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“We are perpetually moralists:” Samuel Johnson and Renaissance Epistemology

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Samuel Johnson, Renaissance epistemology, literary criticism


This article discusses how new Renaissance epistemological views shaped the important eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson. I argue that Johnson emphasizes conversation as an important element of epistemology, pushing against what was an over-emphasize on book learning perpetuated by educators such as Peter Ramus. The rise in print-culture led to a shift in epistemology, in which knowledge could be seen as linear, codified, or fixed. While Johnson works both within and against these new epistemological trends, I argue that his criticism of John Milton’s poetry can be appreciated more fully if Johnson’s own reservations about print culture are kept in mind. Though far from seeing Milton as a bad poet, Johnson objects in part to what he sees in Milton as narrowed, or specialized learning and poetry that pleases the eye but not the ear. This creates for readers an inability to enter into works such as Paradise Lost, which they read not for pleasure but for mere instruction.

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