Sunday, February 11, 2024

Character in the Age of Adam Smith [GOAT economists]

Character in the Age of Adam Smith,” that’s the title of a 2017 dissertation that Shannon Francis Chamberlain submitted to the Department of English at UC Berkeley. I found it while rummaging around on my flash drive, where I’ve got lots of stuff that I’ve downloaded but never moved a subject-specific location. I probably found it while working on my review of William Flesch, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard 2007), for Twentieth-Century Literature. Flesch draws on various sources for his theoretical equipment, including contemporary evolutionary psychology, but, more ‘classically,’ David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, from which he draws a concept of vicarious experience. Flesch’s book is easily the most interesting use any literary critic has make of evolutionary psychology; in particular, I find it more compelling than anything than I’ve read in the literary Darwinism school associated with Joseph Carroll, though I’ve not looked at that work in a decade or so.

But that’s an aside. The purpose of this post is simply to introduce Chamberlain’s dissertation into the record of my discussion of great literary critics, which I am treating as a mechanism for yet another examination of the nature of literary criticism as an intellectual activity. This examination was occasioned by Tyler Cowen’s book about the great economists, which devotes a chapter to Adam Smith in which he makes the point that Smith wrote intelligently and cogently about a wide range of subjects, not just economics. It’s economics we remember Smith for, not his theory of education, just as we remember Newton for his physics and are happy to forget his alchemical explorations. I strongly suspect that Smith on education is more worthwhile than Newton on alchemy.

That’s another aside. Here’s the abstract from Chamberlain’s dissertation, followed by the table of contents.

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Character in the Age of Adam Smith

Shannon Frances Chamberlain

What does Adam Smith’s moral philosophy owe to the literary discourse of his own time? Many recent studies of Smith have focused on finding his fingerprints on later imaginative literature, particularly in the nineteenth-century novels of free indirect discourse. The argument of this dissertation is that we gain both a better understanding of Smith and the eighteenth-century evolution of novels by attempting to place Smith in his original literary context, as a well-informed participant in the debates around the moral and didactic purpose of literature, especially as they concerned “character.”

The use and purpose of literary character was undergoing profound philosophical changes during Smith’s career (1748-1790). From the scandalous and barely disguised society figures who occupied the pages of proto-novels and romances in the early part of the century, to Hugh Blair’s late-century assertion that “fictitious histories...furnish one of the best channels for conveying instruction, for painting human life and manners, for showing the errors into which we are betrayed, for rendering virtue amiable and vice odious,” literary character in novels became the crux of a larger debate on the relationship between rhetoric—previously a somewhat suspect and corrupt art—and morality. Smith’s method of instruction in the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres has long been understood as revolutionary, but relatively less attention has been paid to how his description of the “character of the author” and this figure’s careful deployment of readers’ sympathies engages with the relatively new notion that fictional characters were easier to sympathize with, and therefore better figures for the teaching of ethics, than “real” people. Notions of characters’ fictionality evolved, I argue, into The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ assertion that all other human beings are essentially fictional to us, products of their rhetoric and our imagination.

I examine the evolution of moral and literary “character” throughout Smith’s career—from his praise for epistolary novels in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to his engagement with Edinburgh literary circles in the later eighteenth century and especially the novels of his close friend, Henry Mackenzie—to offer a fuller portrait of how Smith’s theories came to play such an outsized role in nineteenth-century novels. But part of the purpose of this project is to revise our nineteenth- and post-nineteenth- century understandings of Smith as they have been inflected by J.S. Mill and later thinkers in the liberal tradition, and reinvigorate Smith as the product of a moment that was just beginning to theorize a moral role for imaginative literature. Gulliver’s Travels, Clarissa, and Julia de Roubigné are stories about how we represent ourselves as moral beings to others, and provided Smith with practical examples about rhetoric as a means of moral inquiry and formation. Most fundamentally, I argue that Smith’s conception of the “moral sentiments” evolved from formulating a relationship between readers and writers through characters, a subject that was also a particular interest of the eighteenth-century novel.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Character in the Age of Adam Smith     vi

1. Character on Desert Islands:
How Adam Smith Read His Gulliver’s Travels     1

2. Brought Home to the Breast:
Epistolary Sympathies and Clarissa’s Rhetorical Knack     36

3. Invisible Hands and Sociable Virtues:
Smith, Mackenzie, and Epistolary Foreclosures     73

Coda: Austen’s Averted Epistolary Novels     106

Bibliography     114

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