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  • Online publication date: December 2014

9 - Morality as a Discourse of the Imagination

from II - Poetic Theories of the Social Self


Montagne is not to be look'd upon in his Essays as a Man that argues … The Common sort of People admire that which glitters, not that which is solid, because they have a greater value for that which affects their Senses than for that which informs their Reason. And therefore mistaking Elegancy of Imagination for Elegancy of Wit, it may be said that Montagne had an Elegant and Extraordinary Wit … He has acquir'd Admiration … not by convincing [men's] Reason by Evident Arguments, but by sub duing their Minds by the Commanding … power of his Imagination.

Nicolas Malebranche, writing in 1674, feared that Montaigne's popularity reflected a dangerous and growing tendency: a propensity to approach moral philosophy less as the product of reasoned philosophical argument (argument of a kind that would promote some single, unified, logical position) and more as the emotive expression of individual imaginations (imaginations productive of pluralist, unsettled visions of ethical goodness). Half a century later, Matthew Prior endorsed the very quality Malebranche had vilified, adding that its dominance was inescapable:

while Malbranch writes against the force of Imagination, and the impression which things too lively Painted may make upon our Judgment, his Discourse is filled with that very Imagery … from which he Deswades us, and the Strength of his Argument consists in the Beauty of his Figures.

Perhaps more significantly, Francis Hutcheson's associate, James Arbuckle, asserted in 1726 that moralists typically ‘imagine the rest of the World … as themselves’, ‘Selfish and designing Persons’ reducing all goodness to expressions of ‘Interest’ and men of ‘Integrity’ supposing that a ‘noble Disposition runs thro’ the whole Species'. Arbuckle thought it difficult to prove either of these accounts ‘universal’ but deemed the latter the more ‘amiable Conception’ and one that, ‘tho it should really prove a mistaken Notion, yet would there be an advantage to Mankind in believing’.