“From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn any thing concerning the generation of a man” (60)? Such is the hair-raising enquiry of Philo, David Hume’s foil in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). In this essay, I linger with Philo’s incredulity to insist that, yes, we can learn a lot from a hair. I begin by considering how Philo’s invocation of hair is more substantial that it at first appears. Hair raised some of the biggest and hardest that Enlightenment philosophers like Hume tried to tackle.
This can especially be seen, I find, in the work undertaken by members of the Royal Society and its sister organization, the Society of Antiquaries. As they collected and examined specimens of hair, many recognized that hair’s specific material qualities invest it with the capacity to generate aesthetically rich narratives, notable for their structural play with object, scale, time, and causality. These “hairstories” offer us an unusual peak under the wig, as it were, of the Enlightenment. Hairstories preserve forms of enchantment in which a mere hair’s breadth measured the distinctions between self, matter, and spirit as well as between the past and the present.
(forthcoming in A Cultural History of Hair in the Enlightenment (Bloomsbury))