The Fiction of Generosity: Disinterest and the Eighteenth Century Open Access

Yu, Daniel (Spring 2018)

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This dissertation argues that the modern understanding of generosity is a fiction that is produced through eighteenth-century representations of disinterest. As the pursuit of gain is raised to the level of a virtue following the early modern period, the ascetic value of selflessness comes under scrutiny. Novelists and political philosophers respond to growing uncertainty about what a charitable gift is worth or whether a friendship can be valuable if it does not provide a benefit. Eighteenth-century fictions form the discursive space in which the seemingly antagonistic relationship between self-interest and gratuity is worked out over the course of a narrative. The first chapter shows how the ethical rigorism found in modern philosophical writing on the gift can be traced to Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, which expresses skepticism concerning all claims to disinterestedness. The second chapter argues that the economic behavior in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is characterized by reciprocal goodwill, not secular industry and rationally organized labor, as later economists believe. A third chapter connects the gratuitous gift with the spontaneous jest in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, two novels which celebrate man’s innately sympathetic disposition rather than the practice of self-denial. I conclude that eighteenth-century discourses provide the terms for debate over generosity; modern analyses of the gift begin by considering whether individuals are naturally interested or disinterested, eliding the social and symbolic structures which determine forms of exchange.

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                                                                       1


Chapter 1: Disinterest from Locke to Levinas                                                                                 14


Chapter 2: The Strange, Surprising Crusoe                                                                                     60


Chapter 3: The Disinterested Jester                                                                                               120


Conclusion: Post-script on Asceticism and Disinterestedness                                                      173


Bibliography                                                                                                                                 185


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