or “steady” but not quick) suddenly bolstered by modern analysis (“and hence perhaps may be given some reason . . .”) and looking for the moment as if it might offer an exhaustive characterological dichotomy (a recurrent fantasy neatly satirized in the quip, “There are two kinds of people: those who divide things into two and those who don’t”). Neither eighteenth- nor twentiethcentury intellectuals are immune to the charms of such a prospect. But it is probably safer to modify the question about Addison to how he found Locke’s dichotomy attractive. How much of it does he accept, how does he use it, and how does it look when he has finished?

Like the rest of the series, Spectator62 contrasts “true” wit and “false” wit. Addison begins it by referring to Locke’s “admirable Reflection upon the Difference of Wit and Judgment, whereby he endeavours to shew the Reason why they are not always the Talents of the same Person.” He then quotes all of the passage from 2.11.2 quoted earlier, except the first sentence, replaced by his summary, and the last sentence and a half, thus ending with Locke’s observation that through metaphor and allusion wit “strikes so lively on the Fancy, and is therefore acceptable to all People.” The passage, then, that Addison commends as the “best and most philosophical Account that I have ever met with of Wit” has already changed clothes for the meeting. His introduction neutralizes Locke’s explanation of why men of wit are often not good judges (Locke says nothing of wit being beyond the reach of men of judgment) to a distinction of talents. And in silently ignoring the latter part of Locke’s section he suppresses Locke’s regret that wit is so “acceptable to all people,” a fact due to its requiring “no labour of thought” and not being up to the rigor of “truth or reason.” Similarly, there is no mention in the essay of Locke’s attack on wit, figurative language, and allusion in book 3 (quoted above).

To what he does quote, Addison adds and qualifies. Locke’s is the best (previous) explanation of wit, “which generally, tho’ not always, consists in such a Resemblance and Congruity of Ideas as this Author mentions. I shall only add to it, by way of Explanation, That every Resemblance of Ideas is not that which we call Wit, unless it be such an one that gives Delight and Surprize to the Reader: These two Properties seem essential to Wit, more particularly the last of them.” The reserve clause (“generally, though not always”) can be held, with Addison, until the conclusion of his consideration of Locke. Before going there it is worth noting, first, that Addison’s “Resemblance and Congruity of Ideas” replaces Locke’s assertion that wit is an “assemblage of ideas” based on “any resemblance or congruity” the assembler can find, and, second, that Addison’s emphasis on the “surprize” of wit suggests pleasure from the discovery of real resemblance in place of Locke’s “beauty . . . at first sight.” Both alterations are important for Addison’s later propositions. “That the Basis of all Wit is Truth” and that a beautiful thought has “its Foundation in the Nature of Things.”

The essential claim of most of the rest of Addison’s essay, where he appropriates Locke’s dichotomy between wit and judgment into his own between two kinds of wit, is that true wit is true. The point is explicit but sometimes lost sight of because “true” wit can be taken to mean something like “genuine” or “pure” wit and because Addison also uses contrasts like “Gothic” versus “natural”; but the starker terms are “Falsehood” and “Truth.” The phrase probably quoted most often in summarizing Addison’s position is “true Wit consists in the resemblance of Ideas, and false Wit in the Resemblance of Words.” What he actually says is that this description covers the examples he has just cited (“according to the foregoing Instances”), among which figure prominently the familiar targets, such as shaped verses, acrostics, quibbles, and puns. The attack on puns (which false wit might call an argument ad homonym) is usually best remembered because it fits so readily the distinction between resemblances of words and resemblances of ideas. But similarity of ideas is not the basis of all true wit, as Addison’s conclusion makes clear:

I must not dismiss this Subject without observing, that as Mr. Locke in the Passage above-mentioned has discovered the most fruitful Source of Wit, so there is another of a quite contrary Nature to it, which does likewise branch it self out into several Kinds. For not only the Resemblance but the Opposition of Ideas does very often produce Wit; as I could shew in several little Points, Turns and Antitheses, that I may possibly enlarge upon in some future Speculation.

Perhaps if Addison had returned to the opposition of ideas in a later essay this passage would by now have attracted more notice. Standing almost as an afterthought, its casual tone is as disarming as the suave appearance of agreement with Locke earlier in the essay. Here Addison does much more than shift Locke’s emphasis. If it is true that wit discerns differences as well as similarities, then the dichotomy between wit and judgment collapses. Having enlisted it in an argument for the truth of wit, Addison leaves Locke’s distinction, so to speak, without judgment.

It may be coincidence that Addison characterized the wit of opposition as “quite contrary” to the more familiar sort Locke had described. Accident or allusion, the phrase suggests their distance, since it is the one Locke used to oppose not one kind of wit to another but the ways of difference and similitude. My brief discussion of Spectator62 no doubt reveals the judgment that Addison knew exactly what he was doing. But judgment, as Locke eventually argues in some passages to which it is now time to turn, should be distinguished from knowledge.

The fourth book of Locke’s Essay, “Of Knowledge and Opinion,” begins with the proposition that because the mind’s only immediate object is its own ideas, knowledge is “nothing but the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas. In this alone it consists. Where this Perception is, there is Knowledge, and where it is not, there, though we may fancy, guess, or believe, yet we always come short of Knowledge.” In fact, as Locke everywhere emphasizes, we usually do come short of knowledge. Fancying, as we have seen, has nothing to do with knowledge, but we must often guess or believe in order to “know” how to live. “He that in the ordinary Affairs of Life, would admit of nothing but direct plain Demonstration, would be sure of nothing, in this World, but of perishing quickly.” Rarely in the presence of certainty, our guesses and beliefs in this “twilight” of probability are guided by judgment, the subject of a late chapter (14).

To understand Locke’s account it is necessary to see what is at stake. The starting point of book 4 makes clear that knowledge—like truth, its expression in propositions—is conversant about similarities of ideas (“agreement”) as well as about differences. The difference between wit and knowledge in this respect seems to be that wit makes similarities and knowledge perceives them. The question, which Addison helps indirectly to focus, is whether the same is true of judgment. Is judgment closer to knowledge or to wit?

Locke does what he can to close the gap between judgment and knowledge by associating them with each other as much as possible, and, as we have seen, the attacks on wit and eloquence in books 2 and 3 provide occasion to use judgment, truth, reason, and knowledge as near synonyms. Whatever the discriminations to be made elsewhere among the four terms, Locke seems to fuse them to compose whatever it is that is “quite contrary” to wit. Judgment (“being able nicely to distinguish”) and knowledge (“perception” of agreement or disagreement) are closely associated elsewhere by Locke’s tendency to speak of perceiving and distinguishing as the same thing: the mind recognizes separate ideas “at first view,” for example, “by its natural power of Perception and Distinction.”

A broader association of judgment with knowledge by virtue of what “it” is opposed to operates in the chapter “Of the Reality of Knowledge,” where Locke contrasts the knowledge of a “sober” man and a man of the “most extravagant Fancy in the world.” How do these two differ, Locke imagines his reader asking, if knowledge is only the internal agreement or disagreement of one’s own ideas? Like the original contrast of judgment and wit, this opposition of sobriety and fancy signals a great deal of strain. Locke’s answer to the question is that our knowledge is limited but consists of “two sorts of Ideas, that, we may be assured, agree with things,” simple ideas and all complex ideas except those of substances. What he in fact argues is much narrower: simple ideas “are not fictions of our Fancies” because they represent things to the extent “ordained” by the “wisdom and will of our Maker,” in the way we are “fitted” to perceive them; complex ideas have all the “conformity necessary to real knowledge” because they are “archetypes of the mind’s own making” and were never “intended to be the Copies of anything.” When, after several paragraphs on the desirability of separating ideas from words, Locke concludes that we have “certain real knowledge” whenever “we are sure those ideas agree with the reality of things,” the words come uncomfortably close to his later dismissal of enthusiasts: “They are sure because they are sure.” The chapter ends in a tone weirdly reminiscent of A Tale of a Tub:

Of which agreement of our ideas with the reality of things having here given sufficient marks, I think I have shown wherein it is, that Certainty, real Certainty, consists. Which, whatever it was to others, was, I confess, to me heretofore, one of those Desiderata which I found great want of.

When Locke finally comes to write of the judgment directly rather than by way of “contraries,” it is still on the side of truth, but the fundamental association with knowledge no longer holds. The brief chapter (4.14) concludes with a new refinement.

Thus the Mind has two Faculties conversant about Truth and Falsehood:

First, Knowledge, whereby it certainly perceives and is undoubtedly satisfied of the Agreement or Disagreement of any Ideas.

Secondly, Judgment, which is the putting Ideas together, or separating them one from another in the Mind, when their certain Agreement or Disagreement is not perceived, but presumed. . . And if it so unites or separates them as in Reality Things are, it is right Judgment.

In this scheme knowledge perceives but judgment puts together and separates. At least half (and if Addison is right, all) of its operations, then, seem less contrary than kindred to the “assemblage of ideas, and putting those together” previously assigned to wit. The function of the original dichotomy seems in retrospect to have been to protect the “good” assemblages (complex ideas, for example) from the taint of fiction and to make a firmer claim on “things as they are” than the Lockean way of ideas can consistently justify. Having in this chapter momentarily opened the possibility that judgment may after all proceed rather like wit, Locke attempts to close it in the last sentence with the sudden introduction of “right Judgment.” It might fairly be objected that if we can have right and wrong judgment we can have right and wrong—or true or false—wit as well. In that case, wit and judgment are not distinct actions but different manners: one “quick,” the other “careful.” To Matthew Prior, at least, Locke’s judgment would seem a name for slow wit.

Prior’s “A Dialogue between Mr: John Lock and Seigneur de Montaigne” was not published until this century. By far most of the best of its roughly ten thousand words are given to Montaigne, whose urbanity and ranging observation are plainly more sympathetic to Prior than is Locke’s earnest introspection. When Locke objects that as the “loosest of writers” Montaigne naturally undervalues “my close way of Reasoning,” Montaigne replies: “All the while you wrote you were only thinking that you thought; You and Your understanding are the Personae Dramatis, and the whole amounts to no more than a Dialogue between John and Lock.” And the shortcomings of monodrama are as plain as the maxim that “he that does not talk with a Wiser Man than himself may happen to Dye Ignorant.” “Really who ever writes in Folio should convince people that he knows something besides himself, else few would read his Book, except his very particular Friends.” When Locke again criticizes Montaigne’s lack of method, this time enlisting Chanet, Scaliger, and Malebranche for support, Montaigne says: “I have observed that there is Abcedarian Ignorance that precedes Knowledge, and a Doctoral Ignorance that comes after it. . . Method! our Life is too short for it.”

Despite the breezy antipathy of these exchanges, references to arguments and examples from all four books of the Essay show that Prior read it with care if not respect. He is particularly attentive to Locke’s suspicion of figurative language and allusions. Prior approaches allusion by having Locke boast that while Montaigne’s writing is a collection of stolen goods, “I spin my Work out of my own thoughts.” The claim predictably leads Montaigne to “allude” to The Battle of the Books and play Swift’s bee to Locke’s spider, with an additional shake of the metaphor: “But to come nearer to you, Mr: Lock, You like many other writers, Deceive your Self in this Point, and as much a Spider as you fancy your Self, You may often cast your Webb upon other Mens Textures.” Locke answers that if he has been anticipated in some points without knowing it, “what I write is as much my own Invention as if no Man had thought the Same thing before me,” while Montaigne simply copied materials from his commonplace book. To this Montaigne replies laconically: “Why the best One can do is but compose, I hope you do not pretend to Create.” Finding Locke undaunted, Montaigne charges him with unwitting allusion:

Your Ideas, as you call them . . . were so mixed and Blended, long before You began to write, in the great Variety of things that fall under their Cognizance that it was impossible for You to Distinguish what you Invented from what You Remembered. . . When you Seem to have least regard to Orators and Poets you have recourse to both for your very turn of Style and manner of Expression. Parblew Mr. Lock, when you had writ half your Book in favor of your own Dear Understanding you quote Cicero to prove the very Existence of a God.

In another part of this long speech, Montaigne asserts that Malebranche, like Locke, warned against misleading the judgment with figurative language but was in fact wise to ignore his own advice: “the Strength of his Argument consists in the beauty of his Figures.” This claim, that figurative language discovers rather than covers an author’s judgment, conveys the radical difference between Prior and Locke. It emerges more resonantly in a passage that gains point when we recall that Locke’s suspicion of language had led to celebrations of mathematics; on at least four occasions he had paused in particular to hope that philosophy would attain an “instrument” of “sagacity” approaching algebra. In this exchange Montaigne has just attacked Locke with two analogies, one of them taken from the Essay:

Lock. Simile upon Simile, no Consequential Proof, right Montaigne by my Troth. Why, Sir, you catch at Similes as a Swallow does at Flies.

Montaigne. And you make Similes while you blame them. But be that as it will, Mr. Lock, arguing by Simile is not so absurd as some of You dry Reasoners would make People believe. If your Simile be proper and good, it is at once a full proof, and a lively Illustration of Your matter, and where it does not hold the very disproportion gives You Occasion to reconsider it, and You set it in all it’s lights, if it be only to find at least how unlike it is. Egad Simile is the very Algebra of Discourse.

This simile (or “metasimile”) falls so neatly that it may seem, as Locke would say (the actual Locke), a “kind of affront to go about to examine it by the severe-rules of truth and good reason.” Locke’s point is that the obvious inappropriateness of such an examination is itself an admission that wit is not “conformable” to the way of judgment. But whatever Prior thinks of Locke’s method, he invites the reader to apply the test of truth, maintaining in fact that all similes issue such invitations. If a simile succeeds in being at once “full proof” and “lively illustration,” it conveys knowledge (as Locke’s agreement of ideas); if it does not, it calls judgment into action (“gives . . . occasion to reconsider”) and will lead to knowledge (as Locke’s disagreement of ideas). Bad similes may lower our estimate of a work; but for the reader a simile “works” whether it succeeds or fails.

Prior clearly assumes a less vulnerable reader than Locke’s, one whose judgment will be quickened rather than outdistanced by wit’s quickness. Exactly how much more he assumes in the passage is difficult to determine, but it seems likely that he might expect the reader who would examine the comparison of algebra and simile to be thinking of algebra as more than a shorthand notation. Considering algebra generally as the study of functions rather than fixed quantities (and the word seems to have had at least this currency), “the algebra of discourse” suggests the working-out of relationships within language. This is another way of claiming, with Addison, that wit has verity as well as brevity; in other words, it not only paints pictures but contemplates general relations. If the philosopher’s desire is ultimately the Hobbesean one that words be used as the wise man’s “counters” rather than as the fool’s “money”, to seek an extralinguistic discovery procedure for moral philosophy is simply to turn one’s back on the higher mathematics already at hand in the liveliest uses of language.

With different emphases but complementary doubts, Addison and Prior both question Locke’s devaluation of wit and the opposition of wit to judgment. Challenging the claim that discrimination is peculiar to judgment, Addison points politely to the collapse of the dichotomy. Prior more explicitly raises the problem of any such dichotomy (regardless of which side is “privileged”) by questioning whether making similitudes and making distinctions are really separable acts of mind. This is the fundamental question at the level of common sense, and common sense sides, I believe, with Locke one moment and Prior the next: yes, we sometimes “distinguish,” sometimes “assemble,” and can “distinguish” between the operations; no, we cannot differentiate without comparing and vice versa. But behind this armchair antinomy the problem dividing Locke from Addison and Prior can be seen as a question with particular pertinence to our own era and criticism: does it make more sense to think of “things as they are” as represented (perhaps badly) by language or as constituted by language?

The preceding commentary suggests at several points that Locke’s accounts of language in general and of figurative language in particular are efforts to reclaim indirectly an access to pre- or extralinguistic “things” that other parts of his Essay seal off. In suggesting now that Addison and Prior are deeply skeptical of the attempt to get past language to something firmer, I do not mean to convert them into proto-Nietzschean or proto-Derridean rhetoricians of contradiction. From the perspective of poststructuralism, both are grounded in “logocentrism.” Both believe that in the beginning was the Word, the authorial will originating all subsequent meaning. Neither would know what to make of the idea that this belief should be reinscribed as “In the always-already are words.” Nor would either be likely to hear more than burlesque in Beckett’s version, “In the beginning was the pun.” But at the same time, neither Addison nor Prior seems to share Locke’s nostalgia for things and ideas untouched by words or for truths too tacit to enter the shared figures and allusions of language. If these differences are significant, then it seems we would need to speak of logocentrisms in neoclassical writing (and presumably in other literary periods) for the term to be historically useful; in the monolithic singular it is, like Locke’s “wit,” less descriptive of variable rhetorical practices than protective of its rhetorically constructed opposite.

Source: John Sitter, “About Wit: Locke, Addison, Prior, and the Order of Things,” in Rhetorics of Order: Ordering the Rhetorics in English Neoclassical Literature, edited by J. Douglas Canfield and J. Paul Hunter, University of Delaware Press, 1989, pp. 137–57.


Critical Overview