Enlightenment Social Theory

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Enlightenment social theory is important to science, technology, and ethics because it represents one of the first venues in which human activities were widely studied from a scientific perspective, and in which utilitarian and naturalistic ethical systems were offered to replace the religiously-based deontological, or duty-oriented, ethical systems which had dominated premodern society.

One of the most frequently stated goals of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was the creation of a science of human nature and society incorporating deterministic laws of behavior to match the spectacular successes of the physical sciences. David Hume (1711–1766), for example, announced his intention to become "the Newton of the Moral sciences." But eighteenth-century social theorists did not agree on which model from the physical sciences social theories should emulate.

Generally speaking, one can identify three classes of natural scientific models for the social sciences. The first stressed the approach of natural history and Hippocratic medicine, emphasizing the observation of phenomena in their situated complexity (empiricism). The second emulated the characteristics of rational mechanics, emphasizing the derivation of effects from a small number of well-defined a priori principles. The third attempted to apply the methods of the newly emerging experimental sciences, which insisted upon the isolation of salient variables whose relationships were established empirically, through their controlled manipulation. Within the social sciences, those who viewed themselves as introducing experimental approaches did emphasize the isolation of relevant variables; but their notion of experiment was generally different from that used in the natural sciences. Hume explained that difference very clearly:

We must glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behavior in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared [for example, from histories and travel accounts], we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of Human comprehension (1969, p. 46).

With few exceptions, those eighteenth-century scientists and philosophers who derived their approaches largely from natural history—such as Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu (usually known simply as Montesquieu), Adam Ferguson, and Edmund Burke—usually focused on humans as habitual and emotional beings and ended up toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. Those who derived their approaches principally from the rational mechanics tradition—such as the physiocrat Jean Claude Helvétius, Mercier de la Rivière, Anne-Marie Condorcet, and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—focused on humans as rational beings and ended up at the radical end of the political and social spectrum. Those who saw themselves as synthesizing empirical and rational approaches—such as David Hartley, Adam Smith, and Etienne Condillac—tended to see humans as expressing both emotional and rational characteristics and ended up in the liberal portion of the political and social spectrum. Regardless of what model they adapted from the natural sciences, Enlightenment social theorists tended to reject deontological approaches to ethics in favor of consequentialist ones, though the utilitarian ethical theories of the radical and liberal thinkers were vastly different from those of the more thoroughly empirical conservatives.

In 1749 Montesquieu published his Spirit of the Laws in an attempt to explore how different legal systems developed. Though he was inclined to think that humans were pretty much identical everywhere, as the president of a local judicial body that often found itself in conflict with the central authority of the French crown, he was painfully aware of the immense variations in local customs and laws, and he took as his task the explanation of those variations. To classical republican arguments that laws had to be suited to the principles attached to the form of government of a people, Montesquieu added three kinds of arguments that were to have immense long-term significance.

First, he argued that the laws and customs of a country will depend upon the dominant mode of subsistence of that country, classifying modes of subsistence as hunting, herding, agricultural, and commercial. Hunting societies, for example, will have much less complex laws that herding societies because the complication of private ownership of animals is added in herding societies. Laws will be even more complex in agrarian societies in which heritable real property becomes important; and they will be even more complex in commercial societies in which it is critical to have legal means for enforcing a wide variety of contracts. Montesquieu felt that trade promoted mutual dependence and therefore increased tolerance for cultural differences among trading partners; so it promotes peace among nations. Within a given nation, however, Montesquieu argued that trade promoted competition and egotism rather than cooperation and altruism.

Second, Montesquieu argued for a kind of environmental determinism that made customs and laws suitable to one region quite unsuitable to others. For example, he argued that the high temperatures in the tropics made men lazy, justifying the practice of slavery so that work would get done. Similarly he thought that women aged more rapidly in tropical regions, justifying the practice of male plural marriage with women of different ages. Neither slavery nor plural marriage was, however, justifiable in temperate regions. This situational ethics that derived from Montesquieu's environmental determinism illustrates how attempts a social science could undermine deontological ethics.

Finally, Montesquieu was one of the first serious social theorists to articulate a principle that would become the hallmark of conservative political theory through the twentieth century. This principle is often called the principle of unintended consequences, and Montesquieu openly appropriated it from Bernard Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees" of 1705, though he gave it much greater currency. The particular example used by both Mandeville and Montesquieu was that of how the vanity of the wealthy produced the rise of fashion in clothing, which in turn provided jobs for textile workers. The vice of pride thus produced the unintended consequence of promoting commerce and industry. There was even a business in providing the baubles on which hierarchy could be seen to be based—beads, cosmetics, physical distinctions such as tattoos, and so forth.

In the long run, the principle of unintended consequences became the foundation for virtually all conservative claims that society cannot be successfully reformed by design: For every positive intended consequence there is likely to be a negative unintended one. It is better from this perspective to simply let society develop naturally. In the words of Adam Ferguson, one of Montequieu's most able admirers, "nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design. ... The establishments of men ... were made without any sense of their general effect; and they bring human affairs to a state of complication which the greatest reach of capacity with which human nature was ever adorned, could not have projected" (Ferguson 1966, pp. 122, 182).

Taking his cue from Montesquieu, Ferguson attempted to write a "natural history of man" in An Essay on the History of Civil Society in 1767, but Ferguson made a number of new arguments that were widely adopted by subsequent social theorists. First, he temporalized Montesquieu's four modes of existence, creating a dynamic theory in which hunting, herding, agriculture, and commerce represented progressive stages in a temporal development that was repeated at different times in different places. Next, he emphasized the fact that people band together into societies not out of some rational expectation of meeting selfish needs, as Thomas Hobbes had proposed in the seventeenth century, but rather out of "a propensity to mix with the herd and, without reflection, to follow the crowd of his species" (Ferguson 1966, pp. 16–17). Finally, Ferguson argued that conflict, even to the extent of war, is often the vehicle for social advances: "Their wars ... their mutual jealousies, and the establishments which they devise with a view to each other, constitute more than half the occupations of mankind, and furnish materials for their greatest and most improving exertions" (Ferguson 1966, p. 119).

Against the tradition of philosophical history initiated by Montesquieu and Ferguson, a second group of Enlightenment social theorists claimed that to argue for particular social arrangements from the simple fact of their historical existence was to grant the past far too much power over the future. Rivière, spokesman for a group of theorists known as économistes or physiocrats (persons who favored government according to the nature [physis] of things, rather than aristocrats who advocated government by an elite, or democrats who favored government by all) made their point particularly clearly in 1767:

I do not cast my eye on any particular nation or sect. I seek to describe things as they must essentially be, without considering what they have been, or in what country they may have been. ... By examining and reasoning we arrive at knowing the truth self-evidently, and with all the practical consequences which result from it. Examples which appear to contrast with these consequences prove nothing (Hutchinson 1988, p. 293).

Among the most important social theorists to adopt this rational mechanist model were Claude-Adrien Helvetius and his utilitarian followers, including Jeremy Bentham in Britain and Cesare Beccaria in Italy. According to this group, all social theory must begin from the fundamental insight that humans are motivated solely by a desire to be happy; so the goal of political and moral philosophy should be to create the greatest net pleasure for the greatest number in society. Because members of the utilitarian school generally assumed that the private happiness of one person was likely to diminish the happiness of others, they proposed to establish sanctions that would offer pleasurable rewards to those who acted for the general good and punish those who acted in opposition to it.

Among those who advocated a more experimental approach to social theory, the tradition initiated by Francis Hutcheson, David Hartley, and Adam Smith was undoubtedly most important in terms establishing a new foundation for ethics and morality. This group generally found strong evidence that humans acted not only out of self-interest, but also out of a social instinct or sense of sympathy. For most of these social theorists, there seemed to be a natural accommodation between the well-being of the individual and that of the group that was nicely articulated in Smith's image of the "invisible hand" that ordered economic activity for the general benefit if each actor worked to forward his own interests. This approach led to a laissez faire or naturalistic approach to moral and ethical behavior.

The heritage of Enlightenment social theory remains current in virtually all disagreements among different groups concerned with policies relating to science and technology. The principle of unintended consequences, as directly derived from Ferguson, for example, was still being appealed to by conservative social theorists such as Friederich A. von Hayek in the late nineteen-sixties (Hayek 1967). It later became the foundation for arguments by the often politically liberal or radical critics of rapid technological development. The consequentialist ethical tradition established among eighteenth-century utilitarians continues to inform policy makers at the beginning of the twenty-first century in the form of cost-benefit analyses so favored by advocates of development. And the laissez faire admonitions of the Smithian school continue to resonate in the market-driven analyses of public choice economic theorists.


SEE ALSO Human Nature; Hume, David; Modernization; Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Smith, Adam; Unintended Consequences.


Brandon, William. (1986). New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500–1800. Athens: Ohio University Press. The title characterizes this excellent work beautifully. The discussions of how descriptions of indigenous American societies produced a change in traditional roman notions of "liberty," divorcing them from particular corporate status, are particularly interesting

Ferguson, Adam. (1966 [1767]). An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Duncan Forbes. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press. Important example of the empirical and "conservative" approach to society in the enlightenment.

Fox, Christopher; Roy Porter; and Robert Wokler, eds. (1995). Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth Century Domains. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Very good set of essays considering enlightenment discussions of topics that in the early 2000s would be identified with the social sciences.

Gay, Peter. (1966–1969). The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 volumes. New York: Vintage Books. Still the most comprehensive introduction to the enlightenment. Contains a very extensive and valuable bibliographical essay.

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1967). "The Results of Human Action but Not of Human Design." In his Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Illustrates the explicit appropriation of Ferguson's ideas by a key twentieth century conservative theorist.

Hont, Istvan, and Michael Ignatieff, eds. (1983). Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in Eighteenth Century Scotland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. An outstanding collection of essays on Scottish social thought in the enlightenment.

Hume, David. (1969 [1739]). A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Ernest C. Mossner. New York: Penguin. Hume's initial attempt to establish a science of humanity.

Hutchinson, Terence. (1988). Before Adam Smith: The Emergence of Political Economy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Excellent account of economic thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Kelley, Donald R. (1990). Social Thought in the Western Legal Tradition. Explores the significance of eighteenth century legal education and legal reform for social theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moravia, Sergio. (1980). "The Enlightenment and the Sciences of Man." History of Science 17: 247–248. A good short account of the importance of Locke's epistemology for Enlightenment social theorists.

Olson, Richard. (1990). "Historical Reflections on Feminist Critiques of Science: The Scientific Background to Mod-ern Feminism." History of Science 28: 125–147. Explores the use of arguments from eighteenth century association-ist psychology to justify feminist arguments in the works of Condorcet and Mary Wollstonecraft

Olson, Richard. (1993). The Emergence of the Social Sciences, 1642–1792. New York: Twayne. Short argument that the key roots of most modern approaches to social scientific disciplines are to be found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Reil, Peter. (1975). The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. A good introduction to the centrality of organic and developmental models of social theory in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Smith, Roger. (1997). The Norton History of the Human Sciences. New York: Norton. Outstanding and comprehensive account of the development of the social sciences with a strong section on the enlightenment.