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 …read more