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“Come forth into the light of things”: William Wordsworth’s Human Challenge to Economic Thinking

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When priests and princes lost their monopoly over the big questions of human existence over the course of the Enlightenment, philosophers, poets, and ordinary people struggled to find out the answers on their own. 

When priests and princes lost their monopoly over the big questions of human existence over the course of the Enlightenment, philosophers, poets, and ordinary people struggled to find out the answers on their own. They looked at themselves and their surroundings with fresh eyes and asked: What am I? What makes me think and feel as I do? What is the source of knowledge? Of morality? What conditions bring out the best in people? In societies?

For Adam Smith, a key figure of the Enlightenment, and William Wordsworth, a leading voice in the rise of Romanticism that challenged much of Enlightenment thinking, the answers to these questions mattered greatly. 

The conclusions they drew matter a great deal to us today. Smith, a moral philosopher who studied economics but taught rhetoric and belles lettres, influenced the dominant view of human nature and relations lodged in today’s political economy and economic thought. Wordsworth, a poet deeply interested in nature and science, opened a channel of resistance to many of those views that is still active in current economic and social justice movements, environmentalism, and strains of psychology. 

This paper explores the tension between the two men’s perspectives and discusses what may have been gained and lost, and what may yet be recovered, from views clouded by a long history of readings and misreadings.