Introduction: Making and Unmaking Romantic Systems

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This essay introduces the essays in the current volume by beginning with the work of William Hazlitt. Hazlitt’s relation to the work of noted system-builders of the age (from Kant to Bentham) was far from straightforward: he criticized their “derangement” but admired and even envied their vision. Hazlitt’s views echo a range of other writers (Blake, Wollstonecraft, and Godwin, to name a few) who were adept at constructing systems as well as attacking them. Such responses demonstrate the startling range of positions that could be taken with respect to systematic thinking of the age, and the essays in the volume demonstrate that Romanticism presents us not with a unified set of beliefs or ideologies about systems but rather with a vibrant display of contrasting arguments, anxieties, and ambitions.

Introduction: Making and Unmaking Romantic Systems

Mark Canuel
University of Illinois at Chicago


1.         In his essay "On People with One Idea" from Table-Talk, William Hazlitt begins his diatribe against a host of writers and political figures of the day by criticizing Major Cartwright’s program for Parliamentary Reform (here Cartwright is designated only as “C—”). The problem with people like Cartwright, Hazlitt says, is that they see their own causes as the cures for all evils and the answers to all questions. Beginning with Cartwright, he quickly moves on to criticize a range of others who espouse the causes of nutrition, abolition, Unitarianism—all with the same deluded fervor. Hazlitt even includes himself among those who have spent too much time “incessantly harping on one idea”: he once joined the ranks of “projectors” who all share the same “disorder” or “derangement of the fancy” (144). As Hazlitt goes on with his argument, it becomes clear that he is taking issue not merely with people who have one idea but with those who have one particular kind of idea: that of the systematizing impulse so prevalent in his day. The advocates of “system” singled out for some of his more stinging ridicule include crazed adherents of the “Kantean system” of metaphysics (145), as well as industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen, whose “system” of villages and factories are inflated—in the minds of Owen and other reformers—with “undue importance” (152-53).

2.        What is Hazlitt talking about when he refers to systems and their advocates? At first glance, it seems as though systematizers are simply people with bad manners. He refers to how these misguided philosophers, social improvers, and “projectors” are “vivacious mannerists” who are “bad companions” in conversation (157, 153); they make everyone “tired” of speaking with them, even make them tired of themselves (154). But he offers a still more incisive account of system-builders. Although they claim that their systems provide all-encompassing answers to all questions, and that they cure all evils, their systems fail at this endeavor. Instead, systems seem only like personal ticks and obsessions. Hazlitt doesn’t suggest that the thoughts of systematic thinkers are too large or abstract: such a complaint is not really the focus of his essay, and this is why Hazlitt’s account provides an intriguing contrast with the idea of “system” to be found in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. There, Burke consistently opposes the English traditions of common law, inheritance, and Protestantism to the “new political system” in France (226); the new system he observes is associated with philosophical abstraction and mathematical calculation removed from empirical observation. On Hazlitt’s terms, however, systematizers are not systematic enough. The claims of systematizers to cure “every . . . evil” (140) and to offer “a subject which is of universal and paramount interest” (139) are utterly mistaken or at least wildly overblown. Their ideas and schemes are insufficiently capacious to connect multiple objects, phenomena, or agents; the result is that Cartwright, Owen, and their ilk are “always revolving round [their] own little circle[s]” (154). Each little circle, by attracting fanatically devoted adherents, creates a “collusion” among a small group of persons attached to a small number of objects, rather than an “exchange” of ideas; only the latter—an “exchange”—allows one to “hear what people have to say on a number of subjects” and ultimately find a common ground with them (154).

3.        “Exchange” for Hazlitt is a big circle—more “Catholic”—rather than a little one (153); it seems to imitate and outdo the work of systematizers rather than merely oppose them. We might be tempted to think that the “exchange” system Hazlitt is arguing for—exchange over collusion—is liberalism. But that wouldn’t be quite right. People with one idea, it turns out, are alternately associated with landed property and with liberal commercialism. Cartwright’s reform is like an “estate for life”; it is a personal “stronghold” (141)—as if the form of his thought overturned the content of his quest for universal suffrage. But even as the ideas of system-builders seem to provide propertied security, they are just as often “by their very nature intermittent” and change with the “season” (142), as if ideas were not like landed property but like marketable, all-too-exchangeable, goods. Both alternatives seem in Hazlitt’s view to demonstrate an excessive dedication merely to personal “distinction” (142). These bad systematizers are “egotists” who are “only in love with themselves” (158). In contrast, Hazlitt recommends a way of thinking that arises from personal commitment but also from a consideration of a larger “circle” or context than the reformers and social improvers currently see. The more “Catholic” mind that Hazlitt prefers (153) admits the importance of single genres, discourses, or disciplines, while it also refuses prolonged identification with any one of them, acknowledging and grasping “other things” beyond local or personal obsessions (153). The “exchange of ideas” and the “conversation” (138) ensuing from it are not about personal possession; having an idea means only engaging with it temporarily and at the same seeing its limitations in order to move on elsewhere within the larger set of interconnected ideas. The exchange thus situates the subject (including Hazlitt the essayist) in a web of generic and discursive relationships that permits articulation from a particular standpoint, but it also encourages movement and understanding among different standpoints. All of those standpoints, moreover, collectively participate in the larger “circle” of exchange. And thus we might say that Hazlitt fights system—tentatively and uncomfortably—with system.

4.         Hazlitt approaches the problem of systems in a way that is politically charged; he sees “projectors” everywhere in the politics of English reform, and he sees system-builders like Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin defining, or at least helping to define, the spirit of the age (Spirit of the Age 4-32). These thinkers, moreover, are deeply indebted to explorations of systems throughout the eighteenth century. Hazlitt’s impulse to dismiss systematic thinkers as egotists in both Table Talk and The Spirit of the Age is most certainly motivated by his nervousness about the association between social projectors and revolutionary politics, but, again, the tactic contrasts with Burke’s tendency to counter the generalizing, abstracting politics of system with the politics of habit and tradition. Hazlitt’s very un-Burkean move is to make current systems look too small rather than too large. And this deliberate mischaracterization, brilliant as it is, only thinly disguises the fact that Hazlitt conjures up an opposition to systematic thinkers precisely in order to mask a deeper sympathy with them, or even an envy of them.

5.        The justification for Hazlitt’s nervous and tentative enthusiasm for systems becomes particularly apparent when we consider that the impulse behind Enlightenment thought in La Mettrie, Holbach, and Volney was (not unlike Hazlitt) to criticize social structures that were too influenced by the obsessions and whims of tyrannical individuals. Holbach’s Système de la Nature, for example, understood itself to be a “system” insofar as it emphasized the interdependence of all parts of the human and natural world according to “unerring laws,” and further understood that interdependence to provide a rational principle for human action (2.62). The trouble Holbach inadvertently encountered was that a system of nature always required imposing an obviously human set of values on nature, which were then read back onto society. This is what Bentham—the arch system-builder, whom Hazlitt both criticized and admired—didn’t like about the natural law tradition: it claimed to move beyond the vagaries of traditional moral and legal structures, but it seemed merely to be the result of an unacknowledged human fabrication. The solution he found was not to move beyond human fabrication but to insist upon it. Law is man-made rather than natural, and its perfection derives precisely from its achievement of coherence as a deliberately and carefully constructed entity (anticipating, perhaps, Niklas Luhmann’s account of systems as self-referential [34]).

6.        Bentham’s critique of the common law tradition ran in a similar direction, since the worship of common law, particularly in William Blackstone’s account (an account praised by Edmund Burke [117]), seemed to him very much like the worship of natural law: only living humans can really say what a law, whether inherited from nature or tradition, is. Thus Bentham’s attack on Blackstone’s Commentaries in the Fragment on Government appears to be nothing other than a critique of Blackstone’s lack of system. He criticizes and corrects the irregular dependence on manners, personality, and custom in Blackstone’s view—and he instead proposes a “system uniform, comprehensive, and simultaneous” based on a “principle” of utility (64). Blackstone’s system, in Bentham’s view, is not a system at all.

7.        Bentham emphasizes something that was present in Enlightenment thinking all along but not always consistently realized. He equates system with a formal invention that, because of its more complete accounting for all members in an organization or body—in Bentham’s case, a social one—could advance beyond customs and prejudices that understand society primarily in terms of a small group. A system could thus operate as an advance on accumulated customs and traditions and look like a way of ushering in a new historical epoch, even while to no small degree what was new about the system was that it would subsume and include, rather than simply replace, the existing norms and practices inherited from prior epochs.

8.        In many ways, Bentham’s definition of his “systematic” approach to political organization brings us close to our own modern dictionary definitions of “system,” which (judging from the examples in the OED) had accumulated a double meaning by the end of the eighteenth century. A system was a mode of thought or physical organization that was 1) internally coherent to form a “complex unity” and 2) guided by a philosophical “law,” “purpose,” or “function.” Bentham in many respects may become system’s apologist just as much as Burke is its adversary, but if these views seem to oppose each other, we might look at Romanticism less in terms of strict adherents and opponents to system (although of course we can see that such positions did exist), and more in terms of a far more complex, troubled, and ambivalent series of engagements with system’s promises and hazards. This is why Hazlitt provides a striking instance for us to study closely. On the one hand, that is, he represents systems as highly personalized and sharply differentiated: they are associated with specific discourses of reform, education, philosophical thought, and so on. Clifford Siskin explains this disposition toward systems as an embedding of systems within disciplines and genres of discourse (206). This embedding, distant from the more ambitious systematic thinking characteristic of the early eighteenth century, connects to a third definition for system that seems to have appeared in English usage around 1800—a definition of system not merely as coherent and unified by one idea but also limited or (as defined by the OED) even “oppressive.” On the other hand, we have now seen how Hazlitt—even while he points to the limits of “projectors” and their systems—demonstrates an intriguing admiration of still larger systems, and even thinks of a system of “exchange” as a solution to the problem of system itself. The fact that “exchange” trumps political systems defined by liberal individualism or landed property attests to its potential critical power over them.

9.        We could turn to many other works of the Romantic age that display comparable levels of distance from and attraction to systems. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman employs “system” consistently to describe a “false” view of education and of woman’s place in the world. She specifies that her own view of system is not simply more truthful but also more systematic, or it is more truthful because it is systematic, since she identifies false modes of thinking as systems but then calls their pretensions to systematicity into doubt. The current “system of British politics” is only “courteously” called a system because what appears to be coherent is actually incoherent, and what appears to involve interdependence actually involves subordination (224). Wollstonecraft isn’t entirely comfortable with the term “system” as a way of describing her own methods—she calls National Education a “plan” instead (254)—but it does in fact fall in line with systematic thinking in terms of its ambition to describe and recommend modes of human relationship that would depart from existing modes of thought and behavior, by substituting a new, coherent set of interdependencies—more “Catholic” in Hazlitt’s words—for patriarchal systems of subordination. Wollstonecraft criticizes false systems, but her own recommendations are utterly devoted to education as a coherent and inclusive system enhancing public virtue (259).

10.        This layering in accounts of systems—referring to an enclosed and limited set of practices and also to a theoretical ambition—animates other writing that I will here simply note briefly. In Caleb Williams, Godwin contrasts two ways of thinking of “systems”: as individual schemes or interests versus a more “just political system,” however briefly imagined, based upon utilitarian principles (227). In William Blake’s Jerusalem, Los famously asserts that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create” (651). False system in Jerusalem is the product of division, while the system replacing it allows identities to “comingle” in “mutual interchange” (824). Percy Shelley criticizes false systems too and replaces them with new ones: more precisely, he attacks the system of monarchy, to be replaced by a “social system” for mutual “advantage,” animated by a principle of equality (253). In all of these examples, we can detect a certain level of uneasiness about systems, countered by an attempt to define a new system whose unifying principle would not impose the same restrictions and exclusions that these various authors identify in false or limited systems.

11.        My point has been only a fairly general one about the way that Romantic writing could point to “system” as a limit in thinking and also as a way of overcoming that limit. The essays in this volume probe more deeply into the way that Romantic writers explored the limits and possibilities of thinking in terms of systems. The purpose of the collection is not to provide a single perspective adopted by Romantic authors, any more than it is to provide a single theoretical perspective with which to view those authors. Still, the essays do in fact collectively convey a sense that Romantic writers viewed systems with a complex mixture of skepticism, anxiety, and enthusiasm. Perhaps these essays indicate that it is more fruitful to read Romantic writing as a daring investigation of what systems are, and what they do or don’t do, rather than a staging or demonstration of one single, stable idea of system.

12.         Taken together, the essays also demonstrate a theoretical urge (again, not one that involves theoretical uniformity) to re-examine some of the ways in which the criticism of Romanticism has approached systems in the past few decades. In their different approaches, both deconstruction and new historicism occasionally viewed Romanticism as a resistance to systematic thinking: for Paul de Man, tropes undid “textual systems” (71); for David Simpson, Romantic literature as a whole defined itself against “system” and “theory” (140-41). Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu, the cultural study of the literary system—to be found in critics such as Peter Murphy, Margaret Russett, and Clifford Siskin—has done much to overcome the opposition between literary expression and systems by placing literature within a set of systematic interdisciplinary or intergeneric relationships. That important work can be seen as a necessary background for the inquiries in this volume, which seek to explore the greater self-awareness about discursive constructions as—or in relation to—literary, political, or philosophical systems.

13.        The first two essays, by Tilottama Rajan and Andrew Franta, explore notions of systems and their limits; the second two, by Jocelyn Holland and Anne Frey, investigate the inner workings of systems and explore the connections between systems and organic forms. Rajan’s account of systems in Hegel begins with an account of the way that encyclopedic systems in the empiricist tradition give way to an equation between “system” and “method,” once it is discovered to be impossible to conceive of adequate ways of unifying projects of knowledge. This impasse is in a sense overcome in German idealist attempts to systematize knowledge, but Rajan shows how this is not achieved without a struggle. In Kant, system is achieved only through rigorous exclusions; in Hegel, the attempt to bring all of nature under the aegis of Spirit results in a painful acknowledgment of nature’s indigestibility and disease. The system envisioned in Hegel is therefore “subject to accident and at times ruin” (“Models” par. 44).

14.         If there is something indigestible that confronts the systems Rajan is analyzing in her essay, Franta investigates Thomas De Quincey’s adventures in systematic thinking in order to show how De Quincey confronts this problem even more directly. In his writing on political economy, De Quincey critiques Ricardo for not acknowledging the extrinsic forces that influence market prices. While insisting on prior and more complex causes for market prices—and in a sense insisting on them as part of his view of the economic system—he cannot develop a way of making his own system coherent enough to account for the endlessly receding and intractable causes behind market prices at given moments in time. This problem gets to be examined further in De Quincey’s writing on astronomy, where the attempt to grasp the order of the universe is only magnified in its impossibility the more one advances (with telescopes) one’s ability to observe it. But as much as this extends the logic of the writing on political economy, it also modifies it. The encounter with the immensity and incomprehensibility is not simply a failure; it ushers in the experience of the sublime, of further thought, and of further systematic attempts at comprehension: De Quincey shows that “systems are fictions,” Franta writes, “but they are necessary—or at least unavoidable. And they necessarily fail” ("De Quincey's Systems" par. 20).

15.         Although Holland’s essay shifts attention away from the issue of a system’s success or failure, it addresses mechanical aspects of systems that are often excluded from considerations of philosophical definitions that concentrate on system as organic form. Holland’s essay claims that many notions of system in fact often appear to waver between the organic and the mechanical. More specifically, she shows how even systems that appear to be organized along organic principles nevertheless depend upon a fundamental mechanism: the lever, with its fulcrum or hypermochlion operating as either a balance or connecting point between forces. The structure of the lever is analogized to the workings of the individual mind in Novalis; his aphorisms make individual consciousness appear to be a lever-like balance of forces. The implications of this move are developed even further in Schlegel, where not only individual minds but also the “universe” as a whole is described as a lever with a fulcrum. Holland is not saying here that the mechanical aspects of systems inhibit their organic functions, but rather that mechanism is allowed a space to work—joining parts of the mind and world—within nature philosophy.

16.        In her essay, Frey also describes the internal workings of systems, or more precisely the workings between systems, and this entails (in Percy Shelley’s writing) attention to the construction of poetic forms. Concentrating on Shelley’s Laon and Cythna (revised as The Revolt of Islam), Frey shows how Shelley in a great many contexts connects political change—the shift from one system to another—with the physical attributes of air. Laon and Cynthna in particular repeatedly connects revolutionary speech with air and the drawing of breath. Furthermore, the poem’s staging of revolutionary language is self-consciously connected to the arrangement of pauses in the poem—pauses from stanza breaks to caesuras for readers to draw a breath. Giving the reader a space for her own thought and agency, pauses convey Shelley’s ideal for the way he wants to think of poetic form as a “scaffolding” for the agency required for change. Not merely identical to any particular political system, poetry’s form, on Shelley’s terms, moves agents in order to produce a change in systems.

17.         The essays in this issue collectively may indicate, as my initial instance of Hazlitt suggests, that Romantic writers are keenly interested in the possibilities of systematic thought, but they are keenly aware of its possible limitations. Those limitations may emerge as indigestible parts of a system (Rajan) or as reminders of the mechanical bases for systems (Holland); they may incur reliance on aesthetic experiences or forms that pressure existing systems and construct new ones (Franta, Frey). The essays in this volume also point to some intriguing questions for us to consider in our future research. What are the precise advantages and disadvantages of thinking in terms of systems? What produces trouble for their operation? To what extent is system itself able to address this trouble? What is the relation between systematizing the natural world and systematizing the political world, and how do Romantic writers understand the separation or fluidity between these systems? If our interest in systems is partly inspired by a materialist emphasis on specific discourses, communication networks, or institutions, what continuing role does aesthetic form have in a discussion of systems? What operations are required in order to criticize or revise systems?

I would like to thank Andrew Franta for his helpful comments on this essay.

Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy. A Fragment on Government. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.

Blake, William. The Complete Poems. Ed. Alicia Ostriker. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.

de Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Print.

D’Holbach, Baron. The System of Nature, Or, The Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 2006. Print.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams. London: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Hazlitt, William. The Spirit of the Age, Or, Contemporary Portraits. New York: Chelsea House, 1983. Print.

---. Table-Talk; Or, Original Essays. London: John Warren, 1821. Print.

Luhmann, Niklas. Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Print.

Simpson, David. Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.

Siskin, Clifford. “Novels and Systems.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.2 (2001): 202-15. Print.

“system.” OED Online. Oxford UP. 7 November 2014.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Ed. Janet Todd. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.

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Published @ RC

March 2016