Review of Anecdotes of the Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth

Review of Anecdotes of the Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth


In Anecdotes of Enlightenment, James Robert Wood positions the anecdote as central to Enlightenment explorations of human nature in the various forms and fields of philosophy, science, and literature. The book is divided into six parts which trace “a tradition of thinking with anecdotes from the late seventeenth century up to the early nineteenth century” (3). Wood’s introduction establishes his argument that “the anecdotes that entered into Enlightenment writings on the human similarly identified and dramatized larger problems for the study of human nature” (4). Wood makes the vivid claim that “Anecdotes are little enlightenments, little stories shining light on human life” (8). He addresses the problematics of the phrase “human nature” and discusses the provocative idea that in the scientific movement of the Enlightenment “anecdotes could work to unsettle commonsense ideas of what is natural in human beings” (21). This book moves from philosophy and historical and scientific records to close readings of poetry informed by thorough research and some superb illustrations and visuals all the while highlighting the presence of the anecdote in these narratives.

In Chapter one, Wood considers the role of the anecdote alongside the experimental scientific and philosophical work undertaken during the late seventeenth century. Opening the chapter with D’Israeli, Addison, and Voltaire, the scope of this book is established early. Wood refers to the developing schism between moral and natural philosophy throughout the Enlightenment and names the essay as a primary medium of scientific and anecdotal communication. Locke, Addison, Steele and Haywood are hailed in this chapter as formative influences on the British Enlightenment. The chapter ends with the statement that the anecdote in the English essay “from Locke to Haywood was to open up the human as an object of inquiry like any other phenomenon in nature” (67).

In Chapter two, Wood explores philosophy to lay out the more overtly epistemological approaches to examining human nature in this period. Hume’s use of the anecdote is referred to as an extension of his empiricism. Wood claims that “anecdotes and anecdotal thinking are woven into the very texture of Hume’s thought” (68), and that Hume’s philosophy is made quotidian through the anecdote “acting as a way station between philosophy and common life” (69). Part of the power of the anecdote comes from its use of deviations from an expected narrative: “they tend to introduce interruptions into talk and texts: breaks in the flow of conversation, the line of narrative” (76). Despite the power of the anecdote to subvert expected thinking, Wood also highlights the possible role of anecdotes as “anchors preventing philosophers moving too far away from the tacit knowledge of the wider community.” (76).

Chapter three focusses on the anecdotes that survived from the voyages of James Cook and Joseph Banks. Wood also analyses the material artefacts of the journeys of The Endeavour, and the London reception to these tales as ‘unscientific’. The reception of the anecdote as gossipy, effeminate, and unscientific was centrally located in popular magazines and satirical poems of the period: “They made fun of the very idea that anecdotes could provide a reliable source of knowledge” (119). In one of these reports, Cook writes of an encounter with a Māori man who mimes the eating of his own arm to indicate that the bones the explorers spotted were from a human. Cook used this anecdote as an empirical tale that he could rely on more than any verbal expression, however, Wood discusses both the fallibility of Cook’s experiences and the actions of his editor, Hawkesworth, who at times adopted Cook’s own voice. The anecdotes of these journey served to represent the human nature of the colonial explorers, and the ‘otherness’ that they reported in those they met. Wood deftly deals with the remnants of the anecdotal records from these voyages, and the eighteenth-century reception to the material, manipulated, and masculine aspects of these anecdotes.

In Chapter four, Wood argues that anecdotes shaped the poetical theory of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Wood claims that they “positioned the anecdote as a prose genre poised on the threshold of poetry” (138). Considering the poem “A slumber did my spirit steal” Wood states that the price of Enlightenment stated in this text is “the loss of the idea of human nature as something independent from the forces that shape and reshape the natural world” (178).

This book completes its self-directed voyage from Locke to Wordsworth whilst making a compelling case for the critical examination of the anecdote as key to narratives of human nature. Wood is successful in his larger task, in part, due to his smaller successes. Namely, the appeals to a variety of literary forms as well as content, his clarification that anecdotes are not necessarily reliable or stable, and, finally, his acknowledgement of the scope of this work. Wood states that he focusses “on the British Enlightenment simply because it is the one that I know best” (3), but also that “even to concentrate on the British Enlightenment is to encounter many peripatetic stories that traversed linguistic and national boundaries” (3).

The inclusion of Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator and Dorothy Wordsworth’s poetics are welcome, but brief, inclusions of female voices in this work. Ultimately, the selections Wood has begun this compelling study with are white and male and ‘the other’ is therefore a subject of their gaze. The emphasis on white and male voices in Enlightenment studies is something that scholars in this field are currently addressing and responding to in their thinking and writing. Wood’s text is far from alone in its emphasis on white British and European, mainly male, voices. However, I look forward to the expanded research that Anecdotes sets the stage for. Research that draws on a more diverse selection of voices to place the anecdote in the various fields of Enlightenment thought. Wood’s work is an interesting and well-written starting point for this scholarship. 

Anecdotes of the Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth by James Robert Wood, University of Virginia Press. 2019. 241 pp.

Review of Anecdotes of the Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth
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Rose Hilton

ROSE HILTON is an English Literature PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. She graduated with a First-Class degree in English and Drama from Anglia Ruskin University and received a merit for her MA degree at Queen Mary University. Her doctoral research focuses on eighteenth-century British female playwrights (Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Joanna Baillie) and how they construct self and character in their play texts. She uses medical and philosophical writing from the same period to contextualise this analysis. Rose contributed a chapter to the recent collection Hannah More in Context.

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