Immoral Sentiments

Self-Narratives and the Reformation of Feeling between London and Guangzhou, 1780 to 1850

Kerstin Maria Pahl

This project explores counter-concepts to sympathy in a period known alternately as the ‘age of revolution,’ the ‘age of improvement,’ or the ‘age of sensibility’ (c. 1760/80s to 1830s/50s). In 1759, Adam Smith published his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, the most famous treatise to promote a particular emotional style as a marker of the modern, civilised, and mostly male subject: sensitive, but not too passionate; sensible, but not too cold. Over the decades, Anglo-American culture would adapt this precept, with individuals enacting it in countless practices from letter-writing to philanthropy. Reversely, a non-civilised status came to be indicated by immoral sentiments and emotional shortcomings, such as indifferent attitudes, hard-heartedness, or a callous disregard for the feelings of others.

This project recovers the ambiguous experiences of people engaging with these modern feeling rules. As a social, cultural, and material history of ideas, it draws on a wide array of self-narratives and ego-documents from twenty archives in Britain, the US, and Germany to investigate how individuals encountered and navigated unemotionality, either their own or in others. In so doing, I have three major aims: first, to shed light on lesser-known features of European and transatlantic cultures of sensibility of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, namely debates on insensibility, callousness, and apathy; second, to reconstruct how emotional experiences grated with emotional and moral norms; and third, to show how knowledge about emotions and indifference was leveraged for the purpose of implementing distinctions on the basis of gender, race, age, or religion.

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