The Philosophical Biographer

Doubt and Dialectic in Johnson's Lives of the Poets

Title Details

Pages: 200

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 01/01/2009

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3374-8

List Price: $27.95

The Philosophical Biographer

Doubt and Dialectic in Johnson's Lives of the Poets

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  • Description
  • Reviews

The Philosophical Biographer shows how a shift in philosophical outlook in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-from an understanding of human knowledge rooted in deductive certainties to one resting on inductive probability-influenced the development of biographical narrative in general and in particular the way Johnson dealt with biographical evidence in his Lives of the Poets.

Examining the psychological and philosophical doubt that lay at the heart of Johnson's character and intellect, Martin Maner reveals in the biographical studies of Savage, Swift, Milton, and Pope an ingrained pattern of dialectical argument and a skeptical attitude toward evidence—a method that involves the reader in judgments about the poets as it conveys Johnson's own understanding of truth. In the Life of Savage, Johnson moves from thesis to antithesis, generating out of opposing emotional responses—irony and sympathy, ridicule and pathos-an understanding of the man. Dialectically undercutting the conclusions of previous biographers of Swift and Milton, Johnson fashions a new, somewhat acidic estimation of Swift and a portrait of Milton that engages contemporary questions of the probable and the marvelous. The Life of Pope, Johnson's greatest dialectical achievement, alternates between blame and praise, public and private realms, weaving tone, context, and analogy into great, contrasting patterns of inquiry and judgment.

Establishing the centrality of a dialectical method in the Lives of the Poets, Martin Maner links the rise of biography as well as Johnson's interest in the form to the shift in epistemology brought about by empiricism. In the new patterns of thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, biography—the estimation of a life through sifting of historical events and evidence—was the most philosophical of endeavors, and Johnson its greatest practitioner.

The most rewarding study of the Lives of the Poets that I have seen to date.

—Mark Temmer, Year's Work in English Studies

fine rhetorical study.

Modern Philology

Admirably lucid, unpretentious, free of jargon.

Johnsonian Newsletter

The illumination that is afforded by a stylistic analysis set in the context of the philosophical debates and preoccupations of the Enlightenment makes this a rewarding and scholarly work.

Modern Language Review

To be commended is its lucid, modest, polite and concise style.

Papers on Language and Literature

A significant contribution to our understanding of Johnson and also to our knowledge of how he helped shape biography.

—Paul Alkon, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

Exhibits an energetic mind on an engaging aspect of eighteenth-century intellectual history.


As an analysis of epistemology and genre, it suggests methods and ideas that could (and should) be applied more broadly to the study of biography in the eighteenth and other centuries.

Eighteenth-Century Studies

About the Author/Editor

MARTIN MANER is a professor of English at Wright State University.