oh you sweettooth generations!

In our last post, we used G.E. Moore as our intercessor to think about John Stuart Mill. Our interest in the weird troping of happiness in Mill’s Autobiography was piqued by Colin Heydt’s essay on Mill and Internal Culture, which we intended to pursue next. Instead, we are going to perform our usual zigzag – LI is a veritable encyclopedia of zigzags, and damme if I’m going to change now, mes droogs et droogesses – and advert to William Hazlitt.

Hazlitt was a dogged critic and reader of Bentham, wrote one of the great essays about him in the Spirit of the Age, and, as well, made a sidelong attack on James Mill in On Reason and Imagination, an essay that does a lot, even as that lot has, until recently, escaped consideration. In the last ten years, however, there's been a mini-Hazlitt revival in lit crit circles. It is with the latter essay I’d like to start. But start what? Start considering the structure involved in positing an object that is lost if you search for it – the object in question being that mood/emotion/assessment/feeling, happiness. Mill's bland usage of the term conceals, as Moore points out, a divided meaning that slips between that which is the equivalent of the good and that which requires – to use phenomenological language – an aboutness. Moore thinks that we can affect a logical analysis keeping these two senses apart, and that this is how we will start out doing ethics in a proper way; but one wonders, after Moore has won his logical victory, what exactly he has shown. Or rather, one wonders why he thinks that the impulses that are gathered under the naturalistic fallacy can be sorted out simply by better semantics. Perhaps the logical conflation of happiness with the good does arise simply from a mistake in the language of discourse; but instead of simply correcting that mistake, perhaps we should try to chart the deeper structure of it in the mythologies of everyday life.

For that kind of business, Hazlitt was your man. He was not only an essayist, but an artist and a philosopher. A Jacobin who never betrayed the cause, at the same time he was resistant to thinking that the sweetness of life was a mere aristocratic bauble, or that it could be atomized, packaged and sold by means of a calculus of pleasure and pain to a succession of sweettooth generations. And in these intuitions he seems to be our natural intercessor.