The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview
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Looking back over these chapters, we can see that political economists and the British literati were fellow travelers in a long migration that transferred speculations about life, death, and the passions from the realms of theology and moral philosophy to those of biology, comparative anthropology, and psychology. And yet we don't think of economics today as sharing much with these “life sciences,” so what became of bioeconomics and somaeconomics as economics disciplined itself?

Unlike their literary contemporaries, the political economists had no ambivalence about developing a “discipline,” and hence they tended to keep track of their changing intellectual environment so that they could distinguish themselves from it. Moreover, the group of political economists most deeply concerned with bioeconomics and somaeconomics—Malthus, Senior, McCulloch, Chadwick, Jennings, Spencer, and Jevons—tended, in their very modes of shifting into new intellectual vicinities, to firm up their disciplinary borders. If we trace, for example, the connections linking a set of incidents we have already encountered, we can observe how, when they broke their ties with the eudemonic position inside moral philosophy, they both made an opening toward psychophysiology and established the condition on which they could forget all about “sensation.”

Nassau Senior's 1836 Outline of the Science of Political Economy, began, it will be recalled, by trying to delimit his subject, explaining that political economy cannot be a science until it knows and respects its place in relation to “the Sciences and Arts to which it is subservient”1 (4), for it was only one small subset of “the theory of morals and government” (2). When he insisted that “the subject of the Political Economist is not Happiness, but Wealth” (2), and that the question of the good of wealth itself must fall outside the confines of his inquiry, he was trying to move the focus of political economists from their surroundings (ethics) to the insides of their own discipline. Let those concerned with other branches of “moral philosophy” answer the question of “[t]o what extent and under what circumstances the possession of Wealth is, on the whole, beneficial or injurious to its possessor, or to the society of which he is a member” (2).

The apparent modesty of Senior's formulation, its reference to the “subservience” of the discipline, was thus calculated to exempt political economy

1 Senior, Outline of the Science of Political Economy (New York: A. M. Kelly, 1836). Subsequent
page numbers are given in the body of the afterword.


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The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel


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