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Perception and the Senses in Eighteenth-century England


Isabelle Bour

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1These three articles discuss the senses, sentiment and sensibility in eighteenth-century literature and philosophy. Starting with the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, they take us to the poetry of Edward Young at the end of the century, throwing new light on a key conceptual nexus. While Hutcheson belongs to the tradition of philosophical nativism, John Cleland is an empiricist who seems to parody the experimental method through the irrepressible erotic urges of his protagonist. As for the graveyard poets discussed in the third essay, most of them write within a Christian paradigm, emphasising the altruism in the sensibility and sympathy evinced by their personae.

2Hutcheson is regarded as one of the originators of moral sense philosophy. In her article entitled “Sensibilité et moralité dans la philosophie de Hutcheson : Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue”, Laetitia Simonetta explains that, under French influence, Hutcheson used the word « sentiment » in a new acceptation, which encompassed both affect and judgement. To Hutcheson, sentiments denote approval or disapproval of actions: they are a perceptive act of the moral sense. Simonetta stresses that, to Hutcheson in 1725, individuals take into account the moral frame of mind of agents to assess actions. Hutcheson later came to give the word “sentiment” a purely affective term, as he erased the difference between passion and sentiment. In this he diverged from what were to become standard usages of the words “sentiment” and “sentimental”, which preserved their intellectual component, as evidenced by Samuel Richardson’s fiction, among others.

3In her essay “The Man of Feeling as Dupe of Desire: John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751)”, Rebecca Barr points out that Cleland’s description of passion echoes that of Hutcheson in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728). However, John Cleland sidesteps the debates on sentiment and the moral sense by focusing squarely on sense – as sensation – and sensibility in his lesser-known novel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751). He plays with the doxa on masculinity and the gendering of sensibility by making of William Delamore a feminised character who subjects himself to the desires of women, thus turning himself into a commodity. While an erotic tale like the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), Memoirs of a Coxcomb contrasts with the earlier novel, which stresses that sensation offers poor pleasure if unaccompanied by reciprocal affection. In both cases, however, the vaunted moral purpose is seriously undermined by the repetitive and episodic nature of the plot, which focuses on a succession of erotic encounters.

4In “‘The Philosophy of Tears’: sense(s) and sensibility in some graveyard poems”, John Baker discusses works by Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young and Thomas Gray, which span the eighteenth century. All of them churchmen except for Gray, those poets consider feeling and sensibility as modes of knowledge, but whereas Gray seeks an intimate knowledge of death in grief, the other poets see this extreme emotion as finding relief in the belief in the afterlife. Tears, which are, literally, an expression of pain, are ambivalent in that, regarded as intrinsically spontaneous and sincere, they spring from fellow-feeling but also from a sensibility which nurtures its own delicate emotions. This ambivalence explains why Young studies the motivations for tears at funerals. Thus, even in the poetry of the second half of the century, authors adopt a critical – analytical – stance towards the value – sensibility – which literary history has a little too hastily considered that it exemplified.

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Isabelle Bour, « Introduction »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 30 | 2016, mis en ligne le 17 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Bour

Isabelle Bour is professor of Eighteenth-Century British Studies at the Sorbonne nouvelle where, for several years the PRISMES research centre (EA 4398) has worked on the theme of sense and sensation. She has published extensively on the epistemology of sensibility. Most recently, she edited those works of Mary Wollstonecraft’s which were translated into French in the eigteenth century : Défense des droits des femmes, Maria ou Le Malheur d’être femme, Marie et Caroline (Classiques Garnier, 2016).

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