Carnegie Mellon University

Novel Epistemologies: Cultures of Reform in the Age of Locke

Author: James (Jad) Smith
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

Jad Smith’s dissertation, “Novel Epistemologies: Cultures of Reform in the Age of Locke,” attempts to shift the understanding of what Lockean epistemology contributed to eighteenth century projects of reform. Thinkers prior to Locke tend to view customary, political, and other forms of culture as forces prone to taint human knowledge and agency. Locke, although he somewhat shares their suspicion, suggests engaging with culture as an object of reform and transforming cultural memory.

According to him, if the customs of a poor household breed certain undesirable habits in a child or a political association conveys certain biases to new initiates, then a carefully engineered moral culture can, by logical extension, reproduce and disseminate morality. After establishing the connection between Locke’s epistemology and moral culture, Smith sustains this connection across a diverse range of texts, including religious disquisition, sermons, novels, and erotic fiction. If Locke approaches moral culture as a practice by which specific competencies are produced or reproduced, proponents of the charity school movement institutionalize this relation as broadly social pedagogy meant not only to cultivate but also to disseminate religious and moral habits.

Their project aims at nothing less than a rippling effect of moral reform throughout society, and they imagine children, especially indigent children, as key agents in the near spontaneous spread of improvement to every corner of the nation—but in particular to the poor household. In the forties, novelists begin to reinvent reform, moving from childhood to female judgment as a point of mediation in debates about sexuality, status, and the family. Considered here are Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, parts one and two, and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, both of which explicitly engage with Locke’s epistemology. These fictions both take up epistemological questions only to arrive at novel answers, Richardson bringing the romance narrative and Cleland the erotic Bildungsroman to the question of moral reform. In sum, the dissertation tracks notions of reform across three related registers of epistemological controversy—or, more appropriately, across three developing cultures of reform: moral philosophy, philanthropy, and the novel.