1 December 2011

The final Michealmas term seminar!

Dr David Miller

Enlightened Anxieties: Some Observations on Poetry and Civil Society in Ferguson and Adam Smith

7th December 2011

4:30 – 6:00 pm

Department of English Studies,

Hallgarth House Seminar Room



This work takes a close look at what the principal theorists of ‘civil’ society in the Scottish Enlightenment, primarily Ferguson and Smith, have to say about the place and function of poetry in ‘civil’ society and how poetry is supposed to operate in established capitalist economies. The work tends to show that poetry, as opposed to what both writers called ‘literature’, operates as an index of ‘civilisation’ but at the same time cannot be made to comply with the generals theories they expound. In other words, poetry is the site at which the main problems of the theories can be located and poetry becomes the test of all that the theories try and fail to achieve.

The paper attempts to put forward some possible reasons for this and also tries to show why poetry is such a ‘problem’ for the exponents of enlightened ‘civil society’. There are some observation on the ‘decline of manners’ and the role of ‘opulence’ in civil society, but in general the paper is focused on question of poetry in its relationship with ideas of ‘sociability’, ‘social contract’, ‘law’, and ‘community’.


Dr David Miller works on nineteenth century and early Modernist poetry, in particular on the way poetry interacts with philosophy, political theory and cultural commentary. He has written a book based in this area, With Poetry and Philosophy: Four Dialogic Studies and a number of related articles and presentations. His research is primarily concerned with the means by which poetry resists incorporation into ideological and theoretical ‘systems’ and he is currently working on a monograph on poetry and theories of civil society. Dr Miller has taught at universities in Rome and Edinburgh and is currently research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh. He is the general editor of the international Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies.

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