The Novel and Moral Philosophy 1: What Does Charlotte Lennox Have to Do with Adam Smith?

ilennox001p1The Visualizing English Print group is using new visualization tools to study genre dynamics in our corpus of texts spanning the years 1530-1799. While far from comprehensive, the corpus spans an interesting period in the history of English print. Most literary historians, for example, would agree that this is the period when the novel emerges as a distinct generic form. One of the tools we are using – a re-orderable matrix and topic modeling tool called Serendip – has generated topics that illuminate this development in our corpus. We began that work by first labeling all 1080 items by genre, something we had to do if we were going to see any patterns in the larger collection. (A downloadable spreadheet of both the items and the genre labels applied to them appears in a spreadsheet here.) This post deals with two algorithmically generated topics that we found useful in identifying items we had previously labeled “prose fiction” and “philosophy.”  The topics were generated through a process known as Latent Derichlet Allocation (LDA), a technique commonly used to sort through web pages or documents in large collections of texts.

In exploring the VEP corpus with Serendip, we saw that our prose fiction texts – particularly the eighteenth century novels – were related to our philosophy texts in some interesting ways. We began to understand that relationship when we noticed that prose fiction and philosophy texts shared the topics that are present in large measure in each of them individually. (A topic is a collection of words that tend to co-occur with one another in individual documents; one might think of them as “ingredients” that are mixed together to create the full variety of documents in the corpus.) The first of these topics was characteristically present in texts classed as prose fiction, which was reasonably interesting. More interesting still: we found that the type of texts next most likely to contain words from this “prose fiction” topic were those we classed as “philosophy.” And the topic that was most prevalent in philosophy texts – in this case, works of moral philosophy by thinkers such as Smith and Hume – were also present in our prose fiction novels.

Why this overlap or sharing of ingredients? Where does the novel stop and moral philosophy begin? Before attempting an answer, it is important to understand what kinds of works qualified, in our naming game, for membership in these two groups. A complete list of works in the corpus, with their genre classes, can be found at the link above. Below we list only the works in these two classes. Our naming convention begins with a date of publication, short title of the work, author, and assigned genre class. Our dates here refer to the date of the edition transcribed by TCP in a corpus assembled at random: per our earlier post on the corpus, it is composed of 40 randomly selected texts per decade. The corpus was thus specifically not created for the purpose of exhaustive surveying any one literary form. Our purpose, rather, was to see how much we could learn from a relatively small sample of what TCP had transcribed.

Fictional Prose:

1588 PandostoTriumphOfTime Greene, Robert, 1558-1592
1639 MoresUtopia More, Thomas
1634 StrangeMetamorphosisOfMan Brathwait, Richard, 1588?-1673
1667 LovingEnemyATrueHistory Camus, Jean-Pierre, 1584-1652.|Wright, John
1659 GovernmentOfWorldInMoon Cyrano de Bergerac, 1619-1655.|St. Serfe, Thomas, fl. 1668
1668 LifeOfMeritonLatroon Head, Richard, 1637?-1686?
1680 TheEnglishRoguePart2 Head, Richard, 1637?-1686?
1700 HistoryOfChildrenInTheWood
1572 SchoolOfWiseConceits Blague, Thomas, d. 1611
1759 PoliticalRomanceToYork Sterne, Laurence, 1713-1768
1799 TisAllForTheBest More, Hannah, 1745-1833
1724 HistoryOfJohnOfBourbon Aulnoy, Madame d’ (Marie-Catherine), 1650 or 51-1705
1753 SirCharlesGrandisonV1 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1753 SirCharlesGrandisonV5 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1749 TomJonesV1 Fielding, Henry, 1707-1754
1749 TomJonesV3 Fielding, Henry, 1707-1754
1789 Arundel Cumberland, Richard, 1732-1811
1712 AppendixToJohnBull Arbuthnot, John, 1667-1735
1797 FantomNewFashionedPhilosopher More, Hannah, 1745-1833
1748 RoderickRandomV2 Smollett, Tobias George, 1721-1771
1748 ClarissaV1 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1751 ClarrissaV8 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1777 CharlesCharlotteV1 Pratt, Mr. (Samuel Jackson), 1749-1814
1777 CharlesCharlotteV2 Pratt, Mr. (Samuel Jackson), 1749-1814
1764 CastleOfOtranto Walpole, Horace, 1717-1797
1763 HistoryLadyJuliaMadeville Brooke, Frances, 1724?-1789
1794 AdventuresOfHughTrevor Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809
1790 JuliaNovelAndPoems Williams, Helen Maria, 1762-1827
1752 FemaleQuixote Lennox, Charlotte, ca. 1729-1804
1758 HenriettaTwoVolumes Lennox, Charlotte, ca. 1729-1804
1790 EuphemiaFourVolumes Lennox, Charlotte, ca. 1729-1804
1782 CeciliaV3 Burney, Fanny, 1752-1840
1782 CeciliaV5 Burney, Fanny, 1752-1840
1741 PamelaV3 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1741 PamelaV4 Richardson, Samuel, 1689-1761
1785 RecessTaleOfOtherTimes Lee, Sophia, 1750-1824
1795 HenryFourVolumes Cumberland, Richard, 1732-1811
1776 PupilOfPleasure Pratt, Mr. (Samuel Jackson), 1749-1814
1753 ShakespeareIllustrated Lennox, Charlotte, ca. 1729-1804
1792 AnnaStIvesNovel Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809
1766 VicarOfWakefieldTale Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774
1788 MusicalTourMrDibdin Dibdin, Charles, 1745-1814
1775 LiberalOpinionsAnecdotes Pratt, Mr. (Samuel Jackson), 1749-1814


1534 ErasmusAgainstWar Erasmus, Desiderius, d. 1536
1532 DespisingTheWorld Erasmus, Desiderius, d. 1536.|Paynell, Thomas
1531 TreatiseSufferFriendsDeath Erasmus, Desiderius, d. 1536
1590 RoyalExchangeAphorisms Rinaldi, Oraziofin /upd.|Greene, Robert, 1558?-1592
1614 LabyrinthOfMansLife Norden, John, 1548-1625?
1576 AnatomyOfTheMind Rogers, Thomas, d. 1616
1580 PatternOfAPassionateMind Rogers, Thomas, d. 1616.|Rogers, Thomas, d. 1616.|H. W
1561 CicerosFiveQuestions Cicero, Marcus Tullius.|Dolman, John
1675 FreedomOfWill Sterry, Peter, 1613-1672
1741 EveryManHisOwnWayEpistle Duck, Stephen, 1705-1756
1752 TheRambler Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784
1740 TreatiseHumanNatureAbstract Hume, David, 1711-1776
1741 EssaysMoralAndPolitical Hume, David, 1711-1776
1759 EpistlesPhilosphicalAndMoral Kenrick, W. (William), 1725?-1779
1734 EssaysOnSeveralSubjects Forbes of Pitsligo, Alexander Forbes, Lord, 1678-1762
1751 EssaysOnTheCharacteristics Brown, John, 1715-1766
1759 TheoryMoralSentimentsSmith Smith, Adam, 1723-1790
1734 EssayonMan Pope, Alexander, 1688-1744.]

A look at these lists confirms that our corpus contains significant examples of both the eighteenth-century novel (Richardson, Burney, Lennox) and important texts in the history of moral philosophy, for example, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Noting these landmarks, we want now to explore this overlap in vocabularies and share some preliminary thoughts about why novels share the vocabulary of moral philosophy and how those vocabularies function in each genre.

The next three posts are structured as a dialogue, beginning with some remarks by Michael Witmore (a Serendip user) and Eric Alexander (Serendip’s designer). These remarks focus on how Serendip helped them to pinpoint this kinship between the two genres. In the next post, we have a “reaction” from a scholar of the Eighteenth Century Novel, Julie Park, who was recently a fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library where Serendip was tested. Her post, entitled “Telling and Feeling, Aunts and Letters,” introduces some historical context for the development of the eighteenth century novel, moving on to show how the topic words associated with the prose fiction texts contribute to the latter’s project of rendering everyday life and moral sensibility for readers. Park offers specific readings of some of the topic words that Serendip flagged as highly present of our clusters of topic words, offering the perspective of a new user/interpreter on the results produced by a software tool still in development. In a final post entitled “What Does Lennox Do with Moral Philosophy Words?” Witmore expands on Park’s analysis, offering an interpretation of the differences between the two topical fields we are associating with the novel and moral philosophy.


We begin with a few words about what Serendip is and how it works. At its highest level, Serendip allows users to visualize how topics are distributed across a document set. “Topics,” in this instance, are significant collections of words (extracted by an algorithm known as Latent Dirichlet Allocation, or LDA) that tend to occur in the same documents across a corpus. Serendip displays the occurrence of these topics in a re-orderable matrix that plots documents, in the vertical axis, against topics, in the horizontal axis, indicating individual proportions with circular glyphs of varying size. Documents can be displayed individually or in aggregate groups. After some tuning by Alexander, who is the original designer of Serendip, a user (in this case, Witmore) takes the tool and begins to explore these topics, looking at what words they contain and what texts score highest on each topic. The power of the tool is the ability it gives its user to re-order the matrix according to individual topics, texts, or text groups.

We are not going to discuss how topic modeling works in this post. (A good explanation can be found on Ted Underwood’s blog.) We do want to show something that happened when we began exploring this corpus using the topics that had been generated for us. You’ll see several screen shots below. For the time being, focus on the center pane with the yellow circles that look like planets. Across the top are the topics, which were named according to Witmore’s best guess at what they captured in texts. (Naming topics is a task that seems to have been designed for human beings: the judgments are highly contextual and built upon the study of examples.) Witmore’s topic names were based, first, on his examination of the word distribution in that topic (the window at right labeled “Novel”), but also on his knowledge of the works displayed in the lower right hand pane. (The lower right hand pane displays individual texts within a given subgroup of texts – here the ones that our bibliographer had labeled “prose fiction”). A lot of this is subjective, which is as it should be.


On this screen, Witmore had selected the topic which he had named “Novel” at the top left portion of the page and then re-ordered the matrix to show all of the genre types which contain those topic words. (The genres are listed vertically in descending order down the red column at left.) The size of these circles represents the frequency with which this topic occurs in a given group of texts; additional information about outliers is furnished by the Saturn-like rings. We can also disaggregate this group and see how individual texts score on this topic, again in descending order:


Witmore’s initial name for this topic was “Novel,” which seems to accord well with the actual texts that are highly rated on this topic: Charlotte Lennox’s Henrietta, followed by two parts of a Richardson novel, a few dramas, and then more novels by Lennox and Richardson. Knowing that he needed to consult an expert, he decided to talk to Julie Park, a scholar of eighteenth century literature, whom he hoped could help him understand this topic. The initial identification of this topic, however, seemed right given that the matrix in the previous screenshot identifies texts classed as “Fictional Prose,” “Autobiography,” “Drama,” “Travelogue,” and “Biography” as high scorers on this topic. (“Legal Prose,” not so much, which is all for the good.)

Neither Witmore nor Park was surprised to see that the words making up the “Novel” topic (mr, mrs, lady, madam, sir, miss, dear) occur frequently in epistolary novels, which make up a large proportion of this group. For structural reasons, the narrative voice of epistolary novels must register and mark an awareness of addressee (Mr., Sir, etc.); letters also recount dialogue (and so, once again, use terms of address and quotational words like “cried,” “told,” “replied,”). The drama of these novels is a social one; we are not surprised to find words that tag an individual’s social standing. (Technical terms from geometry or botany are not featured high on this list, for example.) The initial finding suggested to us that we were operating in the same universe as the tool; it was doing things we understood.

But you can always know what you know in new ways and you can also try to describe that knowledge in different terms. This is what we were interested in doing with the tool that Eric had built. Re-ordering was the next step in the process.

Look now at a second re-ordering of the matrix, this time on the basis of a topic named “Moral Philosophy” which is the third column to the right in light blue. The topic words here are obviously abstract – the highest scorers are words like “object,” “mankind,” “idea,” “system” – but further down the list, they seem to focus on the dynamics of moral deliberation. “Sentiment,” “moral,” “characters,” “propriety” and “sentiments” are all words that seem useful in this context. (One never knows for sure how words are going together or behaving, of course, until one sees these words working in a text.) Here again, the ratings of genre groups in descending order seemed plausible, beginning with “Philosophy”  and then moving through “Argumentation” and other forms of “Nonfiction Prose.”


We get an even better sense when we rate items on this topic at a more granular level, going work by work in descending order. The “Moral Philosophy” topic – the blue, leftmost column – is now rating individual works:


An abstract of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature is the top scorer here, and a little further down one sees Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Calling this topic “Moral Philosophy” rather than “Natural Philosophy” or “Metaphysics” was seeming like the right move.

Now look at what happens when we re-organize the matrix according to the human generated genre designations on the left hand side – essentially asking which computer generated topics a human designated genre group is made up of. Returning to a view that shows us the groups down the left hand side, we re-ordered the matrix according to the topic scores of texts that a human being has classified as “Fictional Prose:”


“Fictional Prose” texts are, as a group, rated horizontally on their prevalent topics, again in descending order, now from right to left. What we are seeing now are the topics of which “Fictional Prose” texts are generally composed. The first one listed is “Novel,” to which we say, “so far, so good.” But look just to the right. Going next in sequence, we see that “Moral Philosophy” has moved across the screen to become the second most highly ranked topic for this type of text, followed closely by another topic named “Tales of Chance and Virtue.”

Now things become interesting. Why would prose fictional texts, largely epistolary and high scorers on the “Novel” topic, also be associated with the “Moral Philosophy” topic? What does Charlotte Lennox do that Adam Smith does as well?

To answer this question, we needed to begin looking at the topic words in context, which we did through Serendip’s ability to drill down into the documents, allowing us to view passages. We generated several views of the texts that showed texts by Charlotte Lennox and Adam Smith with topic words highlighted in different colors (red for the novel, blue for moral philosophy). To get a sense of what the “novel” words in red are actually doing in context, we asked Julie Park to produce the reflection that follows in the next post, which begins with an analysis of novel words in Charlotte Lennox’s Euphemia. We also furnished her with several screenshots of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, since this text contained a significant number of topic words that we are associating with moral philosophy. We post here a few screenshots of each work as a preface to the next installment.



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