Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of “Useful Knowledge”

This essay challenges students to think about how we might make the case for the public value of the humanities by grounding our own debates about these issues in a close reading of Percy Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.” It argues that Shelley’s argument against the primacy of utilitarian pragmatism is not, despite its apparent rhetoric, a lofty and off-putting retreat into elitist claims for the arts, but quite the contrary, a radical and politically engaged account of why the arts ultimately matter more than applied forms of “useful knowledge,” even within the context of social reform.