Both in Hazlitt’s essay, Reason and Imagination, and in the Spirit of the Age essay on Bentham, Hazlitt’s argument against utilitarianism proceeds on two levels.
The first level is, so to speak, a defense of the moral integrity of the person that rests on construing the imagination as having a major shaping role in creating the person. On this level, Hazlitt is not just defending the imagination as an instrument of practical reason, but he is making a larger, cultural claim against utilitarianism, which is that utilitarianism does a manifest harm to humans by diminishing their imaginative capacity. Philosophers are more used to the first line of argument than the second, if you take Hazlitt to be using the imagination to play a role similar to Hegel’s recognition. According to David Bromwich, in Hazlitt’s major and little read philosophical treatise, Essay on the Principles of Human Action, he ‘puts forward a single main thesis about the nature of action. It includes, however, distinct arguments on the limits of identity and the freedom of the imagination. The idea of a personal identityt that contiues from past to future is first shown to be an artifice – the past, says Hazlitt, is known thorugh memory, the present through consciousness. We are then asked to realize that we contemplate the future only with the help of imagination. It follows that someone else’s future is potentially as real to me as my own. Since imagination is not limited by identity, and identity itself is discontinuous, the two arguments can be shown to assist each other.”(p.18, Metaphysical Hazlitt)
It is Hazlitt’s cultural argument that, I think, gives us the more original, and even prophetic, insight. However, it is one that has been neglected or misunderstood by liberal moralists, who tend to transcribe this thesis, when they meet it, as meaning that art (which is where they take the imagination to be lodged) has some social use. But Hazlitt is not lodging the imagination in art alone – it is, rather, intrinsic to the very circle of the human. Thus, its squeezing, its distortion, by a utilitarian society is a mutilation on all persons.
It is easy not to see what Hazlitt is getting at here because his case doesn’t break along the usual fracture lines – the happiness of the greatest number vs. the universals of duty. Unlike Bentham, Hazlitt contends that the imagination inevitably intervenes on any calculation having to do with action, since the very basis of that calculation is the imaginative power that allows us to project ourselves into the future. It is thus more primary than the hedonic motive. On the other hand, unlike Kant, Hazlitt is not subscribing here to the early modern psychology that would neatly separate reason from the sensual. Kant, of course, has tried to purify his psychology of the moral terms that overlay the discourse of the affections in order to give us a pure opposition between sensual motive and the motive of reason, but the options still follow the mold of the older bias. And, indeed, that bias has not exhausted itself. The idea that the emotions and moods are ultimately reducible to pleasure and pain, to some pure animal state, is still alive in psychology – thus, happiness is a sort of cloud around a central pleasure, sadness a cloud around a central pain, and so on. In a sense, these are the masks of god – the god of pleasure assumes the mask of happiness, or enthusiasm, or excitement, the god of pain assumes the mask of anger, or of disappointment, and so on. But what shapes these masks, and what are they themselves made of?
All of which I will discuss in another post. The next post, though, will be about the second level of Hazlitt’s attack. Hazlitt’s set of examples when he attacks the utilitarians invariably stray to extra-European – to imperial – instances. The slave trade. India. And for good reason, since the utilitarians flourished in the imperial interface.