Browne and Johnson

  • A. J. Gilbert


Now we must turn from the more popular prose writers of the period to some examples of learned and scientific prose. The growing importance of fact and observation, instead of logical invention, is the chief distinction between the prose of Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82) and that of earlier writers. His example was immensely influential on the writing styles of Samuel Johnson (1709–84). Not only does Johnson refer very frequently to Browne in his Dictionary (1755), quoting extensively from his works in the entries,1 but he seems to have regarded the language of science and philosophy as peculiarly accurate and precise. In the Preface to the Dictionary he remarks that ‘Many of the distinctions which to common readers appear useless and idle, will be found real and important by men versed in the school philosophy, without which no dictionary shall be accurately compiled, or skilfully examined.’2 Even though this may be a mistaken view of the spurious precision of technical words, it does suggest the confidence Johnson placed in scientific usage, and precise differences of meaning. The middle style of his essays bears out this implicit belief, for much of the irony and subtlety of his analysis depends on exact and controlled distinctions of sense. This belief in the precision of learned usage can be found in Browne’s own works; in his remarks To the Reader before Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), he suggests that he might have written the work in Latin rather than English:


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© A. J. Gilbert 1979

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  • A. J. Gilbert

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