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TactAesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain$
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David Russell

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691196923

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691196923.001.0001

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An Art of Handling

(p.1) Introduction

David Russell

Princeton University Press

This introductory chapter outlines some basic claims about tact, the subjects it touches upon, and the way this book is framed. In broadest terms: tact privileges encounters over knowledge, and an aesthetic of handling over more abstract conceptualization or observation—whether of people or objects. Tact can be described as a close and haptic attention to the moment, preferring a present ambivalence to a future perfection. Tact lends itself to political uses just where—in its refusal of assertion—it seems most impertinent to practical ends. It is a literary art that draws upon the particular resources of the essay as form; and it provides the grounds for a claim about the relationship between art and human freedom—an “aesthetic liberalism”—not encompassed by traditional political philosophy. Tact has its origins in a particular time and place, the British nineteenth century, but it is also a more generalizable and available style.

Keywords:   tact, aesthetic liberalism, nineteenth-century Britain, literary art, encounters, human freedom, aesthetic liberalism

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