HCCW: Eighteenth-Century British Imaginings of Work and the Work of the Humanities

Janet Sorensen
UC Berkeley

This project examined changing conceptions of work in the context of eighteenth-century Britain; it argued that the Humanities are key to understanding the by turns distant and astonishingly sentimental relationship readers once held toward certain forms of work. Yet it also traced how Enlightenment models of Humanities study, models still in play today, posed that study as distinct from work. Adam Smith’s moral philosophy illuminates the dynamic by which a distancing technical language could also invite sentimental attachment. Yet his model of scholarship also reveals the familiar terms upon which the Humanities were viewed as engaged in activities distinct from work. In Smith’s formulation the few “philosophers” able to apprehend the whole of work are passive viewers, positioned above and outside the scene of divided labor. This positioning informed the very basis of modern Humanities scholarship, as Smith and other writers within the Scottish Enlightenment consolidated the institutions of and approaches to the human sciences, from disciplinarity to disinterestedness, that continue to haunt our contemporary practice of the Humanities. The study posed both Smith’s model of sentimental exchange, with its emphasis on the work of imagination and literature that foregrounded writing as work as alternative models of Humanities study.