MFSMidwest Faculty Seminar

Current Conference

Travel/Accommodations / Upcoming Institutes

Though The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Adam Smith’s first major work, its significance has often been overshadowed by the impact of The Wealth of Nations and the ideas that follow from it. Indeed, even in his time the widespread attention accorded to his masterwork of economic thought tended to obscure his identity as one of Europe’s preeminent moral philosophers, a phenomenon that continues to this day. As a consequence, The Theory of Moral Sentiments remains in many respects secondary to The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s legacy rooted in his foundational account of economic self-interest while the importance of his moral theory is downplayed or otherwise ignored.

This seminar reconsiders the importance of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to Smith’s intellectual project, with a particular emphasis on the central arguments of the text, its place in European intellectual history, and the way Smith understands the links between his moral and economic thought. It begins, therefore, with a close examination of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and its account of sympathy, asking what sympathy is, where it comes from, and in what way it grounds Smith’s account of morality. What exactly does Smith mean by “sympathy”? What influences his understanding of the term? How does it work? And what kind of moral theorist should we understand Smith to be?

The seminar then turns to the context of the arguments put forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as the ways in which the book has been read in the years since it first appeared. How should we understand Smith's relationship to his broader intellectual milieu? What defined the reception of the book by Smith's contemporaries in Britain, Germany and France? What defines the approach of the many scholars who have sought to reconsider Smith’s work since? Is The Theory of Moral Sentiments secondary to the thought set forth in The Wealth of Nations? Or does The Theory of Moral Sentiments have a similarly important intellectual legacy of its own?

Finally, the seminar examines the relationship between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations, two key moments in Smith’s thought that have often been treated as widely divergent in the reception of his work. In what way does Smith’s understanding of the foundations of morality bear on the foundations of his economic philosophy? Is sympathy unrelated to self-interest? Or are the two concepts more closely linked than it seems? Can The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations be separated from one another? Or do these two texts from complementary parts of Smith's broader philosophical work?

By re-examining the basic argument and influence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the seminar hopes, in one sense, to come to a better understanding of a text whose intricacies and importance have often been overlooked. In another sense, though, the seminar aims to excavate the relationship between Smith’s moral and economic thought, the better to understand the moral foundations of the economic system that structures our world. At a time when the moral foundations of capitalism are ever more in question, the seminar hopes to consider this fundamental work of Enlightenment philosophy anew.

Presenters include James Chandler (English), Jennifer Pitts (Political Science), Candace Vogler (Philosophy), Samuel Fleishacker (Philosophy, University of Illinois at Chicago) and Ryan Hanley (Political Science, Marquette University).


Current Conference / Upcoming Institutes

We are pleased that you will be joining us for a Midwest Faculty Seminar. To make your stay at the University of Chicago as pleasant as possible, we have tried to anticipate the questions you may have regarding the organization of the seminar and your accommodations. If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 773.834.4439 or at

Location: The seminar will meet on the University of Chicago Campus. Please refer to the campus map for directions: Seminars begin at 8:45 a.m. on the Thursday of the conference and conclude by 12:00 p.m. on Saturday. Persons with a disability who believe they may need assistance should call us at least one week in advance of the seminar.

Schedule: A seminar schedule will be sent to you via email at least two weeks prior to the seminar. Click here to see a sample schedule. Please note that the seminar begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday and will end by 1:00 p.m. on Saturday.

Accommodations: All seminar participants who request housing will stay at the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel, 4900 South Lake Shore Drive. The phone number is (800) 237-4933. The hotel fee is paid for by the Midwest Faculty Seminar. You will, however, be responsible for incidental charges such as telephone usage and meals (to be paid during your stay). If you have requested a single room, you will be asked to pay for half the costs of the room (approximately $50/night or $150/total). If applicable, you will receive an invoice once hotel reservations have been finalized.

Unless otherwise specified, a room has been reserved for you to check in on Wednesday before the conference, after 3pm, and out on Saturday, by noon. You will need to check out before you come to the seminar on Saturday morning, but you will be able to leave your bags at the front desk in case you need to leave from the hotel (i.e. if you need to catch an airport shuttle). You may also bring your bags to campus if you plan on leaving town directly from the University. If you are planning to arrive or depart at different times, please let us know in advance

Transportation: For those flying into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Omega Limousine Service is an inexpensive method of traveling to the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel. If you wish to make reservations or have further questions about their regularly scheduled airport routes, please call Omega Limousine Service at (773) 734-6688 or book online at . For those flying into Midway Airport, a taxicab is most convenient and will cost approximately $30.

Parking: Free parking is available at the hotel (your car will be accessible from the garage 24/7). If you wish to drive to the conference, a public parking garage is located on the southeast corner of 55th Street and Ellis Avenue. The rate is $4 per hour with a $20/day maximum fee. Parking in this garage is free from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and on weekends. There is ample free parking surrounding the university, though if you don’t arrive early in the morning it can be very difficult to get a spot. Parking is generally most plentiful on the Midway, which is directly south of the university, between 59th and 60th Street.

Meals: Following the final session on Thursday, all participants are cordially invited to a dinner. On Friday, lunch will be provided. Please let us know as soon as possible if you have any special dietary needs so that I can plan the lunch with the caterer. Participants are responsible for all other meals, though we will have coffee, tea and water available throughout the three days and will have light breakfast items available on Saturday morning. A complimentary breakfast is provided by the hotel.

If you have any questions regarding the above, please do not hesitate to contact us by phone or by email at We look forward to meeting you at the next Midwest Faculty Seminar.

Upcoming Institutes

Current Conference Travel/Accommodations

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

October 30-November 1, 2014

Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is one of the foundational texts of the Scottish Enlightenment, not to mention one of the most widely taught works in European intellectual history as well. For all its popularity, however, many aspects of Smith’s argument remain understudied or simply misunderstood, especially where the links between Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations are concerned. This seminar reconsiders the foundations of Smith’s moral philosophy, with a particular emphasis on the context out of which Smith’s work emerges, its place in European intellectual history, and the way Smith understands the links between his moral and economic thought. What defined the intellectual milieu in which Smith produced this seminal work? How should we understand the relationship between the ideas Smith puts forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his contemporaries and predecessors in Britain, Germany and France? And in what way does Smith’s understanding of the foundations of morality bear on the foundations of his economic philosophy? Can the two be separated from one another? Or does capitalism as Smith understands it rely in a fundamental way on his account of morality? At a time when the moral foundations of capitalism are ever more in question, the seminar hopes to consider this fundamental work of moral philosophy anew.

Order and Liberty in the Information Age

January 15-17, 2015

New information technologies are often credited with making it difficult for governments to control information. Twitter, for example, is said to have played a role in fomenting the Arab Spring, while many recent leak scandals in the US suggest how hard it is to control access to even the most sensitive government data. Just as often, however, the apparent freedoms made possible by the information age have produced novel forms of surveillance and control. It is, for instance, startlingly easy for governments to cut off access to the Internet, and story after story about NSA surveillance shows how quickly surveillance regimes can spiral out of control. This seminar explores the tensions between order and liberty in our information age, as well as the ways in which the proliferation of social media and other forms of techno-sociality has changed how we think about the nature of information, ownership and control. In what ways have social media and other information technologies enabled the spread of otherwise isolated information? How have those same technologies complicated the way we understand the nature of privacy and the boundaries of government surveillance? What do recent controversies surrounding, for instance, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, or Edward Snowden and the NSA, tell us about the nature of information and the boundaries of government sovereignty? Can our data ever be our own? Or are we entering into an era in which even our most private experiences are part of a technological public sphere?

Everyday Life

February 26-28, 2015

At first glance, the meaning of ‘everyday life’ may seem clear. However, for as long as ‘everyday life’ and the range of objects, affects, and practices it calls to mind have been studied, scholars have engaged in intense debate over what everyday life is and how best represent it. This seminar considers the current state of scholarship on everyday life, with a special focus on the different ways in which it has been conceptualized written about in different disciplinary sites and geographic locales. What defines the study of the everyday among scholars working in Europe? How have scholars working in places like India, Africa, and the Caribbean taken up their work? What, moreover, is the everyday to historians and literary critics? Sociologists and anthropologists? Philosophers and linguists? And in what ways scholars tried to represent the everyday life in their work? Can the academic essay capture the elusive nature of what scholarship in this area tries to represent? Or does the study of everyday life demand a reconsideration of scholarly genres as well? By exploring a wide range of ways in which scholars in the humanities and social sciences have conceptualized everyday life, the seminar hopes, on one level, to come to terms with an area of inquiry that is often as elusive as it is influential. At the same time, however, it also aims to develop a sense of the ways in which the study of everyday life has influenced the way scholars across the disciplines do their work today.

What is human nature?

April 16-18, 2015

The question of what makes us human has traditionally belonged to fields such as anthropology, theology and philosophy. Increasingly, however, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and even economics have begun to explore the question as well. As a result, notions about the underpinnings of being human cherished in the humanities are being challenged by scientific inquiries that promises to fundamentally transform the way we think about the nature of reason, emotion, language, values and the determinants of human behavior. This seminar explores the contributions made by the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to our current understanding of human nature, including the contrasts among diverse disciplinary approaches to the question. How have disciplines like philosophy and theology traditionally approached the question of what it is to be human? What vision of the human person has resulted? How, by contrast, are cognitive science and neurobiology coming to understand the foundations of human personhood? In ways do they challenged our longstanding received wisdom as regards human subjectivity? Are the sciences taking over what used to be the sole province of humanistic inquiry? Or does this wide-ranging new scholarship open the possibility of new forms of collaboration between these otherwise differing fields?