Category Archives: enlightenment

new blog alert: James W Schmidt’s Persistent Enlightenment

I recently discovered a new blog by James W Schmidt, whose anthology What is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions I’ve always admired. It’s called Persistent Enlightenment, and it proposes to examine “the Enlightenment, considered both as an historical period and as an ongoing project.”

It’s only just started, but one of the first posts, about Diderot in contemporary American culture, and specifically in the NY Times, is an interesting exploration of why Diderot “ought” to have mattered to Americans from their founding forwards, but perhaps did not.  Significantly, the term “ought” is not Schmidt’s phrase, but Andrew Curran’s in his own NYTimes tribute to Diderot, and Schmidt explores the gap between is and ought in American intellectual history.

Having read Schmidt’s treatment of the intellectual history represented by the Times and its editorial choices, I wondered how large an influence Jacques Barzun might have had in the construction of a middle-brow Diderot and indeed Enlightenment in 20th century America, since it was probably his translations and introductions to Diderot that introduced me to the term Enlightenment many years ago. Thoughts?



John Locke on Gay Marriage

In 1988, Carole Pateman discussed the strange misalignment between modern contract theory, as conceived by John Locke and others, and the special case of the marriage contract: “unlike other contracts, the marriage contract cannot be entered into by any two (or more) sane adults, but is restricted to two parties, one of whom must be a man and the other a woman” (167).  One would think that in a true contract society, this restriction on marriage contracts would be a contradiction because the status of the two parties should not be a factor.  But for Pateman, there is no contradiction but instead a misunderstanding of contract: the “attack on sexual difference [by those advocating for individual equality] . . . suffers from an insuperable problem: the ‘individual’ is a patriarchal category” (168)

Her argument was that the sex-designation of the marriage contract has not resulted from the failure to overcome this last remnant of status difference (as others have argued), but rather has deeper roots.  While Locke “remarked that marital society established through the marriage contract, ‘consists chiefly in the spouses’ ‘Communion and Right in one another Bodies,’” Pateman argues that it is actually based on “male sex-right” rather than an agreement for mutual access.  Locke, she argues, did not advocate an egalitarian contractarianism over a Filmerian patriarchy, but rather located political authority in one sphere and domestic authority in another.  Thus, “Locke agrees with Filmer that there is a natural foundation for a wife’s subjection.”  The original husband in Locke “must have exercised conjugal right over his wife before he became a father” (93) and was able to exercise political authority.  So Locke, Pateman argues, assumes that the the non-political authority of the male in the natural (“non-political”) sphere comes first and is not negotiated (or negotiable—no matter what goes on between Mirabell and Millamant). 


 The husband’s dominance is instead founded on the assumption of male sex-right.  This is the hidden contract behind the contract; it is the reason why the marriage contract can, contradictorily and unlike in any other contract, designate in advance the sex of each party.  The sex-designation of marriage reveals for Pateman not so much the limits of contract theory, but the patriarchal assumption behind the very category of the individual.  The individual of “individualism” is a Lockean, political subject who has already exerted natural (non-political) rights over a woman to place him in the public sphere as the representative of a family.

Maybe it’s way too early to say “until now.”  But what does it mean for the sexual contract that a US President can defend marriage equality?  Many will say that this is not a feminist issue or a contract theory issue at all, but rather an issue of the relative authority of religion.  But the way religion makes its way into policy has always been highly selective.  Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell (number 7!). 


I have yet to meet a Christian who eschews usury out of conscience or fear of hell, nor can I think of a government policy designed to eradicate it.  On the contrary, it seems to be encouraged. 

At its most radical, Pateman’s Sexual Contract suggests that individualism and contractarianism do not represent progress; on the contrary, they are impediments to feminism because they are designed to assume a particular, hidden hierarchy.  The category of the “individual” will never include everyone, and the best evidence for this was the (contradictory) sex-designation of the marriage contract.

What does Obama’s declaration do to this argument?  Does it suggest that the category of the “individual” is expandable after all?  Was “male sex-right” actually a residual hold-over, as the theorists to whom Pateman objected had claimed, rather than an inherent aspect of contract?   

  Liberals argue that gay marriage does not change the definition of marriage.  But if Pateman offers any insight into Locke and early concepts of individualism, then gay marriage does redefine the marriage contract. And maybe that’s the best part.

Works Cited

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.


inauthentically yours

["The Secreting of Donald the Hammerer," from Burt (1822), vol. 1]

An English soldier named Edmund Burt tells a story about traveling through the Highlands in the 1720s:

Upon one of my peregrinations, accompanied by a Highland gentleman, who was one of the clans through which I was passing, I observed the women to be in great anger with him about something that I did not understand: at length, I asked wherein he had offended them? Upon this question he laughed, and told me his great-coat was the cause of their wrath; and that their reproach was, that he could not be contented with the garb of his ancestors, but was degenerated into a Lowlander, and condescended to follow their unmanly fashions (Qtd. in Foyster and Whatley, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 145-6).

This anecdote seems like a good place to begin, if you wished to understand just how closely enlightenment and improvement were associated in this period.  The Highland gentleman, secure in the presence of his English companion, laughs off the reproaches of the old women, who accuse him of abandoning the “garb of his ancestors” and following the Lowlanders’ “unmanly fashions” instead.  And what would convey more status and authority at this point in time, a tartan or a great coat, to his new and expanded range of acquaintances?  The unending forces of improvement, which install modernity, desire, and the marketplace into the heart of an always evolving social order, help to produce new definitions of masculine authority as surely as they do new patterns of dress for a moneyed elite.  And who is more “authentically” Scottish, the gentleman who embraces the changes wrought by improvement, or the women who fruitlessly reproach him and the changes he represents?

Scottish history has been shaped by both impulses for a long, long time.


“it was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment . . . . “

Give this a view (and a listen):

I really like this little “animate” of Sir Kenneth Robinson talking about the challenges facing our contemporary system of education (from K-12 to higher ed), but I was left wondering about his characterization of curricular standardization as a legacy of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (you’ll hear it around 2:05).

I understand and agree with his point (made many times by others) about standardization as a consequence of industrial theories of organization, but I’m not clear how educational theorists like Locke or Rousseau could be blamed for this.  In many respects, Robinson’s pedagogical agenda, in its insistence on following the individual pupil’s rate of learning, is at least as reminiscent of Rousseau’s Emile as it is Dewey’s critique.  I was also intrigued by his notion that the (unspoken?) assumptions driving Enlightenment theories of education reflected an “intellectual model of the mind” focusing exclusively on “deductive reasoning” and “knowledge of the classics,” assumptions that will quickly divide students into an academic elite of “smart people” and a much larger group of “non-smart people.”  What’s more, such assumptions persist, zombie-like, in our contemporary obsession with high-stakes testing of cheaply delivered, testable content, “student tracking,” and curricula based on a lockstep progression of students into an industrial workforce.  And he shows, without much difficulty, how very different the (advanced, post-industrial?) world is from the assumptions in which the current system is formed.

As someone who agrees with much of this diagnosis of contemporary education, and who witnesses how it has played out in my state’s system, I think there’s a lot of value to this critique. (I do wonder how to scale up the kinds of interactions he calls for, to maintain the educational access that everyone says they want).

But without expecting too much from a thought-provoking cartoon, I’d still like to think about the Sir Ken’s characterization of the “intellectual culture of the Enlightenment” (if there is such a thing): does it really foster a reductive notion of the mind and its capacities, and does it really divide education into academic and non-academic tracks?  Another way to put this question is to ask whether practices like standardized assessments of learning represent yet another legacy of Enlightenment theories of mind, or something that the historical Enlightenment could teach us how to critique?


knowledge and use

Knowledge is of little use, when confined to mere speculation: But when speculative truths are reduced to practice, when theories, grounded upon experiments, are applied to the common purposes of life; and when, by these, agriculture is improved, trade enlarged, the arts of living made more easy and comfortable, and, of course, the increase and happiness of mankind promoted; knowledge then becomes really useful.

mla round-up: this is enlightenment

It’s a cold winter night in Houston, and I thought the best use of my time, besides watching “Worst Cooks in America,” would be to discuss the “This IS Enlightenment” panel from last month’s MLA.   By putting it here, rather than on the nifty new “comment” function on the MLA program website, I suppose I’m undermining the MLA’s attempts to make the MLA forum a little more bloggish, but I’m not seeing much evidence that people are extending the discussion there.

Here’s the listing of the panel’s participants:

503. This Is Enlightenment

3:30–4:45 p.m., 402–403, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding: Janet L. Sorensen, Univ. of California, Berkeley

Speakers: Peter de Bolla, Univ. of Cambridge

Lynn M. Festa, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Paula McDowell, New York Univ.

Michael McKeon, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Clifford Haynes Siskin, New York Univ.

William Beatty Warner, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

I don’t have the space to summarize or respond to every speaker, but the title of the the session echoed the title of an upcoming essay collection entitled, “This IS Enlightenment,”  which is being edited by Siskin and Warner.  Most speakers seem also to have been contributors to the collection, which brings together some of the best-known American scholars in 18th century British studies. Continue reading

Sher’s Chapter 3: The Rewards of Authorship

Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book

Chapter 3: The Rewards of Authorship

As Sher indicates in his introduction, copyright supplies only one thread of a much larger story about authorship in the eighteenth century. Transformations in conceptions of ‘authorship’ and what it meant to be an ‘author’ occurred within and across various spheres, especially during the second half of the century. These spheres could be broadly categorized as consisting of the legal, aesthetic, commercial, and sociocultural realms. At times these transformations overlapped with one another, and at other times they occurred independently, sometimes unfolding far more slowly or swiftly in one sphere than another. Sher’s third chapter focuses foremost on the commercial realm, though it does address elements that overlap with the sociocultural sphere. Such a focus is a welcome one, for not only has the commercial realm been understudied but general pronouncements about the rewards of authorial labor benefit from the careful examination and testing they receive here.

The chapter’s first two sections address authorship in terms of patronage. Opening with James Boswell’s account of Samuel Johnson’s view of booksellers as the “patrons of literature” (195-6), Sher notes that this well-known episode “implies a general progression in the eighteenth century from aristocratic patronage to patronage by the booksellers or, to be more precise, publishers” (196). Although some scholars such as Alvin Kiernan and some contemporary remarks by eighteenth-century authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and even Johnson, point to the public as being the new patrons, the booksellers-as-publishers operated as “‘the cultural middlemen’ …between authors and their publics” (197). To test the validity of these formulations, Sher then proceeds to flesh out claims that booksellers served as the new patrons of author with specifics. Besides copy money, an issue Sher tackles later in the chapter, he identifies three other prime ways publishers exercised their roles as patrons. The first involved the commissioning and funding of large scale, financially risky projects (198), and the second encompassed the “social support system” that publishers provided for their authors (198-9). This system ranged from providing hospitality to banking to emotional support, and multiple examples are offered as support and illustration. The final form of patronage concerns the intermediary role booksellers performed between authors and the “public,” a word whose multiple connotations could designate “the reading public,” “buyers of books,” or “public opinion” or all three (201). Besides this useful reminder about the multiple meanings the term “the public” could signify, Sher’s discussion also reframes notions of the “rapacious booksellers” whose self-interest robs authors of their just dues in terms of the bookseller as representing and protecting the interests of the public against authorial self-interest (203).

After exploring concrete ways in which booksellers served as the patrons of authors, Sher turns to examining “traditional patronage transformed” (203). Here he extends the work of Dustin Griffin, who argues that the eighteenth century “is best characterized as ‘a mixed system of patronage and market,’” to Scottish Enlightenment authors (203-4). And indeed, while aristocratic patronage was altered, the death of the practice has been greatly exaggerated and in fact extended into the nineteenth century. One of the key forms that patronage by the socially and politically powerful assumed was the professional appointment. As Sher explains, positions in universities, the church, government, and the like gave authors the security and means to write (204). [See also Edward G. Andrew, <i>Patrons of Enlightenment</i> (Toronto, 2006).] Noting that “the line between aristocratic and government patronage was often invisible in the eighteenth-century,” Sher points out that a growing number of authors during the century “obtained pensions, ecclesiastical offices, regius chairs and other academic professorships, civil service positions, and various kinds of sinecures from the government” and did so not because they performed propaganda services for the government but rather as “a reward for having made significant contributions to literature and learning” (207). Again, extended examples are offered as illustrations. [I did wonder about the use of the word “places” in the title to this two-part section, “Patrons, Publishers, and Places,” and whether it referred to positions of employment given to support authors.] This section concludes by offering a more nuanced understanding of patronage that stresses the transformation of the practice that offered indirect rather direct assistance to authors. In short,

In this new form, patronage served to establish professional autonomy, and professional autonomy enabled the majority of Scottish Enlightenment authors to deal with the book trade on terms of strength rather than weakness, according to their own individual motives and objectives. (209)

The remainder of the chapter deals with the numerous ways Scottish Enlightenment authors approached remuneration and the commercialized literary marketplace. The first approach is that of the “gentleman-author” who claimed no interest in monetary returns from their work. While most authors did not have the means to adopt this attitude, those who enjoyed success could eventually adopt this pose if so desired (209). Noting that most frequently these authors were “landed gentlemen whose books were written solely for scholars and who were not likely to make a profit anyway” (210), Sher offers an example of James Hutton who financed the production of his work but sought Strahan and Cadell to “respectably announce[.. it] to the world” (210). The example serves to demonstrate the importance of the publisher and the sociocultural cache that having a prestigious bookseller-publisher in a work’s imprint carried. [This point arguably bears some relevance to our discussion of generic hierarchies in comments on Sher’s introduction.] Sher deems publication projects whose profits would be donated to a charitable society or to an author’s family or estate as a variation of the “gentlemen-author” approach (212-13). In these cases authors sought the best price for the work, but the lack of financial reward to the writer perhaps justifies its classification under this rubric.

Almost all other Scottish Enlightenment authors, however, sought the best terms they could secure for their work. The unpublished author was typically in the most disadvantaged position to bargain, but once proven he or she would have more latitude to do so. While the goal was the best financial remuneration, authors had a diversity of arrangements they pursue to achieve this goal:

  • compensation by the sheet or by the job (215-16).
  • self-publication (pp. 216-24)
  • subscription (multiple types) (pp. 224-35)
  • profit-sharing (pp. 235-40)
  • sale of the rights to a single edition (pp. 240-44)
  • sale of the copyright in advance of publication for a set amount (pp. 244-55)
  • The labels for these various categories of payment may seem fairly self-explanatory, yet several involve variations or are more complex than their rubric might suggest.

    Writing for a piece-rate—typically by the sheet but sometimes a lump sum given for the project as a whole—carries connotations of Grub Street and often entailed the pressures of writing for a deadline, but authors sometimes made out well under this arrangement (215). As the examples reveals, an author could be paid by sheet for the first edition and receive an additional yet lower fee per page if the work warranted a second edition. Johnson’s Dictionary and his Lives of the Poets are offered as examples for which an author was paid for a commissioned project.

    Authors often undertook self-publication to exercise control over their work. This arrangement typically still required the services of a bookseller to market and distribute the work, though the rare author—Sher offers the case of James Ferguson who had a globe shop as one example—performed these tasks, too. Because of the time-consuming nature of self-publication, it was not unusual for an author to sell the copyright to a bookseller and any unsold copies or the rights to publish a subsequent edition or editions. Sometimes, as in the case of William Buchan, the sale of the copyright also included provisions for additional compensation based on sales or the preparation of subsequent editions. The account Sher provides of Boswell’s anxiety over what arrangement to strike for his Life of Samuel Johnson illustrates both the uncertainty facing authors in determining what path to take as well as the gambles involved. Like other sections, the details about production costs, marketing expenses, copyright payments and the like advance in important ways our understanding of the economics of the trade from the perspective of author and producer.

    Addressing the common association of subscription publishing as “‘a way-station on the road from personal patronage to commercial authorship,’” Sher notes that this form of subscription publishing is only one kind and “may be described as traditional or elitist” (225). Including a list of subscribers whose names frequently provided cultural value and normally produced “in quarto or even folio” and sold “at inflated prices,” works published by traditional subscription resulted in the author receiving profits from its sales (225). These works were not exempt from losing money as the case of Robert Adam’s Spalatro–what Sher describes as “an aristocratic showpiece, intended to enhance the reputation of the architect-author at a critical time in his career—demonstrates (226). A disadvantage of this type of publishing was the risk it carried for painting the author as avaricious.

    Sher identifies another type of subscription publishing that he calls “commercial.” Works published this way lacked subscriber list and were normally less expensive than standard book prices, thus making them attractive to potential purchasers for their affordability. Subscription sellers would receive a commission, and this method enabled first-time authors a way to control their work and potentially earn more profits while maintaining a fairly low profile (228). As with other arrangements, “many variations and combinations of subscription were possible” (228). In one example offered, what had started as a publication by subscription project become a work published by the sale of copyright in advance of its publication, “using the considerable number of subscriptions … already secured as collateral for the copy money” (229). In the case of Robert Burns, the poet initially pursued subscription publishing to finance his emigration to Jamaica, but the success the first effort altered his plans to go abroad, and the second subscription edition, one resembling the traditional variation of this method in some ways but departing in its modest pricing, helped transform him “from a regional to a national—and international—poet” (231). Burns then sold the copyright to Creech, but the bookseller’s slow payment caused friction that eventually was replaced by satisfaction. As Sher claims, the case of Burns’s poetry displays the variations that subscription publishing could take as it also details the shifting relationship an author could experience with his or her bookseller (234-35). Besides the variety and flexibility of subscription publishing, two other key points in this section are the need to look beyond subscription lists to understand the full range that this method of publication could take and the fact that subscription publishing among Scottish Enlightenment authors was not common (235).

    A third method of publishing that Sher examines is profit sharing. Under this arrangement, “the publisher paid for all or part of the expenses of production and promotion and then shared profits with the author for a single edition” (235). Such an arrangement was appealing to an author over self-publication because while he or she kept the copyright, the arrangement involved little if any financial risk for the author; eliminated the need to handle firsthand production and marketing duties, and avoided the an imprint which declared that the work was self-published (236). Sher offers several examples of bestsellers published this way, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as well as an example of one that did not yield its author the financial rewards he expected.

    Sale of the copyright for just a single edition was yet another arrangement, and this method enabled the author to retain his or her copyright in any other editions published. Once again, this arrangement could take various shapes such as when authors financed the production and “then sold all the printed copies to a bookseller whose name appeared in the imprint as the publisher” (242). Even though registration of the copyright in the Stationers’ Company Register could be costly (nine copies of the work, be it a single or multi-volume, had to deposited as part of registration), Sher draws attention to the relatively substantial number of authors or editors whose names appear as the owners (243-44).

    Selling the copyright outright in advance of publication was nonetheless attractive to authors. For one, how well a work would sell remained a gamble, so even though the author who had retained the copyright in a work that subsequently proved popular was a in a better negotiating position to sell his right, there was no guarantee pre-publication that a given author would find himself or herself in this position. Plus, some authors preferred to “avoid the Trouble and Perplexity” entailed in negotiating terms and/or becoming more involved in the business details (244). Sales of copyrights could, however, involves terms for future editions or provisions if a work sold better than anticipated, so there was once again room for misunderstanding, hard feelings, disagreements, and additional rewards. As was the case with Hugh Blair, publishers at times provided additional cash gifts to an author beyond that paid for the copyright when a book proved highly popular. Some contracts could allow for the author to receive a specified number of the published work, too. Hard bargains that seemed to favor initially the author, however, could prove disappointing when charges and expenses were deducted from any agreed payment. The success of some authors in receiving large payments generated false hopes for others (249). As Sher intimates in discussing William Robinson’s quarto histories and Beattie’s octavo philosophers, certain genres commanded far greater rewards than others—and these differences were materially represented in the very format chosen. Moreover, this state of affairs encouraged less talented, would-be authors to try their hands at favored, high-yielding genres like history, yet cases such as Thomas Sommerville reveal the disappointing results that often ensued (250-51). His case also illustrates how sale of a copyright in advance of publication can also combine aspects of conditional publishing (252). Some contracts for copy money contained clauses that resulted in hardship for the unwary, overly optimistic author—such as the one Adam Ferguson signed for his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic in which he had agreed “to buy back all the copies that were unsold eighteen months after publication, at the wholesale price” and then found himself having to pay for the large number that remained at the end of the year and a half (252). The clause was no doubt included because of the very high figure Ferguson insisted on receiving for the copyright. Sher closes this section with a general discussion of copyright sums according to genre and authors. The copyrights for novels, as is generally known, commanded usually low sums, and even some histories in quarto garnered “relatively modest amounts” (254).

    The chapter closes with two codas of sorts (typographically constructed through spacing and asterisk and having overlaps). The first reiterates the variety and combinations of publishing arrangements available to Scottish authors. Noting that “certain variables such as format and genre operated as constraints,” Sher underscores that these factors still left ample room for negotiation—and thus “for contingency, conflict, and cooperation—in the arrangement and implementation of the terms of publication” (256). The reminder of this section addresses the author as driven by monetary rewards. While acknowledging that financial returns were often a motivation, Sher also draws attention to other attitudes, pointing out that even Johnson wrote pieces without compensation and addressing the stigma that some held towards writing for financial gain. Summing up that Scottish authors’ motives were varied and that no correlation can be easily made between quality and success, Sher notes that on the whole that Scottish authors did quite well financially (257). Moreover, the solid if not substantial returns these authors enjoyed began in the second half of the century and, contrary to some accounts, were not a result of the 1774 decision in Donaldson v. Becket. His findings also counter those of book historians who have relied on payment to novelists in their claims about authors of the time being very poorly paid (258). What is perhaps most interesting here is that Scottish writers fared so much better financially than English authors (with some exceptions such as Edward Gibbon) (259). The second “coda” first summarizes the points about patronage from the opening of the chapter and then returns to the phenomenon of “Scottish authors … looking forward to receiving higher amounts of income from their books than had ever been known” (361). It concludes by acknowledging the dual validity of the ways that publishers had become the “new patrons of authors” and that the “‘public’ had become had become the true patron of authors deemed worthy of its support” (361).

    I have once again primarily summarized the chapter (I was under the misconception that this was the prime initial task from which critical discussion would ensue. Before writing and posting this summary, I had not read Dave’s engaging, thoughtful posts for chapter 1 and 2; I wish I had because they provided a better idea of what I could have done. Nor  did I see his pre-questions until then).  Interweaving an examination of common conceptions about author-bookseller relationships, this chapter advances an argument for the ultimately collaborative nature of those relationships. The way in which its argument unfolds, coupled with the detailed evidence and examples offered, makes this characterization hard to resist, let alone contest.  While a  few of its points–such as university positions and patronage or forms of subscription publishing, to name two–have been touched upon in other studies,  Sher casts these points in a new light by treating them as part of the broader context of  the publishing  avenues available to Scottish authors. Along with this detailed, often analytical synthesis of publishing arrangements, Sher’s attention to economic details represents another strength of this section.