Sunday, 16 March 2014

Reading Group Report: 'The Misguided Imaginations of Men’: Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and the Principle of Self in Shelley’s Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics

11th March 2014
Dr Leanne Stokoe
The first session of the newly organised NENC saw members meet at Newcastle University on Tuesday 11th March. The session was hosted by Newcastle’s Dr Leanne Stokoe, who gave a paper on the ‘Principle of Self’ in Shelley’s Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics, written in fragments between 1817 and 1821, and published posthumously by Mary Shelley in 1840. Leanne’s paper focussed on Shelley’s contemplation of ‘disinterestedness’, often interpreted as semi-Godwinian in its outlook, as drawing instead upon the utilitarian philosophy of both Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. Leanne explored, firstly, Shelley’s attraction to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), before moving on to Bentham’s interpretation of Smith’s doctrines and his own ideas about social ‘happiness’. Ultimately, however, Shelley’s Speculations suggest that these insights on the permanence of self-interest are ‘misguided’, with Shelley proposing instead a vision of self-interest that offers an altruistic humanity.
Questions and discussion followed on the composition and publication of the fragments, the movement in recent criticism away from the Victorian perception of Shelley as Matthew Arnold’s ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’ (1881) and ways in which to consolidate Shelley’s poetry of the same time period with these prose pieces, with the conversation spilling over into the pub!
We will shortly be announcing details of our April meeting and hope to see many of you there. In the meantime, don’t forget to follow North East Nineteenth Century on Twitter (@northeastc19) for more updates and news about nineteenth-century events in the region.
Lyndsey Skinner
Twitter: @northeastc19 

Friday, 7 March 2014

NENC March Meeting

The next meeting of NENC will take place on Tuesday 11th March, at 5.30pm in Room B.30 in the Bedson Teaching Centre at Newcastle University (Location 21 on page two of this campus map:

Dr Leanne Stokoe, of Newcastle University, will be giving a paper on ‘The Misguided Imaginations of Men’: Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and the Principle of Self in Shelley’s Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics (abstract below). This promises to be a really interesting talk, hopefully with a lot of discussion.

If you can't make it to this session, then never fear - we will be planning the meetings for next term shortly, so watch this space! And if you're interested in helping out in any capacity, then please do get in touch!

Best wishes,

Siobhan and Roisin (NENC Organisers)


‘The Misguided Imaginations of Men’: Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and the Principle of Self in Shelley’s Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics

Dr Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University

Percy Bysshe Shelley is often viewed as promoting an idealistic view of humanity.  His contemplation of ‘disinterestedness’ in his fragmentary Speculations on Morals and Metaphysics (1817-1821) is interpreted as reflecting a semi-Godwinian vision, in which individuals can evolve in order to ‘forget’ their selfish propensities.  However, this paper argues that he believed such a society could only be realised by embracing, rather than rejecting the self.  It explores Shelley’s receptiveness to theories of self-interest that impacted upon his better-known ideas about imagination and social change.  Such a focus may be seen to relocate Shelley’s moral outlook in alternative Scottish Enlightenment and utilitarian traditions.  Firstly, it sketches Shelley’s attraction to Adam Smith’s doctrines in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), specifically the idea that individuals ‘imagine’ the situation of others from within their own self-interest.  Secondly, it explores Shelley’s response to Jeremy Bentham’s transformation of Smithian morality in order to promote his reformist concept of social ‘happiness’.  Notwithstanding Shelley’s attraction to such progressive interpretations of the self, I argue that he believed these insights to be ‘misguided’.  Rather than depicting self-interest as a permanent aspect of human nature, Shelley’s Speculations conclude that its intrinsic imaginative propensities ultimately inspire an altruistic humanity.