Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 October 2019
I want you to propose a metaphysical question to your Society, which Mr. B. and I have had great debates upon; and I want to know your opinion and my sister's. It is this: If you were now told that in a future state of existence you should be entirely deprived of your consciousness, so as not to be sensible you were the same being who existed here, – should you, or should you not, be now interested in your future happiness or misery? or, in other words, is continued consciousness the essence of identity?
THE conundrum presented by Anna Letitia Barbauld is familiar in more than one sense. Writing from her home in Hampstead to her brother, Dr John Aikin, living over 100 miles distant in Great Yarmouth, Barbauld encourages enactment of philosophical debate outside of, within and between marital households. In her letter and through the epistolary act itself, she inscribes associations from one home to another, as well as to her brother's Society, drawing imagined and material links between domestic spaces of exchange and a more formal and typically male space for deliberation. This is not to suggest that Barbauld was excluded from debate in similar social environments; for one thing, she regularly participated in vigorous intellectual conversation at the dinner parties of her (by that time) radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. Nor was Barbauld's philosophical thought confined to private correspondence; quite the reverse, the enthusiasm for Enlightenment debate she demonstrates in her letter informed and spurred on her poetry and writing for children, and her ideas are boldly advanced in her political pamphlets and essays. The letter instead conveys her sense of inclusivity in sociable exchange, something she sees as inherent to the human condition. As she put it in her Remarks on Mr Gilbert Wakefield's Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship (1792), people are ‘prone … to associate together, and communicate the electric fire of correspondent feeling’.
But if this strikingly precise formulation of contemporary scientific and technological thinking helps us to understand the proximity, for Barbauld, of public and social association, her letter to Aikin signals the tensions, fractures and collisions within and between spheres of debate.