Imaginary Vantage Points: The Invisible Hand and the Rise of Political Economy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In eighteenth-century British aesthetics, landscape painting came to embody a set of important social values, serving among other things as catalogue of country house styles, elegy for lost civilizations, and creator of the cult of unspoiled Nature. But as John Barrell has argued, the ideal of visibility, of viewing a whole landscape scene at once from a distant location, also implies a certain class position. Especially at the beginning of the century, gentlemen of landed property justified their political power as magistrates through their disinterested ability to view their whole society from a distance. Any ‘specific profession, trade, or occupation’, it was presumed, ‘might occlude [the gentleman’s] view of society as a whole’. To take part in society, then, is to be partially blind to its workings, according to much eighteenth-century social philosophy.1 This paradox troubled Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations particularly in regards to the role of philosophy itself. On the one hand he boasts of the philosopher’s leisure to survey his society: ‘These varied occupations present an almost infinite variety of objects to the contemplation of those few, who, being attached to no particular occupation themselves, have leisure and inclination to examine the occupations of other people. The contemplation of so great a variety of objects necessarily exercises their minds … and renders their understandings, in an extraordinary degree, both acute and comprehensive’ (WN II, 783). On the other hand, since philosophy is not labour, it produces no value and must be considered economically ‘unproductive’ along with the work of ‘churchmen’ and ‘opera-singers’ (WN I, 331).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages52
StatePublished - 2011

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
ISSN (Print)2634-6494
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6508


  • Impartial Spectator
  • Invisible Hand
  • Moral Sentiment
  • Political Economy
  • Social Order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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