My research focuses on the literary and intellectual history of eighteenth-century Britain and France.
Having finished a book on British empiricism and the novel, I am now working on a new project entitled The Enlightenment Crisis of Values.
The Enlightenment Crisis of Values
Work in progress.| Read a sample here.
My second book project moves from the British novel to a variety of fictional and nonfictional genres from both Britain and France. It focuses on what may be called the Enlightenment’s double legacy. The Enlightenment has been seen as the source both of principles we still cherish today, such as secular moral values and universal human rights, and of persisting prejudices we are still struggling to eliminate, embedded in new forms of racism and gender discrimination. These two legacies, which may seem disparate and even incompatible, are inextricably connected. My argument in the book is that they share a common origin in a complex, prolonged, and yet understudied debate about relativism — the thesis that moral and aesthetic values, far from being objective, may be just local prejudices that enlightened individuals should presumably rise above.
In response to the threat of relativism, British and French philosophers, essayists, novelists, poets, dramatists, letter writers, and even illustrators endeavored to salvage the distinction between right and wrong and beautiful and ugly, and they did so by developing secular replacements for traditional religious ways of drawing those boundaries. No longer appealing merely to the will of God, they asserted that qualitative distinctions are built into something called “Nature.” Once nature became entrenched as the source of qualitative values, the concept lent itself to the reaffirmation of other hierarchies that had long rested on religious principles — especially the hierarchies between men and women and Europeans and everyone else.
Can works of fiction — stories about people who never existed and events that never happened — teach us anything reliable about the real world? This was a key question for defenders of the novel in eighteenth-century Britain, and in this book I connect their theories of fiction to contemporary debates about the value of the humanities. Like detractors of the novel in the eighteenth century, critics of the literary humanities today often deny that imaginative literature can be a source of knowledge. They argue that the worlds of fiction are unfaithful to the world we know through observation and experience.
Empiricism and the Early Theory of the Novel: From Fielding to Austen
Such skepticism about fiction has relatively recent origins. It emerged around the time of the Scientific Revolution, especially after empiricism became the prevalent philosophical movement in Britain. From Bacon and Hobbes to Locke and Hume, British empiricists discarded the Aristotelian view that poetry is more philosophical than history. They championed factual narratives and denied that fiction can reliably instruct readers about the empirical world. Hume, in particular, viewed the new genre of the novel as a source not of knowledge, but of mistake and delusion.
Empiricism and the Early Theory of the Novel traces the origins and features of empirical skepticism about the novel, in order to make two claims. First, that the theories of fiction developed by novelists including Henry Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, William Godwin, Laurence Sterne, and Jane Austen were shaped by the attempt to respond to the empiricist challenge. Second, that these novelists developed cognitive defenses of fiction that prefigure, in remarkable detail, the defenses of the humanities offered today by thinkers like Martha Nussbaum and Mitchell Green. I conclude that the debates over the rise of the novel and over the literary humanities constitute two phases in one longstanding cultural crisis, characterized by the tendency to subject literature to an extra-literary standard of knowledge: that of the empirical sciences.
The book can be ordered here. If you find the cost prohibitive, please get in touch at rogermaioli[at]gmail.com.