By Tim Milnes
(Cambridge, 2010) viii+253 pp.
Reviewed by Annalisa Volpone on 2011-04-18.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This very original, timely and deftly-written study joins a conspicuous body of critical work on British romantic literature and pragmatics. At once philosophical and literary, it belongs thematically with books such as J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (1984), A. M. Cooper, Doubt and Identity in Romantic Poetry (1988), A. Esterhammer, Performative Language and Action in British and German Romanticism (2000), D. Davidson, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (2001) and Problems of Rationality (2004), D. Reed Way, Truth and Consequences: Intentions, Conventions and the New Thematics (2001), and Colin G. Grant, ed, Beyond Universal Pragmatics: Studies in the Philosophy of Communication (2010).

In the introductory pages of his book, Milnes programmatically observes that "much of modern criticism and commentary on romantic literature is written in the shadow of a bad romantic idea: the idealised or hypostasised. Against this tendency, I highlight and defend a valuable, but now marginalised romantic idea, a 'holistic' conception of truth and communication" (2).  Here "the idealised and hypostasised" is the notion that truth springs from a direct correspondence between a linguistic proposition and a higher and objectively existent realm, so that truth appears timeless and unalterable.  By contrast, the "holistic conception of truth"  makes it part of a dynamic and extremely articulated process whereby truth emerges from the negotiation between subjectivity, dialogue, and communication.   

Milnes concentrates on those aspects of romantic epistemology that have been neglected by criticism, as he convincingly demonstrates, but that prove to be fundamental for a full comprehension of the romantic discourse on knowledge. Indeed, the careful attention Milnes pays to the dialogic and communicative aspects of truth in romanticism is one of the book's major accomplishments. Truth in romanticism, he shows, emerges through the processes of conversational interaction.

In the first two chapters, Milnes explains the philosophic concepts of idealism and pragmatism as a way of introducing and contextualising his thesis. In chapter one,  he examines the critical methods of six pragmatists of our own time: Rorty, Quine, Putnam, Davidson, Taylor and Habermas.  Then, turning  back to the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries,  he explores "the background of romantic pragmatics" (12)  through the perspective of "Scottish commonsensism and linguistic materialism," and with the aid of materialist theorists of language such as John Horne Tooke and Jeremy Bentham.

In the ensuing three chapters, he examines the work of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge. In chapter three, Milnes argues that Keats's poetry and letters exemplify his dialogical conception of truth. In Milnes's account of his letters, which he analyses both generically and epistemologically, Keats makes truth and communication fundamentally interdependent. In this regard, the very notion of Negative Capability becomes a sort of "half-knowledge," which conveys a textual instability, and the consequent acceptance of uncertainty. Milnes argues that Keats's way of conceptualising truth is both "hypostatic" and "holistic." It is hypostatic because it expresses the poet's struggle for an ultimately impossible contemplative truth, and holistic because the correspondence between self and world, which is conveyed by the notion of truth, can only be epistolary, hence dialogical. Since these two different (not to say opposing) approaches to truth cannot be synthesised, they can interact always and only in dialogical terms. Unlike other critics, therefore, Milnes treats negative capability as the locus in which "the subject-based conception of thought" is replaced by a dialogic concept within "a community of shared, albeit mobile beliefs" (85).

Seen in this light, both poetry and epistolary writing become an opportunity for Keats "to explore the articulation of the implicit that lies behind communication" (85).  In the last two verses of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," for example, truth is posed as an "indefinable concept"  that always defers its meaning. What one can know and understand of truth is always already linked to something else that is in turn associated with some other concept. The dialogic engagement between the narrator and the urn, Milnes argues, exemplifies Socratic elenchus, wherein all possible meaning is determined by dialogue. This dialogic concept of meaning, Milnes suggests, helps to explain why Keats abandoned Hyperion to begin The Fall of Hyperion. In doing so, he acknowledged the "incommensurability of languages" and the impossibility of really knowing the mechanics of human understanding. For Keats as Milnes presents him, truth is not a hypostasised concept, but the product of a dynamic interaction between "peoples and culture, past and present."(102)

In chapter four, Milnes describes in detail how Shelley developed his poetical thought by reading and interpreting the most prominent philosophers of his time (Locke, Rousseau, Monboddo, Tooke, Bentham and Godwin). In Milnes's account of Shelley's later work, which I found particularly revealing, the poet is torn between two opposing concepts of truth, one based on an "ideal correspondence" and the other on the "pragmatics of communication."  Consequently, truth --for Shelley-- results from a negotiation between two different epistemic visions. Paradoxically, Shelley's empiricism enables him to incorporate the ideal into the pragmatic, but he can make this happen only through the non-epistemological category of love (see "Essay on Love," 1815) in a form that he borrows from Plato's Symposium. In the discourse of poetry, love makes Shelley deny that epistemological correspondence alone can give us cognitive access to truth. Furthermore, Milnes argues, poems such as "Mont Blanc" disclose Shelley's vacillating notion that poetry is linguistically (un)able to convey truth and meaning at the same time (double-mindedness). Here Shelley reflects the influence of Tooke and Bentham, when Bentham affirms that "truth and meaning are not given," and of Locke, when the philosopher is unable to relinquish the idea that the "linguistic domain is determined by the psychological," (139) although, as Milnes argues, imagination for Shelley remains preeminently non-linguistic. 

In the last chapter, which compellingly traces Coleridge's conception of truth back to its origins, Milnes emphasises the poet's indebtedness to Tooke's linguistic empiricism, although he points out that the last part of the poet's production is markedly metaphysical. On the other hand, by insisting that Tooke's thought informed Coleridge's poetics,  Milnes reveals a tension between what he calls "communicative rationality," an expression borrowed from contemporary philosophy, and idealism, i.e. between a dialogical truth and a transcendental one. In particular the notion of "communicative rationality" is related to the philosophy of Karl-Otto Apel and Habermas, according to whom the potential for a certain kind of reason is inherent in communication itself.

In stressing the original and less studied aspects of Coleridge's thought, and particularly in linking the holistic component of his logocentrism to eighteenth century notions of relationship and sociability, Milnes gives a fresh and original portrait of the poet and contextualises his thought against the vibrant epistemological and linguistic debates of his time. Moreover Milnes demonstrates Coleridge's awareness that truth and meaning "can only take shape in the context [...] in which [...] subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and objectivity (the self, communication, and truth) are each necessary for the others' existence." (188) Thus Milnes shows how Coleridge's alternation between a hypostatized conception of truth and a holistic one eventually leads to what one may call dialogical convergence.

In conclusion, Milnes's book offers an engaging and fascinating reading of three major poets of British Romanticism. But his reading presupposes not only in-depth knowledge of the linguistic and the philosophic contexts in which they operated, but also a familiarity with contemporary philosophical discourse, especially on pragmatism.  In this regard Milnes's book addresses  a very specialized audience.


Annalisa Volpone is a researcher in English literature at the University of Perugia (Italy).

Leave a comment on Annalisa Volpone's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed