The Philosophical Biographer: Doubt and Dialectic in Johnson's Lives of the Poets

Martin Maner, Wright State University - Main Campus


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.