Hazlitt, William (1778–1830)

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William Hazlitt, the English essayist, journalist, and critic, began his literary career as a "metaphysician," and the principles of his youthful philosophical writing survived to govern his thought during the years when a more brilliant prose style won him fame. Born at Maidstone, Kent, the son of a Dissenting minister, Hazlitt kept faith politically with his Unitarian heritage, but at an early age revolted against his father's rationalistic theology. After trying unsuccessfully to become a painter, he turned in his thirties to journalism and to popular lecturing, and until his death made his living in London as a writer for periodicals. Twice unhappily married, always the fierce defender of both the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte, Hazlitt succeeded in alienating most of his friends and much of his public, although his critical influence on the literature of his time was perhaps second only to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's. Unlike Coleridge, his erstwhile friend and mentor, Hazlitt did not ground his thought in a version of the new Idealism; he stands alone in his age as a romantic thinker who developed a critique of empiricism that nonetheless supported the values and methods of the empiricist tradition.

Hazlitt continued the redefinition of the individual begun by William Godwin in Political Justice (1793). Four years before his first meeting with Coleridge in 1798, and while still a student at Hackney College in London, Hazlitt conceived his "metaphysical discovery"a refutation of necessary egoism. Actually, his position had been anticipated by Joseph Butler and David Hume, but his arguments were original in his insistence on imaginationa power inseparable yet distinct from present sensation and past feelingas the source of voluntary action, and even of self-consciousness.

His first bookAn Essay on the Principles of Human Action, to which was added Some Remarks on the Systems of Hartley and Helvétius (1805)argued that ideas of good determine conscious pleasure and self-interest, not the reverse, and that the same "reasoning imagination," which alone can unify sensations from moment to moment, is responsible for all the mind's "associations" except those arising from mere contiguity in experience. In his lectures at the Russell Institution in 1812 on the "Rise and Progress of Modern Philosophy," this line of thought inevitably led Hazlitt to challenge all epistemology, including George Berkeley's and Hume's, that relied on the Lockean premise of "simple" impressions in perception. To perceive the simplest object requires a "general idea," or some act of mind to "comprehend" objects in their sameness or wholeness before qualities can be differentiated. Failure to recognize an activity of mind inhering in sense perception itself had led, he believed, to the vain war between philosophies of "Necessity" and of "Liberty"between a mechanism or materialism that reduced mind to sensation and an idealism like Immanuel Kant's that mistook man's formative consciousness for a power of will essentially free of sensory experience.

Hazlitt also came to oppose, then, the transcendentalism that Coleridge introduced from Germany. As is clear from a Prospectus (1809) for his projected history of English philosophy, Hazlitt saw himself as a loyal reformer of empiricism, although he admittedly left unresolved the central problem of the degree to which ideas are determined by the mind itself, on the one hand, and by "nature" on the other. In part, it was his belief that this dualism must remain intractable to reason which made him forsake formal analysis for the "familiar style" of his literary journalism. Averse to system and always more concerned with the cultural impact of ideas, he began, after 1812, to turn from an analysis of the formal problem to an exploration of the interaction of mind and world in experience as it is known by the self in life or realized by "genius" in the arts. Still affirming that "the mind is one," he made his theme the "everlasting contradiction" of man's naturethe "action and reaction" between the mind and the passional self as dialectical functions of the same unity of consciousness.

From his awareness of this conflict in consciousness Hazlitt forged no metaphysic of his own beyond a vague vitalist belief that "the spirit of life and motion" gave the mind a radical "sympathy" with the physical world. In religion he seems to have remained a modest agnostic, certain only that God is intellectually unknowable. Hazlitt thought that only in the aesthetic mode of imagination could the mind transcend experience, and even then it could attain to no intuition beyond "the soul of nature." The insistence that "passion" is the source both of man's freedom and of his bondagea bondage to individual "character" that nonetheless implies the freedom of the self to sympathize with other selfhoodunderlies Hazlitt's polemic on all fronts; it links his criticism of Thomas Robert Malthus and the utilitarians to his aesthetic theory that organic particularity is the basis of value in the arts.

In the England of 1830, when Hazlitt died impoverished in London, a humanism so darkly paradoxical found little favor; but his powers as a thinker have been increasingly recognized, and he appears today as the versatile Montaigne of his age, often prefiguring in his essays the dynamicist philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, William James, and Sigmund Freud.

See also Bergson, Henri; Berkeley, George; Butler, Joseph; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Empiricism; Freud, Sigmund; Godwin, William; Humanism; Hume, David; Idealism; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Nietzsche, Friedrich.


Hazlitt's philosophical writings are to be found mainly in Complete Works, edited by P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London, 19301934), Vols. I, II (which includes the 1812 lectures), and XX. For studies on Hazlitt, see Elisabeth Schneider, The Aesthetics of William Hazlitt (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933); Herschel Baker, William Hazlitt (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962); James Noxon, "Hazlitt as Moral Philosopher," in Ethics 72 (1963): 279283. For further bibliography, see Elisabeth Schneider, "William Hazlitt," in The English Romantic Poets and Essayists: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by C. W. and L. H. Houtchens (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1957).

John Kinnaird (1967)