Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s The Spectator turned anecdotes into the moral equivalents of experiments in the science of human nature. Just as the experimental reports of the early Royal Society described exceptions to the ordinary workings of nature, The Spectator anecdotes describe incidents that unsettle normative assumptions about how beings do or ought to act, and so help generate new knowledge of human nature. Mr. Spectator’s anecdotal method gave the papers the appearance of novelty for its original readership, but it was also the cause of the steep decline in popularity that The Spectator suffered later. The papers’ very success in diffusing its anecdotes throughout popular consciousness in the eighteenth century meant the stories that originally had the force of new insights into human nature came to be regarded as mere illustrations of archaic ideas about men and women.
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James Robert Wood; Mr. Spectator’s Anecdotes and the Science of Human Nature. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 January 2014; 38 (1): 63–92. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-2380025
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