Scepticism and Literature: An Essay on Pope, Hume, Sterne, and Johnson

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'The more we enquire, the less we can resolve,' wrote Johnson. Scepticism-a reasoned emphasis on the severe limitations of rationality-would seem to undermine the grounds of belief and action. But in some of the best eighteenth-century literature, a theoretically paralysing critique of thepretensions of reason, precept, and language went hand in hand with a vigorous intellectual, moral, and linguistic confidence. To realise philosophical scepticism as literature was effectively to transform it. Dr Parker traces the presence of this life-giving irony in works by Pope, Hume, Sterne,and Johnson, relates it more broadly to the social self-consciousness of eighteenth-century culture, and discusses its source in Locke and its inspiration in Montaigne. The argument serves as a reminder that radical scepticism is not the invention of the late twentieth century, and that itsstrategies and implications have never been more interestingly explored than in the eighteenth.

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Fred Parker is a University Lecturer in English and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. He is the author of Johnson's Shakespeare (OUP 1989 - paperback 1991).

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