Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of “Useful Knowledge”

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This essay challenges students to think about how we might make the case for the public value of the humanities by grounding our own debates about these issues in a close reading of Percy Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.” It argues that Shelley’s argument against the primacy of utilitarian pragmatism is not, despite its apparent rhetoric, a lofty and off-putting retreat into elitist claims for the arts, but quite the contrary, a radical and politically engaged account of why the arts ultimately matter more than applied forms of “useful knowledge,” even within the context of social reform.

Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of “Useful Knowledge”

Paul Keen
Carleton University

1.        There is a question that I always open our discussion of Percy Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” with in my Romantic Literature classes: what exactly does Shelley mean by his reference to “all invention for abridging and combining labour”? (134). It was clearly important to Shelley. He had offered a very similar description just four paragraphs earlier: “Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines, labour” (132). My experience when I ask it is virtually always the same. Students find the question difficult precisely because the answer is so obvious, and in many ways, so mundane. It’s not so much the purloined letter as the industrial elephant in the room. He’s talking about the assembly line, that innovation that would become the cornerstone of the modern factory system. Labor would be “abridged” because the task demanded of every worker would be narrowed to a single, highly specialized function, and “combined” because that act would only gain its value alongside the equally specialized functions of several other laborers as the product passed from hand to hand.

2.        We look at those passages in Shelley’s text alongside Adam Smith’s famous description of a pin factory in the opening pages of Wealth of Nations, which was intended to demonstrate the extraordinary productivity that would flow from precisely this sort of arrangement. In a pin factory, Smith explained, the simple act of making a pin would be “divided into about eighteen distinct operations” (15). As Smith put it, “in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations” a relatively small group of people could soon be producing 48,000 pins a day (15). The system worked “by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life” (18). All that was needed was that the workers be “collected into the same workhouse” (14).

3.        Shelley clearly expected readers to understand his reference, both in terms of its literal meaning and the much broader economic and political arguments that it had become a shorthand for, but that is no longer something that we can take for granted. I begin my discussion of Shelley’s “Defence” with this apparently simple question about this reference to “all invention for abridging and combining labor” every time I teach it and what is striking is that no one has ever come up with that particular answer: the assembly line. Nor, I want to emphasize, should we blame them. The high rhetorical style of the text itself, the elevated nature of its claims for poetry, and the natural tendency of a classroom situation to encourage answers that reach for the sophisticated rather than the commonplace all militate against it. But if we don’t understand this reference then we miss out on much of the real force of Shelley’s argument, which is crucial because this is also the basis of what may be the most sophisticated and most radical argument that emerged in these years, not just about the value of poetry, but about what Raymond Williams identified as an emerging definition of culture and, bound up with that, a crucial case for the broader importance of the humanities themselves. At a time when those of us who work in the humanities face unprecedented pressure to make the case for what we do to numerous different audiences—university administrators, government policy-makers, the media, and the general public—this argument is worth emphasizing.

4.        On one level, this question is bound up with a more fundamental pedagogical issue that colors the study of all literary history (or history in general). Whether we theorize it explicitly or not, the study of any period of literary history is shaped by the question of whether we are interested in that earlier period because of the ways that it differs from our own age, or the ways that it resembles us. Does its very strangeness offer a perspective on our own world that can be critically productive and politically enabling, or do we react more strongly to the ways that the uncanny parallels that we find in these texts resonate across time? In practice, of course, it is never a simple either/or proposition. The real challenge lies in being as aware as we can be of the shaping influence of the dynamic tension between these perspectives.

5.        This has certainly been the case with the Romantic period. In many ways, our most basic approaches to it have always said as much about the spirit of our own age as they did about the period itself. In an age when civil rights campaigners and anti-war protestors made common cause with a new generation of singers and poets, we became aware of just how big a part the French Revolution had played in shaping the consciousness of the group of writers that would become known as the Romantics. As the reform movement faltered, we grew used to thinking about the Romantics’ ideas about poetry as an evasion rather than an extension of their own fading radical politics. In the years when a postmodern aesthetic emphasizing fragmentation and vertiginous self-referentiality dominated the academy, we discovered Romantic irony. In recent years, caught up in the profound technological changes unleashed by the digital revolution, we have increasingly emphasized the ways that late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century debates about print culture were already focusing squarely on the complex assumptions and multiple forms of mediation that structured literature as a field of cultural production. In so many of these ways, the Romantics turn out to have anticipated our major preoccupations long before we ever became aware of them. But they also did so in remarkably different social and political conditions, and in ways that are ultimately very different from our own beliefs and practices today.

6.        Negotiating this blend of historical echoes and epistemic ruptures is complicated by a further pedagogical twist that runs through all of this: the challenge, which none of us ever fully master, of recognizing the sheer presentness of any earlier age: the fact that people were living, thinking, and writing in the present tense and without the benefit of hindsight. It can be difficult for students to fully appreciate that these people—all people—correctly thought of themselves as living in the most modern age that had ever existed, and that they were wrestling with changes that were often far more rapid and far more fundamental than anything we are living through today. They were continually struck by their exceptional modernity rather than their historicity. The challenge of adequately recognizing this is exacerbated by the temporal equivalent of a familiar optical illusion: the sense that objects far away are moving very slowly, if they’re moving at all. In a similar way, the further back we look into the past, the easier it is to underestimate the impact of the sense of change that they were living through, and the lack of the sort of hindsight that we too often impose on them. Socrates never thought of himself as a Classical thinker, nor did Elizabethan writers know that they were living in the Renaissance. Wordsworth and Blake would probably have been puzzled to learn that they were Romantics. The labels come later, and even where they are appropriate, they can have the unfortunate effect of tidying history up in ways that erase the messiness, which may be the most important part of what we’re studying. Recognizing the impact of all of this makes studying literary history, including the challenge of negotiating the changing nexus of historical parallels and differences that we discover in it, simultaneously more challenging and more important.


7.        Shelley’s effort to articulate a transformative social and political role for poetry in a rapidly changing industrial world, and in ways that now seem both profoundly outmoded and strikingly current, exemplifies these various theoretical questions about the study of literary history. This is especially true when we read his argument in the context of one further academic debate that has become increasingly urgent over the past few years: the issue of the role of the humanities. As Martha Nussbaum has recently argued, “we are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance”: not “the global economic crisis that began in 2008” but the decline of support for the humanities in terms of both pedagogical and research priorities within universities (1–2). Nussbaum’s book—Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities—has become a widely cited element of this debate, but the urgency of the topic has ensured an equally strong chorus of responses. Google “crisis in the humanities” and you are confronted with a very long and rapidly growing list of people weighing in on the subject. There is a “crisis in the humanities” home page, blogs, links to numerous columns and articles, whether in the mainstream media or academic journals, a Wikipedia site, links containing references to numerous books on the topic, and so on. The outlook they share is that things are pretty bleak. As Robert Weisbuch put it, “[t]oday’s consensus about the state of the humanities” is that “it’s bad, it’s getting worse, and no one is doing much about it,” all of which “ is supported by dismal facts” (B4).

8.        As many of these critics emphasize, the immediate problems generated on a practical level by declining support for the humanities are exacerbated by a far more serious failure to understand the broader social worth of the humanities in an age when the perceived benefits of knowledge production are increasingly viewed in terms of market forces. An editorial entitled “Liberal Arts and Commercial Utility” in Canada’s leading national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, neatly summed these problems up in its warning that, “the liberal arts are necessary and good, but not sufficient in the modern age.” It didn’t bother to explain what it might mean to be “sufficient in the modern age,” but given the editorial’s headline, it didn’t really need to. As Stefan Collini has argued in a widely cited TLS Commentary, this absolute inability to imagine the worth of the humanities in any socially useful sense was starkly demonstrated in the Research Excellence Framework that was recently established as the official basis for determining research funding allocations amongst English universities. As Collini has pointed out, part of this formula for funding allocation depends on what the Research Excellence Framework calls “impact,” which it breaks down into thirty-seven possible categories, each of which is in turn measured by a series of “indicators” such as “creating new businesses,” “commercializing new products or processes,” and “attracting R&D investment from global business” (18).

9.        It is not difficult or inaccurate to draw a line of connection between the narrow market-based vision of the Research Excellence Framework and the Globe and Mail’s editorial on “Liberal Arts and Commercial Utility,” which share both a diplomatic sense that “the liberal arts are necessary and good,” and an equal confidence that they are not somehow “sufficient in the modern age.” Certainly it is hard to see how they could be “adequate,” given the list of “indicators” supplied by the Framework. But as Collini also points out, the most serious evidence of the magnitude of this problem lies in the lack of any indicators in the final category, the only one where the work of most humanities scholars might easily be slotted, which is headed “other quality of life benefits” (18). This category is the only one of the thirty-seven that had no examples provided. It contains a one-line note, which merely says: “please suggest what might also be included in this list” (18). They had to invite suggestions because they themselves had no idea. They simply could not imagine any way that the liberal arts could be seem to have any valid social impact. It beggared their imagination.

10.        Nor is any of this unprecedented, which is where we rejoin Shelley. His complaint that poets had been challenged, “to resign the civic crown to reasoners and mechanists” remains every bit as true today, but so too does the argument that he developed in the face of this resistance (131). For early nineteenth-century advocates such as Shelley, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, the arts constituted a central aspect of a larger struggle for social progress, but like today, these arguments were themselves sharpened by the need to challenge a utilitarian emphasis on the primacy of applied knowledge. In Book III of The Rationale of Reward, Jeremy Bentham famously insisted, “that Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.” Nothing but “Prejudice” could explain the persistent faith in the value of the arts. Echoing Plato’s eviction of the poet in The Republic, Bentham went on to suggest that poetry was not only hopelessly elitist, it was actually dangerous:

The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. . . . If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased. (206–07)
Bentham may have been more polemical than most, but his position was a familiar one. His fellow utilitarian, Thomas Love Peacock (a poet himself in earlier days), insisted in The Four Ages of Poetry that the cultivation of poetry could only be “to the neglect of some branch of useful study,” in stark contrast with the tendency of “the thinking and studious, and scientific and philosophical part of the community” to draw on “the materials of useful knowledge” in order to prepare one’s self for “the real business of life” (578–79). The logic that structures the Research Excellence Framework is many ways a natural extension of these earlier utilitarian positions, which is what makes the opportunity to situate Shelley’s “Defence” within our own utilitarian debates today especially important.

11.         Responding to Peacock’s criticisms, Shelley distinguished between two different types of utility: spiritual nourishment (“whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense”) and what he dismissed as the “narrower one of banishing the importunity of the wants of our animal nature, the surrounding men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the conciliating such a degree of forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage” (132). The first is “universal and permanent,” the latter merely “transitory and particular” (132). Given this choice, Shelley suggests, the real priority is clear: what were the inconveniences of poverty, starvation and war (issues connected with “the wants of our animal nature”) compared with this higher good (“whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense”)?

12.         The problem, as students are rightly quick to notice, is that Shelley’s reaction winds up being as hopelessly self-serving and elitist as Peacock’s criticisms were shortsighted. At first glance it seems to be guilty of self-absorption in ways that make him indifferent to the needs of the worst off around him. Peacock was well-intentioned but reductive, but Shelley seems to be ranking the challenge of providing people with food, shelter, and security somewhere far beneath the task of “enlarg[ing] our imagination.” He compounds the problem by going on to dismiss mere “reasoners” such as Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who struggled in their limited way on behalf of “oppressed and deluded humanity.” Not that they were completely useless. Had the world not benefitted from their efforts, Shelley conceded, “a little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women and children, burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain” (132). But these changes paled in comparison with the spectre of “the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us” (132). One can understand people’s outrage to this position, which seems to epitomize the worst kinds of special pleading that people associate with the liberal arts: a forerunner of what Alex Usher has recently dismissed as the “‘we're-not-sure-how-but-boy-the-Arts-are-important’ hand-waving we do now” (“Re-imagining”).

13.         Usher is right to bristle at this sort of self-congratulatory posturing, except that in Shelley’s case, it is not quite this simple. In many ways, the text sets us up to believe the worst, and therefore to align ourselves with the positions espoused by Bentham and Peacock, as well as by the authors of the Research Excellence Framework and the Globe and Mail editorial, only to demonstrate why this would be so shortsighted. And the key to this reversal lies in his references to the assembly line. Far from indulging in the “‘we're-not-sure-how-but-boy-the-Arts-are-important’ hand-waving” that his argument seems to suggest, Shelley’s argument was ultimately clear sighted and materialist. His objection is not to the ideal of economic rationalization per se, but to its broader social impact: the fact that increased productivity had led, for want of the sort of larger perspective that he associated with poetry, to “the exasperation of the inequality of mankind” (134). Or as Shelley rather unpoetically put it, “the rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer” (132). In a just society, many would argue, dramatically increased productivity should be a great equalizer, a powerful means of tackling the class contradictions that had been exacerbated by the onset of the industrial revolution. But for lack of imagination, greater productivity had only magnified these inequalities. Recognizing the importance of the relation between technological advances and the visionary impulse that would ensure that these advances translate into progressive social changes means that the choice between the two different types of utility (the poetic spirit and material needs) turns out to be a false opposition that ignores the valuable relations between them. Social reformers required the visionary potential that Shelley identified with the imagination in order to recognize both the potential unintended consequences of their work and the avenues for change that might not otherwise have been envisioned. The poetic spirit expanded rather than negated or transcended the impact of applied knowledge by insisting on the larger contexts within which its deployment (or “impact”) would ultimately be felt.

14.         The problem, Shelley argued, was that rapid technological change across a range of applied sciences had fostered a sense of technological determinism that led to a politically paralyzing distortion of this relation: “We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes” (134). The problem lay in an imbalance between applied and critical, or instrumentalist and self-reflexive knowledge: “a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty. . . . From what other cause has it arisen that these inventions which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam?” (134).

15.         Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno would pose a very similar argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment but where, for Horkheimer and Adorno, there was no escape from the Enlightenment’s “indefatigable self-destructiveness,” Shelley embraced the much broader perspective that he associated with poetry as both a basis for critical insight and a stimulant for radical intervention (xi). “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine” (134). For Shelley, the poetic imagination was ultimately a form of praxis: “There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let ‘I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage’” (134).

16.        Shelley’s claim, ultimately, is that the poetic imagination marked a radical extension of Enlightenment rationalism; a self-reflexive domain capable of both interrogating the potential consequences of reformers’ interventions and of helping to maximize their progressive impact. But even more importantly, the terms in which Shelley makes this particular argument—seeming to be guilty of a flagrant case of “‘we're-not-sure-how-but-boy-the-Arts-are-important’ hand-waving we do now” only to show why this is precisely not that case through his allusions to the negative impact of the assembly line—rehearses the failure of critics to recognize the “impact” of the arts (or the humanities) in order to show why they are not just “sufficient in the modern age,” but more important than ever. At a time when the humanities face renewed pressure to justify themselves in the utilitarian terms that have come to dominate these discussions, his point is once again worth making. Learning to be good readers of Shelley’s text can foster a clearer understanding of the real nature of these debates about the humanities, both today and two hundred years ago, but it can also help to train people to be more critically engaged in the broader dynamics of our age in precisely the ways that Shelley’s argument about the power relations that inform the social impact of all applied knowledge suggests. In doing so it helps us to answer the question about the broader social worth of the humanities by making us recognize just how complicated the idea of the “impact” of knowledge can actually be.

Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy. The Rationale of Reward. London, John and H.L. Hunt, 1825.

Collini, Stefan. “Commentary.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5563, 13 Nov. 2009, pp. 18–19.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodore Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944. Translanted by John Cumming, Continuum. 1999.

“Liberal arts and commercial Utility.” The Globe and Mail. 6 Oct 2012, pp. F8+.

Nussbaum, Martha. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton UP, 2010.

Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry.” Prose of the Romantic Period. Edited by Carl R. Woodring, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961, pp. 569–80.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Crisis in the Humanities.” Electronic Poetry Centre.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Edited by Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, vol. 7, Ernest Benn and Gordian P, 1965.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. Liberty Fund. 1981.

Usher, Alex. “Re-Imagining an Arts Curriculum.” One Thought to Start Your Day On-Line Column. Higher Education Strategy Associates, 20 May 2014.

Weisbuch, Robert. “Six Proposals to Revive the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 March 1999, pp. B4+.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1750-1950. Chatto & Windus, 1958.