Book Review

Motooka, Wendy. The Age of Reasons: Quixotism, Sentimentalism and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Routledge, 1998.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Wendy Motooka has written a shrewd, thoughtful and ambitious intellectual history which ranges from early 18th century debates about the innateness of moral sentiment initiated by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury to the late century concepts of political economy invented by Adam Smith. Through all the texts she reads, Professor Motooka finds habitual reference to Don Quixote as a way to characterize opinions that are ungrounded and eccentric, though they are claimed to have universal validity. This way of thinking and arguing takes on special pertinence after the skepticism about the possibility of such a thing as universal reason, and a belief instead, that truth could only come to men and women through empirical experience and testing. In her second chapter Motooka traces the debates between the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, and Francis Hutcheson: in the debate between the last two, each accuses the other of having a theory about what guides human nature (egoticism, benevolence) which is quixotic: it may be true in some instances, but it runs counter to the underlying logic of human nature, properly understood. The Age of Reasons explains why “quixotism” came to be a recurrent recourse in polemics around problems posed by a skeptical modern epistemology. Since it proved impossible to ground an interpretation of moral sentiment in a generally binding reason, moralists had recourse to appeals to personal experience. But such an appeal was little more than a Don Quixote-like claim that what one personally felt, experienced and believed was universal, was a position that one either assumed fondly as virtuously true, though un-provable, and/or attributed to one’s benighted, and slightly mad, polemical opponent. In short, stripped of a ground in reason, thinkers of the epoch found themselves in an “age of reasons.” In the readings of Sarah Fielding’s David Simple, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, one feels both the strengths and weaknesses of a reading through intellectual history and the vacillations of a problematic like quixotism and sentimentalism. On the positive side, all of these novels are brought into relation to each other, through the coherence of a debate about the efficacy of empirical feeling as a ground for moral sentiment. But on the negative side, the readings of particular novels, by the way they are made to culminate in a position within an philosophical debate, lose much of their nuance, irony, and humor. For example, in introducing her reading of Lennox, Motooka tells us that “[t]he satire in The Female Quixote ridicules not only romantic extravagance, but also (masculine?) rational empiricism and the reading practices associated with it. Lennox’s novel mocks empiricism as quixotism” (126) To secure this sort of philosophical moral from a novel, Motooka must also give the novel very particular ideological purposes: “Like many of his contemporaries, [Henry] Fielding associates the quixotic with specific political and intellectual conflicts – women’s equality, empiricism, moral diversity, Jacobitism – and he responds to these conflicts by embracing sentimentalism” (142) In the reading that follows, Motooka gives Henry Fielding the role of one who is surprisingly idealistic, and finally a programmatic sentimentalist. Within the plot of Motooka’s book, this makes him a counter-point to the more radical skeptic, Lawrence Sterne. However, this characterization of Fielding will appear surprising to most scholars, who have noted the balance in both Fielding and Sterne between sentiment and skepticism, and have also given an important role to something Motooka utterly ignores: their rhetorical use of laughter. A sharp departure from the cultural and historical orthodoxy of most contemporary work, this book is smart and important; it should provoke interesting debate.

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