Feeling for philosophy: Shaftesbury and the limits of sentimental certainty

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This essay offers an account of the rich contradictions between claims of knowledge and assertions of feeling in eighteenth-century ethical writing, a recurrent tension that is crucial to an understanding of how intersubjective recognition manifests itself as a specifically moral challenge in the period. In spite of explicit efforts to wrest a realm of certainty (affective, moral) from the encroachments of (epistemic) scrutiny and doubt, the moral and the epistemological are always mutually implicated in the bold assertions of intersubjective access put forward by the sentimentalists. Shaftesbury's work is a particularly significant case for the study of sentimentalism, not only because it is among the earliest affirmations of the irresistible self-evidence of moral feeling, but also because its deliberate eschewal of systematic argumentation set distinctive challenges for later eighteenth-century theorists of sympathy who sought to integrate his insights within the dominant philosophical current of empiricism. Addressing not only Shaftesbury, but also Mandeville, Hume and others, this essay is intended to bring interpretation of the written corpus of moral philosophy to bear on the interest in the dynamics of recognition that has characterized the recent ethical turn in literary studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)609-632
Number of pages24
JournalELH - English Literary History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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