General Introduction – Tom Jones and Rowan Boyson
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One overarching concept of the human was as a poetic creature. Adam Ferguson wrote in 1767: ‘When we attend to the language which savages employ on any solemn occasion, it appears that man is a poet by nature.’6 His compact formulation suggests ways in which in this period poetry might be used to de ne both the object and the practice of human science. Ferguson indicates that the study of human life should focus on behaviour, such as speech; that ritual behaviour is particularly revealing of human nature; that poetry is natural to humankind; and yet that natural poetry is allied to savagery, and distinguished from the cultivated position of the observer. e naturalness of poetry to man has been lost in modernity, despite Ferguson’s assertion that ‘If we are asked … Where the state of nature is to be found? we may answer, It is here; and it matters not whether we are understood to speak in the island of Great Britain, at the Cape of Good Hope, or the Straits of Magellan’.7 Both the savage and the modern man are natural, but modernity as opposed to savagery represents a loss as well as a gain, and one way of describing what is lost is to call it poetry. inking about poetry and the poetic as natural to humankind also raises questions concerning the wider relationship of philosophy and poetry in this period. Here one must consider how poetry mediates specialized modern intellectual disciplines. e concept of poetry is at once speci c, concentrating on a particular mode of writing, and general, as the poetic was also understood in the eighteenth century as a stage in evolution, a state of mind, a distinctive set of attitudes that imply distinctive cognitive potentials and limitations. Vico’s enquiries into the fabular origins of religious, legal and social institutions are one form of exploration into the poetic as a moment in the cognitive evolution of humanity.8 Where poetry stands for what is human, it may also stand for what is beyond scienti c or professional knowledge, and it is therefore a challenge to the very human scienti c enterprise that partially identi es its object, man, as poetic. e essays in this volume address these and other signi cant questions, such as how poetry gures in the development of a science of language in this period, and how poetic imagination contributes to Enlightenment histories and theories of social life.