Hazlitt and the claims of the imagination

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.


northanger said…
Praxis said…
Emotions as a mask of God, from Smith's 'Theory': "As, in the ancient heathen religion, that holy ground which had been consecrated to some god, was not to be trod upon but upon solemn and necessary occasions, and the man who had even ignorantly violated it, became piacular from that moment, and, until proper atonement should be made, incurred the vengeance of that powerful and invisible being to whom it had been set apart; so, by the wisdom of Nature, the happiness of every innocent man is, in the same manner, rendered holy, consecrated, and hedged round against the approach of every other man; not to be wantonly trod upon, not even to be, in any respect, ignorantly and involuntarily violated, without requiring some expiation, some atonement in proportion to the greatness of such undesigned violation."
Anonymous said…
LI, this is a post that will have me thinking for a while. I'm particularly drawn to the articulation you draw out - following Hazlitt - of imagination, discontinuity and identity.

So a few remarks, which I'll have to put rather baldly - and maybe badly - for want of developing them.

Happiness - and emotions - can be conceived and measured on and as a scale that forms an unbroken line stretching from pleasure to pain, for which every discontinuity or gap is merely an aberration, something provisional. It seems to me that Hazlitt would suggest otherwise, that discontinuity and gaps are constitutive.

And they are so, not just for the identity of an individual and its happiness, but for the culture at large. It's remarkable but Hazlitt is suggesting nothing less than thinking the social - social relations - by way of discontinuity, as constitutively marked by interruptions, gaps, discontinuity.

And the discontinuity is not just a mark of aberration but of fidelity. While supporters of the revolution like Coleridge et al, end up celebrating Waterloo, and toasting "reason in history", Hazlitt persists to speak for the revolution, even against such overwhelming "reason".

Coleridge or Hegel is one thing, they had things to say. Today, it's Fukuyama and Freidman and their "end of history" which goes hand in hand with "happiness triumphant".

roger said…
Amie, your comment startles me because, damn, I was just reading the section in Spectres about Fukuyama and the end of history - am I so transparent? Oh oh.

But getting to your comments re Hazlitt and emotion. Hmm. I like the way you've set up the sight lines here, but I think the plea I'm making for Hazlitt contains an important component that I wasn't clear enough about. The discontinuity that you are speaking about is not, I think, for Hazlitt simply a matter of the emotion, but it is at the heart of identity itself. The Bromwich quote leads us to a veil of Maya moment - for if my self in the future takes a position that is completely open to other selves - if it has no set boundaries, being in a sense a zero - then it could be anybody, or everybody. There's a moment, then, in Hazlitt's schema, when individuality simply crashes. But I think that we aren't to imply, from this logical truth, that the imagination unambiguously embraces that common, chaotic moment moment - the time zero of the soul - but it is also repulsed by it.

You'll notice here that the usual division between the animal and the human, passion and reason, doesn't hold up with this strong notion of imagination. Which would necessitate reconstructing those concepts. Or so it seems to me. Here's where I baulk, to some extent, at what you say about interruptions - not that I don't think you are right, but that I think one misses the, how shall I put it, pleasure of the initial moment by immediately predetermining the sight line one is going to go down. Does that make sense? You might find this dilly-dallying completely pointless, since after all, decisions have to be made, here.

Well, enough about that. The other thing I wanted to say was that you are on target in the comparison of Hazlitt after Waterloo and the neo-liberal moment after the fall of the Berlin wall. Hazlitt concentrated all his rage and hatred at what he called "legitimacy" - that fine, lipsmackin' Metternechian word.

Which I'm gonna get around to in my next post. I hope this comment isn't terminally confused, by the way!
Chuckie K said…
Never read Hazlitt. Don't have much time for Brits.

But to be a utilitarian, you do have to want things.

Since you don't have them, that desire and its supposed satisfaction requires imagination.

Without imagination, what would reason operate on?
Anonymous said…
LI, hey you were clear enough in your post that discontinuity for Hazlitt is not "limited" to emotion but is at the heart of identity. I guess I was not very clear in my comment. I think you're also right to hesitate about "interruption" - as it does matter how one articulates interruptions, particularly when they leave one open-mouthed.
Your comment has me thinking that despite all of Coleridge's heavy breathing over Kant, it is perhaps Hazlitt who touches on the essential with the latter - precisely on the question of imagination.
I'm thinking of the famous passage in the third critique, where imagination touches its limit and founders, a "moment" where sight lines tremble and give way, when pleasure is experienced as pain. In Kant as well it is a veil moment, the veil of Isis.

Hmmm, I don't mean to muddy the water by alluding to these passages over which more than a little ink has been spilled, but your comment did remind me of them.

roger said…
Amie, Praxis, North, Chuckie K., ah, you've made my day -usually writing about Hazlitt is a comment killer. I unroll a post like this expecting that big, lonesome empty sound - like shouting in a well. I do it anyway, because, of course, I am whacko. So I am so fuckin' grateful for this thread, you guys!