This essay reimagines the relationship between Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and David Hume's skeptical philosophy, a relationship previously defined by Ian Watt's suggestion in The Rise of the Novel (1957) that Hume's emphasis upon man's essentially social nature in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) stands in refutation of Defoe's iconic portrayal of human isolation. Instead, I argue for affinities between Hume's secular skepticism and Crusoe's religious faith and suggest that both Defoe and Hume channel the same spiritual allegory of the pilgrim as shipwrecked traveler. More than rhetorically similar, both texts, I argue, dramatize epistemological crises that precipitate a renewed sense of life's contingency. Both Defoe and Hume employ Puritan spiritual autobiography, and in each case this literary mode's questionable referential status reproduces the epistemological uncertainty that each text represents. Crusoe and Hume model how such epistemological uncertainty might be a source of pleasing wonder by exhibiting an attitude of viewing the ordinary as if it were rare, and the illusory as if it were real—and by extension the real as if it were illusory. The essay suggests that this capacity to illuminate the extraordinary within the ordinary and the illusory within the real becomes one of novelistic fiction's distinctive characteristics. The experience of apprehending the real is reframed as a source of aesthetic pleasure rather than knowledge.
Sarah Tindal Kareem; Rethinking the Real with Robinson Crusoe and David Hume. Novel 1 November 2014; 47 (3): 339–362. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2789068
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