Exploring the Literary in Britain's Literary and Philosophical Societies, 1780-1840
- Room G39, School of Education (Building R19)
- Social Sciences
Speaker Dr Heather Ellis, University of Sheffield.
The literary and philosophical societies which flourished across Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often located in centres of industry like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. As a result, they are frequently viewed by historians as crucial sites for the development of the natural and physical sciences, in particular, the practical application of scientific research to the needs of industry in the towns where they were based. According to the economic historian Joel Mokyr, they ‘served as clearing houses for useful knowledge between natural philosophers, engineers and entrepreneurs.’
Where attention has been paid to the ‘literary’ activities of the literary and philosophical societies, the focus has primarily been on their influence as popular educational institutions, diffusing knowledge and promoting ‘improvement.’ This paper, however, will consider their role as knowledge-making institutions within the fields of literary studies and historiography. A substantial proportion of papers read before these societies described themselves as seeking to contribute to the development of literary criticism and historical scholarship as fields of knowledge. Likewise, they were preoccupied with analysing a wide range of literary texts (often adopting a comparative approach) from the ancient to modern worlds. By reconstructing something of the significance of literary and historical scholarship in the activities of these societies and their members, I hope to show that their role as sites for the production of humanistic knowledge has been considerably underestimated.
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