“A Scientifical View of the Whole”: Adam Smith, Indexing, and Technologies of Abstraction


While numerous literary scholars have raised concerns about the capacity of computational methods to reveal unrecognized features of literary form and content, few have explored the approach of interpreting these methods in relation to historical antecedents (such as the eighteenth-century subject index) that were similarly designed for comprehending and representing large amounts of text in easily intelligible formats. This essay compares methods of mapping the contents of texts from different historical periods by examining Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) from two perspectives: that of its 1784 index and that of a topic model generated from the text. We contend that this sort of comparative interpretation of models demonstrates a new way to consider computational methods not as heralding a break from print genres like the index but, instead, as participating in a longer tradition of practices that have sought to make massive amounts of text accessible for readers, whether they are human or machine.