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

Janet Sorensen, English, UC Berkeley

This project examines changing conceptions of work in the context of eighteenth-century Britain; it argues 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 traces 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 poses 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.

Janet Sorensen teaches English, so to speak, in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing explores the complex role of language as an instrument of empire in eighteenth-century British literature. Focusing on the relationship between England and one of its “Celtic colonies,” Scotland, Prof. Sorensen examines how the expansion of the British empire influenced the formation of a national standard English. The book demonstrates the ambivalence at the heart of British linguistic identity, moving from a close analysis of Scottish writers Alexander MacDonald, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and Tobias Smollett to a revised understanding of the language use of Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen.