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How thinking became work : the mental work problem in nineteenth-century Europe Howell, Jordan


This essay examines the problem of mental work in nineteenth-century Europe. As intellectual occupations became part of the economy, different thinkers strove to understand the nature of mental work. Whether it was penning novels, performing experiments, managing accounts, or designing products, intellectual labour became a new form of life in the modern metropolis. The crucial question for late-nineteenth century thinkers was how one could anchor and measure the value of ideas. Although the question was economic in nature, the solutions involved resources drawn from across the human sciences, but in particular from political economy, physiological psychology, sociology and philosophy. I show that the mental work problem was bound up with the dissolution of the labour theory of value, and the shift in political economy towards psychology and consumption. Few observed this shift, and its connection to the mental work problem, as well as Georg Simmel. I show that Simmel’s reflections on mental work led him to theorize the role of knowledge and intellectual work in the economy.

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